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 in Tokyo 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 by just how lovely Tokyo’s Yanaka area actually is.

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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 sidestreet is promising and each corner offers myriad possibilities. So allow us to give you a taste of what to expect before you head out to Yanaka yourself.

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



The Yanesen area

Yanaka Alley, Yanesen
Photo by Shuzo Serikawa used under CC

Found in the Shitamachi district of old Tokyo, Yanaka forms part of the Yanesen area along with Nezu and Sendagi. Meaning ‘under city’, Shitamachi was once the lower side of Tokyo both literally (as marshland) and culturally, compared to the affluent Yamanote area. Dating back to the very formation of the city, the division arose when the Tokugawa shogunate gave the higher grounds to the artistocratic families (Yamanote meaning ‘mountain hands’) and filled in marshlands for merchants and tradesmen. While the names were never official, they stuck and are still used today by way of explaining the atmosphere of different areas.

Miraculously undamaged by wars or natural disasters (largely at least), the Yanesen area has become a popular spot for regeneration. With a temple-town feel, narrow streets, wooden houses and plenty of backalleys to explore, the mix of genuine old spots and their retro-style neighbors is surprisingly pleasing. Of the three areas, Yanaka has the liveliest feel with the busy Yanaka Ginza shopping street, great variety of cafes and coffee shops and the array of temples to explore.

Yanaka Cemetery

sakura tokyo
Photo by DozoDomo used under CC

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.

Although the cemetery was once a part of Tennoji Temple, it was separated in the Meiji Era and is now the biggest cemetery in Japan, with over 7,000 graves filling the 25-acre space. Despite its size, the graveyard is meticulously cared for and even has its own police box to keep things ticking over.

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While the cemetery is generally peaceful, it has its own ghostly stories and tragic tales. Tennoji was once home to a five-story pagoda, but in 1957 two lovers burned it down in a suicide pact, with their ghosts believed to wander the area. These days however, you’re more likely to stumble across some of the local cats sunbathing between the twisted trees.

There are plenty of famous names in the cemetery, including the last shogun of the Edo period, Tokugawa Yoshinobu along with Ichiyo Higuchi—Japan’s first prominent modern female writer, who can be seen on the 5000-yen note. Aside from keeping an eye out for grannies on bikes, it makes for a very relaxing, historical stroll a million miles away from the busy streets of Ueno.


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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 (delicious pastries)! It’s a great spot for souvenir shopping and has plenty of sweet treats and coffee shops to try.

There are art galleries to see and all kinds of food to try, 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. If your feet need 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.

Cafes and coffee in Yanaka

For lunch: Capleville

If you need something more substantial than cat-waffles to eat, we recommend the deli lunch plate at Capleville, down a little sidestreet to your left just after you pass the Yanessen Tourist Information Center. The seasonal lunch plate has a variety of homemade treats and fresh bread and is delicious, especially at just over ¥1,000. 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 caffeine hit: Yanaka Coffee

Yanaka Coffee is a local chain with a cult-following and a welcome preference for books over phones. While normally chain stores have a quantity-over-quality feel, that’s not the case here, with freshly roasted beans and individual store designs giving it the feel of an independent shop that’s grown organically.

For a sweet treat: Yanaka Kenshindo

For the green-tea afficionados, Yanaka Kenshindo is a cute tea room with traditional sweets to go with your matcha. Focusing on the seasons, their menus change thorughout the year, offering treats like watermelon dango in summer and high quality green tea from Uji in Kyoto.

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. Temple towns like Yanaka were encouraged because they could be used as forts when under attack. It also means you can’t go far without seeing a Buddha peeking out or a golden statue appearing around a corner, which definitely adds to the day.

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 actually in Yanaka, so you can take on that challenge if you care to, but maybe for another day.

The backstreets of Yanaka

Yanaka
Photo by Adrienne Mah

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.

Himalayan Cedar in Yanaka
Photo by M-Louis used under CC

One of the most popular spots is the ancient Himalayan cedar tree which towers over a small shop at a fork in the road. Featured in plenty of TV shows and films, the tree was supposedly planted just under 100 years ago by the grandfather of the shop-owner. Although attempts were made to cut it down a few years ago, a community group saved the tree as a local point of interest.

Yanaka FAQs

Where is Yanaka in Tokyo?

Yanaka is part of Taito Ward and forms a traditional area called Yanesen with Nezu and Sendagi. It is north of Ueno and can be reached by walking through pleasant backstreets. For train-riders, you can head there from Nippori Station on the JR Yamanote, Keisei, Keihintohoku or Joban lines or Sendagi on the Chiyoda Line.

What time does Yanaka Ginza close?

While all the independent shops have their own opening times, generally the area is best between 10am and 6-7pm. Shops are open on weekends and usually close on a Monday or Wednesday, but there is enough variation that these days are still worth visiting if it’s your only chance. Note that if Monday is a holiday, the shops will instead close on the Tuesday.

Video guide to Yanaka

While we do our best to ensure it’s correct, information is subject to change. This post was first published in June, 2017. Last updated December, 2018.

Written by:
Filed under: Shopping, Things to do
Tags: Architecture, Area Guide, Buddha, Cafe, Cats, Cemetery, Cherry Blossom, Coffee, Hanami, History, Lunch, Old, Shitamachi, Shopping, Taiyaki, Temple, Tradition, Walk
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Name: Places mentioned in this article:
Location(s): Yanaka,
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