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I often think that the best way to see a city is to visit its neighborhoods. In fact, every major city in the world is really an agglomeration of neighborhoods. People have their own favorite dry cleaners, their favorite local restaurants, etc. It’s the same all over the world. On a recent trip to Tokyo, I visited a neighborhood that harkens back to an earlier time in Japanese history.
“Ya-Ne-Sen,” the acronym for Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi, is about 10 minutes by subway from the glitz and high-rise glamour of downtown Tokyo, but it couldn’t be more different. It’s one of the few areas of Tokyo that was spared the devastation of the 1923 earthquake and the Allied bombing of World War II.
I started my walk at the Nezu subway station. It’s at the base of gently rolling hills, cobblestoned streets with old wooden houses and narrow alleyways lined with flower pots on both sides, and there are a lot of cats, lazily watching the day go by.
The area has about 160 temples and shrines, but many of them are hidden from view. Ya-Ne-Sen, which is not far from Tokyo University, is packed with small shops, boutiques and specialty stores as well as apartment buildings, some chockablock next to the temples.
One of these, the Nezu Jinja Shrine was built approximately 1,900 years ago under the reign of one of Japan’s many shoguns, or military dictators. The shoguns, just like in the movies, dominated political life in feudal Japan, running the country under the auspices of weak emperors until the Meiji restoration in 1868.
A lot of the buildings have been recycled. For example, the Asakura Choso, now a sculpture museum, was in fact the home and studio of one of Japan’s most famous sculptors, Fumio Asakura (1883-1964). The front of the building was used by him as a studio; the back, in typical Japanese style, was his living area. Outside, there is a pond with five stones that stand for the Five Confucian virtues. The modern gallery known as Scai the Bathouse was a real bathhouse before being converted into one of the leading contemporary art galleries in the city. And the modernistic Space Oguraya gallery was a pawnshop before its conversion.
You can visit any or all of these galleries or museums, but the real delight of the area for me was the small shops that line some of the main streets, which themselves are narrow, sometimes very twisty and a little dangerous for pedestrians when vehicles come careening through. I dropped into several shops along Sansakizaka. One of them, Isetatsu, is a traditional paper store with exquisite wood block designs. Another is a Chojiya, a store that is famous for cleaning and re-tailoring delicate silk kimonos.
As you head up the street, just before you turn left onto the main commercial shopping street, there is the famous Midoriya bamboo basket shop which has been run by three generations of the same family. The bamboo baskets are pricey, but the product is unique: The bamboo is from the inside of old farmhouses where smoke from the fire pits has colored it over the years into an amber hue.
The commercial heart of the area is called Yanaka Ginza, a street that slopes down toward the Nippori subway station (this walk began at the Nezu station). There you can buy whatever you need for your day-to-day living: fish, meat vegetables, flowers, stationery, books, electrical appliances, shoes and clothes. There are lots of tea shops (as there are on the side streets) and small restaurants. There are several ryokans in the area, traditional Japanese inns where guests can sleep on the floor on futons.
At the end of the day, I decided to do what I always do when I travel: Try the local ice cream. I went to several different shops, but I found that it was no different from what I could get at home. I’m always looking for that special flavor, no matter where I am. And then, weary but happy that I had rubbed shoulders with some local Japanese in one of their lesser-known neighborhoods, I headed back toward the subway station, taking a shortcut down a side street.
A few minutes later, I came upon a crowd outside a small shop. I looked inside and discovered that it was a shave ice parlor. The customers were lined up but the line was moving fairly quickly. The shave ice machine was an old-fashioned Hatsuyuki model, with a block of ice sitting on a sharp blade and the ice maker slowly cranking the red wheel to shave off the snowy stuff. When it came my turn, I ordered the biggest shave ice on the menu and asked for some strawberry syrup, which was slathered on top. It was the perfect end to a perfect day.
Japan National Tourism Organizationwww.jnto.go.jp
There are several good guidebooks, all with detailed directions for walking tours in this area and other neighborhoods in Tokyo. I used “Tokyo: Exploring the City of the Shogun,” which was written by Sumiko Enbutsu.