Yanaka is one of the few areas of Tokyo that was spared from bombing in WWII. It's Tokyo's most traditional district and is home to artisans, temples, winding lanes and some great restaurants. It's a great place for a half-day stroll in Tokyo, as Mario Leto explains.
Yuyake Dandan and the slope road to Yanaka Ginza: MADSOLAR / Shutterstock.com
Introduction to Yanaka
The area of Tokyo called Yanaka is famously one of the most quaint and aged parts of the city. It was spared the Allied fire bombings during the WWII and survived the Great Kanto Earthquake and Fire of 1923. In the past, the area was a thriving artisan town housing some of the country’s most famous writers and visual artists.
Today it retains a similar spirit and an afternoon stroll down any of the several side streets that dissect the area south of Nippori Station will attest to the abundance and diversity of craft still being produced in the area: textiles, ink prints, wood carvings, traditional cuisines, stationery, pottery, jewelry, and much more. Anyone visiting Tokyo on a quest for traditional Japan would do well to spend a day in the Yanaka area. There are few other parts of Tokyo with as much to offer as a glimpse into bygone eras.
A common complaint about traditional areas of Japan is the lack of traditional architecture. In metropolitan Tokyo, this grievance is often heard, and so the big city has become more of a transit hub for other parts of the country. Yanaka seems to buck this trend, but no area of the city is a warren of earthen lanes lined with wooden huts inhabited by women in kimono and stalked by ninja’s in the dark of night. Like any big city, landscape and architecture are mostly in the hands of private corporations whose goal is money, and old houses don’t make much.
Yanaka Ginza: MADSOLAR / Shutterstock.com
Luckily for the Yanesen area (Yanaka-Nezu-Sendagi), civil society groups do the work of building preservation. There are no laws or oversight committees, no government inspectors preserving the spirit of the past. There are only people with a vision and a passion. As it stands, Yanaka is both modern and historical: in its architecture and in its arts and crafts. Most importantly, Yanaka is a community. What the area loses with its modern community center and apartment buildings is made up with the kindness of the people who inhabit them. I spent seven hours in Yanaka one sunny mid-winter day in January and feel that I left with as many new friends.
Yanaka is best approached from Nippori Station on the JR Yamanote line, the train line that loops the inner city. The station has two main exits, north and south, and a tour of the Yanaka area may begin with either depending on where you would like to begin your day: A south-exit tour begins with Yanaka Cemetery, a north-exit tour with Yanaka Ginza.
Tokyo Transport: charnsitr / Shutterstock.com
Either exit can be used without fear of missing any of the major attractions in the area. My own tour began from the north exit, left up Goten-zaka (zaka means “slope”) and down the stairs into Yanaka Ginza, the narrow shopping street that represents the center of Yanaka’s small-community bustle. I chose a north-exit beginning because I was interested in quickly acquiring a map of the area and there is a small tourist office on the far side of Yanaka Ginza that offers maps and other information about the area. Unfortunately, that tourist office was closed at 11:30 a.m. on the Friday I arrived. As it turns out, I was instead offered a map by a kind gentleman at a tea shop on Yanaka Ginza and was soon on my way.
Yanaka Ginza is named such after the famed shopping district in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward, although the similarities stop there. On Yanaka Ginza, there are purportedly around 60 shops that occupy a narrow street where only foot traffic is allowed.
Yanaka Ginza - image © Mario Leto
Most of the shops deal in foodstuffs, but a few also sell non-perishable items like souvenirs, electronics, toiletries, and other household necessities. For the tourist, food and souvenirs seem to attract the most interest. My own personal interest is in tea, and so it was that I found myself in the tea shop Kanekichien (金吉園) sipping a complimentary cup of tea and chatting with a shop attendant about the benefits of iron kettles and organic tea harvests. The shop was founded over 80 years ago and, in addition to selling tea, pottery, and other tea-related paraphernalia, offers advice on how to brew a proper cup of tea. My own conversation was in Japanese, but a bit of discreet eavesdropping revealed the ability of the shop attendant to communicate in English.
Kanekichien Tea Shop - image © Mario Leto
Before I left the shop, I was offered an English map of the Yanaka area, an offering I luckily accepted, not knowing at the time that the tourist information center would be closed. One piece of advice: Avert your gaze when exiting the tea shop to avoid acknowledging the 100-yen shop across the street, an undoubtedly necessary presence in any Japanese community but hard on the eyes and not exactly compatible with visions of traditional Japan.
Yanesen Tourist Information And Culture Center
At the far end of Yanaka Ginza, turn right onto Yomise-dori (dori comes from the word tori and means “street”) and walk about a half block to go to the Yanesen Tourist Information and Culture Center on the right side of the street. It was, as mentioned, closed at 11:30 a.m. on a Friday morning despite the website’s claims of a 9:30 a.m. opening time. Needless to say, it’s probably best to call if your heart is set on visiting. It appears to offer lessons in flower arrangement, tea ceremony, and calligraphy, as well as offering maps and other information in English about the area, so it might be in one’s interest to check it out.
Yomise-dori - image © Mario Leto
Upon seeing the pulled shutters of the Yanesen Tourist Information & Culture Center, I did an about-face, passing Yanaka Ginza on my left, and continued down Yomise-dori in the direction of Hebi-michi (michi means “the way” and is yet another word that means “street”). Yomise-dori is wider and busier than Yanaka Ginza, but still rather quiet, especially before noon on a weekday. There’s not much in the way of sightseeing down Yomise-dori unless you count a pottery/coffee shop, a traditional sweet-bun shop, and a traditional konnyaku maker. Konnyaku is a Japanese foodstuff creation from the konnyaku-imo, or konnyaku potato.
Konnyaku for sale on Yomise-dori - image © Mario Leto
If you’ve never heard of the konnyaku potato, perhaps one of these other colorful terms is more familiar: devil’s tongue, voodoo lily, snake palm, or elephant yam. Regardless, the Japanese foodstuff konnyaku is a gelatinous additive for soups and stews and, while having almost no flavor, is commonly regarded as a diet food for both its high viscosity and fiber content. Unless you have a kitchen and some basic Japanese cooking knowledge, purchasing a konnyaku cake, as pictured above, is not advised.
At the end of Yomise-dori, I turned left onto Sansaki-zaka or Misaki-zaka (san and mi both mean “three”, zaka still means “slope”) in pursuit of Yanaka Cemetery at the top of the hill.
Looking northward up Misaki-zaka - image © Mario Leto
On the way I stopped at a temple and a small local rice ball shop for a late-morning snack before heading on to commune with the dead.
Daienji Temple is a couple blocks up the hill on the left, marked with a sign in English and famed for Osen, a tea shop clerk, who was used as a model for the famous ukiyo-e artist Suzuki Harunobu.
Daienji Temple - image © Mario Leto
Osen served tea at the tea house Kagiya across the street from Daienji, and rumor has it that her beauty was revered throughout Edo (the former name of Tokyo) and proved irresistible to the artist Harunobu who was driven to immortalize her in his Nishiki color print.
Daienji Temple wood carvings - image © Mario Leto
Also of interest at Daienji is the relief work on the temple eaves: elaborately carved depictions of dragons and other fanciful creatures.
Ogino sweets and rice shop - image © Mario Leto
A couple blocks up the hill from Daienji is a small store-front counter called Ogino (荻野) where a little old lady sells packs of cooked rice, rice balls, and a variety of sweets to grab on the go.
Seki-han from shop Ogino - image © Mario Leto
I picked up two rice balls made with seki-han (赤飯), meaning “red rice”. The rice is cooked with red adzuki beans, thus the red color, and is used for festive occasions. The rice balls I got also had black sesame sprinkled on them, were lightly salted, and were lovely. There was nowhere to sit but the streets weren’t crowded so I did a slow stroll-n-devour on up the hill, following the bend in the road to the right, to Yanaka Cemetery on the left.
Yanaka Cemetery is one of the touted highlights of the Yanaka area with its cherry blossoms in the spring and list of famous artists and feudal rulers as spectral tenants. In mid-winter, it’s a quiet contemplative swath of land for a short stroll, but beyond that, there is little by way of visual stimulation.
Yanaka Cemetery Cherry Blossom Lane - image © Mario Leto
A look off into the distance will remind you of the ever present mix of the modern and the historical in Japan as apartment buildings ring the outer edge and Sky Tree looms in the background.
Among the graves - image © Mario Leto
The Cemetery was established in 1874 and covers ten hectares of land, the equivalent of a thousand acres or twice the size of the Olympic Park in London, a large amount of space indeed for jam-packed Tokyo. As you enter the cemetery, don’t forget to stop at the administration office immediately on your left to pick up some English-language information. On my stroll through the land of the dead, I stopped at two famed places and had intended to see another but missed it completely, and for good reason.
Built in 1791, the Five-story Pagoda is (was?) the stuff of legend. It was donated to the cemetery by Tennoji in 1908 and stood as a symbol of the area until 1957 when two lovers made a suicide pact and set the pagoda on fire with themselves inside. As famed Yanaka denizen and writer Mayumi Mori notes in her Japan Quarterly essay “The Neighborly Neighborhood of Yanaka”, “One old man who witnessed the blaze...confessed to me, ‘It may seem odd to say, but it was a beautiful sight. The tower split open top to bottom, throwing crackling sparks in every direction for all the world like a giant sparkler.’”
The impact on the community at the time was reportedly so severe that it was decided to not rebuild the pagoda and to instead preserve its five foundation stones that reside in the cemetery today. I must have been distracted because I walked past them (along Cherry Blossom Lane) without noticing and then never made my way back across the cemetery to find them. In the end, I didn’t really feel bad for not see something that was essentially not there anyway.
Tennoji Temple is about a block down Cherry Blossom Lane past the non-existent pagoda and marks the northernmost boundary of Yanaka Cemetery before the tracks and the south exit of Nippori Station. This is where you would begin your tour of Yanaka had you left the station from the south exit.
Tennoji Temple grounds - image © Mario Leto
The temple, the largest in the area, was established in 1274 during the Kamakura era (1185-1333) and used to own the land that Yanaka Cemetery sits upon until the Meiji government confiscated it for the express purpose of building the cemetery.
Buddha Statue at Tennoji Temple - image © Mario Leto
In 1690, a Buddha statue was erected on the temple grounds in honor of the great Buddha statue (daibutsu) in Kamakura. Luckily, for the tourist and devout Buddhist alike, that statue still exists there today.
Unfortunately, for the non-devout rabble-rouser and gambler, the infamous lotteries that were held on the temple grounds were stopped in 1842 when the government withdrew its permission to hold them. They were, apparently, quite lively events, with some sources claiming “huge, rowdy crowds” and describing the area as “a hive of commerce and entertainment”.
One last note about Tennoji: It enshrines Bishamonten, one of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune, (shichifukujin in Japanese). Bishamonten is the god of warriors, so Tennoji is the place to go before battle.
Yanaka’s Seven Gods of Good Fortune
Yanaka is one of several places in Tokyo to offer a Seven-Gods-of-Good-Fortune pilgrimage tour, indeed one of probably hundreds in all Japan. Temples and shrines on the tour offer memorabilia corresponding to their enshrined gods so tourists can collect the offerings on their journey. While I didn’t do the complete shichifukujin tour during my day in Yanaka, planning your day around one would not be difficult as most maps of the area clearly mark the temples housing the seven gods. Below is a list of the temple names, their corresponding gods, and the fortunes they bestow.
Toukakuji Temple: Fukurokuju—longevity, wealth, wisdom
Seiunji Temple: Ebisu—fishermen, agriculture, prosperity
Shuseiin Temple: Hotei—abundance, joy, satisfaction
Tennoji Temple: Bishamonten—prosperity, warriors, war
Chouanji Temple: Juroujin—wealth, wisdom, happiness
Gokokuin Temple: Daikokuten—harvest, prosperity, cooking
Shinobazu Bentendou: Benzaiten—luck, love, education, arts (The god Benzaiten, or Benten, is the only female god of the seven).
The final site I visited in the cemetery was the resting place of Tokugawa Yoshinobu, exciting if only for the fact that he was the last shogun of Japan who retired his post in 1867 as part of the Meiji restoration.
Illuminated grave of Tokugawa Yoshinobu - image © Mario Leto
The grave itself is technically in Kaneiji cemetery, one of three contiguous cemeteries in the area, the other two being Yanaka and Tennoji. The area is nondescript and cordoned off by a concrete wall and iron gate. If you want to see Tokugawa Yoshinobu’s grave stone, you have to peer through the iron gate and then guess which grave stone is his as there are dozens of Tokugawa graves within the dedicated enclosure. I was taking pictures of his wife’s grave before an elderly man approached and informed me of my assumed folly. The truth is that I was underwhelmed and could think of a hundred better places to inter someone who played such a pivotal role in Japanese politics in the late 19th century. It’s peaceful, though. I give it that.
By the time I left Yanaka Cemetery, it was already early afternoon and time for a late lunch, so I retraced my steps from the entrance of the cemetery and back down Misaki-zaka to the road on the right directly before Daienji Temple. This is one of only two roads that directly connects Yanaka Ginza to Misaki-zaka, the other one being Yomise-dori.
Entrance to Hagi Café - image © Mario Leto
I continued down this road, past the massive Yanaka Community Center to a cute little café on the left called Hagi Café. The whole two-floor building houses a café, an art gallery, a studio, and other space for events and such, all of it together called Hagiso. The café is open from 12:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. for lunch and dinner and from 8:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. for breakfast, a rarity for most restaurants in Japan. It’s open Tuesday through Sunday and is worth your time for the food, the atmosphere, and the great service, and I cannot stress the latter enough.
Late lunch at Hagi Café - image © Mario Leto
Due to dietary restrictions, I asked one of the lovely cooks to help me piece together something I could eat, and then spent the next ten minutes going through the menu, asking and answering questions, and eventually getting something perfect for my diet and delicious to boot. In addition to my rice set, I also ordered a tasty (and expensive!) craft beer to wash it all down with. See the Hagiso website for more info.
After lunch, I continued walking toward Yanaka Ginza, which was only a block or two away, and turned right, up the steps, to Suwadai-dori where I turned right and headed back toward Misaki-zaka. I was traversing back and forth across the central part of Yanaka, peering up and down little streets, stopping in small shops along the way to check out the crafts being made and sold by the various denizens of the area. This was undoubtedly the highlight for me: Looking, chatting, learning, and once in a while buying a little something to take home as a souvenir for friends and family. The people and their skills and their willingness to chat and share was what made Yanaka for me a great place to spend a morning and afternoon. Here are some of the more memorable places I stopped at along the way.
Space Oguraya (すぺーす小倉屋)
This building is, in part, over 150 years old and was registered as a cultural property in 2000. It can be found on Suwadai-dori somewhere between the cemetery and Goten-zaka.
Space Oguraya - image © Mario Leto
The proprietor, Mr. Takao Ito, speaks English and is willing to chat and answer questions about the gallery and the artists on display, one of whom is his mother whose paintings offer historical depictions of the very building throughout the years.
Interior shop at Space Oguraya - image © Mario Leto
If you’re not into chatting, Mr. Ito will let you wander undisturbed throughout the building where each room displays the work of a different artist, including pottery, ink prints, lacquered wood, and paper. There are also some educational displays that take you back in time before the Second World War. It’s free and, needless to say, worth a visit. Open from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Kigakuan is a café and shop at the very cemetery-end of Suwadai-dori. It sells pottery and glassware, wooden utensils and master-craftsmanship woodwork.
Kigakuen shop and café - image © Mario Leto
The friendly proprietor, Yoshio Inoue, is only one of ten traditional Edo-style master joiners in Tokyo. To learn more about his work and legacy, check out this article from the Japan Times.
Massive clock at Kigakuen - image © Mario Leto
The café sells coffee and tea and is a good place to stop to take a load off before or after a Yanaka Cemetery outing. He also has a massive clock on the back wall of the shop that he claims is over 80 years old and needs winding once a week. And yes, he does sometimes forget to wind it. Open from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. Closed second Wednesday and third Saturday of the month.
Ueno Sakuragi Atari (あたり)
Ueno Sakuragi Atari is a fairly new attraction, seemingly begun in March of 2015, and brings together several buildings in a secluded area designed to feel like Edo-era Tokyo.
Sakuragi Atari interior shops - image © Mario Leto
Sakuragi Atari Edo-era exterior - image © Mario Leto
The three buildings themselves date back to 1938 and have been renovated for use as shops, activity spaces, and residences. Of note is the Yanaka Beer Hall for a cool nosh in warm weather, the Kayaba Bakery for some rustic breads, and the salt and olive shop for...salt and olives!
Kayaba Bakery at Sakuragi Atari - image © Mario Leto
For more information on the activity spaces, hours, and directions (it was a bit off my own Yanaka tour route), check out the bilingual website. And don’t forget to browse the gallery pictures.
Wrapping It Up
These were not the only places I stopped at on my tour of the Yanaka area, and the places I did see don’t even scratch the surface of what’s available. I could spend three days in Yanaka and still not see all that’s on offer.
If you like local and friendly and sometimes historical, Yanaka is definitely worth a visit, and if the cemetery is high on your list of attractions, then make your journey in the spring when the cherry blossoms are out in full bloom (and the crowds as well). I’ll be heading back soon for another wander to discover new places, and a second time around at the places I fell in love with.
About Mario Leto
Mario Leto is assistant professor in the School of Global Japanese Studies at Meiji University in Tokyo. His research and writing interests include travel, literature, and media discourse on food and dietary alternatives.
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