While the bright lights of central Tokyo are as addictive as a box of dorayaki to any Tokyo rookie, when I visited the Eastern quarters of this sprawling city I knew I had found my footing.
Yanesan incorporates the three districts of Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi can be reached with only a few stops from central Tokyo on the Chiyoda and Ginza metro lines. These areas, especially Yanaka, have been saved from modern redevelopment - not to mention both Kanto earthquakes of 1923 as well as Allied bombings from World War II.
Yanaka is well known for its Edo Period temples sprinkled around every corner and alleyway within this cozy residential area inhabited by creatives and eccentrics, young and old. Tourist hotspots include the Yanaka Reien, a cemetery of seven thousand graves that attributes to the area's inherent tranquility - the last shogun of Japan, Yoshinobu Tokugawa is one of its famous residents - and Nezu Shrine with classic orange torii set within beautiful manicured vegetation. I was taken with the area's charming style speckled with old independent craft shops and traditional boutiques that cater for locals, as opposed to tourists, that line the narrow streets that are so typical shitamachi (low city) along Hebi-michi (Snake Street). This area is certainly worth a visit to understand Tokyo's metropolis and diverse districts, like a collection of characterful towns each with their own personality, and certainly sets the scene of local Tokyo life far away from light-tastic Shibuya. Be sure to walk around nearby Ueno Park which houses several of the city's renowned temples and shrines as well as Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, the National Museum of Western Art and a host of traditional Japanese institutions including the country's oldest zoo with crowd-pleasing giant panda bears.
torii at Nezu Shrine
Here are a few of my favourite Yanaka addresses that stole my heart...
Washi Wonder - Isetatsu
I made sure to pay a visit to Isetatsu on both of my trips to Japan last year. This traditional washi and chiyogami suppliers offers a range of colourful designs and patterns on paper produced by this family business since 1864. With over fifteen hundred wood block and hand carved designs to chose from and furoshiki (multi purpose cloth) found under the roof of this miniature premises, Isetatsu is the place for any stationary enthusiast - I stocked up on greeting cards and wrapping paper which are worthy of any fine art print - and is the only establishment of its kind that remains in Tokyo.
Red and yellow and green and blue... at Biscuit
If you follow the aroma of coffee across the street from Isetatsu, you will find Rampo, a small café clad in dark wood decorated with eclectic kitsch ornaments and picture frames whose owner has a penchant for cats. An unusual refuge, yet somewhat very Yanaka once you get a feel for the area. The kitsch trail continues and is presented in a very different way next door at Biscuit. Colour coordinated objects from Europe line the walls and vintage dressers of this boutique which makes up a mini emporium with two other outlets - fashion and books - located in their respective dinky shops dotted around the neighbourhood. Biscuit is a lifestyle brand with an eye for detail that has successfully managed to understand its aesthetic across all aspects and objects for everyday life.
Nobuo-san at Biscuit Books
The book shop is close to Nezu Shrine, a few minutes walk from the other two outlets and is run by artist Nobuo Kusunoki. It was a pleasure to meet Nobuo-san who was passionate about illustrated books. An illustrator himself, he explained how the shop's book collection is his own; from children's books to encyclopedias, old fashion and travel magazines to Punch, his collection spans the globe and has friends from England and Europe send him old books and maps of London that they find in flea markets or on their travels. Originally from Kyoto, Nobuo-san described Yanaka as a home from home - the neighbourhood's low architecture and resident's love of two-wheels rather than four attracted him to move to the area. Arigato goizamsu to Nobuo-san for his time and tour of his brilliant shop - please take a look at Nobuo's very own illustrations and model-making at his website Mustard Café here.
Behind the façade of a 1952 sento public bathhouse lies one of the most famous contemporary art galleries in Japan, SCAI The Bathhouse. Launched in 1993 under the directorship of Masami Shiraishi, an international and national artist programme of events and exhibitions are programmed throughout the year - currently on show is an installation by Japanese artist Nobuko Tsuchiya, We are living in a time machine.