©Unsplash/ Nguyen TP Hai
©Unsplash/ Nguyen TP Hai

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Must-sees and dos in Yanaka, Tokyo: a neighbourhood frozen in time

7 minutes to read

This is a hidden gem where history, culture, and tradition intertwine to create a truly spirited away experience in Japan’s capital city. Tucked away from the frenetic pace of Tokyo, the neighbourhood of Yanaka invites you to embark on a journey that transcends eras, offering a glimpse into the rich tapestry of Japan's past while embracing the present. This is where one can be immersed in a world where wooden houses and cobblestone paths evoke the bygone era of old Edo. Quaint shops and charming cafes beckon, inviting you to slow down and savour the simple pleasures of life. The many times I’ve come back to Yanaka while living in Tokyo, I’ve learned time and time again that this is more than just a picturesque neighbourhood; it's a living testament to the preservation of culture and heritage. Curious? Follow me on Instagram and Youtube for more adventures!

Yes, Yanaka is a place where time seems to stand still, inviting you to explore at your own pace and forge a connection with Japan's rich past. But it’s also a place where whether you're a history enthusiast, a seeker of hidden corners, or simply a traveller in search of authentic experiences, I can promise it’ll capture your heart and leave an indelible mark on your journey through Tokyo. As someone who lives in this magnetic city, I will be your guide for Yanaka. Let's dive into a world where past and present harmoniously coexist, and glimpse into the soul of a neighbourhood that continues to thrive while holding onto the beauty of its origins.

©iStock/ Sanga Park
©iStock/ Sanga Park

1. Explore Yanaka Ginza

Yanaka Ginza is a charming and nostalgic shopping street located in the Yanaka neighbourhood of Tokyo. It is one of the most well-preserved and authentic "shoutengai" (shopping streets) in the city, offering visitors a glimpse into traditional Japanese street life. Yanaka Ginza's history actually dates back to the Edo Period (1603-1868) when it started as a local market serving the needs of the samurai and townspeople in the area. Despite the changes and modernization that Tokyo underwent over the years, Yanaka Ginza has managed to retain its old-world charm and ambience. The street's narrow lanes, wooden storefronts, and traditional architecture evoke a sense of nostalgia and transport visitors back in time.

The street is lined with a variety of shops, stalls, and eateries, each offering a unique glimpse into Japanese culture and craftsmanship. You'll find everything from traditional snacks and sweets to clothing, accessories, ceramics, and handicrafts. Many of the businesses are family-owned and have been passed down through generations, adding to the street's authentic feel. My local tip though: Come before 12pm, as any time between 12-7pm I find this part of Yanka to be too congested with people. 

2. Visit the many Temples and Shrines 

Yanaka is home to several temples and shrines that offer a glimpse into Japan's spiritual heritage. While the exact count can vary, there are actually around 70 temples and shrines in the Yanaka area!  Some notable ones include Nezu Shrine, Tenno-ji Temple, and Nippori Senigara Shrine. Explore their serene grounds, admire the architecture, and take part in traditional rituals if you wish. Many of Yanaka's temples and shrines are interconnected through the Yanaka Shichifukujin Meguri, a pilgrimage route that involves visiting seven specific religious sites dedicated to the Seven Deities of Good Fortune… Which takes us to the next thing to do! 

©Wikimedia/ Joe Mabel
©Wikimedia/ Joe Mabel

3. Follow the Yanaka Shichifukujin Meguri

Embark on the "Yanaka Seven Deities Pilgrimage" by visiting the seven shrines and temples dedicated to the Seven Deities of Good Fortune. Each stop offers its own blessings and unique charm. This pilgrimage is a unique cultural experience that allows participants to seek blessings, good luck, and various forms of fortune associated with each deity.

The Seven Deities of Good Fortune are a group of deities from both Japanese Shinto and Buddhist traditions, each representing different aspects of prosperity, happiness, and well-being. The pilgrimage is an opportunity for locals and visitors alike to pay respects to these deities and seek their blessings for various aspects of their lives.

The pilgrimage typically involves visiting the following seven sites:

- Nezu Shrine: Dedicated to Daikokuten, the deity of prosperity, agriculture, and good fortune. 

- Tenno-ji Temple: Honoring Bishamonten, the deity of warriors, protection, and wealth. 

- Zenshoan Temple: Home to Jurojin, the deity of longevity and wisdom. 

- Yanaka Reien (Cemetery): The resting place of Fukurokuju, the deity of happiness, wealth, and long life. 

- Kannon-ji Temple: Paying respects to Ebisu, the deity of fishermen, merchants, and prosperity. 

- Sosen-ji Temple: Honoring Hotei, the deity of contentment, happiness, and good fortune. 

- Nippori Senigara Shrine: Dedicated to Jurojin, another representation of the deity of longevity and wisdom.

©iStock/ Kuremo
©iStock/ Kuremo

4. Discover Yanaka Cemetery

This is a big must-do when you’re in the neighbourhood. Yanaka Cemetery is not only a place of rest but also a peaceful haven dotted with cherry blossoms and historical tombstones. Take a quiet stroll through its paths, reflecting on the history and stories it holds. 

Yanaka Cemetery was established in 1874 during the Meiji Period as part of the modernization efforts in Japan. It was designated as a public cemetery to accommodate the growing population of Tokyo and provide a proper burial place for both commoners and notable figures.Yanaka Cemetery is the final resting place of many notable individuals from various fields, including literature, arts, politics, and business. The cemetery contains a number of gravestones and memorials dedicated to these figures, providing a glimpse into Japan's modern history. Some graves are beautifully ornate, reflecting the social status and influence of the individuals buried there that you’ll be able to see strolling through. 

Cemeteries hold a significant place in Japanese culture, as they are seen as spaces for honouring ancestors and connecting with the past. Yanaka Cemetery is no exception; it serves as a place for families to remember and pay respects to their loved ones. Many people visit during traditional holidays like Obon, a time when it's believed that spirits return to the world of the living.

5. Yuyake Koyake Fureai Road for sunset

Yuyake Koyake Fureai Road, often simply referred to as Yuyake Koyake, is a charming and scenic alleyway in the Yanaka that you can walk down on. Its name translates to "Sunset Alley," and it's renowned for its picturesque views of the setting sun. As the sun begins to set, the alleyway takes on a warm and golden hue, creating a serene and romantic ambience. The combination of traditional Japanese architecture, stone-paved paths, and lush greenery serves as a picturesque backdrop for the setting sun, making it a favourite spot for photographers and couples.

Even though the alley is relatively short, but it offers a delightful walk that captures the essence of Yanaka's old-world charm. Strolling along Yuyake Koyake allows visitors to soak in the tranquil atmosphere of the neighbourhood while experiencing the unique spectacle of the sunset. A fun little tidbit I love telling my friends who visit me while I’m living in Tokyo is that Yuyake Koyake is often associated with romance and love. It's actually popular spot for couples to take leisurely strolls, enjoy the sunset together, and capture romantic moments! The alley's enchanting atmosphere adds a touch of magic to any romantic outing (bonus for the ethereal lighting).

©iStock/ Kuremo
©iStock/ Kuremo

6. Attend local Festivals and Events 

Throughout the year, Yanaka hosts various festivals and events that showcase its cultural heritage and vibrant community spirit. These festivals are a wonderful opportunity for both locals and visitors to come together, experience traditional customs, and enjoy lively festivities. Here are some of the festivals that Yanaka hosts:

-  Yanaka Matsuri: This is one of the largest and most well-known festivals in Yanaka. Held in early May, Yanaka Matsuri features traditional performances, food stalls, music, dance, and various cultural activities. It's a vibrant celebration that attracts people from all over Tokyo.

- Yanaka Ginza Matsuri: Yanaka Ginza shopping street comes alive during this festival, usually held in the spring and fall. The street is adorned with decorations, and visitors can enjoy performances, shop for local goods, and indulge in delicious street food.

-  Yanaka Nabe Festival: This winter festival celebrates "nabe," a Japanese hot pot dish typically enjoyed during the colder months. Visitors can sample various types of nabe, experience traditional winter activities, and warm up with the community.

- Nezu Shrine Festival: Nezu Shrine hosts its annual festival in early April. The festival includes a lively procession of portable shrines (mikoshi), traditional performances, and various rituals. It's a great opportunity to experience the vibrant atmosphere of a Japanese shrine festival.

-  Cherry Blossom Viewing (Hanami): While not a single festival, cherry blossom season (usually late March to early April) is a significant event in Yanaka. Many people gather in Yanaka Cemetery and other green spaces to enjoy hanami, picnicking under the blooming cherry blossoms.

©flickr/ cyberwonk
©flickr/ cyberwonk

7. Yanaka Beer Hall

Japanese beer is one the of the best beer in the world - so what better way to end your day with a visit to Yanaka Beer Hall? Here, you can sample a variety of local craft beers while mingling with friendly locals and fellow travellers. To me, the cool part of the Yanaka Beer Hall is that it is situated in a renovated building that was once an elementary school! This historical connection adds to the hall's distinctive atmosphere, especially for Tokyo. The interior design often retains nostalgic touches, creating a sense of warmth and familiarity. But of course, for beer lovers - one of the main draws of the Yanaka Beer Hall is its selection of craft beers. It typically offers a variety of local and regional craft beers on tap. Beer enthusiasts can enjoy sampling different styles and flavours, from hoppy IPAs to smooth stouts, all while engaging in friendly conversations with fellow patrons.

Be sure to look out for live music performances and entertainment events as the Yanaka Beer Hall often hosts them. These events can range from acoustic performances by local musicians to open mic nights, with the addition of live entertainment adds an extra layer of enjoyment to the beer hall experience.

Yanaka, Taito City, Tokyo 110-0001, Japan

Yanaka is a true blend of history, art, spirituality, and local life, and that is what makes it a must-visit destination for those seeking an authentic and enriching experience in Tokyo. Whether you're interested in architecture, culture, or simply soaking in the atmosphere, Yanaka is a neighbourhood not to miss out on.

The author

Logan Ly

Logan Ly

They say “Life is a daring adventure - or nothing”, and having traveled to over 88 countries and lived across 3 continents, Logan’s wanderlust has been an unquenchable thirst that keeps fuelling his curiosities and passions in life.

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