Yanaka is a neighborhood in Tokyo’s ‘shita-machi‘ (old Edo; the eastern area of Tokyo), known as one of the few areas to have been preserved from both the massive fires following the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the fire-bombings of WW2. Perhaps it’s charmed life may be due to it’s overabundance of places of worship- the area is home to over 70 temples and was a particularly popular area during Meiji times for such sightseeing excursions as were popular at the time: moon-viewing, snow-viewing and of course flower viewing.
But apparently the biggest crowds were attracted by a much more quotidian pastime- Tenno-ji temple was one of the three shrines in Edo Tokyo to hold an officially sanctioned lottery, a fore-runner of the present-day ubiquitous ‘takarakuji’.
History aside, Yanaka remains today a quiet residential neighborhood, one where if you are willing to set aside the frantic pace of typical Tokyo and instead wander through its winding narrow streets, you are sure to be rewarded with many unexpected discoveries.
My own discovery of Yanaka came quite late- now during my 14th year of living in Tokyo, I first visited during the stunning plum blossom season earlier this year. Wandering with an eclectic mix of Japanese and foreign girlfriends, I was instantly struck by the serene beauty of the many temples and their well-tended gardens, the peaceful sprawling Yanaka cemetery, the tiny shops with a distinct retro and artistic feel, and the warm-hearted lively residents who were always ready for cheerful conversation.
Yanaka (and shita-machi Tokyo) is everything Kichijoji (where I live) and the Western Suburbs are not. You will not find a convenience store on every corner nor any of the typical shopping sprawl that dominates the majority of Tokyo neighborhoods. Although there now remain only a few of the old-style wooden row-houses that were typical of Edo dwellings, the homes do not have tall cement walls around them.
Little narrow alleys barely wide enough to walk through mean that neighbors live in close contact, and there is a certain casual openness that characterizes the neighborhood.
Stop into a shop or greet a local passer-by and you will most likely receive a welcoming and warm response. I find this to be a huge contrast to my neighborhood where it is not uncommon for people who have been living next to each other their whole lives to have only met once or twice. I have always felt that Tokyo was a place not in Japan- once you leave Tokyo and enter the countryside, you encounter a reality completely different from that in city. Perhaps Yanaka is one neighborhood in Tokyo that still manages to reflect the heart of Japan, a little pocket that has remained mostly untouched by the rampant materialism and modernization that seems to pervade rest of the city.
After returning many times since my initial visit, each time making new discoveries and having new encounters with local residents, I felt it was a neighborhood I simply must create a walking tour for. The very heart of my mission with Nihonbi was to enable direct encounters with parts of Japanese culture normally hidden from view, and here was a neighborhood in which history, culture and the arts could all be experienced in a very direct and unique manner.
In a stroke of coincidence, a few days before my tour I received a call from the popular woman’s weekly magazine Jyosei Jishin who happened to be writing a piece on little-known neighborhoods in Tokyo that were becoming newly popular with foreign visitors (hence the title of this post, taken from their article); Yanaka was one of the neighborhoods they were covering.
They needed photographs for the article, I was happy to have them along and they graciously agreed to let me use their photos.
So come and enjoy this virtual tour of Yanaka with us!
Beginning at Nishi-Nippori station- exiting on the South and climbing the hill towards Suwa-jinja side you already feel far away from the frantic bustle of the trains at rush-hour.
The dark mossy shrine surrounded by ancient trees is mostly deserted, although in Edo days people would come from far to enjoy the views of the fields and marshes from the elevated plateau. These days the view is rather changed- the mass of train tracks (eleven different lines converge here) backed by the typical urban massings of cement buildings on the other side of the tracks. The name of the area, Nippori 日暮里is derived from the meaning of the kanji, which roughly translates as ‘Home of Neverending Days’– it is said the scenery at the times was so entrancing one could easily loose track of time and forget that night was closing in.
Past Suwa-jinja we wander into Joko-ji, where we find the caretakers cleaning the yard and watering plants. We admire the beautiful bronze Jizo statue, dating back to the 15th century. There is also a line of six stone Jizo awaiting visitors near the gates of the shrines.
A block or so later one could easily miss Fujimi-zaka , or Fuji-Viewing Slope on the right. Although there are countless other locations across Tokyo bearing similar names, this is the last remaining location in the city where the sacred mountain can still be viewed from the ground. During the last decades though, despite local controversy, new apartment blocks have gone up on the horizon, partially obscuring the view.
There has been plenty of press in the past few years covering the controversy, and a little research reveals that unsurprisingly, there are no laws to protect such things as views. It is hoped that Fuji’s new status as a UNESCO World Heritage site may add some clout to the efforts being made by local residents to preserve one of Tokyo’s last historical views.
Around the corner we come upon a view that is distinctly not Japanese: a full-sized Swiss Chalet, surrounded by a garden overflowing with many kinds of herbs. Owner Dennis Pasche has made Yanaka his home for more than two decades, and the space acts as a cafe and restaurant as well as a popular gathering place for moms and their young children who enjoy running around freely in the garden.
Asked about how he feels as a long-time member of the Yanaka community, Dennis replies unceremoniously that he simply has done his own thing, and that the space has evolved into its current usage without any particular intent on his part. But he is clearly passionate about his garden, he talks in loving detail about each plant and herb, and about the importance of providing a space where any and all can come and encounter living things in a life that is increasingly surrounded by concrete and steel. Although we could stay and chat and drink his unusual violet-tinted tea much longer, we have places to go, so we wander back out to the streets.
Our next stop is the Yanaka Bochi, or Yanaka Cemetary. Peaceful havens full of the poignant history of lives lived and lost, I have always enjoyed wandering in cemeteries. I remember walking through on a particularly cold and rainy day during the sakura season- the gravestones cloaked by the blooming cherry trees took on an other-worldly melancholy beauty.
As one of Tokyo’s oldest and largest cemeteries, Yanaka Bocho has a long roster of famous interrees, including the 15th Shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu (1873-1913). Of historical interest is the former location of the Five-Tiered Pagoda, originally built in 1644 on the precincts of the Tenno-ji shrine. Although it was destroyed by fire some 130 years after construction, at great effort and expense it was rebuilt in 1791. At 34 meters high, a magnificent example of exquisite Japanese carpentry and counted as one of the Four Pagodas of Edo with Kanei-ji in Ueno, Zozo-ji in Shiba (now Minato- destroyed during WW2) and Senso-ji in Asakusa, it was the pride of the neighborhood. Tragically, it was burnt down in 1957 by two unfortunate lovers who decided to commit suicide by fire.
Walking out onto the narrow zig-zaging streets it is interesting to ponder that although most of the landscape of Tokyo has changed drastically, the street layout of the city has remained mostly unchanged since Edo times. With the giant pine tree as our landmark, we make our way to the gallery of nihonga (traditional Japanese painting) artist Allan West.
Although Allan is in Kyoto for an exhibition, we are graciously received by his wife Mami. Built in what was once an old garage, the gallery space with its high ceilings and wooden beams is an example of the unique beauty one can achieve in a well-reformed space. I have always wondered if the earthquake safety is sometimes just an excuse or whether the penchant for tearing down old wooden structures and building modern cement monstrosities reflects a deeper rejection of all that was associated with Japan’s ‘poor’ past. In any case, it is delightful to see that like many others in the Yanaka neighborhood, the Wests have chosen to give a new lease on life to an old structure, and it is a space that perfectly complements his exquisite work. Mami shows us some of the precious stones that the pigments used for painting nihonga are derived from. As someone who knows next to nothing about this particular traditional Japanese art is difficult to fathom the complexity of the work although I am immediately captivated by its beauty. I am thrilled to say that we will be doing a collaboration with the gallery in the fall to offer a small hands-on introductory nihonga workshop, what a tremendous opportunity to learn directly from a master!
A bit further down the hill we come to Sawanoya– a small family-run Japanese style Inn. I had met Sawa-san on a previous visit, and was impressed that the seemingly humble Inn had developed a reputation attracting foreign guests from far and wide. For me, meeting and chatting with the local residents was a definite highlight of the Yanaka experience, so I wanted to insure the people on the tour (who were not yet fluent in Japanese) could share in the experience and converse directly with someone who had a deep connection and knowledge of the neighborhood.
The conversation provided rewarding indeed. When asked about the seemingly open and diverse character of the neighborhood, Mr. Sawa explained that since olden days the neighborhood had taken in visitors from all over Japan and due to this influx of various people into the neighborhood an unspoken code had developed- one should never ask someone you meet on the street their age, their family status, or where they were from. He explained that in this way newcomers were never made to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. I found this to be particularly amusing as any foreigner in Japan can attest that the first question one is usually asked is where you are from, and then often how old you are!
Another factor that accounts for the somewhat eclectic mix of Yanaka is its proximity to Tokyo Geijutusu Daigaku – Tokyo University of Fine Art. With its retro charm and cheap rents many students and graduates have settled in the neighborhood, initiated innovative businesses, and also added a vocal element in support of local preservation efforts.
Another point in our conversation that struck me was that Mr. Sawa said that even though he regretfully could not speak fluent English he had managed to create a business that successfully caters to foreign visitors. He pointed out that most Japanese Inn keepers are reluctant to seek foreign guests not only for language reasons but also because they imagine that these guests would find such things as sleeping on a futon and sharing a public bath problematic. But his own experiences have proven just the opposite. Even though he may not be able to speak directly to the guests he has a wealth of useful information on hand to help foreign tourists find their way around and says that he makes do just fine with his very basic English. And the authenticity of the experience is also what draws foreign guests. They do not come to Japan to sleep in a bed and take a shower, they want the real deal! It is easy to see why Mr. Sawa has found great success in his endeavors- his charm and forthrightness leave a lasting impression.
I hope this will be my first of many tours to Yanaka, and that others may be as delighted as I have been by its many charms.