Yanaka: Old Town Tokyo at Its Best

Lily Crossley-Baxter

Narrow winding streets lined with new indie cafes and senbei shops passed down through generations, Yanaka is the perfect place to while away an afternoon.

A quiet neighborhood with a popular market street, beautiful sakura-lined cemetery and plenty of temples—it’s no surprise this part of town is becoming popular, but you might be surprised with just how lovely it is. Just a short walk from Ueno Park, the charm of the area is preserved by the tendency to re-purpose older buildings rather than rebuild, creating a contrast that remains somehow reassuring. You can sample the old-fashioned treats of Japan followed up with some modern takes on their specialties, all within meters of each other. Whether you’re normally a wanderer or not, here you just can’t help it—every side street is promising and each corner offers myriad possibilities. So allow us to give you a taste of what to see before you head out there yourself.

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Pro tip: If you don’t want to miss anything, book a guided walking tour of Yanaka.

Yanaka Cemetery

A beautifully well-maintained cemetery with a cherry-tree-lined central pathway. This is a lovely start to your wanderings as it is just around the corner from Nippori Station.

Yanaka Cemetery
Photo by Adrienne Mah

Although it was once a part of Tennoji Temple, it was separated in the Meiji era. You may see some of the local cats sunbathing between the twisted trees and can visit the grave of the last shogun of the Edo period, Tokugawa Yoshinobu. Aside from keeping an eye out for grannies on bikes, it makes for a very relaxing stroll a million miles away from the busy streets of Ueno.

Yanaka Ginza – The Shopping Street

After descending the TV-famous steps into Yomisedori, you can explore the 80+ shops and stalls of this street, which feature everything from bento boxes to butchers, sake bars to sandals and even cat-shaped taiyaki! It’s a great spot for souvenir shopping and has plenty of sweet treats and coffee shops to try.

There are art galleries to purvey and all kinds of food, with some special mentions including the cat taiyaki and the 10-yen manju shop—small sweet balls filled with red bean paste and surrounded in a soft rice flour cushion with flavors like matcha and brown sugar.

For souvenirs and gifts you can peruse the traditional pottery shops and choose a basket too, or you can go for the more modern gifts. There are some very unusual hanko stamps available for personalization (will certainly make the bank look twice) and plenty of lovely tins and smaller gifts, as well as plenty of cat goods! There are traditional toy shops too, so you’ll be sure to find something.

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If you need something more substantial to eat, we recommend the deli lunch plate at Capleville, down a little side street to your left just after you pass the Yanessen Tourist Information Center. The lunch plate has a variety of homemade treats, fresh bread and is delicious, especially at 1,150 yen. The chef went out of his way to make it vegetarian—offering to make hummus for us (an offer no one should turn down!). They also have a regular menu including curry with couscous and taco rice, all presented beautifully.

For a break, there are coffee shops and sake bars depending on what kind of day you’re having—each with their own style and appeal.

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The Yanessen Tourist Information Center has plenty of leaflets and also offers classes, but was shut when we visited.

Tennoji Temple et al

You may notice from any map of Yanaka that there are A LOT of temples here, which can make for a great rough plan for your strolling explorations. It also means you can go far without seeing a Buddha peeking out or a golden statue appearing around a corner, which definitely adds to the day.

Yanaka Golden
Photo by Adrienne Mah

Tennoji is the most well known, with a centuries-old sitting Buddha and lovely small garden. It was founded in 1274 to house a Buddha carved by Nichiren, temporarily closed for heresy but then reopened and later became a seat to the God of resources and bravery. It is also the only one of the Yanaka Seven Gods of Fortune Temples that is in Yanaka, so you can take on that challenge if you care, but maybe for another day.

The Backstreets

This is where the flower shops and coffee joints are lurking, filled with pensioners taking a break and running errands in between. You’ll see more bicycles and plants than ever before, plenty of dozing cats, and who knows what else (which is the best part). You can rent very nice bikes from the Tokyobike shop which is a great way to explore the area.

Photo by Adrienne Mah
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Location(s): Yanaka,
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