Can you imagine a place in Tokyo that is unlike the rest of, well, Tokyo?
A place where the shops sleep before sundown. A place where big Japanese and multinational chains don’t quite belong. A place where traditional Japanese buildings stand aged and battered. A place known as the “cat town of Tokyo“.
This place is known as Yanaka City (谷中), which surprisingly within walking distance of Ueno Park. Yanaka City is part of a district called Yanesen – standing for Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi.
Tokyo is unanimously known as one of the world’s most modern cities. Swamped by vibrant neon lights and colossal sky-high buildings that overshadow the bustling intersections of Shinjuku, Shibuya and Ginza, these areas are crowded with eager tourists and sleepy salary men.
But just right around the corner, still considered within the boundaries of the Tokyo metropolis, stands a humble neighbourhood that has maintained its old-fashioned ways for a very long time. Step inside Yanaka City and you will discover quite the opposite to busy Tokyo. The pace is lethargic, the air is nostalgic, the colours dull and muted. And then, there are cats.
Surviving two disastrous events, the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 and the Second World War, the whole Yanaka area is essentially a historic treasure of Edo-Era Tokyo.
In this article, I will talk about the story behind this historical place and introduce a wide range of must-see spots within this area.
Shitamachi (下町) and Yamanote (山の手)
You’ve probably heard of the ‘Yamanote’ but have you heard of ‘Shitamachi’? Shitamachi literally translates into the “under-city” or “downtown”, whilst Yamanote means the “mountain’s hands”. You can probably guess what the names imply from their translations. Shitamachi has a more rustic and olden feel, as it has retained the Edo Tokyo from before Japan’s economic miracle and rapid growth. Yanaka City is part of this district.
Yanaka Ginza Shopping District (谷中銀座商店街)
Not quite the Ginza you were probably thinking about. Yanaka Ginza is a modest, old-style shopping district in Yanaka where independent, family-owned businesses go about their daily lives. Although most people don’t sport kimono and geta on the streets anymore, this shopping district bellows out the authentic Shitamachi flavour, teleporting visitors a hundred years back.
Many of these establishments have been in business for well over 100 years. You truly get an authentic taste of what Tokyo was like in the Edo period here.
Delicious freshly baked senbei is sold here, as well as other tasty traditional Japanese sweets and foods.
Furthermore, many stores along the shopping street have been decorated with cat statues and cat-themed ornaments. As expected from Tokyo’s cat town… Check it out!
The entrance of the street is called “Sunset Stairs” (夕焼けだんだん yuuyake-dandan), because it provides a spectacular view of the sunset. This spot is extremely popular among Japanese TV dramas and film crews – you can find many scenes in shows and movies that feature this particular place.
Yanaka Cemetery (谷中霊園): A Cat’s Sanctuary
Within the Yanaka district is also Yanaka Cemetery. Established in 1872, Yanaka Cemetery stands on approximately 25 acres of land, housing over 7,000 individual graves.
Visiting a cemetery may seem like a frightening thing you’d do as part of a punishment game, but Yanaka Cemetery is very well-known as a popular destination for international and local tourists.
The reason why it’s garnering more attention is definitely because of all the cats.
Walking through the cemetery, you’ll be able to see many calm cats dwelling around.
Of course the amount of cats you see will depend on the weather and temperature. Locals know all the cats back to front and call them by their names.
Also, in April when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom, Yanaka Cemetery’s Sakura Dori becomes a beautiful canvas for pink petals. If you’re in Tokyo during the spring time, this place is a fantastic place to visit. Autumn time is spectacular too.
There are quite a few famous historic figures that have been laid to rest in Yanaka Cemetery. You can find the resting place of Tokugawa Yoshinobu, Japan’s last shogun and the Tokugawa family plot here.
Tennoji Temple (天王寺)
If you go to Yanaka Cemetery, I highly recommend making a visit to Tennoji Temple too. Yanaka Cemetery used to be a part of Tennoji Temple but it has since been separated.
And even though it’s not as big as the one in Kamakura, there is a (still pretty big) bronze Buddha statue within the temple grounds called “Tennoji Daibutsu”.
Nezu Shrine (根津神社)
Nezu Shrine is also within the area. Like Inari Fushimi Shrine in Kyoto, Nezu Shrine has a great line-up of vermilion torii gates. In May, there’s a beautiful azalea festival as well.
How to get there (to Yanaka Ginza):
The Yanesen area is easily accessible through the Tokyo train network. The closest stations are JR Nippori Station and Sendagi Subway Station.
From JR Nippori Station:
(JR Yamanote, Joban, Keihin-Tohoku, Keisei Main, Toei Nippori-Toneri Liner)
Exit at the West Exit and you will easily find Yanaka Ginza Shopping Street, 5 minute walk
From Sendagi Subway Station:
Firstly, you can use the Tokyo Subway ticket to get to Sendagi Station (buy tickets at our Tourist Information Centres or on hisgo here!).
Exit the station at the Doukan Exit, and head north up, make a right turn at Bunkyo Sendagi 3rd Post Office (文京千駄木三郵便局), keep walking straight and you will find Yanaka Ginza slightly towards the right in front of you, 3 minute walk
This district is also just a 20-30 minute walk north from Ueno (Tokyo Nation Museum), so it’s quite a convenient area to visit even when it’s so quiet.
When you make your next visit to Tokyo, going to see the older parts of the city is quite the adventure. So be sure to add it to your itinerary!
Until next time!
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