Whenever someone mention that they are planning for a vacation in Tokyo, chances are, Shinjuku, Harajuku and Asakusa, will be on their itinerary. These places, no doubt, are some of the top sights in hyper-modern Tokyo. But if you’re looking to discover a different side of the sprawling Japanese capital, stick with us, our debut episode of Eat, Sleep, Play, Repeat will take you to a charming old-town district in eastern Tokyo.
If you asked why is this location chosen, it’s because on my first trip to Tokyo in 2017, this particular district, Yanaka, bewitched me. The atmosphere is unlike what one would typically experience in the bustling streets of Shinjuku and Asakusa, which are usually, in my opinion— more gentrified and consumerism-led.
Slow Living in a Historic Neighbourhood
Time seems to be standing still in Yanaka, once the home of the artisans, craftsmen and merchants during the Edo-era (1603 to 1868). The rustic charm and nostalgic vibes linger in the air—and unquestionably so, as Yanaka had been miraculously spared from the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 and the ravages of World War 2. As one of the oldest neighbourhoods in an increasingly urbanised Tokyo, I must say, it is quite a feat to preserve its traditional appearance and atmosphere without the intervention of official governing committees.
For the Tokyoites, they have learned to embrace constant renewal in their cityscape due to their geographical condition—seismologic unstable soil. With the average age of buildings in Tokyo standing at 26 years, I wonder how do the people of Tokyo relate to the past, their heritage? I’m afraid you cannot “read” the city from its urban landscape at all, it cannot be felt in, say, the classic European way, by sauntering down its cobbled-stoned streets lined with beautifully conserved townhouses.
Instead for the Tokyoites, their historical narrative transcends bricks and mortar. Rather it is to be experienced through their etiquette, traditions and rituals. Since historical monuments and old buildings are scarce in Tokyo (unlike Kyoto which is known for cultural preservation) Yanaka is a wonderful exception.
Here is where you’ll encounter a hotchpotch of old buildings made from wood or bricks, narrow alleys of traditional shops, a bathhouse-turned-art gallery, shrines and a beautifully well-kept cemetery which impart a sense of serenity to the whole neighbourhood.
And if you’re looking to experience life in the slow lane when the frantic pace of Tokyo starts to wear you down, Yanaka is the place to be.
Yanaka Ginza: Tokyo’s Most Charming Shopping Street
This neighbourhood also share a deep affinity with its wandering feline friends and has since earned its nickname as the Town of Cats. The theme is most apparent in Yanaka Ginza, a retro shopping street established in 1945, that spans 175 meters and has a lineup of souvenir shops, tea shops, grocery stores, little restaurants and cafes. You can easily find bags, cups, books and other trinkets emblazoned with pictures of cats, and even cat-shaped desserts. Apart from kitschy souvenirs that appeal to the tourists, Yanaka Ginza sells everything practical that locals could need. Most of the shops here are family-run businesses.
At one end of the street, you will find sunset stairs, or yuyake dandan in Japanese (yūyake means sunset, dandan means steps/stairs, the name was the result of a naming competition in 1990). It is a perfect spot to catch the sunset and to take in the sights of the lively shopping street.
Big cities like Tokyo offers both spectacle and confusion, and it is up to us to be curious, to look beyond the surface, and you’ll see the city reveals itself to be a wonderous, mysterious, and enriching place.
3-13-1 Yanaka, Taito-ku, Tokyo
Nippori Station on Yamanote Line, Joban Line, Keihin-Tohoku Line, Keisei Main Line and Nippori-Toneri Line
Sendagi Station on Tokyo Metro Chiyoda Line