Yanaka is one of the quirkiest, undiscovered, Old Tokyo neighborhoods in town. Here, new generations of artisans from families that have plied their trades for centuries are finding fun and inventive ways to make everything old new again. Sometimes, with cats. Let’s walk around!
Here’s our route:
And here’s the link to the Google map of the tour, so you can use your phone to navigate once you get there.
Gallery Marusan – The famous Shiba-inu dog store
I know I said this neighborhood was obsessed with cats, but if there’s anybody on your souvenir list who loves dogs, this is the place to find the most squeeworthy gifts ever.
Note: The Gallery Maru-san is only open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, from 11:00 – 18:00
We can’t come to Yanaka and not stop in at Nezu Shrine, my favorite shrine in Tokyo.
Now let’s go back out to the main street and walk along, peering into the shops. Many have been in business since the samurai era, before Japan opened to the West. On the left side of the street, look for
• the sweet potato snack shop
• the Japanese ceramics store
• the incense shop
• the store selling seasonal-themed tea ceremony sweets
• take-out rice ball window
• the handmade calligraphy brush store
• the made-to-order lantern store
• the store selling wooden buckets and bathtubs
Now we’re going to cross the street and cut in to a twisty little back lane called (not surprisingly) Snake Street. This little street used to be a stream lined with indigo dyers, but now it winds through a typical residential neighborhood, peppered with occasional small shops and cafes.
Scrub brush store (Kame-no-ko Tawashi)
As we turn onto Snake Street, one of the first shops we’ll see is a charming place selling handmade scrub brushes. You may not realize how much you desire a scrub brush until you see the fun varieties on offer, and I pretty much guarantee you’ll be going home with at least one!
Now let’s wander down Snake Street until we reach the next big avenue, and turn right. Cross the big street and turn left down the narrow lane leading to the Yanaka Ginza cat-themed shopping street. Immediately on the right you’ll see a picture board pointing the way to:
This shop is where an eccentric artist displays his creations and puts on puppet shows every half hour.
Shrine maiden fortune vending machine
Whether you’re in dire need of guidance about the future or not, don’t resist getting your fortune told by this animatronic shrine maiden, at the vendng machine we’ll encounter on the right as we walk toward the Yanaka Ginza shopping street.
Yanaka Ginza shopping street
A little further on, we’ll turn right into the Yanaka Ginza shopping street. This is one of the best traditional neighborhood shopping streets in Tokyo, lined with small shops selling delicious street food snacks (from skewered BBQ chicken to fresh oysters), household goods with adorable animal themes, vintage Japanese items, and other tempting stuff. But what makes it especially fun is that cats are everywhere.
After enjoying all the shops along the way, we’ll get to a broad set of steps. Let’s go up the steps and turn right at the end of the block, at the first intersection. More charming shops line this street, and if you have an abiding interest in sculpture, we can pop into the Asakura Sculpture Museum on your left.
When we get to the end of this street, let’s turn right, and we’ll soon come to two cat-themed shops we don’t want to miss:
The store where you can order a handpainted sculpture portrait of your own cat lifting its paw like a Japanese lucky cat
This shop specializes in adorable versions of the raised-paw cats called maneki neko, which are famous for beckoning good fortune through the doors of businesses. If there’s an entrepreneur on your gift list, you can’t go wrong tucking one of these amongst their next stack of gifts.
And if you don’t want to wait six months for your cat’s portrait, let’s try our hands at making one ourselves at the cafe next door.
After fueling up on coffee & cake, let’s head down the hill, where we’ll encounter this temple:
Zensho-an Temple (home of the Ghost Museum)
Zensho-an Temple, has a tall gold Kannon statue and magnificent peonies (in May). If we’re lucky enough to be visiting in August, we’ll stop in at the temple’s Ghost Museum (¥500). Telling ghost stories is one of the traditional ways Japanese kept cool in summertime because they “send a chill up your spine.”
Now let’s cross the street and visit one of my very favorite stops in Yanaka: the chiyogami store.
Isetatsu (Traditional woodblock printed paper)
Chiyogami is woodblock printed paper, and this store has been in business since the samurai era. Some designs feature all-over traditional Japanese patterns (used for wrapping and covering boxes and trays), others depict collections of Japanese things (from childrens’ toys to kabuki wigs) and others are amusing scenes, suitable for framing. This shop is so venerable, one of their prints is even in a painting by Van Gogh! Each one is meticulously printed in multiple colors, just like the famous artists’ woodblock prints, but at a fraction of the price.
Amezaiku-ya (fantastic art lollipops)
Lollipops made by skillful snipping and pulling of hot candy are a centuries-old art in Japan, and one of the best shops in Tokyo is a quick jaunt up the hill before our walking tour ends. The tiny shop is filled with everything from whimsical bunnies to adorable animals representing every zodiac year, but the best part is watching the artist at work, through the window at the far end. If you’d like to take photos or video of him at work, order a lollipop off the many choices on the menu, and he’ll make it for you as you watch.
And if we’re feeling like a snack after all that walking, let’s stop at my favorite only-in-Japan guilty pleasure: Mister Donut. There’s a shop on the corner, right across from the entrance to Sendagi Station.
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Jonelle Patrick is the author of five novels set in Japan
The Last Tea Bowl Thief was chosen as an Editor’s Pick for Best Mystery, Thriller & Suspense on Amazon
“A fascinating mix of history and mystery.” —Booklist