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Forgotten Tokyo: The secrets of Yanaka
Overlooked even by locals, Tokyo’s Yanaka neighborhood has the tradition of Asakusa without the crowds
If the hype is to be believed, the east of Tokyo is going to be the next happening area of the city. Urban regeneration should probably never be discouraged, though Yanaka is certainly one place that needs to be saved from any overenthusiastic “development.”
Also known as Yanesen (after the three neighboring districts of Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi), Yanaka was miraculously spared the carnage of the Allied bombings in World War II, and part of its charm today of its best spots lies in this sense of being hidden.
1. Yanaka Cemetery (Yanaka Reien )
The star of the neighborhood is the vast cemetery, the heart of Yanaka’s timeless tranquility. Some 7,000 graves are here but don’t try counting them; just wander the pathways between the memorial stones and enjoy the atmosphere.
In spring the sakura cherry blossom are in season and bring with them hordes of visitors, but typically the massive necropolis feels empty.
The cemetery itself was once the domain of a single temple but was made into a public site in 1972. A reminder of how religiosity was once more central to Japanese lifestyle, there are dozens of other temples stretching to the west of the cemetery, though not all are open.
The most famous resident of Yanaka Reien is the last shogun of Japan, Yoshinobu Tokugawa, enclosed in a special Tokugawa dynasty section, though unfortunately access to the mausoleum is forbidden.
The cemetery even has its own police station and a special playground for children, which either adds to the peacefulness, or the morbidity, depending on your mindset.
Address: Yanaka 7, Taito-ku, Tokyo
Access: JR Nippori Station
2. SCAI The Bathhouse
It is likely an injustice to call SCAI The Bathhouse a secret; it’s one of the most famous contemporary art galleries in Japan.
In keeping with Yanaka’s sense of time standing still, SCAI is a converted 1951 sento public bathhouse. You can see the chimney and tank from the outside, and as you open the sliding door the genkan entrance is still separated into two. The old shoe lockers remain as well.
SCAI, under the direction of Masami Shiraishi, opened in 1993. “Having worked in Omotesando before, and being familiar with the newer side of Tokyo, I enjoy the fact that Yanaka is the older Tokyo –- that contrast is interesting,” says Shiraishi.
SCAI frequently exhibits global artists like Anish Kapoor, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Darren Almond, as well as major Japanese names. Its current show is of South Korean artist Lee Ufan’s work, running until March 5.
Address: 6-1-23 Yanaka, Taito-ku, Tokyo, Tel +81 (0) 3 3821 1144
3. Snake Street (Hebi-michi)
Despite the name, Snake Street is not in the least bit dangerous, unless you happen to be there when motorbikes are making deliveries at shops or houses along the road.
Cars would surely never attempt to pass through, creating the tranquility of the area.
A former stream, the long and –- as you would expect –- extremely meandering street mostly cuts through a residential area, but on the way there are some charming boutiques and a thousand photo opportunities.
Address: Yanaka 2,
This much-cherished store makes and sells chiyogami, traditional Japanese paper printed with woodblocks. The wares remind you of the sheer vibrancy of Edo, with bright floral patterns decorating boxes, photo albums and other items ideal as gifts.
Sadly, Isetatsu is now the last of its kind in Tokyo, but as such attracts customers from all over and only closes at New Year.
Though Isetatsu is the best known, Yanaka actually has many traditional crafts shops, as well as mini stores and studios selling bags, jewelry, and handmade clothes.
Address: 2-18-9 Yanaka, Taito-ku Tokyo, Tel +81 (0) 3 3823 1453