TOKYO – The typical visitor to Tokyo envisions a futuristic city of skyscraper canyons and electronic gadgets, but in the eastern part of the city, an older way of life persists.
In Yanaka, you have the history, the tradition, the temples, says Allan West, who’s lived there for more than 30 years, but without any of the self-consciousness you have in Kyoto, a city known for cultural preservation.
Yanaka is one of three neighborhoods called Yanesen after their first syllables (Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi). They are part of the old downtown district of Tokyo. Yanaka has a mid-20th century vibe uncommon in Tokyo, which was mostly destroyed twice in the 20th century by earthquake and war.
Small one-product shops that have sold rice crackers or traditional handicrafts for generations co-exist with modern art galleries and young bakers of artisanal European breads, set on wandering streets and alleys with a low, human scale very unlike the high-rises of familiar Tokyo neighborhoods like Shinjuku and Shibuya.
People live above their businesses, says West, an American artist. None of this has a big corporation behind it.
The easiest place to start exploring is the old Yanaka Ginza shopping street, a short walk from Nippori Station. Continue down the hill from the station and you’ll come to a broad staircase leading down to Yanaka Ginza, where the visitor can find old and new crafts, old and new food, and souvenirs and gifts.
A Western-style bakery that boasts of an oven made with stone from Mount Fuji stands next to a shop that sells traditional Japanese sweets. There’s a shop entirely devoted to items handcrafted from bamboo, a tiny stall where you can get T-shirts custom-printed with illustrations of various animals, and a shop that sells traditional wooden and straw-rope sandals.
You’ll see the feline motif throughout, from a modern gift shop of cat-themed gifts to a shop that sells the traditional bean paste-filled cakes usually made in the shape of a fish, but here, of course, in the form of a cat.
It’s interesting to simply wander the residential alleys, where the unpaved 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 more than 100 temples in the Yanesen area, with 73 in Yanaka alone.
This unassuming, sometimes shabby neighborhood has been a center of the arts for centuries, and it still supports both the old and new. Many traditional crafts are still practiced and can even be seen in action.
The streets are quiet at night, so it’s best visited in the daytime. But this is part of its charm and another reason to come.