A Walk Around Old Tokyo

An old corner building has been renovated and repurposed into a small shop and workshop.

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?

This old building now houses the Yanaka Brewing Company.
The Yanaka’s former neighborhood bathhouse is now an art gallery.
Old doors bearing the family or business crest.

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 Tsukiji-bei Wall. Made from stacked mud and roof tiles, the wall is over 200 years old, and often used as a backdrop in period movies and television shows.
Detail of the wall’s roof design.

The Yanaka neighborhood did not disappoint.

The massive Himalayan cedar was originally brought in a pot by the grandfather of the current owner of the tiny Mikado Bread Shop. It burst from its pot back before WWII and rooted itself into the corner and has continued to grow, grow, grow.
The full size of the cedar can only be appreciated from a distance. The tree has also been featured as a backdrop in television shows and movies.

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.

The Yanaka Cemetery is filled with lovely, large old cherry trees. It is a popular spot for hanami (flower viewing) picnics.
The grave of a notable someone stood out from all the others.

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.

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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.

The old Yoshidaya Sake Store is now the Shitamachi Museum annex.
. . . and contains many sake-related artifacts from the old store.

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.

An old Yanaka home, lovingly renovated to maintain its character.

6 thoughts on “A Walk Around Old Tokyo

    1. We didn’t know what to expect when we visited Yanaka, but we loved every minute we spent there and are looking forward to going back again.

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  1. Wow. Very different from most of my expectations and views of Tokyo. I love how they have protected that old tree. Here people wouldn’t wait to cut it down – claiming all sorts of damage from the roots and dropping branches etc.

    What a horrible way to commit suicide – burning together.

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    1. The cedar tree was scheduled to be cut down but the nieghborhood rallied and now it’s thankfully protected for both its beauty and historical significance. It’s been the same with other trees and buildings in the neighborhood – people come together to save them.

      I read that one witness of the burning pagoda said the fire was spectacular and split the building down the middle from top to bottom. But yes, a horrible way to die.

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  2. I’m always attracted to a cemetery and that one looks very interesting. SO many graves all jammed in. I’m used to country cemeteries with family plots, etc. I think my attraction started because my parents had a baby die before I was born, and we always spent time at the cemetery while they tended the grave and family plot around it. As an adult, I realize it was very bucolic in its way.

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    1. The Yanaka cemetery was huge – I wish we had had more time to wander through some of the many paths that make their way through it. I also wish I could read more of what was on the stones. It was interesting too how many of the graves were fairly recent, but I also think those big sticks with writing may be when a family member’s ashes are added to the plot. The cherry tree were magnificent, and Japanese have no issues with picnicking in a cemetery (at least during the day).

      The Chinese have a grave cleaning holiday – Ching Ming – where the family goes and tends their family plot, and brings food for the ancestors buried there, things like whole chickens, fruit, rice, etc. After it’s been offered to the ancestors the family enjoys the food!

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