Loved by writers, artists and even cats, this highly livable Japanese district with its eccentric mix of old and new is the perfect place to get lost.
North-east of the busy streets of central Tokyo, three small neighbourhoods – Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi – collectively known as Yanesen, offer an insight into local life: the stories, small rituals and ordinary vignettes. Wind through the narrow laneways that cascade down the hill from Yanaka Cemetery and time unwinds: a weaver sets out his baskets on the pavement, novice monks sweep up fallen blossoms in a stone courtyard and the hiss of steam from an espresso machine summons the faithful to a tiny corner café.
Originally a temple district, Yanesen is a rare part of Tokyo that escaped the WWII bombings. Close to the city’s premier art university, the area has always attracted artisans, bohemians and writers. Literary greats from Natsume Sōseki to Banana Yoshimoto have lived here, inspired by the charmingly ramshackle streets.
Starting at Nippori Station, choose any path to wend your way through the cemetery, which is far from morbid. In spring, revellers gather to picnic between the gravestones under drifts of cherry blossom petals, the living and the dead celebrating the fleeting beauty of life together. The scent of hot rice crackers doused in soy sauce leads you to Yanaka Ginza, the main shopping street. You’ll see cats everywhere – real ones basking in the sun and quirky, handcrafted ones perched in shop windows. It makes sense that Sōseki wrote his satirical novel, I Am a Cat, while living here.
Once, you could see Mount Fuji from the Yuyake Dandan (Sunset Stairs) at the top of Yanaka Ginza but the view is now crowded with apartment buildings and a web of powerlines. Shopkeepers call out their wares as you pass: cream buns, cabbage and pork rissoles, fresh fish and warm bentos. It’s a feast for the eyes and the stomach. The narrow backstreets around Nezu and Sendagi reveal second-hand kimono shops, family-run inns and unique art galleries. Tiny cafés serve slabs of homemade matcha cake on Scandinavian ceramics against a David Bowie soundtrack. Like the cats, the locals here do their own thing.
Tradition is celebrated but new ideas are welcomed. An old sake shop now houses bicycle maker Tokyobike; run-down share houses become galleries; graceful old homes are transformed into hip hotels. Architect Kengo Kuma has restored several of the historic buildings in the area with his signature mix of modern simplicity and respect for traditional design. It’s worth walking around the whole block to see the seamless blend of Taisho and contemporary styles in his restored Hantei restaurant (2-12-15 Nezu, Bunkyō-ku). You might be tempted inside to try their famous kushikatsu – deliciously more-ish little sticks of crumbed, fried vegetables, seafood and meat – the perfect fuel for further ramblings.
Image credit: Hiro Goto