For a charming glimpse of yesteryear.
Those interested in seeing a snapshot of Tokyo’s past should look no further than Yanaka. The area has roots in Edo times, when it was part of the shitamachi (downtown) area. Fortunate to have escaped the two most destructive episodes in the 20th century – the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake and the WWII bombings – mostly unscathed, Yanaka remains an accurate picture of life in Edo with many of its buildings authentic to the period.
Start your exploration from Yanakaginza, a shopping street of one-product speciality stores selling everything residents need to live, all in buildings that have remained untouched for the better part of a century. Many makers of traditional arts work here, remnants of the area’s long history. You can watch them work or even try doing it yourself.
As you wander, you may also notice the area’s abundance of (rather photogenic) stray cats. They live in harmony with the residents who have embraced them by adopting a cat mascot and selling many cat-themed items. Cat-lovers should plan to make a pit stop at Necoaction to check out their collection of cat-themed items.
Around the corner from Yanakaginza, you’ll find the tourist information center where you can grab maps and arrange tours of the area or sign up for cultural workshops like flower art, kabuki dressing, and Japanese ink paintings in English (though, its opening hours are irregular).
If it’s not too morbid for you, you can also start from Yanaka Cemetery. Stroll through well-manicured lawns and enjoy the serenity and picturesque scenery, most beautiful (and crowded) during cherry blossom season. You could also visit some of Yanaka’s 70+ temples. There are two particular shrines of note: Yushima Tenjin Shrine is famed for its bronze nade-ushi (stroking cow) that is said to cure disease when you rub it, and for the students who come here to pray for good luck on exams; the second is Nezu Shrine, known for its small-scale recreation of Fushimi Inari’s red torii gates and the Bunkyo Azalea Festival (mid-April to early May), when more than 100 kinds of azaleas bloom in its grounds.
Of course, no visit to Yanaka would be complete without some kakigori (shaved ice) and coffee. Yanaka’s Himitsudo, considered one of Tokyo’s best kakigori shops, is not to be missed. The shop uses seasonal ingredients and has 132 secret toppings, so the flavors on offer change daily. Though kakigori is a summer treat, this shop’s is so popular you’ll find lines year-round. When you’ve finished your kakigori, why not grab a cup of famous Yanaka coffee at one of its many coffee shops? The main branch of the Yanaka Coffee chain is here, as well as Kabaya Coffee, a shop with an 80-year brewing history.