Top 13 Things to Do in Yanaka - One of Tokyo's Most Charming Little-Known Neighborhoods
Yanaka is one of the best places in Tokyo to spend a casual day strolling around away from the crowds and clamor in Shibuya, Shinjuku, and the like, but very few foreign visitors know about it! If you have some time in your Tokyo itinerary, you should definitely give this charming neighborhood a visit! Here are our picks for the top 13 things to do in Yanaka.
Jun 28 2019 (Dec 12 2019)
About the Yanaka Neighborhood
Yanaka is a small neighborhood located in the northeast area of Tokyo, just south of Nippori Station. It is famous for its shitamachi (working class) atmosphere reminiscent of a Tokyo of days gone by, mostly due to the neighborhood being one of the few spared during the bombings of Tokyo during World War II.
Yanaka has long been known as a hangout for artists and intellectuals, and there are several long-established art galleries, artisan shops, and cozy cafes to be found as you walk around.
If you've got some time to fill in your Tokyo itinerary and you want to spend a leisurely time walking around a neighborhood that has a relaxed atmosphere but still offers plenty to do, see, and eat, then Yanaka might be the perfect place for you!
(By the way, as you can see in the picture above, Yanaka is famous for cats! Try to see how many cats you can spot during your visit!)
1. Enjoy the Street Food and Small Shops Along Yanaka Ginza
The Yanaka Ginza shopping street is probaby the main attraction of the Yanaka area, and can be accessed within less than 5 minutes on foot from the North Exit of Nippori Station. The view of the shopping street from atop the staircase that leads down into it is very famous, and is often used as a backdrop for TV dramas and in promotional posters for Tokyo.
At 170 meters, the street may be relatively short compared to other famous shopping streets in Tokyo, but it is still packed to the brim with over 60 shops and restaurants to explore!
There are many shops selling delectable street food for you to nibble on during your stroll down the street, from donuts to fried delicacies, ice cream, takoyaki, and more. You can even get an ice-cold beer! During the warmer months, many of the shops will set up small outdoor seating areas for patrons to sit and casually pass the time.
2. Stroll Through the Serene Yanaka Cemetery
Just outside of the South Exit of Nippori Station, you can find the sprawling Yanaka Cemetary (Yanaka Rei-en). While the cemetery has a vast area of over 100,000 sq.m. and contains over 7,000 graves, it is most known for its central walkway, which is nicknamed Cherry-blossom Avenue due to being flanked on each side by stunning cherry blossom trees that bloom each spring.
If you venture off of Cherry-blossom Avenue you can spend a good while admiring the huge variety of graves here, some of which are simple and unassuming, and others of which are quite grand and extravagant.
Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the last shogun (military dictator) of the Edo era, is even buried here in a section devoted to the Tokugawa Shogunate. While his grave is closed off to public viewing, it is still a must-visit site for Japanese history buffs!
3. Pick up a Cute Maneki Neko Cat Souvenir for Good Luck!
As cats are the unofficial mascot of Yanaka, you would be remiss to leave the area without a cat souvenir of your own. One of the best places to to pick up a feline trinket to take home with you is Yanakado, which sells hand-painted cat figurines and a variety of other other cat-related items like coffee mugs, tea, and accessories.
You can also stop by Nekoemon Cafe next door (which is actually operated by Yanakado), and paint your own Maneki Neko (cat figurine said to bring in good luck or money depending on which hand is held up) while enjoying a hot drink and a pastry.
4. Rent a Bicycle from tokyobike
If you're sick of walking or you simply want to experiene the neighbood in a new way, why not travel around on a rental bicycle? Located in the center of the Yanaka area, tokyobike offers two types of rental bicyces for same-day return or for as many days as you want!
In addition to renting out bicycles, the shop also sells a variety of lifestyle goods and apparel, such as kitchenware, stationery, and shoes. They also run their own cafe, so you can enjoy a hot cup of coffee before you start your bike ride.
5. Cool Down With Some Premium Shaved Ice at Himitsudo
Himitsudo is one of the most famous and well-regarded kakigori (shaved ice) shops in all of Tokyo, with people waiting in excess of an hour in the summer heat just to get a taste of their icy fare during peak season.
The kakigori you can get here is worth the wait! The ice is shaved incredibly thin, giving it a smooth texture more akin to ice cream or sherbet than what you might expect when you think of shaved ice. There are many flavors to choose from, including classics like matcha and red bean as well as seasonal or limited-time flavors like banana caramel and sakura (cherry blossom).
6. Eat Some Senbei - Yanaka's Famous Souvenir
Senbei (rice crackers) are the staple souvenir food item in Yanaka, and there are several shops where you can buy it even in such a small neighborhood. Many of them have open storefronts, so you can easily walk up and check out their wares!
The most representative of the many senbei shops in Yanaka is Yanaka Senbei Shinendo. They offer a huge variety of senbei items of all shapes and flavors, from salty to savory, and even to sweet! You can either eat them right away as street food, or buy a bag to take home with you and share with your friends and family. Try out a bunch of different flavors and see which one you like best!
7. Indulge in Freshly Cooked Imagawayaki from a Street Vendor
Imagawayaki is a type of street food similar to taiyaki that consists of a batter cooked in iron moulds with sweet fillings. If you visit the Yanaka area on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, you will definitely want to stop by Imagawayaki Sendagi, located just outside of Exit 1 of Sendagi Station, for some piping hot imagawayaki!
They serve three types of imagawayaki here: tsubu-an (chunky sweet red bean paste), custard, and shiro-an (sweet white bean paste). They are all available for the insanely low price of 100 yen! The tsubu-an is the most popular, so sometimes you might have to wait for them to make a new batch, but it's worth the wait. You will especially appreciate these warm treats during the winter months, as just one bit will warm you up body and soul.
8. Line Up for the Delicacies of Kayaba Coffee
Like Himitsudo, Kayaba Coffee is another Yanaka institution that often draws long lines of customers waiting to get in. While "coffee" is in the shop's name, Kayaba is actually famous for two food items: anmitsu (agar jelly dessert topped with sweet red bean paste and other toppings) and egg sandwiches!
Kayaba Coffee's egg sandwiches may look simple, but you will be blown away by their flavors! The secret is in the quality of the ingredients, from the perfectly seasoned scrambled eggs to the fluffy and slightly sweet Japanese milk bread.
9. Taste a Range of Delicious Beers at Yanaka Beer Hall
Yanaka Beer Hall is a stylish pub that offers beer tasting sets along with a full menu of delicious, European-inspired treats as well as Japanese pub classics. The beer selection includes Yanaka Beer, a local brand, as well as a variety of other craft beers made in Japan.
If you visit during the warmer months, you'll be able to enjoy a beer and some snacks out on the terrace seating.
While you're in the area, you should make time to stop by Oshi Olive, a salt and olive specialty store that is situated in the same complex as Yanaka Beer Hall, to pick up some premium salt and olives that are usually quite hard to come by in Japan.
10. Pick Up Some Fresh-Roasted Coffee Beans at Yanaka Coffee
While Yanaka Coffee has locations all throughout Tokyo, you'll definitely want to visit their namesake location nestled in the heart of the Yanaka area! They offer the usual range of cafe beverages, from hot and cold lattes to drip coffee and tea. All the coffee they serve is roasted in-store, too!
What's more, you can take some freshly-roasted coffee beans home with you! They have a wide range of coffee available that covers various production regions, flavor profiles, and price ranges. It takes about 10 minutes for them to roast your coffee beans for you, after which you can take them home in bean form or have them ground to your preferred grind size. The ten minutes it takes for them to roast your coffee beans is the perfect amout of time to sip on a coffee beverage and chat with a friend.
11. Appreciate Contemporary Art at SCAI the Bathhouse
Since Yanaka has been known as a hangout for artists since the olden days, it would be a waste to leave here without enjoying some art. SCAI The Bathhouse is a contemporary art gallery built in a former bathhouse with over 200 years of history!
The inside of SCAI the Bathhouse may be small, but it constanly features some of the best and brightest contemprary artists from Japan and abroad. You'll be glad to know that admission is free, so you can easily stop in for an intellectually stimulating break from walking or from the heat while exploring the Yanaka area.
12. See the Stunning Works of Art at the Asakura Museum of Sculpture
Another place to enjoy art while in Yanaka is the Asakura Museum of Sculpture, which is devoted to the works of celebrated sculptor Fumio Asakura. In actuality, this museum used to be his house! He continually expanded and altered the structure during the time he lived there, and you can enjoy seeing his creativity and attention to detail during your visit.
The main thing to see at the museum, of course, is its vast collection of Asakura's sculptures. He won many awards for his sculpture work, and you can see why as you wander around the collection housed in the museum. Make sure to make your way up to the rooftop terrace to see the stunning view of his sculptures with the city of Tokyo in the background. It looks especially dramatic during the sunset.
13. Try Out a Must-Eat Classic Traditional Japanese Sweet
Daifuku is a wagashi (traditional Japanese sweet) made from sweet mochi (pounded rice cake) with a filling. The daifuku you can get from Yanaka Okanoeisen are considered some of the best in Tokyo! Stop by the shop to enjoy delicious mame-daifuku (daifuku mixed with black beans) along with some green tea. Or, you can take a whole bag with you back home for a late night snack or as a souvenir.
In addition to mame-daifuku, you can also get other wagashi such as the famed sakura-mochi during sakura season each spring. No matter what you eat, you will surely enjoy spending time in the atmospheric interiors of this shop, which is set up in an old Japanese house.
The 13 spots shared above are just a taste of what Yanaka has to offer, and if you want to explore even further, you can check out the neighboring areas of Nezu and Sendagi. In fact, the three areas are often called the collective name of Yanesen (from the names Yanaka, Nezu, and Sendagi).
Whether you stay in Yanaka, explore all of Yanesen, or venture into another of Tokyo's "shitamachi" neighboorhods, we really recommend visiting quieter areas like this to get a different taste of Tokyo wholly different from the lights, crowds, and excitement of places like Shibuya and Akihabara.
Header credit: iamshutter/Shutterstock.com
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.