A world away from the neon and noise, low-rise Yanaka is a slice of old Tokyo. Kate Graham takes time to explore its winding streets, beautiful shrines, traditional crafts and local delicacies
1. Nezu Shrine
A short walk from Nezu station is one of Tokyo’s best Shinto shrines. One of the very few to survive the bombings of the Second World War, Nezu’s beautifully lacquered buildings, dating back to 1706, have been awarded Important Cultural Property status. Entering through a dramatic red torii gate, the Edo-period structures are surrounded by unusually lush greenery, with a trickling river and ponds filled with koi carp and turtles. Lovely in any season, the shrine bursts into colour in spring, when its 3,000 azalea bushes flower into a rainbow of pinks and purples. Before approaching the shrine, visitors should wash their hands and mouth at the Chozuya, a water-filled basin provided to purify pilgrims. Grounds are open 24 hours but the shrine closes after dark (1-28-9 Nezu, Bunkyo-ku). Tel +81 3 3822 0753.
In Japan, snacking on the move is usually considered rude. The exception is senbei, traditional square-shaped Japanese rice crackers still popular in Yanaka. They can be bought from numerous shops throughout Tokyo, but the most atmospheric outlet is Kikumi-Senbei. To get there, exit Nezu shrine and cross Shinobazu-dori, where turning left will take you to Hebimichi, literally translated as “Snake Street”. Take 10 minutes to enjoy the atmosphere of this tiny twisting road, and at the end you’ll find a traditional wooden building with a counter open to the street. Built in 1875, this glass-fronted counter displays senbei in a variety of flavours. The shop is open from 10am to 7pm every day except Mondays, when it is closed. Find it at 3-37-16 Sendagi, Bunkyo-ku.
Unlike the brand-heavy emporiums in Tokyo’s glossy shopping districts, Yanaka is filled with traditional Edo craft shops. One of the most charming is Isetatsu, a short walk east from Kikum-Senbei. Established in 1864 and run by the Hirose family for four generations, this tiny store specialises in chiyogami – colourful Japanese paper with woodblock-printed patterns. All the striking designs were created by the Hirose family and there are over 1,500 to choose from, either sold by the sheet or crafted into delicate fans, boxes and papier-mache objects. Everything is beautifully wrapped, making it impossible to leave empty-handed. It is open from 10am to 6pm every day (2-18-9 Yanaka, Taito-ku).
4. Yanaka Cemetery
Established in 1874, this ancient enclave is one of Tokyo’s largest and most attractive cemeteries. It is home to some of Japan’s famous historical figures including Yoshinobu, the last shogun, and Higuchi Ichiyo, the first major female writer in modern Japan. The paths through the graves are easy to navigate and lined with ancient trees, mossy green stones and lanterns. In springtime, the trees explode with cherry blossom, making this a hugely popular destination for picnics. But, whatever the season, this peaceful place is well worth a wander. It is open from 8.30am-5.30pm.
5. Asakura Choso Museum
Art flourishes in Yanaka, and visitors will soon notice the number of galleries scattered among the winding streets. The most rewarding is this museum, housed in the former residence of Fumio Asakura. Hailed as the founding father of Japanese sculpture, Fumio (1883-1964) was famous for his lifelike cats, many of which are housed in this three-storey structure. Designed by Fumio himself in 1936, the building alone is worthy of a visit, combining modern architecture with traditional antique-filled tatami rooms. Take a few minutes to enjoy the beautifully tended Japanese water garden at the centre of the house, then climb to the top floor where a terrace offers views over the ancient rooftops below. Open Tues-Thurs, Saturday and Sunday 9.30am-4.30pm and costs Â¥400 (£2); 7-18-10 Yanaka, Taito-ku.
6. Yanaka Ginza
A few minutes walk north from the museum, this old-fashioned lane is the perfect place to people-watch and spend some yen. Elderly locals potter through the busy street, stopping to purchase local delicacies and knick-knacks. Follow in their footsteps past sweet shops and basket makers, and you’ll arrive at Chaho Kanekichi-en, a bustling fragrant shop halfway down the street. Inside you’ll find a wide selection of tea, from simple brews costing a few hundred yen to high-quality leaves selling for a few thousand. Free samples are thrust at you by the friendly staff, who are on hand to help you select a suitable blend. Open daily 10am-7.30pm (3-11-10 Yanaka, Taito-ku).