Yanesen: A Guide To Tokyo’s Best Off-The-Beaten-Path Neighborhood
Tokyo Neighborhood Strolls
There is no shortage of charming neighborhoods in Tokyo but Yanesen stands out with its quaint atmosphere, shitamachi vibe and bohemian culture.
Forget skyscrapers, salarymen, neon skies, and round-the-clock karaoke. The narrow alleyways in this east Tokyo locale are 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.
If you’re looking for a relaxing stroll in a quiet yet atmospheric part of the city, then Yanesen is your place to be.
Background and History
Yanesen, located off the beaten tourist path east of Ueno Park in Taito and Bunkyo wards, is the collective name for the Yanaka, Nezu, and Sendagi neighborhoods after their first syllables. Yanaka used to be a farm village with its specialty Yanaka ginger, but due to its proximity to Ueno, a bustling commercial part of the city, up to hundred temples were built or relocated to this area which made it temple district.
Sansaki-zaka, the area’s main and most symbolic street, is where you will find more temples than houses standing along both sides. 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.
Things to Do
The easiest place to start exploring is the old Yanaka Ginza shopping street, a short walk from Nippori Station. As you leave the station, you’ll pass Yanaka Cemetery, the final resting place of historical figures, such as Yoshinobu, the final Tokugawa shogun. It is particularly picturesque, albeit eerie, during springtime due to the cherry trees that line up its Sakura-dori Street inside. Just in the vicinity is Scai The Bathhouse, a public bathhouse turned modern art gallery. Continue down the hill and you’ll come to a broad staircase leading to Yanaka Ginza, where visitors can find old and new crafts, food, and souvenirs. You’ll see the common of the area feline motif throughout, from a modern gift shop of cat-themed items to a shop that sells the traditional bean-paste-filled taiyaki cakes usually made in the shape of a fish, but here, in the form of a cat.
It’s interesting to simply wander the residential alleys, where the streets are crowded with meticulously cared-for potted plants in front of small homes tightly packed together. You’ll also find yourself stumbling upon some of the 100-plus temples in the Yanesen area, with 73 in Yanaka alone. The most notable ones are the 13th-century Tennoji with its flawless green grass, ancient trees, and large Buddha statue; Kannon-ji Temple with its Tsuji-bei mud wall believed to be Tokyo’s only surviving structure of its kind, and Nezu Shrine, which is one of the oldest and most beautiful shrines in Tokyo. It features a miniature version of the torii gate tunnel in the famous Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto and comes alive in spring when its huge azalea garden comes to full bloom early April to early May for the famous Bunkyo Azalea Festival. Yushima Tenjin Shrine is another picturesque location, perhaps 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.
Last but not least, a leisurely stroll through the residential area will bring you to a century-old Himalayan cedar which has been become a symbol of Yanaka. Towering over an old shop and neighboring temple it boasts interesting history: It is said to be planted before the war by the grandfather of the current shop owner next to it starting out as a potted plant. In 2012, the tree was scheduled to be cut down for redevelopment, but a local action committee prevented this, and since that time the tree has its own fund, and website where you can read all about it. Local residents believe that it is a perfect representative of the nostalgic atmosphere and rich history of the neighborhood.
Where to Shop
Naturally, Yanaka Ginza is a perfect spot to start your shopping. Check out 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. For a more sleek and trendy merchandise, head to 2k540 Aki-Oka, an artisan retail space which features a few dozen shops, carrying everything from pottery and hand-crafted leather to clothing and food products from around the country.
Where to Eat
Tayori (3-12-4 Yanaka, Taito-ku), located in a narrow alley off the Yanaka Ginza shopping street, is a hip and trendy café which serves delicious teishoku sets, baked goods, sweets and coffee.
For traditional Japanese sweets and green tea, I recommend Yanaka Kenshindo (Yanaka 3-11-15 2F, Taito-ku), located a short walk from Nippori station. If you are like me and cannot have enough of chestnut, then Waguri-ya, located inside Yanaka Ginza, might be just up your alley. They sell seasonal treats to go as well as offer delicious Mont-Blanc in their in-house café.
Yanaka Coffee needs no introduction as it has been an institution for years now and serves an amazing cup of java. Kayaba Coffee, a family-run coffee shop opened in 1938, truly is a legacy kissaten worth visiting. For a quaint and quirky café with French flair, don’t miss Petticoat Lane (2-35-7 Sendagi, Bunkyo-ku), which is a perfect spot to cozy up with a cup of coffee and their desserts.
Lastly, for something more traditional, you have three excellent options: Hantei, which is a classic shitamachi institution by the looks of it, serves mouthwatering kushiage (skewered meat and vegetables); Kamachiku (2-14-18 Nezu, Bunkyo-ku), located inside a former warehouse with stunning view over a stone garden, offers excellent udon; SobaGokoro (2-11-10 Nezu, Bunkyo-ku) specializes in soba (buckwheat noodles) made fresh in-house every day.
Regardless of where you go in Yanasen, it’s guaranteed that you’ll spend a day at peace in this old time Tokyo district! If you need just that, don’t hesitate.
The Yanesen area is just north of Ueno. Access the areas by getting off at Ueno, Nippori, Nezu or Sendagi stations.
“Tokyo Neighborhood Strolls” is Savvy Tokyo’s monthly guide to the capital’s best destinations for a day out. What neighborhood would you like to see next? Let us know in the comments!