Nov 8, 2013

Tokyo towns you should visit ①: Yanaka, the cats' town

If you are a tourist who visits Tokyo for the first time, you'd probably go to Asakusa, Shibuya, Harajuku, Akihabara and Roppongi.

Many Tokyo travel guides suggest you go to Asakusa to take a look at traditional side of Japan, to Shibuya and Harajuku for young culture, to Akihabara to buy electrical appliances and experience a little bit of the Japanese otaku (manga and anime) culture and to Roppongi for a night out.

They are all nice for "beginners," but if you have already visited these places and are looking for somewhere less touristy, why don't you visit "Yanesen" area?

The name "Yanesen" (ya-ne-sen) was made up by putting the first letters of neighboring towns Yanaka (谷中), Nezu (根津)and Sendagi (千駄木). During the World War II many parts of Tokyo were burnt down by bombing, but this Yanesen area miraculously escaped war damage despite its old downtown location.

If you visit Yanesen, you'll see what Tokyo's shitamachi (下町) is like. Literally meaning "downtown," shitamachi usually indicates the areas where commoners like merchants and craftsmen were mainly living in the Edo Period, while Yamanote (山の手) was the residential area for upper samurai class.

I recently went to Yanaka, one of the Yanesen towns.  There are actually two famous spots you should not miss. One is Yanaka Reien (谷中霊園), a huge cemetery where the last shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu was buried. It is also well-known for cherry blossoms. If you happen to be here in April, why not enjoy flower viewing in the cemetery? 

And the other touristic attraction is Yanaka Ginza (谷中銀座)shopping street with approximately 60 small shops and restaurants. It is small, but always busy with local shoppers, tourists and cat lovers.  Why cats? Because alley cats living in this area are considered as mascots of this shopping street.

This is the entrance of Yanaka Ginza taken from "Yuyake dandan," the stairs on the way from the JR Nippori station to the shopping street.  It is said that the sunset views seen from these stairs are very beautiful, although I've never seen them.

Look! A white cat is sitting on the roof of a tempura store, looking down at shoppers... oh sorry, it is a cat figure. Doesn't it look very real?

What about this one? ... It is another fake cat.

 This is the wooden signboard of a shop called Kittens. I forgot what they are selling...


These two cat dolls are placed in front of a store. Traditionally shopkeepers often put a cat figure called 招き猫(maneki-neko, or beckoning cat) in their shops, since the one with the right paw raised is believed to bring money and the one with the left paw raised brings people, or customers. The cats in this photo don't look like typical beckoning cats, though.  

Strolling in the town of Yanaka,  you may feel as if you have slipped back into the good old Japan. But maintaining this unique atmosphere always requires the efforts of townspeople.

For example, this temple-like building (photo below) is actually an elementary school (谷中小学校 Yanaka Shogakko). It was reconstructed 22 years ago, so as to blend in with the shitamachi surroundings.

From here, I'll write in Japanese.


浅草 あさくさ
渋谷 しぶや
新宿 しんじゅく
秋葉原 あきはばら
飽きる あきる  to get tired 
今度 こんど next time
谷根千  やねせん


谷中 やなか
根津 ねづ
千駄木 せんだぎ
戦争中 戦争中 during the war
空襲 くうしゅう  air raids
被害 ひがい damage
下町 したまち
町並み  まちなみ  streets


江戸時代 えどじだい the Edo Period
商人 しょうにん  merchants
職人 しょくにん  craftsmen
暮らす くらす  to live
庶民 しょみん  common people
上流 じょうりゅう  upper class
武士 ぶし  samurai
山の手 やまのて  
地域  ちいき  regions


先日 せんじつ the other day
有名 ゆうめい  famous
霊園 れいえん  cemetery
谷中銀座 やなかぎんざ
商店街 しょうてんがい  shopping street


野良猫 のらねこ  alley cats
住み着く  すみつく  to live
存在  そんざい  existence


置物  おきもの  figures
看板  かんばん  signboards


面白い  おもしろい  interesting
校舎  こうしゃ  school building
雰囲気  ふんいき  atmosphere

維持する  いじする  to maintain



  1. 優子さん、こんにちは!お元気ですか?

    やなかは面白いですね!I'd love to visit all the hidden away attractions in Japan. ^_^
    Cherry blossoms and a shopping street?? I definitely want to go~~

    It's interesting what you said about the 小学校。Wow, they reconstructed it so nicely! The whole town has a nice rustic feel to it... すごいですね〜 It's a nice change from the bustling city. :)

    1. サマンサさん
      Yanaka is truly a cute town full of charm. Hope you'll visit there someday.