Yanesen

It is emblazoned with the English phrase ‘salt  of the earth’, a description typically attached to  a person who is humble and uncomplicated. Shizuo, 67, was not aware of this meaning, as he has limited English skills, but he smiles and nods his head when I ask via an interpreter if he would like to be considered in this way.

“This neighbourhood has many people like that,” he says, referring to the thousands who live in Yanesen, one of Tokyo’s oldest and most modest areas. Mr Kotake moved to Yanesen 25 years ago to open his shop and has developed fierce pride in his locale. Like most of his neighbours, he appreciates the peace and the slow pace of life, the strong community spirit and old-fashioned style.

While much of Tokyo has accelerated into the future with the speed of a bullet train, Yanesen has cruised along at the pace of a rickshaw. Unlike downtown Tokyo, there are no glimmering skyscrapers, flashing neon lights, wide roads or suffocating crowds. Instead, Yanesen has simpler attributes. Myriad temples. Petite parks. Public bathhouses. Charming bookstores. Cosy izakaya pubs. Family-run art shops. Narrow lanes lined by traditional wooden homes.

This is not the Tokyo most people know from postcards or television shows or movies. That Tokyo – the towering, hyper-modern metropolis – seems to exist in a parallel universe many decades ahead. This suits Mr Kotake and his neighbours just fine. It is the palpable sense of Old Japan that makes them feel so at home in Yanesen. That same authenticity also attracts many tourists who want to see the quieter side of Tokyo.

Walking tours are particularly popular with visitors. Yanesen is one of the most pedestrian- and cycle-friendly areas of the city thanks to  its compact size, lack of vehicular traffic and low-rise nature, with few buildings taller than four storeys. These tours, which range in length from two hours to a full day, variously include visits to homely restaurants, small art galleries and museums, and several of the area’s most important temples.

A tour of all Yanesen’s temples would most  likely take a week. Despite the district being barely more than 1.5km in length or width, there are more than 50 temples and shrines. Yanesen has been a religious hub since the mid-1600s, when the Tokugawa shogunate, Japan’s last feudal military government, instigated  a policy of shifting many temples to the area.

At that stage, Yanesen – which was named after the three suburbs it encompasses, Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi – was part of a greater swathe  of Tokyo known as Shitamachi.

The members of the shogunate lived in the grandeur of Edo Castle, on the site of what  is now the Imperial Palace. Tokyo’s feudal lords resided in the wealthy areas surrounding  the castle and beyond this was Shitamachi,  a lower-class area of farmers and labourers.

More than 300 years on, nowhere in Tokyo has  a higher concentration of religious structures than Yanesen. Within minutes of alighting at Nippori train station, one of three stations that provide easy access to the district, along with Sendagi and Nezu, I’m in the lush grounds of Tennoji Temple. A Japanese couple are staring up at a large bronze Buddha statue, the focal point of this place of worship.

Founded in 1274, Tennoji is one of the oldest religious sites in the area. Closed by the shogunate in the late 1600s, but reopened only  a few years later, it has since become one of northern Tokyo’s most significant Buddhist temples. The temple sits on a hilltop flanked on one side by Nippori station and on the other by the sprawling Yanaka cemetery. Home to more than 7,000 graves, the cemetery is a significant attraction in its own right due to its history and natural splendour: delightfully picturesque during the cherry blossom season in March, it is equally beautiful in November when the trees are painted in a warm palette of autumnal colours.

My visit falls roughly midway between those  two seasonal highlights, yet the cemetery is still scenic, draped in dense, green foliage. It is  a suitably auspicious resting place for many renowned figures, including accomplished artists, singers, politicians, authors, scientists, poets, athletes and military leaders. The most famous among these is Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the last Shogun of Japan.

Another location in Yanesen which blends history and nature well is Nezu Shrine. Established more than 1,900 years ago, several of the shrine’s structures have been listed as nationally important cultural properties. These include its honden (sanctuary), haiden (worship hall), heiden (offering hall) and romon (two-storey gate). Nestled amid  a verdant forest, embellished by koi ponds, ancient stone pathways and a tunnel  of bright red arches, Nezu Shrine is  a spectacular sight. Never is it more attractive than during the annual Azalea Festival, held from late April to early May, when delicate flowers bloom in a range of colours, from deep pinks to lilac, white and orange. So striking is this display that it draws crowds of artists, from painters  to photographers, who come to document or interpret the spectacle.

Yanesen’s appeal to those with an artistic bent extends beyond its glorious religious sites. The area has long been renowned as  a hub for artisans keeping alive traditional Japanese art forms like tougei (pottery), shodo (calligraphy), takeami (bamboo weaving) and ikebana (flower arranging). Visitors can try their hand under the tutelage of experts  at the Yanesen Tourist Information and Culture Centre. Their 90-minute ikebana classes cost from JPY4,850 (US$45) per person, one-hour shodo lessons start at JPY3,850 (US$35) and two-hour tougei sessions are JPY4,850 (US$45).

Takeami is the most popular art form in Yanesen, judging by the many shops along the main shopping street, Yanaka Ginza, that sell woven bamboo products, from baskets to sandals, earrings, statues, chopsticks and even mobile phone covers. Overall, more than 70 shops line this strip, including cafés, bookshops, restaurants and art and craft stores occupying shophouses which mostly date from the early to mid 1900s. There is a family-run fishmonger that provides produce for the street’s sushi restaurants, and several shops selling traditional Japanese sweets, including amezaiku, candy carved  by hand into elaborate shapes.

Shigemi Buseki, 49, manages her family’s takeami shop, which has been based in Yanesen for a century. Polite and softly spoken, she shows me around, explaining the traditional techniques used to make their products. I tell Shigemi that such a business seems like a perfect fit in this historic part of Tokyo. She agrees. “Yanesen is special,” she says. “It’s the one place in Tokyo (where) the old ways and old lifestyles haven’t changed much. It feels like being linked to the past.  I like that. I hope it stays like this for many years, for a long time.”

5 Senses – Sound IZAKAYAS

Listen to the sound of raucous laughter and boisterous conversation inside one of Yanesen’s izakayas, traditional Japanese pubs. These small, intimate spaces serve food (often hearty fare) and dole out generous glasses of beer and sake, the popular Japanese rice wine. While Japanese people are typically quiet and reserved in public, izakayas often bear witness to a rowdier side of the locals. Join the party.