We are not sure why they don’t say more in the guidebooks about Yanaka. Yanaka was where we stayed in Tokyo and it turned out to be our favorite neighborhood and here’s why…
It’s quiet but lively, visually beautiful, with Edo-period buildings, some which are restaurants or small artisan shops that sell hand-made crackers and tea sweets, and everyone rides around on bicycles. Yanaka also has the highest concentration of temples and shrines we’ve ever seen. Pretty much every block has one or more temples. The 47 Ronin are buried in Yanaka along with many famous historical figures in the cemetery and various temples.
There are creative, little boutiques and galleries, some of which are very modern and have fun opening parties at night. The odd days and hours of shop openings make the neighborhood fun to walk around as well as the mix of contemporary and old world aesthetics colliding. Every time we walked through it we found a new and intriguing shop that we didn’t realize was there before. Magical.
The main streets around Yanaka have artistan specialty shops that sell hand-made stamps, calligraphy brushes and old world paint supplies. You would be hard-pressed to find some of these supplies anywhere in the world. A must for any serious artist. Just walk around, or bike around, all the alleys, and go on a treasure hunt.
Not only are there objects of beauty to be found, but also beautiful experiences. Once we came across a “casual tea ceremony” that happens for only two hours, one day a month in someone’s home, a great farmer’s market, and a temple festival at Nezu Shrine. Magic, indeed!
Bar Orso, one of the cool, little bars near Yanaka Ginza.
There are really good restaurants, cafes and bars dotted through the neighborhood. (Above is a photo of Nakasa, one of the friendly, little bars dotting the area. The owner is a big Phish and Jerry Garcia fan.)
The Yanaka-ginza street has some fun street food stalls and gift shops to peruse too. Can’t read the sign in Japanese? Just open the door and go in, most bars are friendly. I love the streets full of tiny, tiny bars. What’s behind door # 2? Only you can find out…
This bar near the Yanaka Ginza handed us the microphone to join in some karaoke! Good times. If you only know a few phrases in Japanese – nothing makes fast friends like the international language of music.
Ryokan Sawanoya. We were lucky enough to get a chance to stay at Ryokan Sawanoya, a family-run, traditional inn with tatami mat and futon rooms, and lovely, lovely baths that overlook a small zen garden. We were very sad to leave those baths as well as the inviting Sawanoya atmosphere! It was so nice to come home to after a full day of walking and to wake up to in the morning. We also met many interesting people from around the world, lots of artisans themselves.
The Sawanoya family also have a wall of tourist info and brochures and they can hook you up with events throughout the week. We took a free tour of Asakusa shrine, went to a maki-sushi making party, and had a Shodo (Japanese calligraphy) lesson with the very generous and friendly people from the P.E.A.C.E. Group.
Shikian – the house of haiku poet Masaoka Shiki
On the outskirts of Yanaka is this wonderful, little museum which is the house of Masaoka Shiki. They do not speak much English here, so read up on Shiki before going. This is the house where he spent his last days, had poetry parties, wrote poems and painted what he saw in his garden here. It made me cry, and I felt it was very moving, especially if you love poetry and art.