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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
FoodJapan: For Better or WorseLife in Japan

Tokyo Convenience Stores

7-11 Japan is nothing like its American counter part7-11 Japan is nothing like its American counterpart

If you were to pick adjectives that are essential to understanding Tokyo, “convenient” would be a pretty choice to put high on the list. I recall climbing to the top of a mountain shrine and finding an ice-cream stand waiting for me. Whatever you might need or want is often close at hand here.

They are omnipresent

I’d say that it’s very difficult to walk three blocks in Tokyo without encountering at least one convenience store. There are three within one block of my apartment, and about 6 if you go out to three blocks. You will find them in malls, office buildings, museums, subway stations, and in your dreams.

Not only that, but most of these stores are open 24 hours. This may change, labor shortages are putting pressure on these stores in the form of higher wages and that’s leading owners to want to close them up in the wee hours, but so far, most remain open 24/7.

The big three

Three companies make up the vast majority of convenience stores in Japan. There are certainly other chains and a few independent small markets, but these guys are the giants of the business: 7-11, Family Mart, and Lawson.

You may be a little surprised to see two American brands on this list. 7-11 is generally credited as the first convenience store to open in Japan and to spark their love of this institution. The then Texas-based company franchised to a Japanese company. When the parent fell on hard times, they were bought out by the Japanese firm.

Likewise, Lawson’s started as an American firm but was purchased by its Japanese counterparts as the business boomed in Japan and stagnated in America. Family Mart has always been a Japanese firm despite bearing an English name.

Each has its own supposed specialty. Lawson’s is known for its fried chicken, Family Mart for its deserts, and 7-11 for its overall selection of quality offerings. Personally, I don’t find that much of a difference in their offerings beyond the particular house brand items they sell.

What you can buy

Like in the US, a convenience store in Japan dedicates most of the store to food and drink. The big difference is the character of what is offered. You can buy a lot of pre-made meals at these stores. They are not frozen but they are kept in a refrigerated display. You can find dishes appropriate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Unlike at an American fast food place where the “fresh” food offerings are largely all unhealthy county-fair style food, the Japanese convenience store offers a wide range of both healthy and indulgent offerings. You can find soups, salads, pasta, rice bowls, sandwiches, vegetable dishes, curry, and complete lunch box meals (bento). The quality of these meal offerings is surprisingly high.

Snack foods are about as plentiful as fresh foods. You can find a range of candy, chips, crackers, pastries, dairy, and fruit snacks. Overall, you find a wider range in the type of snacks offered, but fewer options for each type. Instead of 6 brands of regular chips, they will have one brand with six different style chips.

If you want to try some Japanese snacks, you can order many different variety snack packs on Amazon.

There are a range of drinks including alcoholic beverages. The style of drink varies more than in an American store but the number of offerings is a bit smaller. Coffee drinks are the mainstay in Japan, followed by tea. Various juices and sodas round out the mix. They also offer cigarettes.

Convenience stores are light on sundries but you will find some basic stationery supplies and hygiene products. There is usually a comics and magazine rack, a third of which is commonly dedicated to light pornography. It has been announced that the “adult magazines” will be phased out as of the 2020 Olympics.

But wait, there’s more

One thing that isn’t obvious to the casual visitor is that the convenience stores also serve as a kind of banking service. You can pay most of your utility bills and other government obligations at the convenience store. You can even mail packages at many locations. The ATMs are kind of super-sized and offer robust banking features.

Onigiri "Rice Balls"
Onigiri “Rice Balls” are commonly found in all Conbini stores.

Sorry, no Car Stuff

What you won’t find at most convenience stores are automotive-related products. This is especially true in Tokyo where you won’t even find parking spaces most of the time. Gas stations in the city are a very different animal than in the US and driving overall is just a lot less common. Outside the city, things may well be different but in Tokyo, I’ve never seen a gas station combined with a convenience store.

And no Slurpies

The branding of 7-11 in Japan is utterly different than in the US. I knew that going in but I was surprised that the Slurpee, an icon of the 7-11 brand in the US was nowhere to be found. Pretty much the only thing the stores share is the name and the fact they are small stores selling food, drinks and snacks.

Better or Worse?

I have to go with better here. The fact I can get a latte and an Alfredo pasta plate at 7-11, both of which will be pretty darn tasty gives the Japanese side of the aisle a big boost. If you say “I ate dinner at the convenience store.” it doesn’t sound like an act of desperation. The range of financial services you can find also sets it apart. Finally, Japanese snacks simply have a much wider range of tastes and textures than American snacks offer.

That said, I think 7-11 shows that the company has taken a hard look at the Japanese and American markets and delivered what their customers in each place expect from the brand. Americans expect and need motor oil and gasoline at their convinced stores, people in Tokyo don’t. The food options at 7-11 probably say more about the tastes of Americans than the management of the 7-11 corporation.