I’ve always felt that any time you go out in Tokyo you can expect an adventure. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve walked to your neighborhood station, or over to the supermarket, or to work or wherever. There is always something new to discover or learn. Turn down a new street and who knows what you’ll find?
It was with much anticipation that Brett and I visited the Yanaka neighborhood of Tokyo last week. Yanaka was brand new territory for us, which guaranteed an adventure.
The Yanaka neighborhood did not disappoint.
Yanaka is unique because not only did the neighborhood survive the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the subsequent fire that destroyed most of Tokyo, it was also spared during the Allied firebombing of Tokyo during WWII. Brett and I marveled at the many old, original buildings we came across, and were impressed with how many had been preserved, renovated and repurposed. There were plenty of new buildings and modern architecture too, but the neighborhood seemed to have maintained the feel and spirit of old Tokyo – there were no high-rise apartments or office buildings, and newer buildings blended in well with the old. We were especially awed by the large, old trees seen everywhere we walked, including several huge cherry trees that must have been magnificent in bloom, and one massive Himalayan cedar tree.
Yanaka is also the sight of the largest cemetery in Japan. Established in 1874, the cemetery covers over 1,000 acres and many artists and feudal leaders (including the last shogun of Japan) are interred there. A large street bisects the cemetery and is lined with huge cherry trees. One of the most famous places to see in the park is the foundation of a former five-story pagoda. Built in 1791, the pagoda stood in the center of the cemetery until 1957, when a pair of lovers committed suicide by burning down the pagoda with themselves inside. Their ghosts are said to wander the area near the foundation.
Yanaka was also originally a temple town on the outskirts of Tokyo (temples could also be used as forts in case of attack), and the neighborhood was absolutely filled with temples and shrines, more than we could count, and we eventually gave up trying to keep track of them all.
We had originally wanted to do the pilgrimage to the seven temples of Japan’s seven lucky gods, but learned that pilgrimage is only done during the first 10 days of a new year. The pilgrimage route also had us missing several other things we wanted to see such as the Tsukiji-bei Wall and the giant Himalayan cedar so we ended up using a map we found online along with a paper map of the neighborhood we picked up while we were there.
In spite of the heat we encountered that day we both felt it was one of the most interesting places we had visited, and perhaps the ultimate Tokyo adventure. We will definitely be returning as our walkabout only scratched the surface. There are lots of arts and crafts shops we would love to investigate more, more temples to investigate, and other lanes we would like to turn down just to see what’s there.