Whenever I crave to get away from the hustle of the city and immerse myself in the ambiance of quintessential Japan without spending too much time on a train, I more often than not gravitate towards Yanesen. This well-preserved neighborhood in east Tokyo exudes shitamachi vibes and has the quaintest atmosphere. It all started as a farm village specializing in Yanaka ginger, but gradually the area turned into a developed neighborhood awash with centuries-old temples and shrines, low-rise wooden houses with flowerpots at their front doors, hidden culinary gems, cycling shiny happy people with their cute little dogs, artisanal handiwork shops and welcoming cat-loving residents. It doesn’t get more atmospheric than this.
Yanesen is not exactly off the beaten path, but somehow seems to remain more popular among local tourists and for the most part retains a serenity of the untapped locale. Located in the east of Ueno Park in Taito and Bunkyo wards, Yanesen is the collective name for the Yanaka, Nezu, and Sendagi neighborhoods after their first syllables. Having been spared from the destructive powers of the earthquake and air raids of World War II, these neighborhoods have not really changed much and are all still characterized by traditional Japanese townscape, an ambiance of Edo-period Tokyo and a slow pace of life. If you have some time on your Tokyo itinerary, then I recommend you take a train ride along Yamanote line to this atmospheric part of the city and take time to explore some of my favorite spots listed below.
The Ancient Shrines
Dubbed as a temple district, Yanesen is home to 100-plus temples which were relocated here a few centuries ago due to its proximity to Ueno, a bustling commercial part of the city. The most notable ones are the 13th-century Tennoji with its flawless green grass, ancient trees, and large Buddha statue; and Kannon-ji Temple with its Tsuji-bei mud wall believed to be Tokyo’s only surviving structure of its kind. I also have two of my personal favorites. Nezu Shrine is one of the oldest shrines featuring a miniature version of the torii gate tunnel (think the iconic Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto) and a huge azalea garden. Another one is Yushima Tenjin Shrine best known for its large ume (Japanese plum) garden, as well as a location where students pray for good luck on exams, and for its large bronze made-ushi (“stroking cow”) statue, which is said to cure diseases just by being rubbed.
Yanaka Ginza Shopping Street
A short walk from Nippori Station will bring you to a broad staircase leading to Yanaka Ginza, where you can shop for old and new crafts, food, and souvenirs. Be sure to stop by Kinekichien, a Japanese tea shop established more than 80 years ago. They have a large selection of green tea and all the beautiful pottery and accessories that go with it. There are quite a few snack shops along the same street. If you are like me and cannot have enough of chestnut, then Waguri-ya, might be just up your alley. They sell seasonal treats to go as well as offer delicious Mont-Blanc in their in-house café. There is also a stand that sells the traditional bean-paste-filled taiyaki cakes in the (untraditional) form of a cat – a endearing nod to the neighborhoods fascination with felines.
Local Architecture that Exudes the Old-World Charm
A simple walk along the narrow streets and alleys of Yanaka is a pure joy for the senses. It is home to quite a few architectural gems that have been meticulously preserved and turned into modern spaces primarily used as cafes, restaurants and galleries.
Those in pursuit of interesting exhibition spaces with rich history might be interested in two spots: Kyu-Yoshida Saketen, currently a museum, this building belonged to a sake seller and dates back to 1910; SCAI Bathhouse a public bathhouse which was turned into a modern art gallery and now regularly hosts exhibitions.
Local Food Scene
As for the food scenes and atmospheric restaurants, there are quite a few places that not only offer delicious meals, but also transport you to the bygone era thanks to their charming and quaint ambiance.
Kamakichu, a well-established restaurant that specializes in freshly-kneaded and cut by hand Osaka-style udon noodles, is housed within a refurbished century-old storehouse that fits perfectly in the quaint neighborhood.
Another of my favorites is Tayori, tucked on a narrow alley along the famous Yanaka Ginza shopping street. The old house has been almost completely remodeled, although there are plenty of interior design elements as a nod to traditional Japanese aesthetic. There is a tatami room in the back, and all guests have a view of the tiny Japanese backyard. You get all the delicious staples of teishoku meal (sets with chicken, meat or fish), plus a few western options and great tea, coffee and dessert.
If you crave something more traditional, then head to Hantei, which is a classic shitamachi institution (think a house straight out of Studio Ghibli animated movie) by the looks of it, serves mouthwatering kushiage (skewered meat and vegetables).
Coffee lovers must not miss the notorious Kayaba Coffee, a family-run coffee shop which truly represents a legacy kissaten. The traditional wooden house in which it resides was built in 1916 and the coffee shop itself opened in 1938 by Kayaba Inosuke together with his wife Kimi and daughter Sachiko.
Last but not least is a tiny gem of a place completely off the radar: Ueno Sakuragi Atari. A collection of three houses, built in 1938 during the Showa Era, was on the brick of demolishing and the site was planned to turn into a parking lot. Thankfully, nonprofit architectural preservation organizations interfered and the buildings were renovated and preserved as important examples of pre-war Showa era architecture and consequently turned into a commercially viable spaces. The three buildings all have Japanese shikkui plaster walls and contain Western and Japanese style rooms and a private garden. Currently, the buildings house Yanaka Beer Hall, Kayaba Bakery, an event space, and OshiOlive, a shop specializing in gourmet salts and olive oils. It is a very pleasant spot to hang out and the complex beautifully captures the unique retro-modern feel of the area providing a great insight into how life looked in the old Ueno area 70-80 years ago.
Yanaka is also conveniently located close to Ueno area, so a tour of these two areas can be easily combined in one day. I hope you get to visit this unique neighborhood and enjoy it as much as I do every time I go there. If you have already been. Leave a comment to share your favorite spots.
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