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Yanaka Ginza

YakanaGinza
  • Official Name: Yanaka Ginza [谷中霊園] in Taitō-ku, Tokyo
  • Address: 3-chōme-13-1 Yanaka, Taitō-ku, Tōkyō-to 110-0001
  • Closest Stations: Sendagi Station on the Chiyoda Line, Nippori Station on the JR Yamanote Line
  • Nearby landmarks: Yanaka Cemetery Park (谷中霊園 – Yanaka Reien), Ueno Park (上野公園 – Ueno Kōen), Asakura Museum of Sculpture 台東区立朝倉彫塑館 Taitō kuritsu asakura chōsokan)
  • Website: https://www.yanakaginza.com/

Retro Tokyo

Want to experience a bit of retro Tokyo? Then visit Yakana Ginza in the Northwestern edge of Taitō City. Within a five-minute walk of either Nippori Station or Sendagi Station, resides a collection of locally-owned food stalls, arty shops, and cozy cafes — all lining a short 175-meter street to form what’s known as a shōtengai (商店街) or shopping street.

By modern standards, Yakana Ginza is a small shopping street, but back in 1955 that’s all the locals ever needed. For a community rebuilding from the trials of World War II, Yakana Ginza supplied all their daily needs some of which you can still see today with its small produce stands and kitchen wears. Over the years, locals have tapped into their Edo-period Shitamachi roots to build a bustling tourist attraction on a grassroots scale.

What is Shitamachi (下町) you ask? In the 1600s Tokyo was geographically and economically divided into two: Shitamachi consisted of the physically low marshy part of the city along and east of the Sumida River, home to merchants, artisans, tradesmen, and trivial entrepreneurs. The other half of Tokyo was called Yamanote (山の手) and area refers to the hilly homes of the wealthy, upper-class citizens living just west of the Imperial Palace.

Cats & Shrines

Today, Yanaka is considered a part of the district of Yanesen (谷根千) together with Nezu (根津) and Sendagi (千駄木). Yanesen collectively is home to many restored and relocated Edo-period temples and shrines, and most importantly, home to a sizeable number of stray cats.

The cats appear to be drawn to the area’s extraordinary density of trees (by Tokyo standards), serene shrines, and hushed cemeteries. Yanaka Ginza locals love the kitties and are quick to give treats, so don’t be surprised if a neko-san or two comes strolling along the way. They’ve also have gone so far as to make a stray cat as their mascot. Paying a visit to any of the many stores will yield catty-themed commodities: from cat-shaped confections to feline ornaments and kitty print kimonos.

Going south beyond Yanaka Ginza toward Ueno, you can view numerous Edo period shines and temples from various sects. Also, in the area is Yanaka Cemetery Park, famous for Cherry-blossom Avenue, a path completely covered in beautiful cherry blossoms in April.

Yanaka Ginza Beckoning Cats
Yanaka Ginza Beckoning Cats

When to Visit

Although you can wander the street pretty much any time, the shops in Yanaka Ginza typically don’t open until around 10 AM and they close at around 7 PM at night. Some shops may even have shorter hours and are not even open on Tuesdays or Wednesdays, it all just depends on the owner. If you want to experience the most of what Yanaka has to offer in terms of shopping, visit either on Fridays or weekends since they’ll have sales and specials available ready to entice shoppers.

When it comes to seasons, my favorite time to visit is late Autumn — the temperature is comfortable and the air not too humid. By October and November, the academic season is in full swing, which means there are fewer students on holiday, unlike in the Spring. I should note that Tokyo summers can get oppressively muggy and often rains heavily. While the shops are still open, it’s just not as fun to sit outside as your beer gets diluted with rain. Winter is my second pick on when to visit, only because it’s dry and its fun to buddle up to some warm sake and a piping-hot meat skewer.

How to Visit Yanaka Ginza

Some shop workers will know a bit English, but I suggest downloading a simple Japanese travel phrasebook or get a fancy pocket translator since many are pretty darn good these days. Otherwise, pointing at the thing you want and then holding up the number of items you want on your fingers is your best option. They will usually say how much yen it costs in total.

For food, sample as much food as you want — nearly everything is tasty – just remember to stop when you decide to drink and eat, since eating and drinking while walking is considered rude. When you want to throw garbage away after eating, look for bins and either end of the street – usually one for plastic bottles and another for burnable garbage. Sometimes the shop will throw paper wrappers or skewers away for you after eating, especially if you thank them and tell them how delicious their food was.

If you are staying for longer, consider taking a class or lesson at the Yanesen Tourist Information and Culture Center. The staff speak English and are super friendly. Lessons usually involve various traditional Japanese activities such as how to wear a kimono, making soba, ikebana or flower arranging, tea ceremony and even how to wear kabuki costumes. If you’re looking for a more extensive tour of the area, they’ll introduce you to a local guide who will take you around the area and offer explanations in English.

Yanaka Ginza stores tend to close around 6 or 7 PM, so go early in the day.

Shops to Visit in Yanaka Ginza

Best Shop for Omiyage (aka “Gifts” or “Souvenirs”)

YUZURIHA (谷中店) – Yuzuriha is a cute confectionary shop that features a seasonal rotation of Japanese style sweets. I recommend buying the cute cat paw candies.

Best Spot for a Mid-Morning Pick-me-up

Yanaka Manten Doughnuts – Simple is best! Baked not-fried donuts with a decent cup of coffee or tea. My personal favorites are the matcha and maple donuts.

Best Store for a Cold Beer on a Hot Day

Echigoya Honten – Echigoya is a small-town liquor store, not the hotel that once stood here. The original Echigoya Hotel was founded at the end of the Meiji period. They offer super cheap cold beer and a crate at the front of the shop to sit and enjoy it. If beer is not to your bent, you could also try local fruit wines or Japanese sake.

Kitty and Cold Beer – A good combo

Best Fried Food to Go with Your Beer

Niku-no-Sato (肉のサトー) – Famous for its numerous TV appearances, this butcher shop has been selling croquettes, menchi-katsu, and fried meats since 1933. Their signature Yanaka Mechchi sells for under 200JP¥ ($1.80). I can just imagine the juicy meat and fragrant onions encased in a crispy fried panko. Yummy!

Best Place for Posh Japanese Deserts

Waguriya (和栗や – “Japanese chestnut”) – This cafe is the only place to serve Japanese chestnut desserts throughout the year. Their specialty is a mont blanc, a desert-adapted from its French namesake. The Nipponese mont blanc is an exquisitely layered confection featuring a sponge cake base covered with fresh cream and rich chestnut cream. A whole chestnut is pressed into the cream, followed by a generously pipped heap of chestnut purée. Depending on the season they’ll dress the mont blanc with other flavors like strawberry, matcha, or sweet yam, but rest assured there will be chestnuts within. During autumn weekends, they’ll break out a chestnut roasting engine which billows out steamy goodness.

Chestnut cream & Melons

Best Store for Tea & Accessories

Kinyoshien (金吉園) – Pick from a variety of Japanese green teas including ones you may have not even heard of. Fancy teapots and teacups would also make a fine gift. My personal favorite is the beautiful colorful tea containers and the tiny ceramic kitties to perch your chopsticks upon.

Best Cat Kitch Store

Neko Action – In partnership with local artists, this store sells some of the cutest kitty-themed goods I’ve seen. Also, apart from stationery, accessories, and kitchen accessories, you might also spot the occasional sleeping cat.

Anything with cats is good!

Best Kakigōri “Shaved Ice” for a Super-Hot Day

Himitsudō (ひみつ堂) – This adorable shop is best known for its handmade fruit syrups poured over a heap of hand-cranked shaved ice. Flavors change regularly enough to make you come back almost daily. My personal favorite flavor is the Miyazaki Mango Short. If you visit in the summer, be ready to wait in line because this place is popular. I should note that their menu changes quite often, and if you’re curious as to what the owner has planned for the day, visit the shop’s Twitter account at himitsuno132

A happy Cat
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Nezu Shrine

Nezu Shrine North ToriNezu Shrine North Tori

Nezu Shrine (根津神社 – Nezu-jinja) hides well like a precious jewel inside a small pocket of Tokyo’s thick cloak of concrete. Nestled away within the eastern portions of Bunkyo Ward, stands a beautiful set of red painted buildings walled in by verdant greenery.

Since Nezu Shrine is a mere 15-minute walk from where Sig and I were staying, we made it one of our first stops after setting foot in Tokyo.

Tunnel of Torii

From the busy street, the area looks like a simple park, until we wandered deeper into one of the three entrance paths. According to Shinto belief, a tori entrance indicates a transition between the mundane to the sacred.

Although the looming Torii main gate did impress me, I found the path of a hundred or so vermilion torii beautiful — something about repeating patterns feels comforting. This torii tunnel leads me through the hillside just west of the main hall.

Stooping slightly as not to hit my head, the steps took me to a viewing platform with a small shrine and pavilion. From here I could see the main shrine and a koi-filled pond below. Nearby, a cozy Otome Inari Shrine sits guarded by two fox statues.

Otome means “maiden,” and the Inari is the god or spirit of foxes, fertility, rice, tea, sake, and anything agriculture related. I was told that newly wedded ladies often pray here for a good marriage. I’m hardly a maiden, but I did drop a customary five yen coin into the box and make a quick wish.

Tunnel of Torii
Tunnel of Torii

Tower Gate

We make our way down the hill through a shorter path of torii, and then through a rōmon (楼門). Beneath this two-story tower gate, two zuishin or guardian statues sit in alcoves, ready with their bows and arrows. I guess if the shrine came under attack, the warrior-gods would spring to life and ascend the tower to rain arrows upon the enemy.

Court Yard & Lattice Wall

Before we reach the Main Hall, we crossed beneath an embellished karamon (唐門 – Chinese gate) and into a courtyard surrounded by a sukibei (透塀 – latticed wall). Against a sacred camphor tree, lines upon lines of paper fortunes tied to strings swing lightly in the wind. Dozens of small wooden plaques hang in hopeful anticipation of the new year. As we approached the offering box, I noticed two large Komainu or “lion dogs” guarding the shrine, each with a fierce stony gaze.

Main Hall

Also called a honden in Japanese, Nezu’s main hall is ornately designed with golden embossing along its lintels and pillars. Even the steps leading up and into the chamber seem to shimmer. I peek inside the worship hall and see a wall-to-wall tatami floor and a shrine in the back. I am awe-struck that this beautiful structure survived the firebomb attacks during World War II.

According to nearby kiosks, Nezu shrine itself is built in the Ishi-no-ma-zukuri (石の間造) style, where the worship chamber (拝殿 – haiden) and the inner sanctum (本殿 – honden) are connected under a single roof. If you’re wondering, the haiden is where people gather, and service is held. The honden is off limits to the public since this is where the enshrined kami lives, customarily signified by a mirror or statue.

Main Shrine
Main Shrine

The Legend

Although not officially captured in historical texts, legends say that Nezu shrine was founded in Sendagi during the 1st century by Prince Ōsu (also known as Yamato Takeru), son of Emperor Keikō. At that time, the shrine was dedicated to Susanoo-no-Mikoto, the god of the sea and storms. If this legend were proven to be true, it would date Nezu Shrine as the oldest Shinto shrine in Tokyo.

But in full disclosure, nothing of that 1st-century shrine remains. The Nezu Shrine we see today comes from Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, the fifth shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty. The shogun moved and entirely rebuilt Nezu Shrine in its current location, and what he kept or didn’t keep from the original shrine is hard to say. However, historical records do state that Tsunayoshi undertook the move of Nezu Shrine in 1705 in a successor-naming celebration.

Nezu Shrine Bunkyo Azalea Festival

Every April, the hills to the west of the Torri tunnel comes alive with thousands of Azalia blossoms from over a hundred different varieties. Amid the colorful blooms, performers and food stalls delight any and all. With the various azalea breeds, the blooming can last a well into May or later, resulting in one of Tokyo’s longest running festivals during the spring season.

I should note that Nezu Shrine for much of the year is free to the public, but during the Azalea Festival you have to pay a small fee of ¥200

Otome Inari Shrine
Otome Inari Shrine