This past weekend was a long one, with an undergraduate holiday on Friday and Monday off for National Foundation Day. Many of my classmates took trips, both school sponsored and independently, to the mountains for a few days of skiing and sightseeing. Between spending the last week stressed about my lack of a debit card and my general scatterbrained state, I failed to realize this break even existed until Wednesday of last week.
Rather than scramble to find a bus ticket to and capsule hotel in Gifu or Nagano, I decided this weekend would be a good opportunity to get off the beaten path. I’d done Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ueno, Asakusa, and a few smaller areas, most more than once, but I wanted something a little calmer, a little less geared towards consumers.
Turning to Google, more specifically the always helpful Tokyo Cheapo (although it is a little irritating to be standing in line at ” _______ ramen/tempura/sushi” behind twenty other foreigners and hear the site cited as directing them to the present location), I found my destination within minutes: Yanesen.
A portmanteau of Yanaka, Nezu, and Sendagi, three interconnecting neighborhoods north of Ueno, Yanesen most closely resembles old Tokyo in terms of architecture and cultural life. Shitamachi, which literally means “under city” or lower city, is the style which characterizes Yanesen, and is opposite Yamanote, “mountain hands,” as a socio-geographic designation. The terms date back to the Tokugawa era, when the affluent, samurai class lived in the hills, hence “mountain hands,” while the artisans and merchants lived in the physically “lower” area, the marshland. The secular Yanaka cemetery, which takes up nearly all of 7-chome and is a quick walk up stairs from the Nippori station.
Yanaka Ginza, a shopping street, serves the center of all activity for the three neighborhoods, but it’s nothing close to Nakamise or even the alleys that surround my train stop in Kawasaki.
Stalls manned by a single vendor lined either side of the street, with no one calling out to potential customers or beckoning with flyers. Croquets and skewers of yakitori were cooked on demand at some of these stalls, for only a few hundred yen a pop. Menchi-katsu, a fried meat cutlet, is particularly relevant to the area as it was originated at one shop and then adopted by another shop directly across the street. For the sake of this post, I obviously partook in such delicacies, and feel that my inability to document this serves as a testament to their merit. (Look forward to a post about me developing gout and/or diabetes somewhere down the line!)
Walking about twenty minutes away from Yanaka Ginza, down Sendagi 2-chome, will bring you to the Nezu shrine.
One entrance, parallel to a drug store and Subway-wannabe sandwich shop.
The big picture, the honden or main hall.
Torii! Just when I was starting to envy my friends in Kyoto for their pictures of the Fushimi Inari shrine!
Passing through arch after arch can get a little disorienting.
Built in 1705, Nezu predates the already antiquated architecture of surrounding Yanesen. It brought a smirk to my face to see so many people jogging, dog walking, and self-sticking in such a serene enclosure. I’m sure the sight of my bleach blonde head elicited a similar response from others, especially considering I had only counted half a dozen foreign faces throughout the whole of Yanesen. Interestingly, the few locals I interacted with responded to my garbled Japanese with perfect, barely accented English.
I’m sure even more anachronisms will be apparent after a second visit but for now I’m glad to have devoted a chunk of my sprawling weekend to going (somewhat) back in time.