Shitamachi, literally “under city”, is the traditional name for the lower areas of Tokyo. In the past, it was also used to refer to one’s low social class as well. While samurai and vassals lived the high-life in the upper and hilly Yamanote lands, merchants and artisans made their living in swampy Shitamachi. Today, Shitamachi refers to modest businesses and privately-owned restaurants, and there is no better place to experience Shitamachi atmosphere than Yanaka. There’s also a lot of cats.
What Is It?
Yanaka is a district located north of Ueno on the eastern side of Taito, Tokyo. However, the Yanaka district also includes parts of Nezu and Sendagi in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Special Ward. It was spared the brunt of the fire bombings of WWII, the Great Kanto Earthquake, as well the Fire of 1923. As a result, traditional architecture and Shitamachi aesthetic have remained. Many small shops like traditional craft shops— wood carvings, textiles, pottery, and more make up most of the surrounding area.
What Can You Do?
Yanaka is most known for the beautiful and peaceful Yanaka Cemetery, also known by its historic name, Yanaka Bochi. With over 25-acres and over 7,000 graves (including a couple of shōguns), it is one of the largest cemeteries in all of Japan. It’s also the only cemetery in Tokyo to have its own police box. The roads surrounding the cemetery have been given the nickname Cherry-blossom Avenue due to the many sakura trees that line the paths.
Near Cherry-blossom Avenue is Tennoji Temple, a serene Tendai sect Buddhist temple. Established in 1274, the temple was built to house a Buddha statue by the famed historical priest, Nichiren. Today, a large bronze image of Buddha made in 1690 sits at Tennoji known as Tennoji Daibutsu.
Nearby are the Five-Storied Pagoda Ruins— infamously burnt down in 1957 by a young woman and her older married lover in ritual suicide after their adultery was discovered. It was one of the largest pagodas in Japan, but only the foundation remains.
What Can You Eat?
Near the station are numerous established Japanese restaurants and cafes. There are also quite a few tea houses and traditional Japanese sweets shops thanks to Yanaka’s Shitamachi history. Dozens of small mom and pop restaurants, cafes, and food stands line Yanaka Ginza, but for something unique try Yakaka’s own little Turkey— Zakuro.
It’s famous for it shisha, Middle Eastern dishes, vegetable stews, Iranian tea, not to mention the enormous 2,000 yen dinner course. There are no tables at Zakuro, just wooden planks, and the owner has become something of a celebrity in Tokyo for his friendly personality.
Where Is It?
While you could enjoy a nice walk to Yanaka from Ueno Park, the easiest way to get there is Nippori Station, which is served by the JR Yamanote Line, the JR Keihin-Tohoku Line, and the Keisei Line. The Sendagi Subway Station is also close by, which is served by the Chiyoda Subway Line.