Food Shopping in Japan Week 5: What We Bought, What We Spent

We stopped at a snack store across the street from Tokyu on the way home in the evening to get Brett some crackers, and found a new flavor of KitKats: nuts & cranberry covered in ruby chocolate. Total spent: ¥600/$5.46.

I wasn’t sure whether I was going to post about our food shopping trip this week, but we decided to shake things up a bit and do our shopping at the Tokyu store, the other nearby grocery store. We wanted to see how prices there compared with Seiyu’s and if it was really all that much more expensive. We shopped at Tokyu almost the whole time we were here last year, only discovering Seiyu a couple of weeks before we left.

We were frankly getting a bit tired of Seiyu. Its floor area is smaller than the Tokyu store, so products were spread out over three floors: paper goods and cleaning/laundry supplies on the second floor, prepared foods, wines and snacks (i.e. KitKats) on the first floor, and groceries in the basement (department store basements are often grocery stores here). We always had to plan in advance what we were going to pick up first and then figure out whether we needed to use the stairs, escalator, or elevator to get from floor to floor. Shopping on different floors also required us to walk through areas of the store where we didn’t need or care to go (i.e clothing, cosmetics, etc. – Seiyu is owned by Walmart). At Tokyu, everything is on one floor and it’s strictly groceries. It’s also a newer store and brighter than Seiyu, which to be honest is getting a bit shabby in places. Tokyu also carries a larger variety of foods. However, Seiyu is less expensive and their quality is good.

Brett and I typically shop together but yesterday K was home sick from school and we were asked if we could come over and watch her for the day. Brett initially went over to our son’s on his own so I could do the shopping, then I joined him once that was done and things were put away. I bought everything on our list except for three items, which I forgot in my hurry to get done. We stopped in for those items on our way home this evening.

Here’s what we bought:

Dairy: I got the usual: milk, yogurt, Yakult and eggs. However, I was able to get both nonfat milk and nonfat yogurt, neither of which is available at Seiyu (both were store brands). Eggs were the same price, but the milk, yogurt, and Yakult cost ¥94/86¢ more at Tokyu than at Seiyu.

Meat: Meat purchases this week were sliced pork for a CookDo stirfry, and two packages of chicken tenders to use for Thai red curry chicken. Meat is definitely more expensive at Tokyu. The total for these three packages was ¥967/$8.80, around ¥150 over what they would have cost at Seiyu.Produce: With a couple of exceptions, produce at Tokyu cost less and was better looking too. I bought a tomato, four Fuji apples, half cabbage, three cucumbers, cilantro, a package of five bananas, and a package of strawberries. The strawberries and bananas were more than they are at Seiyu (¥498/$4.53 for one package of strawberries versus ¥377, and ¥178/$1.62 for the bananas versus ¥89/81¢, although there were five bananas in the package versus four).

Pantry items: I bought one package of CookDo sauce for a cabbage and pork stir fry for ¥178/$1.62, which is just ¥10 more than the regular price at Seiyu. The little bottle of sesame dressing (¥132/$1.20) will be used for coleslaw later this week. At Seiyu I would have had to buy a full-size bottle of dressing that we probably wouldn’t have finished before we left.

Prepared foods: Tokyu has an amazing prepared food section compared to Seiyu, especially their sushi, and their prices are more reasonable. The quality seems a little higher as well. Along with two packages of sushi I also bought one small package with three shumai and one of five gyoza for my lunch today (¥386/$3.50).

Miscellaneous: I picked up one package of “thick” matcha KitKats. They’re ¥50 more per package at Tokyu. Along with the cranberry ones above, we currently have 19 different flavors.

Second trip items: Brett and I picked up a bottle of fabric softener, an avocado, and a package of inarizushi. The total for all three items was ¥808/$7.35. The price per avocado was nearly double what we paid at Seiyu.

So, how did our total at Tokyu compare with Seiyu? I spent ¥5,996 on my initial shopping trip, then ¥808 on our second stop, and ¥600 yen at the snack shop for a total of ¥7,404/$67.39, still well under our ¥10,000 limit. Our total was around ¥600 (about $5.50) over what we typically spent for the same items at Seiyu, so not as much as we imagined it would be. We also had a much nicer shopping experience overall so we’ll probably be going back to Tokyu, but will continue to be careful about what we buy.

Checking Out the Sankaku Chitai

Would you walk down this alley?

What do you imagine when you think of walking down an urban alley? I know back in the U.S. I often associate them with crime, dirt, and bad smells. There’s only a very slim chance I’d ever enter one.

The Sankaku Chitai, day and night

Near Sangenjaya station though is an area of narrow alleys filled with small taverns, izekaya, small restaurants, and even shops. Known as the Sankaku Chitai, these tight little lanes are what are known in Japan as yokocho. In Japanese the word literally means “alleys off the main street,” but it also refers to the small eateries and bars that sit close together on these narrow lanes. Brett and I have walked past these Sangenjaya alleys more times than I can count, but the other day we decided to step off the main street and wander through the area to find out what was there. What we discovered was a safe and clean area loaded with old-school flavor, a place that made us feel like we were stepping back into an older, simpler Tokyo, the one that existed before the onslaught of complex stations, big highrises, shopping centers, and huge apartment complexes. 

Looking back to one end of the Shikaku Chitai’s entrance. The names of various businesses are advertised on the lanterns. There’s another set at the other end of the alley.

The most famous yokocho in Tokyo is probably the Golden Gai in Shinjuku, containing over 270 drinking establishments in seven narrow lanes. However, Sangenjaya’s much smaller Shikaku Chitai, a triangle of alleys that form almost a maze, is also well known, especially for its welcoming atmosphere. Open from early evening until the wee hours of the morning, it has resisted the onslaught of redevelopment in the area, and forms an integral part of the neighborhood.

Food Shopping in Japan Week 4: What We Bought, What We Spent

This was our last food shopping trip during our first four weeks in Japan. Next week we will be restocking our yen envelopes once again for the coming four weeks.

How did we do over the past four weeks? Out of our initial ¥40,000 ($365), we still have ¥8500 ($77.50). It will be rolled over into next month. Out of the $400 we brought with us for commissary shopping, we have $146.50 left. It’s doubtful we’ll need to go to the commissary again, but if we do Brett and I will take the train out to Atsugi and make a day of it.

This week we spent ¥7,418 ($67.60) at Seiyu, more than last week but less than expected since we bought meat again this week, more fruit than we did last week, and two bottles of wine as well.

Here are this week’s purchases:

Dairy: Along with milk (¥148/$1.35 or $5.12 per gallon!), yogurt (still ¥99), and Yakult we bought a package of cream cheese (¥348/$3.17) to enjoy with the bagels our DIL brought us this past weekend. I love the package design for the cream cheese – the English words seem almost a quaint design afterthought among all the Japanese.

Meat: We needed two packages of meat this week for the two CookDo stirfries we’re having. I chose the ground pork and beef mix because it was less expensive than pure ground pork. I will not get it again though as it had too much fat. The two packages cost ¥519/$4.73. Although it’s not meat, the tofu is protein so I’ve also included it in this group. It cost a whopping ¥46/42¢! Brett and I think at this price we should be eating more tofu (soft tofu was only ¥37 or 34¢).

Produce: We bought green peppers for (always so small!), a red pepper and a yellow pepper for ¥127/$1.16 each, 3 cucumbers, a bag of Fuji apples (six for ¥577/$5.26), four bananas (just ¥89/81¢), and two packages of strawberries (still ¥377). The strawberries are getting better and better as the season progresses.

Prepared foods: The two katsudon (¥398/$3.63 each) were purchased for our dinner on Monday evening, and Brett and I shared the 6-pack of inari zushi and the potato salad for Monday’s lunch.

Miscellaneous: We bought two bottles of French wine: Cabernet Sauvignon for Brett (¥780/$7.11), Chardonnay for me (¥898/$8.18).

Paper products: Paper towels were needed this week so we picked up this four-pack (¥298/$2.72) which should get us through the rest of our stay. Japanese paper towels are less sturdy than American ones, and yet not so flimsy as to be unusable (which is what we have found in other countries).

We found another new flavor of KitKats at Seiyu again this week – ‘strong’ matcha, whatever that means – but decided to get it next week.

We’re thrilled to have spent below our weekly allotment these past four weeks – it shows that if we’re careful we can live and eat well here!

Closing Out the Books for January 2020

With two of our girls with us in Portland until the day before we left, nine days on Kaua’i, our usual travel day expenses, and then settling in once we got to Tokyo, we assumed we would go w-a-y over our daily spending average in January.

But that didn’t happen. We ended up with a daily spending average of $34.94, just under our $35/day limit.

Looking back, YaYu and WenYu helped us eat down all the food we had remaining in our Portland Airbnb and we spent very little during those final 10 days in Portland. We stuck to our pre-determined spending limits while we were on Kaua’i and left with cash in our wallets. Other than a couple of cups of coffee and two breakfast sandwiches, we bought nothing on our travel days and let our hotel or the airlines feed us. And, we “paid” ourselves upfront for a month when we arrived in Japan, a pre-determined amount of 80,000 yen, instead of using our debit card over and over. Because of that, we have carefully watched our spending so we don’t run out before our next “payday.” Our son and DIL have helped with a few expenses, such as our transportation from Narita airport, some local travel expenses, and a few meals at their home. Those have helped our bottom line as well.

We ended January with a total of ¥42,800 on hand out of our original ¥80,000 (¥23,000 for groceries, ¥10,800 for dining out, and ¥9,000 for miscellaneous expenses). We added $400 to that for commissary/exchange shopping which we did this past Saturday, February 1 (we have $146 of that remaining). There is zero yen left in the envelope for transportation but our PASMO cards still have over ¥4,000 on them which should last us for a while. We will replenish our yen supply again on the 15th of this month, withdrawing another ¥80,000 and dividing it among the envelopes.

Based on the current exchange rate, ¥80,000 equals around $740 (which means $60 gets left in our bank account). With the additional $400 in U.S. dollars we added in, we have a total of $1140 available for the month of February. Divided by 29 days, that’s an average of a little over $39/day for the month. However, the average will drop to around $24/day in March, so we’re challenging ourselves to keep our spending average as low as possible to get ready for that. Once again, fingers crossed!

Looking Ahead: Living On Less in Tokyo

Tokyo is not an inexpensive city to visit or reside in but over the years we’ve discovered that there are ways to keep costs down. Brett and I are going to be on a very tight budget during our three-month visit early next year because of the cost of our lodging, and also because of what we’re putting away each month for YaYu’s college expenses and the small amount that’s going into savings each month. By the time those three things are accounted for out of our net income, we will only have around $800/month left to cover our daily living expenses. We’ll be bringing all our frugal skills to bear in order to not overspend during the time we’re there, and I have to admit upfront it’s going to be a challenge.

Currently, there is a good exchange rate between the dollar and yen, and if it holds we should be OK. If the dollar starts dropping though we may run into trouble, or have to reduce expenses and what we put away into savings and for YaYu in order for us to make it in Japan.

Our housing costs in Japan are nearly a third again more per month than what we typically pay for lodging, but much, much less than what we’d pay through Airbnb in Tokyo. It’s shocking to see what teeny, tiny studios in the city are going for on Airbnb these days, so we feel very fortunate to be able to rent again from last year’s host. The monthly amount isn’t cheap but it covers not only rent but all utilities as well, and gives us the luxury of a nicely furnished one-bedroom apartment with a well-equipped kitchen, a nice bathroom, and a washing machine. The apartment’s location is fantastic too – it’s in a great neighborhood just one subway stop from our son’s place and three stops away from Shibuya, a major Tokyo transportation and shopping hub.

Here’s the spending plan we’ve come up with for each month in order to stay within our $800/month budget:

  • Convert dollars to ¥80,000 each month (at the current rate, that’s less than $800, more around $750, but that could change). This will be divided and placed in envelopes that we’ll draw from as funds are needed.
  • ¥40,000 per month will be set aside for groceries. Besides rent, food will be our biggest expense in Japan. We aim to keep our food expenditures at or under ¥10,000 per week We spent around that much per week on our last visit, but that often included bakery visits and such which we plan to curtail this time. Before we left Japan last year we discovered a second supermarket (Seiyu) located near to us that has the same products but lower prices than the other market we had been using (Tokyu), and we’ve also learned of another discount store in Shibuya (Don Quixote’s) that we’re going to check out. We will be bringing along $400 in cash with us to use for commissary and exchange shopping trips as we’ll most likely do two of these during our three-month stay (our son loves his Diet Coke). We will get things like certain cuts of meat, coffee, dairy products, cereals, and American-style bread, items that are expensive and/or difficult to find in Japanese stores at the commissary. We also plan to buy a slow cooker not long after we arrive to increase our cooking options and will leave it with our DIL when we depart.
  • ¥12,000 per month will go toward transportation costs. We are going to load each of our PASMO cards (which are not only convenient but provide a small discount each time the card is used) with ¥6000 at the beginning of each month and hopefully, that will be enough to get us through 30 days. However, if we learned anything last year it’s that the balance on the card can drop surprisingly quickly so this amount may need to be adjusted. Our son will cover our transportation costs for picking up the grandkids from their schools which will help, and I will be starting out with nearly ¥1000 on my card leftover from earlier this year. 
  • ¥12,000 yen per month will be set aside for dining out every Friday evening. Eating out in Japan is something we have always enjoyed, and there are some things we like to eat that we just can’t make at home (like takoyaki (octopus dumplings), sushi, or handmade udon like we can get at the noodle restaurant down the street), and when our grandson comes for sleepovers we sometimes like to take him out for McDonald’s or KFC. Dining out for the two of us typically won’t be anywhere near ¥3000/meal, but a few places could be so ¥12,000 should be enough to cover these expenses each month. This budget should also work as an incentive to find sources for good food at low prices (and they are abundant in Japan).
  • ¥16000 yen each month will be for all other expenses, including occasional admission fees, occasional snacks, occasional trips to the local laundromat, and for emergency expenses. We plan to use Secret Tokyo extensively because every place listed in it is free, but of course, there will be transportation costs in getting to and from those places. One big expense we’re already planning is a day trip to Kamakura. We will take one of the free private walking tours but will have to pay for our guide’s lunch and our total round-trip transportation will be about ¥2600 – we are going to use the ¥4000 we received from YaYu to help cover these expenses and will set aside some of our extra each month for the rest. We’d also like to take a trip up to Nikko but are not sure if we can fit that into our slim budget.
“Don’t say kekko (fine) until you’ve seen Nikko.” We would love to visit this amazing World Heritage site again if we can afford it.

Sadly, for now, Brett has decided to forego calligraphy lessons during this stay. The tuition for weekly lessons plus the transportation costs for getting there and back (around ¥10,000 per month) are a luxury he feels we cannot afford this time. However, yen that is remaining at the end of the month will be rolled over until the next, which will mean a lower amount we have to convert for that month. If there’s enough left over out of our $800/budget I think the extra should go toward these lessons. We’ll see.

Our time Japan next year will be all about living a good, but frugal, life in an expensive place. Our goal is to find a path for getting more for less and discovering ideas and solutions that can be applied when visiting other expensive locations.

Our Plans Have Changed (again)

Brett’s calligraphy: the orange characters on the left are his sensei’s example and the orange circle on his work means he got it right. Brett is left-handed, but Japanese calligraphy must be done with the right hand, so it’s very much an effort for him.

Brett and I thought we had all our future plans nailed down before we left Japan, but events have conspired to once again have us change those plans. It turns out we won’t be going to California in January after all, but back over to Japan instead, with a stop on Kaua’i along the way!

The big unknown for us now though is how long we’ll be staying in Japan this time.

This is the quality of work he hopes to eventually produce. (Photo courtesy of Wanto Shodo Kai-Easy Bay Japanese Calligraphy Association)

Brett has decided to apply for a long-term visa to continue studying calligraphy. He loves the art and the discipline and is improving with each lesson. He has been sending work from his classes here in Portland to his sensei in Japan who told him he is indeed a serious student and suggested he apply for a cultural activities visa to continue studying in Japan. So, paperwork for the visa will be submitted in early October, while we’re in England, and Brett should find out if the visa has been approved sometime in early December. The visa is good for one year but can be extended for another year or two if studies continue and he is making progress. I would travel over to Japan with Brett and enter on a tourist visa, but immediately apply for a dependent visa once we’re in-country. Approval for that typically happens within a couple of weeks. The chance to live in Japan full-time for a year or more would be a dream come true for us, something we have long wanted to do but never thought possible. Best of all, in my opinion, because of our three-month stay this past spring we have a much better sense of what a long-term stay would entail, both the positive and the negative.

We also have a Plan B because approval of the cultural activities visa is not a given. If Brett’s application is rejected we will instead do another three-month stay like we did earlier this year, from mid-January through mid-April. Japan has changed its rules for the tourist visa and visitors can now stay 180 days total (maximum 90 days at a time) during a 365-day period versus just 90 days as it was before. This means we can potentially do long stays in Japan twice a year. We have some pretty firm ideas for what we’ll do after that which include a stay in Massachusetts at the end of May for WenYu’s graduation from Wellesley.

We have negotiated housing with the same landlord we used earlier this year. Even though the monthly cost of renting from her again would be higher than renting our own apartment for a year, by doing so we would not have to deal with setting up and paying utilities, buying furniture or household goods, nor incurring the very high upfront rental fees that are required in Japan (anywhere from three to five months rent, some of it non-refundable). All of those, if averaged out, would increase the monthly cost of living there to the same if not more than the cost of renting a furnished place with the utilities and Internet provided. We loved the location where we stayed before as well as its proximity to our son’s home. O-san said she would love to have us back again, and for now we know we have a place if we go for just three months, but she has asked us to inform her the minute we know whether Brett’s visa has been approved or not and she will extend the rental for us. We asked for a different apartment this time rather than the one we had before as we could not imagine staying in that one for a year – it was just too big and uncomfortable.

A few weeks ago I looked to see what it might cost us to go to Japan in January and was surprised by how low the fares were. Brett and I had also been talking about wanting to visit Kaua’i again to see friends and prices for flights from Portland to Honolulu in January also turned out to be very low. So, after some discussion with Brett and with our friends, and deciding on dates that worked for everyone, we went ahead and purchased tickets to both Japan and Hawai’i. We’ll be staying at our friends’ home in Kapaa for nine days (and they have a car for us to use so no rental car!!), and then we’ll be flying on to Tokyo from Kaua’i. We are greatly looking forward to being on the island once again and seeing what’s changed in the time we’ve been gone as well as catching up with friends there. I’ve already got my fingers crossed for good weather (January can be iffy), but even if it rains every day we know we’ll still have a good time and enjoy every moment.

By purchasing our tickets early we were able to afford to fly first class to Honolulu and economy plus for the long flight to Tokyo all while still staying well below our budget! I had enough Hawaiian miles to cover the flight for both of us over to Lihue from Honolulu, and the fare from Kaua’i to Tokyo included the trip back over to Honolulu from Lihue, which saved an additional $40 over what we would have had to pay if we booked those flights separately on Hawaiian. The total price per person for the both long flights was less than a typical one-way first class fare from Portland to Honolulu, and less than we used to pay for roundtrip fares in economy for the girls to come home to Kaua’i at Christmas. Plus, the two long flights also include two free checked bags for each of us, a nice option especially if we end up going to Japan for a year’s stay (however, we unfortunately will have to pay to get our bags from Honolulu to Lihue on the Hawaiian flight). The upgraded seats are worth every penny to us because after our very uncomfortable 11-hour flight from Tokyo to Portland in economy where we couldn’t cross our legs, let alone move, we vowed that if all possible we would do no more long-distance flights unless we could afford to purchase more comfortable seating.

来年日本に帰国します Rainen nihon ni kikoku shimasu – we are returning to Japan next year! We are so excited – not only will we get to be in Japan, and see our son, daughter-in-law, and grandkids again, but we get to return to beautiful Kaua’i as well!

Giveaway #3: Kitchen Set

The last giveaway, from Tokyo’s Kappabashi (kitchen) district, includes a boxed set of lacquered chopsticks and two blue and white tenugui (cotton hand towels) in traditional wave patterns (called seigaiha 青海波).

Tenugui are normally around 14 x 35 inches (I am assuming these are the traditional size), made of silk-screened cotton, with the ends of each towel left unfinished. They can be used for a variety of purposes, and the more they are used and washed the softer they become. Tenugui can be cut and hemmed to make napkins, or used to make a table runner, but they can also be used to wrap gifts or for other purposes. They make wonderful kitchen towels.

The chopsticks have ribbing on the ends which makes it easier to pick up and hold things, especially noodles, and the ornamentation at the top show a variety of traditional Japanese design motifs in blue.

Here are the giveaway rules once more:

  • You may enter the giveaway once a day.
  • Leave at least one comment on this post about anything having to do Japanese design. Additional entries can be as simple as you’d like.
  • For an additional one-time additional entry, send a separate comment and let me know if you already follow The Occasional Nomads or if you become a follower.
  • Share about the giveaway on your own blog and let me know in a separate comment for one more additional entry.
  • Please only at this post only (not on reminder posts).
  • The giveaway will end at midnight on July 3; one entry will be chosen at random and the winner announced on Friday, July 5. I will contact the winner by email to get shipping information. The giveaway is open only to readers in the U.S. and Canada (I’m sorry – I can’t afford the postage otherwise).

Thanks for entering – I am looking forward to hearing from you!

Giveaway #2: Supermarket Favorites from Japan

For the second giveaway, I’ve put together a few of our favorite food items from Japan:

  • 3 packages of CookDo Chinese sauces: Sweet & Sour Pork (or Chicken), Chili Shrimp & Stir-fry Pork or Beef w/ Peppers. Each package makes 3-4 servings (more like 2-3 American size servings). The three dishes could be served together for a complete Chinese meal, or each made individually, and they are meant to be served with steamed rice. Although there are picture directions on the back, I will include instructions in English.
  • 1 package soy peanut crackers (our favorite snack in Japan).
  • 1 package Asparagus Biscuits. These are lightly sweet cookies shaped to resemble asparagus spears (there is no asparagus in the cookies). They are the perfect accompaniment to a cup of coffee or tea.
  • 1 package dark chocolate KitKat bars.
  • 1 200-gram bottle of Kewpie mayonnaise. Kewpie has a cult following among chefs and others in the U.S. – its creaminess and rich flavor are because Kewpie is made with just the egg yolk instead of the whole egg like most mayonnaise.

Here are the giveaway rules:

  • You may enter the giveaway once a day.
  • Leave a comment on this post with at least one about your favorite Japanese food, or whatever – each comment you leave equals one entry.
  • For a one-time additional entry, send a separate comment and let me know if you already follow The Occasional Nomads or if you become a follower.
  • Share about the giveaway on your own blog and let me know in a separate comment for one more additional entry.
  • The giveaway will end on midnight on June 19; one entry will be chosen at random and the winner announced on Friday, June 21. I will contact the winner by email to get shipping information. The giveaway is open only to readers in the U.S. and Canada (I’m sorry – I can’t afford the postage otherwise).

Thanks for entering – I look forward to hearing from you!

 

Reminder: Luxe Obi Giveaway

If you haven’t entered yet, there’s still more time (seven more days) to enter the giveaway for this gorgeous brocade obi – I will draw the winner next Thursday and announce on Friday. You can enter every day for more chances to win. Please enter only on the original giveaway post!

There are loads of different ways to use or display an obi (see last Thursday’s post), and it would make a lovely gift for someone who loves fabrics or textiles.

Here again are the giveaway rules:

  • You may enter the giveaway once a day.
  • Leave a comment on this post with at least one about what you would like to see or do if you went to Japan, or how you might use this obi – each comment you leave equals one entry (you can just say hi too).
  • For a one-time additional entry, send a separate comment and let me know if you already follow The Occasional Nomads or if you become a follower.
  • Share about the giveaway on your own blog and let me know in a separate comment for one more additional entry.
  • The giveaway will end on midnight on June 5; one entry will be chosen at random and the winner announced on Friday, June 7. I will contact the winner by email to get shipping information. The giveaway is open only to readers in the U.S. and Canada (I’m sorry – I can’t afford the postage otherwise).

Thanks for entering – I look forward to hearing from you!

 

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.