If you haven’t yet been to Tokyo, drop everything—just go. But know this: if you want to do it right, begin your journey in Yanaka, an ancient, thriving neighborhood in the special ward of Taitō, in the eastern corner of the Japanese capital.
By now, certain sites in Tokyo have become iconic tourist destinations—the Tsukiji fish market, the Shibuya Crossing, Nakameguro’s Meguro River, Harajuku’s Takeshita Street. Locals will say Ginza is upscale and Shimokitazawa is bohemian while Kōenji is alternative. They’ll recommend Shinjuku for entertainment, Roppongi for nightlife and Akihabara for anime.
Yanaka, however, is often overlooked and sometimes simply referred to as a “lost Tokyo.” Somehow unaffected by the bombings of World War II or the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, the neighborhood is what remains of the city as it was during the Edo era, as it existed between 1603 and 1868—referred to as shitamachi, a word used to describe the working class areas of postwar Tokyo. It’s quiet and quaint with long, winding, narrow streets and small houses, a stark contrast to what’s become Tokyo’s distinctive aesthetic of high-rises and fluorescent lights. Essentially, it’s a jewel box that's been miraculously preserved over time.
Exploring the Attractions
The closest tourists might get to the area is when visiting Taitō’s Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, most commonly Sensō-ji in Asakusa, or by strolling nearby Ueno Park, which is particularly lively during hanami, the traditional cherry blossom (sakura) viewing event in the spring, when residents and visitors alike picnic on tarpaulin sheets to admire the foliage in its varying state of bloom.
You’ve heard this story before: an ancient sanctuary, frequented by artists and writers, becomes a hub for a new wave of creatives and entrepreneurs lured by low rents and its sense of community. In Tokyo, that’s Yanaka, but here, that old-world feel is respected; it’s nourished and kept alive with well-designed, restored and repurposed spaces created by independent businesses that are giving new life to the neighborhood.
There’s Scai the Bathhouse, for example, a two century-old former public bathhouse turned contemporary art gallery, currently exhibiting an LED installation, LIFE (complex system) by Tatsuo Miyajima. Converted in 1993, the space—small with surprisingly high ceilings—retains a traditional, tiled roof exterior juxtaposed with an all-white, bright and airy interior, beaming with natural light.
There's also Tokyobike gallery, an 80-year-old sake brewery turned flagship base of the now international bike company. Producing modern and lightweight in-house designs, the shop also carries clothing, leather goods and stationery by brands like SyuRo, founded by interior designer Masuko Unayama, and Postalco, which has roots in Brooklyn, New York before American owner Mike Abelson and wife Yuri relocated to Tokyo.
Yanaka is a community that values its relaxed atmosphere and steady pace of life, said Juliana Rudell Di Simone, director and copartner with husband Dean Di Simone of Tokyobike in the Americas, as we wandered through the backstreets of the neighborhood. It was late March, and hanami had just begun.
“It’s Tokyo slow,” she continued. “It’s not about getting from point A to point B. It’s about what happens between A and B, the journey.”
The saying, it turned out, came from Tokyo native Ichiro Kanai, who founded Tokyobike in 2002 after noticing a gap in the market. At that time in Japan, there were only mamachari options (with baskets and kid seats) or the pricier variety preferred by cyclists.
Classico, about 8 minutes away by foot from Tokyobike, is another highly curated shop worth a visit. Opened by Ryu Takahashi in 2006, it’s filled with handpicked, locally produced clothing and crafts.
Where Tradition Meets Modernism
These newcomers—relatively speaking—are surrounded by centuries-old businesses, passed down for generations, a number of which are located on a buzzing shopping street known as Yanaka Ginza. But locals appear to have embraced them, possibly, in part, because of their shared attention to craftsmanship and artistry, showcasing regional, handmade items. Evidently, you won’t find a chain store in sight.
You also won’t find much greenery—no lawns or wide spaces—apart from Tenshin Okakura Memorial Park and Yanaka Cemetery, whose main avenue is lined with rows of cherry blossoms. Striking, however, is the assortment of impeccably kept pots of vibrant vegetation and flowers—bright reds, yellows, oranges—outside of storefronts and homes, a contrast to Yanaka’s architectural landscape of largely muted and neutral tones.
Strategically placed outside many doors you’ll also spot small bowls of salt from time to time. It’s a superstitious community, I was told, and the salt is used to ward off evil spirits. Cats, though, are believed to bring good fortune and have been embraced for years. They’re honored in images and illustrations, and you’ll often spot them throughout Yanaka, well fed and lounging around.
Next, make your way to the nearby International Library of Children's Literature, formerly the Imperial Library. Built in 1906 and expanded in 1929, it’s both traditional and modern, another classic architectural blending of the old and the new.
Where to Eat
And when you find yourself hungry, walk another 10 minutes west, passed the Tokyo University of the Arts, for a singular udon experience that’s true to the customs of the area at Kamachiku, a century-old granary turned restaurant in neighboring Nezu. (And before heading in, check out the Kengo Kuma designed building next door.)
Inside, first things first, you must take off your shoes and put them inside a cupboard. If you can, choose a seat on the second floor, where you’ll sit on cushions (zabuton) and slide your legs into an open space below the low tables, horigotatsu style. It’s a charming space with high ceilings and exposed wooden beams.
And when it comes to the menu, there are a variety of dishes, from kakuni, braised pork belly, to kurayoshi, a salmon dish with grated radish, as well as the classic dashimaki tamago, a japanese rolled omelette—which goes particularly well with their crisp, sparkling sake. The main draw, however, is the fresh, handmade udon, kamaage, served hot, and zaru, served cold, both with their respective dipping sauces and sides of ginger, scallions and tiny, crunchy puffed rice-like pieces.
Not to be missed, as you stroll back into Yanaka, is a towering Himalayan cedar that has long been cherished by the community. To find it, ask for Mikado, an adjacent shop selling sweets, and you’ll be guided towards the 65 foot tall and 10 foot wide tree, completely dominating the area on the corner of four narrow, intersecting streets.
A nearby sign makes note of the its importance, necessary protection and conservation for generations to come, a symbol of Yanaka itself: a reflection and preservation of a former time.
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