Yanaka: A Time Capsule of Tokyo’s Past

By Cole Lubchenko

Yanaka is in many respects a small corner of Tokyo that time has forgotten. When I visited on a cool Sunday in January’s holiday season, the area felt separate from the comparatively commercially focused areas that make up the majority of Tokyo.  Having been to Yanaka only once, It’s hard say if it was a special circumstance that caused the area to feel so quitet, organic, and cohesive as a community, or if it is a time capsule of the idyllic and quanit atmosphere I imagine small communities in Japan, and most countries, to have had in the years before such easy access to transportation. The area felt separate from the comparatively commercially focused areas that make up the majority of Tokyo.

I arrived to Yanaka at Nippori Station, one of the closest stations to the centre along with Sendagi Station, and headed toward the main shopping street, Yanaka Ginza. The station is located on the top of a hill next to Yanaka cemetery, so when heading to the main street there is a welcoming view of the crowds drifting from one shop to the next. Descending the steps to the shopping area the large crowd seemed to diminish and the area didn’t feel nearly as crowded as it had looked.  

The street was lined with many aging shops and stands selling what I assumed to be the same snacks that they were selling decades ago. One shop that caught my eye due to its long snaking queue was a dark and unimpressive shop located under a dull orange canopy. Its lack of any resemblance to modern commercial aesthetic combined with its long line was a sure sign that the food would be delicious. The food was a variety of deep fried goods and yakitori. I got a croquette and some yakitori; it was a greasy but delicious treat.

Some of the shops on the street were closed due to the holiday season and others due to it being quite early in the day, but there was still plenty to hold my interest. I saw some souvenir shops and stores selling traditional Japanese goods. There were also some small outdoor seats with happy looking residents drinking beer while their dogs played at their feet. It was a welcoming atmosphere. Heading back down the street I got a stew-filled cat-shaped pastry before coming upon a small shop selling cat-themed goods that I had missed on my initial pass through the street. The store was great for taking a look at some unique and funny goods and was a perfect place to get a gift for a cat loving friend.  

I went back up the hill and passed an old man teaching some young boys how to play a traditional top game. There was an enthusiastic crowd watching and I joined in and watched a game or two. I then took a walk through the cemetery and because it was a sunny day the grounds didn’t have the oppressive solemn feeling I usually associate with cemeteries. The cemetery was perched atop a hill that offered a great view of intersecting train lines with the Skytree towering behind them. As I exited the cemetery on the opposite side heading towards Ueno, I noticed a white cat laying atop a grave marker enjoying the warm sun on the cool day. I exited the calm cemetery and went towards the more crowded Ueno. The juxtaposition between the two neighbourhoods made me really appreciate Yanaka’s calm atmosphere.

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