Start: Tennoji Temple (station: Nippori, then the south exit)
Finish: Nezu Temple (station: Nezu)
Time: Allow approximately 4 hours, including stops along the way
Best Times: There is no "best" time, as such, for this walk, but head out early in the day
Worst Times: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, when museums and some shops and restaurants are closed
Yanaka has been famous for its large concentration of temples since the Edo Period, when most temples and shrines were removed from the inner city and relocated to the outskirts in an attempt to curb the frequent fires that ravaged the crowded shogunate capital. Not only did the religious structures' thatched roofs ignite like tinder, but the land they formerly occupied would subsequently be cleared and left empty, to act as fire breaks in the otherwise densely populated city. Furthermore, temples on the edge of town could double as forts to protect Edo from invasion. The only invasions Yanaka suffered, however, were friendly ones, as townspeople flocked here to enjoy its peacefulness, wooded hills, paddies, clear streams, and majestic temple compounds. It wasn't long before the wealthy began building country estates here as well, followed by artists and writers who favored Yanaka's picturesque setting and cool breezes.
One of Tokyo's few old quarters to have survived both the 1923 Kanto earthquake and firebombs of World War II, Yanaka is still largely residential, with narrow lanes, small houses, and a few unique museums and traditional shops tucked here and there among the gently sloping hills. Because there are no major attractions or department stores here, the atmosphere of this stroll is markedly different from the bustling liveliness of the previous walking tours -- there are no crowds and there's very little traffic. Rather, a trip to Yanaka is like a visit to a small town, where the pace of life is slow and the people have time for one another. If Tokyo is starting to wear on your nerves, come here to refresh yourself. This walk always makes me happy!
The easiest way to get to Yanaka is on the Yamanote Line. Disembark at Nippori Station, take the south exit (the end closest to Ueno Station), and turn left for the west exit. Look for the flight of steps beside a map of the area. At the top of these stairs, to the left, is:
1. Tennoji Temple
Founded more than 500 years ago, this used to be a grand and impressive complex, 10 times its present size and popular among townspeople as one of Edo's three temples authorized to hold lotteries. The lotteries, however, drew such huge, rowdy crowds that they were banned in the mid-19th century by the Tokugawa shogunate. Then, in 1868, most of the complex was destroyed in the battle between Tokugawa loyalists and Imperial forces on nearby Ueno Hill. Today, Tennoji is quiet and peaceful, with neatly swept grounds and the soothing sounds of chirping birds and chanting monks. The first thing you see upon entering the compound is a seated bronze Buddha, which dates from 1690 and is one of the temple's dearest treasures. Nearby is a standing bronze Jizo, guardian of children's spirits. It was erected by a grieving father more than 60 years ago, following the death of his son in a playground accident; a relief at the base depicts boys playing in school uniform. There's also a small stone statue of Kannon, goddess of mercy.
Walk straight out of the temple compound's main entrance and continue walking on the paved road straight through:
2. Yanaka CemeteryOnce the burial grounds of Kanei-ji and Tennoji temples and opened to the public in 1874, this is one of Tokyo's largest cemeteries. Among its more than 7,000 tombstones are graves belonging to famous public figures, artists, and writers, some of whom lived in the area. Among the most famous writers buried here: novelist Ogai Mori (1862-1922), who at 19 was the youngest graduate ever from the medical school at Tokyo University and who later became surgeon general and a foremost figure in modern Japanese literature. His works tried to bridge the gap between the traditional and the modern, as Japan moved away from its feudal agrarian past.
Today the cemetery is quite peaceful and empty, but it wasn't always so. During the Edo Period, teahouses along its edge served more than tea, with monks among their frequent customers. One of the teahouse beauties, Osen Kasamori, achieved fame when ukiyo-e master Harunobu immortalized her in several of his works. Most poor girls were looking for patrons, not necessarily one-night stands.
After a minute's walk, to your left you'll see two sights very strange for a cemetery -- a police box and a children's playground. Here, between the two and surrounded by a low fence and hedge, is the:
3. Foundation of Tennoji Temple's Five-Story Pagoda
First built in 1644 but burned down in 1772, this was reconstructed as the tallest pagoda in Edo. It met its final demise in 1957, when it was burned down by two lovers who then committed suicide.
Take a right at the police box and continue through the cemetery to a residential street, following it 1 block until it ends at a T-intersection. Ahead is a plaque dedicated to Kano Hogai (1828-88), a Japanese painter of the early Meiji Period who incorporated Western techniques into his work and who, along with Okakura Tenshin, is credited for "modernizing" Japanese art. Behind the plaque is:
4. Choanji Temple
Established in 1669, it was dedicated to the god of longevity, one of Japan's seven lucky gods. During the Edo Period, a pilgrimage to all seven temples, each housing one of the seven gods of fortune, was thought to bring good luck. Now that such pilgrimages have lost their appeal, Choanji seems rather forgotten. In addition to Kano's tomb, located near the center of the temple's graveyard, the temple is notable for its three stone stupas dating from the 1200s, erected for the repose of departed souls. They are straight ahead on the main path, by the statues and under the groomed cedars.
Turn left out of Choanji. At the next immediate left down a side street you'll see an old temple wall dating from the Edo Period. It's the only one in the area to have survived fires, earthquakes, and wars. Back on the main road, farther along on the left, is:
5. Kannonji Temple
A small stone pagoda to the right of its front entrance is dedicated to the 47 ronin (akoroshi), masterless samurai who avenged their master's death and then committed ritual suicide in 1702. Their story captured the public's imagination and has become a popular Kabuki play. Two of the ronin were brothers of a head priest here, and several meetings plotting their revenge allegedly took place on this spot.
Take a Break -- Just a stone's throw farther north, on the right, is Saboh Hanahenro, 7-17-11 Yanaka (tel. 03/3822-6387), which translates as "Teahouse Flower Temple-Pilgrimage." A modern, two-floor teahouse decorated with international folk crafts and open Wednesday through Sunday from 11am to 6pm, it offers a very tasty obento box lunch for ¥1,260 ($10/£5.30) on weekends; since it often runs out, you might wish to make an obento reservation. Otherwise, it also serves teishoku (set lunches) for ¥1,050 to ¥2,100 ($8.70-$17/£4.40-£8.80), as well as Japanese green tea, beer, homemade cakes, and sweets. Farther along, to the left at the top of the steps to Yanaka Ginza (no. 9 below), is Zakuro, 3-14-13 Nishi-Nippori (tel. 03/5685-5313), one of Tokyo's more eccentric restaurants serving Turkish and Persian cuisine and open daily 11am to 11pm. After removing your shoes at the door, you'll be led to floor cushions in a big room that resembles a tent, with boards on the floor serving as tables. Set lunches cost ¥600 to ¥1,000 ($5-$8.30/£2.50-£4.20), and set dinners begin at ¥1,550 ($13/£6.50).
Just past Saboh Hanahenro teahouse, also on the right at 7-18-6 Yanaka, is:
This small crafts shop sells pottery, baskets, and other crafts. It's open every day except Monday from 10:30am to 6pm. Its name comes from the sacks once used to hold rice.
Past this shop, also on the right at 7-18-10 Yanaka, is one of the highlights of this stroll, the:
7. Asakura Choso Museum
With its modern black facade, it looks rather out of place in this traditional neighborhood, but its interior is a delightful mix of modern and traditional architecture. One of Tokyo's most intriguing homes open to the public, it was built in 1936 as the home and studio of Asakura Fumio, a Western-style sculptor known for his realistic statues of statesmen, women, and cats. After passing through his studio with its soaring ceilings, you'll find yourself in a traditional Japanese house wrapped around an inner courtyard pond, famous for its large stones arranged to reflect the Five Confucian Virtues. A rooftop garden offers views over the surrounding neighborhood.
Take a right out of the museum and turn left at the next street (if you take a right here instead, you will end up back at Nippori Station). Keep to the right and walk down the steps. Then take the first right, located just past the arched entryway marking the neighborhood's pedestrian-only shopping lane. Here, to your right, at 3-13-5 Nishi-Nippori, is:
This exquisite basket shop (tel. 03/3828-1746) with several samples on display outside its front door is the store and workshop of Suigetsu Buseki, who coaxes flexible strands of bamboo into beautifully crafted baskets, some of them signed. The shop is known for its use of smoked bamboo taken from the undersides of thatched farmhouses; the bamboo exhibits a beautiful gloss and subtle color gradation from years of exposure to indoor fire pits. Since such antique pieces of bamboo are increasingly hard to come by, some of the baskets are rightfully expensive but are still less expensive than those at major department stores. You can linger here; the Buseki family is happy to discuss their love for their trade with Japanese-speakers. The Imperial family and visiting dignitaries, including a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, have been among their customers. The shop is open Thursday to Tuesday 10am to 6:30pm.
Retrace your steps to the corner and turn right onto:
9. Yanaka Ginza
This is an ambitious name for an otherwise old-fashioned shopping lane. It's pleasant because it's free from cars and, unlike many shopping streets nowadays, isn't a covered arcade. One Japanese friend told me that it reminds her of neighborhood shopping streets from her childhood. Lining the lane are shops selling both modern and traditional toys, crafts, clothing, sweets, household goods, tofu, rice, fish, and vegetables. One of my favorites is the tea shop:
10. Kane Kichien
Located about halfway down Yanaka Ginza on the left at 3-11-10 Yanaka (tel. 03/3823-0015), it sells varieties of tea at the counter toward the back. With all the reported benefits of green tea, you probably know someone who might appreciate a small gift from this store. It's open Monday to Saturday from 10am to 7:30pm.
At the end of the shopping street, turn left and walk for about 5 minutes, passing the Annex Katsutaro Ryokan on the way, until you come to a stoplight and a slightly larger road.
Take a Break -- Immediately to the left of the stoplight, on the corner, is a noodle shop called Oshimaya, 3-2-5 Yanaka (tel. 03/3821-5052). It's located on the second floor of a modern building but has traditional bamboo screens at the window and an indoor pond with fish. It offers two different kinds of noodles -- soba and udon -- served in a variety of ways. Open every day except Thursday from 11am to 8pm (closed 3-5pm on weekdays).
If all you want is a drink, straight ahead at the stoplight is Petticoat Lane, 2-35-7 Sendagi (tel. 03/3821-8859), a tiny coffee shop open daily 11am to midnight. A minute's walk farther on the right-hand side past Isetatsu is Rampo, 2-9-14 Yanaka (tel. 03/3828-9494), a cozy coffee shop packed with knickknacks, kitsch, and folk art. It offers soft drinks, coffee, and beer; jazz plays softly in the background. Open every day except Monday from 10am to 8pm. Look for the wooden COFFEE SNACK sign above its door.
If you take a right at the stoplight mentioned above, to your right you will soon see:
11. Kikumi Sembei
You can't miss it -- look for the beautiful, 130-year-old wooden building, with its traditional open-fronted shop selling Japanese crackers. It's definitely worth a photo. You may even want to buy some of its square-shaped sembei. It's open daily except Monday from 10am to 7pm (3-37-16 Sendagi; tel. 03/3821-1215).
Just beyond the cracker shop is Sendagi Station. Unless you're ready to call it quits, however, turn around and head back in the opposite direction, passing the stoplight and the noodle shop listed above. Almost immediately on your right will be a:
The sento, or public bathhouse, is easily recognizable by its shoe lockers in the entryway and by the chimney rising in the back. Although on the decline, public bathhouses still serve as important gathering places, especially for those without private baths.
Farther along, on your right on a corner, is:
Isetatsu, 2-18-9 Yanaka (tel. 03/3823-1453), sells items made from Japanese paper, including paper fans, papier-mâché objects, and boxes. Founded in the mid-1800s and run by the Hirose family for four generations, it specializes in chiyogami, handmade decorative paper printed with wood blocks. Some of the designs are the family's own creations; others are taken from family crests used by samurai and members of the court and worn on kimono and armor. The shop is open daily from 10am to 6pm.
As you continue in the same direction (east), on the next block on the left side you'll find:
Located at 3-1-2 Yanaka, opposite the grade school and recessed back from the street, this temple is famous for its chrysanthemum fair and honors ukiyo-e master Harunobu, one of Edo's most famous artists; and Osen Kasamori, who worked at one of the many teahouses near Tennoji in the 1760s and achieved fame when Harunobu singled her out as a model for many of his portraits. A copy of Harunobo's portrait of Osen hangs in the small guardhouse to the right at the entrance to the temple grounds, where an English-speaking older man is usually on hand to give brief explanations of Daienji, which has the distinction of housing a Buddhist temple and a Shinto shrine under one roof. The larger stone marker is a monument to Harunobu; the smaller one to the left is Osen's.
Cross the street at the crosswalk, turn left to continue walking in the same direction you've been going, and take the first right (beside the traditional-looking elementary school with an old-fashioned clock). Turn left at the end of the street, and after a couple minutes, to your right, at 2-1-27 Yanaka (tel. 03/3821-6913), will be the:
15. Daimyo Clock Museum (Daimyo Tokei Hakubutsukan)
Tucked inside an overgrown garden, this one-room display of clocks and watches from the Edo Period (1603-1867) features about 50 examples taken from the museum's extensive collection (displays change annually). On display are huge free-standing clocks, sundials, alarm clocks, pocket watches, and small watches that were attached to obi (the sash worn with a kimono). The first clock was brought to Japan by a missionary in the 16th century, and in typical Japanese fashion was quickly modified to suit local needs. Rather than measuring 24 hours a day, Edo clocks were based on the length of time between sunrise and sunset, so that time varied greatly with the seasons. Clocks had to be set once or twice a day and were so expensive that only daimyo, or feudal lords, could afford them. Most daimyo had both a clockmaker and clock setter under their employ, since castles generally contained several huge clocks on their grounds. Apparently, time was of the essence in Japan even back then. Explanations in the museum are in Japanese only, but ask to see an English pamphlet. It's open Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 4pm (closed Dec 25-Jan 15 and July-Sept).
Take a right out of the museum to return to the street you were on, turn left and then left again (note the weirdly shaped pine tree at the corner). Walk down one of the many slopes for which Yanaka is famous and which still has some traditional wooden homes (including a beautiful one on your right). On the left-hand side of the slope, at the end of the street just before the stoplight, is Imojin Owariya, a Japanese sweet shop. Cross the busy street, Shinobazu-Dori Avenue, at the stoplight and continue straight (you'll pass another sento to your left). The road will begin to slope upward, and then, to your right, will be:
16. Nezu Shrine
This is one of Tokyo's best-kept secrets. With its brightly colored orange torii, venerable cedars, and manicured azalea bushes, it's a welcome contrast to the austerity of the Buddhist temples that dominate Yanaka. It was built in 1706 by the fifth Tokugawa shogun and features a front courtyard gate of red lacquer with joists in gilt, green, blue, orange, and black. The shrine is most well known, however, for its thousands of manicured azalea bushes. When they bloom in April, this place is heaven -- but be prepared for crowds.
To reach Nezu Station, return to Shinobazu-Dori and turn right.
Winding Down -- On the slope upward from Shinobazu-Dori in the direction of the clock museum is Imojin Owariya, 2-30-4 Nezu (tel. 03/3821-5530), a plain, tiny Japanese version of a small-town ice-cream parlor. You can get homemade ice cream here, as well as shaved ice with flavorings of sweet-bean paste, lemon, strawberry, or melon. It's open Tuesday through Sunday from 11am to 7pm. On Shinobazu-Dori between Nezu Shrine and Nezu Station, there's Cafe ez Fran, 2-27-1 Nezu (tel. 03/3828-5511). Open Tuesday to Sunday 11am to 11pm, it's a coffee shop until 6pm, after which it becomes a bar specializing in beers from around the world.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.