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UpdateMarch 28, 2018
ReleaseMarch 28, 2018

What do you imagine when you see or hear the word – Japan? Mt. Fuji, Kyoto, Ginza, Roppongi, Akihabara, Nikko, high-tech gadgets, the shinkansen bullet train, onsen hot spring resorts, sushi? Visiting the more famous and historical of places around the nation is interesting but so is seeing the usual, more common side of Japanese life and there is perhaps no better place to see this than in the shitamachi areas of Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi in eastern Tokyo.
Introduction of the area
The Yanaka / Nezu / Sendagi area is bordered by Uguisudani, Nippori and Nishi-nippori stations on the JR line as well as Sendagi and Nezu stations on the Chiyoda Subway Line and is called “Ya-Ne-Sen” for short. Many great writers and poets including Soseki Natsume and Kotaro Takamura lived in the area from the Meiji-era to the Showa-era (mid/late 19th – 20th centuries) and the site of the house Ogai Mori lived in for 30-years prior to his death at the age of 60 is now the “Ogai Kinen-shitsu (Ogai Memorial Hall)” of the Hongo Library.
Miraculously the area was not badly damaged by the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 or the Great Tokyo Air Raids of 1945 which means many old houses, including “nagaya,” and intertwining streets remain unchanged over time. The image of “nagaya” is of wooden buildings in narrow alleys in the shitamachi ‘older’ districts of Japanese cities. The traditional house of many urbanites was usually a long structure horizontally separated into several independent houses and during the Edo-era (1603-1867), while the middle-classes and merchants owned shops and residences facing the main streets, most commoners and craftsmen rented rooms in nagaya in back streets. Even during the Meiji-era (1868-1912), it was not unheard of that city dwellers lived in nagaya. Such was the bond in these homes, when neighbors were not at home, others would take care of clothes hung outside to dry or keep an eye out for intruders.
Sightseeing spots
More than 70 temples and many graveyards can be found in and around Yanaka. Kan-ei-ji Temple was constructed on Ueno Hill as a grave site for Shoguns in the Edo-era and many temples have been built in the years since. Compared to temples in Kyoto, most of which retain an atmosphere of elegance, the temples around Yanaka are more down to earth and familiar. People visit these sites casually, walk through the precincts as part of a date, stroll around with their dogs and in season enjoy the cherry blossoms – much more than just offering up prayers.
Kan-ei-ji Temple
Kan-ei-ji Temple was built in 1625 by Tenkai, a high-ranking Buddhist priest of the era. At first used as a point to pray for the protection of Edo Castle, it later became a Buddhist temple housing graves of the Tokugawa family. Six of the fifteen Tokugawa Shoguns are buried here and under the protection of the Tokugawa government, the temple itself prospered with more than 30 out buildings and 36 branch temples in existence until most were burned down during the 1868 Ueno War, between Shogitai troops of the former Tokugawa Shogunate and the Meiji government forces.
Yanaka Reien
Yanaka Reien Cemetery was originally in the precincts of Tenno-ji temple and was appointed a public Tokyo cemetery in 1874. Today it measures 100,000 sq m. and contains the graves of many famous people including the 15th Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu, painter Daikan Yokoyama and banker Eiichi Shibusawa. It is a calm and peaceful spot surrounded by trees and in spring draws many to its cherry blossoms.
Shitamachi Fuzoku Shiryokan Fusetsu Tenjijo
See a reconstructed liquor shop dating from the Meiji-era with its old posters and retro atmosphere.
Yanaka Ginza
Yanaka Ginza is a 150 m long by 5-6 m wide street, starting at the bottom of the “Yuyake Dandan” steps and is one location used in the morning NHK TV drama. From the top of the “Yuyake Dandan” steps, fine sunset views can be taken in or freshly-fried croquettes or menchi-katsu (fried cakes of minced meat) can be purchased.
Nezu Shrine
These gorgeously lacquered buildings include some of the largest such shrine buildings constructed in the Japanese Edo-era and the main shrine pavilion, the Kara Mon Gate, the Ro Mon Gate and the surrounding fences are designated as national important cultural assets. The shrine was itself built by Tsunayoshi, the fifth Tokugawa shogun in 1706 and these premises surrounded by trees create something of an oasis of tranquility – especially so from April to May when the azaleas are in bloom – a time the Tsutsuji Matsuri (Azalea Festival) is at its peak.
Asakura Choso-kan
Asakura Choso-kan is the former home and atelier of Fumio Asakura (1883-1964) – one of Japan’s most famous sculptors in the modern era. The building is a fine combination of Western and Japanese styles and displays 500 pieces by the artist.
Yanaka Shichifukujin (Seven Deities of Good Fortune) Meguri
The Yanaka Shichifukujin Meguri tour of seven temples is the oldest Shichifukujin Meguri in Tokyo and was first established in the early 19th century.
Kikumi Senbei
The Kikumi Senbei shop was built in 1875 and has been producing square senbei rice crackers ever since.
Imojin is a Japanese sweet shop founded in 1912 well known for its olde worlde and old recipe ice cream.
Taiyaki is a crunchy fish-shaped pancake filled with bean jam.
Isetatsu first opened in 1864 and still deals in more than 1,500 kinds of Edo-chiyogami (paper with colored figures), goods made of paper and furoshiki (a large square wrapping / multi purpose cloth).
Musashi-ya is a tofu (bean curd) shop that can trace its roots back to 1923.
Candy shop founded in 1922.
100-year-old bamboo ware shop spanning three generations of owner.
Akatsuka Bekko-ten
Bekko is a form of craftwork made of the shells of sea turtles found near or on the equator and visitors to the studio can enjoy seeing pieces made before their very eyes at the studio. NB: In respect of the Washington Convention (on endangered species), the products of Akatsuka Bekko-ten can no longer be purchased outside Japan.
Sawanoya Ryokan
More than 110,000 guests from around the world have, at one time or another stayed at Sawanoya with over 90 percent of guests still not Japanese. More than 30 percent of the guests are repeat visitors with many ‘stays’ under their belts.
“att. JAPAN” asked the master of the inn, Isao Sawa, about some of the charms of Yanaka.
Sawanoya is a small family-run Japanese hotel, with 12 rooms. We don’t serve dinner, so guests usually go to local izakaya (Japanese-style pubs) and restaurants in the neighborhood. Some guests have a favorite izakaya, and whenever they come to Japan, they enjoy meeting the staff at their favorite night spot. Our guests also enjoy shopping in the neighborhood.
In Ya-ne-sen, many old shops selling tofu, rice crackers, ice cream, candy, brushes, paper and bamboo ware remain nestled alongside izakaya, buckwheat noodle shops and sento (public baths). The shitamachi of old remains as powerful as ever as is often demonstrated in long term residents never refusing new comers but also in not forcing them to follow local customs. Our guests return at night and happily report their experiences in the town; “I watched the tofu making process in front of the shop, and the staff of the shop gave me a piece of tofu,” “I talked with an elderly person who was caring for his bonsai in a bonsai garden,” “When I saw people doing gymnastics in time with a broadcast on the radio and imitated them, my shoes broke so one of the members took me to his house and repaired my shoes,” just a few of the stories. Our guests are like family and those staying for a long time go out and have their hair cut at a barber in the town. We even give our guests information on local events such as bon-odori dances, cherry blossom viewing parties, the chance to carry mikoshi (portable shrines) and rice-cake making events while recommending they go but not forcing them. There is nothing special in the town, but I believe the many chances to see and experience various facets of a regular Japanese living a normal life is exactly what makes us so special.
This contemporary art gallery is housed in an old public bath – the 200-year-old Kashiwa-yu bathhouse once used by authors Yasunari Kawabata, Shotaro Ikenami and others. Kashiwa-yu closed down in 1991 and the building has been used as a gallery since 1993 – the high ceiling perfect for this use. The outer shell – roof tiles and chimney remain unchanged.
“Some people still think this is an operational bathhouse and ask, ‘till what time can I take a bath?’ and we are often asked by visitors if they must take their shoes off at the entrance as the shoeboxes of old are still in place by the door,” said Ms. Kanai, one of the SCAI staffers. “Many non-Japanese visit the gallery, most just dropping in while walking around Yanaka, but some are on planned visits from overseas to view their favorite artist’s work. Our contrast of old bathhouse and contemporary art displays surprises many of them.”
Exhibitions here run for around 2 months with display methods changing based on the exhibits – removing walls, opening holes in the floor or even using the wall as a canvas just some of the ways art is presented. Visit again and again and you will see we are never the same.