A Guide to Yanaka, a Taste of Old World Tokyo, on the Yamanote Line
Tokyo is a fascinating city because, in many ways, it's less of a cohesive city, but rather a community of many little towns connected by a futuristic network of trains and subways.
From the hipster hangouts in Shimokitazawa, and the spiritual heart of Asakusa, to the geek towns of Akihabara and Nakano, to the sleek center of Shinjuku and Shibuya, Tokyo is a city of so many faces.
While all these options can be overwhelming at times, if you plan just right, the city has so many secret surprises to offer, and Yanaka, an old-world corner of Tokyo, just northeast of Ueno Station is one such - unmissable - example. Home to pre-WWII architecture laid back locals and a food scene to rival any other's a visit to Tokyo isn't complete without a stroll around this picturesque neighborhood.
The History of Yanaka and Why it is so Special
Yanaka is part of a larger amalgamation of three neighborhoods that share a similar atmosphere, known as Yanesen (Yanaka, Nezu, and Sendagi). While many corners of wider Tokyo were demolished during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 or following the bombings of WWII, Yanaka manages to survive relatively intact. As a result of its resilience, to this day, it's one of the few areas you can spot hard to find pre-war Japanese architecture taking up prime real estate along the main streets.
Unlike pockets of Tokyo that are a little slicker like say Shibuya and Shinjuku, Yanaka is an excellent snapshot of real Tokyo. It's the everyday downtown Tokyo that most guests never get the opportunity to witness. Historically, Yanaka was known as the 'lower' side of the city, in both physical and metaphorical ways. It was home to the less affluent because when it came into the formation during the time of the Tokugawa shogunate, he designated higher grounds to aristocratic families.
This area's 'shitamachi' (downtown) ambiance, gives the much loved local hangout its unrefined charm. While it's growing in popularity with international guests, it's still mainly a residential district, where regular folks go about their daily activities, undisturbed by the changing scenery around them.
What to See and Do
Home to delightfully aging shrines, well-worn food stands, pre-war wooden houses, hidden laneways, and more recently trendy independently run stores, Yanaka is nothing if not diverse. This nostalgic neighborhood has plenty to uncover, just be ready to look a little harder (or book a tour).
Yanaka Ginza: Cutting through the center of the neighborhood, this shopping street is the retail heart of the area. Here you'll find a ramshackle community of stores selling everything from fried snacks to fruit and vegetables to souvenirs to clothes and cat-shaped trinkets. If you're looking for a different type of Tokyo retail experience, this is the place for it.
Yanaka Cemetary: While it might sound a little morbid to visit a cemetery on your Tokyo travels, but this Yanaka Cemetary with its wide pathways, lavishly designed tombstones, and cherry blossom trees is the perfect place for a peaceful scenic stroll. This spot has a pretty interesting history too, as around 150 years ago, here where the main avenue sits was once lined with tea shops that doubled as gambling dens and brothels. For history buffs too, there's something a little special, as the grave of Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the Edo Period's last shogun lives here also.
Cat spotting: Feline fanatics will love cat spotting in Yanaka, as the area is home to hundreds of photogenic cats. The neighborhood is the perfect playground for the much loved lazy feline locals, with shrines and old wooden homes offering plenty of places to explore and lounge. You'll notice the residents love their cohabitors too, as many of the shops sell cat-related goods and souvenirs.
Shrine and temple hopping: Once part of Yanaka Cemetery (it separated during the Meiji Period) the Tennoji Temple, is the peaceful home of Yanaka's Buddhist community. This traditional site is home to an impressive bronze Buddha statue. Not far also lives Nezu Shrine, the Shinto side of the city. This shrine is well worth a visit at the very least so you can marvel at its stunning Edo-era shrine architecture.
Art hunting: Dotted around Ueno Park, just a short stroll from central Yanaka is where you'll find a cluster of some of the city's best museums and galleries. There's the National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, Tokyo National Museum, Ueno Royal Museum, National Museum of Western Art, and Shitamachi Museum. But beyond these big players, the area is home to a community of smaller galleries offering something a little different. The best way to find them is to get out there and explore - or ask a local expert. One highlight though is Scai the Bathhouse; an old public bath now turned contemporary art gallery.
See the modern side: While it's known for being home to the old Tokyo, in recent years, local entrepreneurs, business folk, and artists have started opening-up businesses in the area's traditional shopfronts. Don't expect any high-end chain stores, though; it's more of an indie affair. Some highlights include Tokyo Bikes, a trendy bike store that also offers bike rental to visiting guests (which is a great way to get around). Another tip is CIBI - the part Japanese part Australian coffee shop that offers not only incredible cafe food (including Aussie style breakfasts) but also sells cute crafts and goods made by talented local artisans.
Eat and drink, then eat and drink some more: Yanaka's food scene is nothing short of incredible. If you're after street snacks, a lavish tea ceremony, cute cafe cakes, trendy third-wave coffee shops, smokey izakaya fare, craft breweries, or just a few cold cheap beers and sake on the street, you'll find whatever you need to satisfy all your culinary cravings. On the Tokyo Localized tour, your guide can point you in the direction of all the local food secrets.
While it does pay to plan, exploring Yanaka is such a treat because there's so much fo see and do that isn't written in the guidebooks. The best way to embrace this side of the city is to put aside a day and get out there and explore; you won't be disappointed. If you want a little extra guidance, Tokyo Localized run three and a half hour walking tours of the area which is a great way to get your bearings before you go it alone. The tour will take you to some of the area's most well-known sites, but will also let you in on some local secrets too.
How to get there
The most direct way is to take the Yamanote (city loop) line to Nippori Station. From there, Yanaka is a five-minute walk.
Tokyo Localized provides visitors and travellers to Tokyo with a unique perspective of this great city, what makes us unique is that our walking tour guides live and work in Tokyo, have a passion for this city and love meeting and welcoming new faces. Find out more about our Unique Day and Night Tours of Tokyo - we can't wait to meet you!
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