Once Upon a Time in Yanaka

This sleepy district is a counterpoint to the frenetic pace of Tokyo

Disclaimer: This trip was in the latter part of 2019. Commercial establishments specifically named here are still in operation as of this writing.

I take no pleasure in admitting that I’m not a morning person. I wish I were, but there’s no point in fooling myself. Yet whenever I visit a strange, new place, my body clock always seems to overhaul itself, afraid to miss out on new adventures.

And so on our second day in Tokyo, I found myself waking up as soon as the clock chimed 6 a.m. The sun had barely risen, the streets of Asakusa in Tokyo as still as the morning holding its breath. In less than an hour, my husband and I were already making our way to the hotel lobby, sleep still in our eyes, but excitement spurring us to hurry along. That morning’s agenda: an adventure in the district of Yanaka.

Morning stroll

Located north of Ueno, Yanaka is a sleepy neighborhood in Tokyo reminiscent of old-world Edo brimming with centuries-old structures. Numerous temples dot the area, earning it the monicker “temple town.”  

A figure of the kappa, a reptilian-like deity in Japanese lore, decorating the streets of Kappabashi (left); curious shops like this made our morning stroll more interesting (right)

We passed by Kappabashi Street, known as “Kitchenware Town,” en route to Yanaka. The numerous stores of kitchen and dining wares were still waking up on that languid morning, while a few sleepy locals were already plying the sidewalks. We peered into a shop that sold coffee-brewing equipment, but before I could further inspect the goods, my husband reminded me that we still had a couple of kilometers to go.

The various tableware and cast-iron teapots in Dengama Pottery in Kappabashi can be a bit overwhelming, so I made sure to stick to what I really wanted to buy when we came back to this shop two days later

City streets gave way to idyllic, residential roads as kids lugging boxy randoseru bags on their backs made their way to school. We stopped by Ueno Park to catch our breath. The overcast morning made it comfortable for us to plop down on the ground and indulge in people-watching before resuming our walk. The streets were quiet except for the occasional piercing song of minmin cicadas.

Ueno Park at around 7 a.m.

After a few more twists and turns, we found ourselves on a narrow alley. An inviting residence, its wooden gates wide open, sat at a corner. It turned out to be a cherry blossom viewing hall. The pathway from the gate led to a small Zen garden, and I would have ventured further had I not realized I didn’t know what to say in case I bump into someone. So I just quickly turned on my camera and took a snap before catching up to my husband.

The inviting cherry blossom viewing hall in Yanaka

Here lies the last shogun

Visiting a cemetery on a vacation isn’t something that’s on everyone’s itinerary, but it definitely was on ours. After all, Yanaka Cemetery isn’t an ordinary burial ground, for here lies the last shogun of the Edo era: Yoshinobu Tokugawa.

Born in 1837, Tokugawa ruled Japan from 1866 to 1867. After the Battle of Toba-Fushimi, he was forced to step down. He then spent his years in retirement until his death in 1913 at the age of 76.  Yanaka Cemetery, which was established after the Meiji Restoration in 1872, serves as the resting place for Tokugawa.

We didn’t expect to find the last shogun’s grave quite easily (thanks to Google Maps). We entered the cemetery via the Yanakareieniriguchi Pocket Park, which was about 200 meters from the historic grave. Dry leaves crunched with our every step, while the cemetery opened up to us in hues of gray, brown, and green. Finally, we reached the spot we were looking for.

Yanaka Cemetery is awash in grays and greens

The black gates were decorated with the Tokugawa clan’s mon, or emblem, depicting three hollyhock leaves. At the center of the austere plot was a gray monument with a lengthy inscription. Standing guard behind it was a handsome tree flanked by two cobblestone mounds that held the remains of the shogun and his wife, Mikako. There were a few other burial mounds in the 5,600sqm graveyard, most likely of the shogun’s close relatives.

Tokugawa’s grave is the most famous burial site here. The cemetery is also home to other known Japanese writers, poets, celebrities, and politicians who have passed on.

A tabby was lazing around the grounds that late morning, indifferent to the crows pecking and cawing and to the shogun’s visitors peering from the other side of the gate.

A taste of heritage

One look at Kayaba Coffee, and we knew it was a special place. How could it not be if the structure has already stood for more than a century (an ordinary feat in a country like Japan, where centuries-old establishments still find a place in the modern world)?

Kayaba Coffee has become one of Yanaka’s iconic landmarks

Built in 1916, the two-story building served as home to Kayaba Coffee until 2006 when the original proprietor passed away. Because of its charm and popularity, a non-profit group partnered with Scai the Bathouse Gallery, located just a stone’s throw away, to reopen it in 2009. Fortunately, despite the threat of the Covid-19 pandemic, the iconic kissaten still stands strong.

I was concerned that there’d be a long queue waiting for us, but to our relief (and perhaps because it was off-peak season), we were ushered in right away. We immediately settled at a spacious table on the ground floor.

Our filling brunch of sandwiches and coffee

There were only a few customers, with everyone speaking in hushed voices while enjoying cups of carefully brewed coffee. The wooden interiors and leather-upholstered seats exuded warmth. We sat by the window, which was framed with greenery and offered a view of a pedestrian lane on a not-so-busy street.

The sun had almost reached its zenith when we stepped out of Kayaba. Fully recharged and refreshed, we ambled along the streets of Yanaka, still as unhurried as it was earlier that day, and made our way to Nezu Shrine.

Sanctuary in the city

Nezu Shrine, though not technically part of Yanaka, was only a 15-minute walk from Kayaba. By noon, we were already standing in front of one of the entrance gates in Bunkyo Ward. The clouds still obscured the sun, so we were spared from the scorching midday heat.

A group of kindergarteners huddled near the imposing torii gate, all preoccupied with searching for something on the ground as their teachers patiently supervised. The gurgle of a small stream competed with the kids’ excited chatter, but apart from that, the shrine was peaceful. Not far ahead was the row of smaller torii gates, their vermillion hue sticking out against the greenery. The short pathway may not be as grandiose as the famous Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, but it was marvelous, nevertheless. During the months of April and May, the shrine hosts the Azalea Spring Festival; azalea blooms in pink, magenta, and white transform the place into a postcard-pretty destination.

The picturesque row of torii gates in Nezu Shrine. During spring, brightly colored azalea blooms hem in this pathway.

We made our way slowly through the wooden canopy, stopping every once in a while to take some snapshots. A few other visitors passed us by, so made sure not to linger too long. Stone statues of kitsune (fox) donning bibs in the same color as the torii gates guarded the path. Soon, we reached the viewing platform overlooking a small pond. From here, we got a chance to see the main shrine buildings. I immediately pulled out my camera only to be greeted by a blinking battery icon. In hindsight, I was glad to have made the last-minute decision of buying spare batteries to bring to this trip. Otherwise, I would’ve missed the chance to document this shrine that has stood since 1706, making it the oldest shrine in Tokyo.

Columns of torii gates flank this viewing deck, which looks imposing when viewed from afar

With my camera boasting a fully charged battery, my husband and I set out to find a place where we could take a breather. The sun peeked from behind the clouds, casting sharp shadows on the gravel that crunched beneath our feet. We made our way back to where we started, and found a vacant concrete bench facing the Romon Gate. On another bench were two elderly men quietly chatting, long tongs in hand, taking a break from (I assume) voluntarily picking up trash in the shrine.

Silence in Nezu Shrine is sometimes punctuated by the flapping of wings of these visitors

We sat for a few more minutes, taking in a flock of pigeons that started to gather and peck at the ground. Not long after, they flapped their wings and moved to a different area. We took that as a cue to get on our way.

Down the memory lane

The walk to Yanaka Ginza from the North Approach Gate of Nezu Shrine took another 15 minutes. As soon as we reached the famous shopping street teeming with local finds, we immediately made a beeline for a konbini to grab some cold beverage. A cheery lady was manning the counter, flashing us a big smile as she scanned our bottled drinks. Once our parched throats had been sufficiently satisfied, we began exploring.

More random street scenes: this adorable clay figurine guarding a bicycle (left) and this structure that looks straight out of a Studio Ghibli film (right)

Yanaka Ginza is known for its shitamachi ambiance, just like the rest of Yanaka. Here establishments run by locals have retained the old-world charm. Store fronts were festooned with handwritten signages, while wooden tables and display windows showcased various commodities—from indigo-dyed fabrics to ceramic tableware to random, kitschy trinkets.

We didn’t have to jostle against the crowd because there wasn’t any, fortunately. We were able to comfortably peruse the establishments that piqued our interest. Our first stop: a tableware shop that turned out to be a matcha store as well. Blue bowls in various sizes and designs were on display by the entrance. Inside, the musty scent of wood mingled with the sweet-grassy aroma of green tea.

Stores in Yanaka Ginza, like this tableware shop, exude nostalgia

After a few minutes of browsing the shelves, we stepped back into the bright, sunlit street, a stark contrast to the dark interiors of the tea-slash-ceramics shop. My nose soon picked up the heady aroma of leather. I allowed my feet to bring us to a modest leather bag shop, where I reluctantly browsed the supple leather items on display while my husband waited for me outside. (I say “reluctant” because I had to remind myself that I was there only to look, not spend.) The store manager gave me a welcoming smile as I remarked on how lovely the bags were. On my way out, I thanked her for letting me check out the merchandise. She jovially wished me a good trip in reply.

Yanaka Ginza seems untouched by the fast-paced, modern sensibilities of Tokyo

Further down the street were more shops, some of which sold cat-themed knickknacks like pillows, keychains, and other small items in keeping with Yanaka’s reputation as a “cat town.” There were also stores peddling woven baskets. Past these establishments, we reached the oft-photographed spot called “Yuyake Dandan,” a sloping stairway that affords a bird’s-eye view of the shopping street. There, at the top of the stairs, was a small store that sold kimonos and yukatas. I dared to venture in, making small talk with another tourist who was ogling the merchandise as enthusiastically as I was. Our “oohs” and “aahs” elicited a warm smile from the elderly proprietor. It was a shame I didn’t end up buying any, but I made sure to let the old lady know how lovely her store was.

Years later, I still look back to that day with fondness. And if I’m given the choice to go back, I won’t mind exploring more of Yanaka’s secrets.