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Glimpsing Japan in the Streets of Yanaka

Written originally as part of the 2010 Blogathon, this post first appeared on Dana Dugan's blog, Chick with a View.

Urban hiking in Tokyo (a.k.a. sight-seeing) is one of the delights of living in this megalopolis. We've cruised about the city by bicycle and loved it, but a great benefit of roaming on foot is that smaller details become apparent. A few weeks ago we made our way over to Yanaka for a day's trek, and found ourselves lost in a maze of old lanes filled with the kind of tiny details that make for a spectacular adventure. Once an edge of old Tokyo now nearly lost in the urban mesh of train lines and high rises, Yanaka is a hidden gem where old Japan can still be caught in a sight, sound or a taste.

Getting off the Yamanote Line at Nishi-Nippori via the south exit we turned to the left and began a steep ascent on a small road just behind the station. On our right a stone wall loomed as we huffed and puffed our way up this narrow track. A small handful of houses balanced on the corner as the road bent to the right, and it was immediately clear that we were on the once famous ridge.

Already distracted by the views that can just be glimpsed between lovely old wooden homes with beautiful impromptu gardens, we could have missed the entrance to Suwa Shrine. Fine old wooden buildings with ornate carvings sit in the cool shade of huge gingko trees. Incredibly quiet despite it's proximity to the train station below, we spent a fair amount of time exploring the small grounds and soaking up the atmosphere. It was easy to see where Kasamatsu got his inspiration.

Just a little bit beyond Suwa Shrine (and adjacent Joki-ji with its row of Buddhas) is the famous Fuji Viewing Street - Fujimizaka - where on a clear day Mount Fuji can still be seen in all his fantastic glory. Before high rise development began filling the skyline here, residents of the area enjoyed seeing the mountain's distinct shape on the horizon regularly. Even though we knew our chances might be slim this time of year, we took a peek. Just as he did on our hike in the mountains near Kawaguchiko, Fuji-san proved elusive.

While it might be easy to miss the entrance to Yofuku-ji, the two beastly fellows guarding the gate are not. Menacing, large, and red they watch over the small but delightful temple and gardens behind. A cemetery along this side of the ridge runs from Suwa Shrine all the way to the main road. It could be an interesting alternative route, but following the ridge line road might be more ideal, especially for a first time visitor.

After perusing the gardens, we returned to the road. Accosted by butterflies loitering around the many sidewalk gardens while trying to lure some of the areas cat population over for a little pet, we carried on until arriving at a junction with the main road. Here, we turned left into Kyoo-ji temple to admire its fine wooden gate and grounds briefly before heading back to the main road.

If we continued left out of the temple gate and down the hill, we would have come to Nippori Station. Instead, we turned to the right to visit Yanaka Ginza. Heading down the signature steps (be sure to keep to the right at the Y in the street) we could see a bustling little shopping area below us. Full of small cafes, street side beer sellers, and some of the tastiest fried things an urban trekker could desire (I recommend the kaboucha doughnuts at a little shop on the left side. They didn't allow pictures, but hopefully the photo of the half eaten doughnut here is enough to go on.) Sweet little shops full of souvenirs of all kinds, jewelry, ceramics, and other delights large and small make for a wonderful window shopping experience or for finding that perfect gift to take home.

After eating close to our fill of fried treats, pondering an afternoon beer, and admiring the cat themed street decorations, we made our way back up the steps to the main road. Passing by (with some difficulty) more shops and restaurants with enticing window displays, we entered Yanaka Cemetery. A tall metal fence marking one edge of the cemetery lines the right side of the street. Just as we crested the hill and began descending the other side a small road branched off to the right with another steep path adjacent that led directly up into the cemetery proper.

Like the Suwa Shrine, Yanaka Cemetery proved to be somehow removed from the heat and bustle of the city and nearby station. Massive old cherries shade the walkway and are breathtaking in themselves, and it's easy to presume they must make a spectacular display in early Spring. Huge gingkos and zelkovas dot the grounds among family gravesites in various states of upkeep. The sotoba (wooden namplates at each gravesite) rattled in the wind while here and there families visited the graves of loved ones.

We took a slight detour to the left to Tenno-ji, which is home to the Yanaka Buddha. A smaller version of the Kamakura Buddha, the bronze figures sits peacefully in the temple garden surrounded by Japanese maples. As we admired the statue a high rise apartment building filled the background reminding us how close the modern city remained. (See photo at the beginning of this post.)

Returning to the main road outside the temple, we turned left to continue exploring the cemetery then right until the T-junction where we went left again and finally right on Sansikazaka Street. Zig-zagging our way along we passed a fascinating mix of old and new homes and more amazing street gardens. Temples absolutely line the street here in a way that is reminiscent of a visit to Kyoto. There, like Yanaka, temples abound and it seems as though every other building or set of buildings is a holy place. Impossible to explore each and every one, we look forward to heading back to visit some of these other spots, too.

As we descended the hill of Sansikazaka Street, we turned into Zensho-en. A simple garden near the main hall was under repair, but tucked around the back and almost out of sight is the Yanaka Kanon. Twenty-feet high and covered in gold leaf the Kanon stands majestically on the slope of the ridge looking toward the setting sun and Fuji-san. We paused here for a small snack and to rest in the quiet of the courtyard.

A little further down the slope we stopped in at Daien-ji temple to admire the twin halls serving the Shinto and Buddhist communities both. Ornate wooden carvings of dragons and phoenixes roiled overhead, and surprisingly we found ourselves nearly alone in the garden savoring the atmosphere.

Just as we were perhaps feeling a bit overwhelmed by temples, we found Isetatsu. One of Tokyo's oldest paper shops the shelves inside held absolutely exquisite samples of fine handmade patterned papers that were just breathtaking. Finding it impossible to choose - iris versus wisteria versus peony - we ducked out of the tiny shop just as a tour group of senior citizens made their way inside. The plan is to return on a weekday when it isn't so busy and choose a few pieces to frame.

Isetatsu's back door popped us out on a small side street, which we headed down to see what we might. A stunning series of roses greeted us at the first corner, and we stopped to gaze at the yellow and red color combination. Turning up this first road to the left we carried on back up a slight slope. Street gardens abounded - some even including vegetables! - and we caught sight of an old stone wall still in place.

Coming to another T-junction we turned right and began our descent along another narrow road. Walled on both sides - one a temple grounds and the other a retaining wall of sorts - but well shaded we spotted Nennekkoya. A cat cafe and shop it is the cat lovers heaven. Cat cups, pins, sake, plates, bowls, kimono-wearing statues, T-shirts, and bags are but a few of the items available. Hungry patrons ordered tasty looking dishes with rice shaped like a cat face (adorable despite a somewhat awkward sounding description) and snacked away with a cat at their side.

Reluctantly putting our shoes back on we went back out to the street, and turned right to carry on down the hill. Here we entered what felt like another time, and our stroll here quickly became a highlight of the whole trip. Narrow lanes full of flowering trees, plants, and shrubs of all sorts, shapes, sizes and colors drew us in like a magnet and made every side street look irresistably appealing. Reasonably priced antique stores selling everything from old kimonos to fine porcelain, artisan shops, a long-term guest house with a friendly resident cat, not to mention a handy hardware store kept us occupied for more than an hour.

Finally pulling ourselves away, we walked on until we crossed Shinobazu Dori and found the Nezu Shrine. Standing in a park-like setting are a main hall and impressive gate house, both of which are elaborately painted. We sat for a bit next to the koi pond watching families, couples, and individuals wandering by and enjoying the day like us. After visiting the main hall, we walked the rows of tori gates, again reminiscent of Kyoto and the Fushimi Inari Shrine, and made a mental note to come a bit earlier next year to see the azaela's in all their glory. The hillside is filled to the brim with azaela bushes, which had just finished blooming during our visit. It must be quite the show to see when they're in their prime.

Pleasantly tired from a long day of walking and touring, we made our way back to Shinobazu Dori where we turned right and headed for Nezu Station and a train home.

If you go
  • Start: Nishi-Nippori Station on the Yamanote Line.
  • Finish: Nezu Station on the Tokyo Metro Chiyoda Line.
  • Advice: Good walking shoes and a bottle of water to keep you hydrated. Sunscreen, of course, and a camera with a fully charged battery. I took so many photos that I ended up resorting to the cell phone camera.
  • Best time of year: Spring is delightful, of course, but late fall and early winter are best for seeing Mount Fuji.


Anjuli said…
This was excellent- the pictures- the information!! Thank you so much!!
More than welcome, Anuli! We had a blast doing it.
Anonymous said…
Thankyou Joan - this sounds like a great day out when my friend arrives!
Any time, Anon. Look forward to seeing your photos and hearing the stories!

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