Curated Walking Tour: Yanaka, the best traditional neighborhood in Tokyo

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.

Pillows, tote bags, plastic folders, and MORE, and all of them will bring that ineffable shiba-inu goodness into your life
They even sell shiba protective amulets and towels with Maru-san posed in front of the local shrine!

Note: The Gallery Maru-san is only open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, from 11:00 – 18:00


Nezu Shrine

We can’t come to Yanaka and not stop in at Nezu Shrine, my favorite shrine in Tokyo.

In the fall, the Japanese maples turn brilliant red and the gingko trees become towers of gold.
We’re going to walk down the side street until we get to the main entrance, marked by giant red lacquered torii
Recently restored, the main courtyard is a great example of red and gold lacquerwork.
Walking through the long tunnel of orange torii gates is one of the great pleasures of visiting this shrine

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

The owners of this store have been making wooden buckets here since the 1500s, and have the ancient tools (still in use!) to prove it.
This store sells festival lanterns, made to order with the sponsor’s name brushed on the front.

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!

Even their New Year’s decorations are made of scrub brushes

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:


Puppet Shokichi

This shop is where an eccentric artist displays his creations and puts on puppet shows every half hour.

The shop is filled with puppets posed in poignant tableaus of traditional Japanese life…
…and surprisingly recognizable puppet caricatures of celebrities. These surround the stage where the performances take place, but this is also where we can get our portraits painted by a puppet!
After we ask the proprietor if he has time for a portrait, we’ll pay him ¥1000, and take our seats in the front row. Then THIS will happen


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.

After inserting our coins, this adorable shrine maiden goes into the shrine at the back and fetches the fortune, then drops it into the box at the front


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.

These are the official mascots of the Yanaka Ginza shopping street. They’re a mash-up between the shi-shi lion dogs that flank the entrances to Japanese temples (see how one has its mouth open, and the other’s mouth is closed?) and also the raised-paw maneki neko, who beckon good fortune into every business and shop
But they’re not the only cats in town. From the rooftops…
…to cat-themed snacks, like these cat tail donuts!

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.

This shop became famous for commissioned cat portraits (which take six months and require a good photo of your cat when placing the order)
Sadly, they won’t take on orders for big ones like these anymore, but it also sells a ton of adorable and unusual cat merchandise, for all the kitteh-lovers on your list.

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.


Cafe Nekoemon

The set price includes the drink of your choice, a cat-themed dessert, and a blank maneki neko raised-paw cat figure to color
Fortunately, my cat turned turned out somewhat better than my attempts at making the most beautiful lollipops in the world

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.

My favorite series stars these cats. I’ve got this one (the bathhouse), and also the cats throwing snowballs in the winter, cats learning calligraphy and the one at the beginning of this post, cats enjoying the summer fireworks YOU CAN’T HAVE TOO MANY


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.

Amezaiku-ya‘s artist is a genius at crafting cute lollipops right before our eyes

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.

I can resist temptation by all other donuts, but Mister Donut’s “Pon de Ringu” is pure, chewy, only-in-Japan goodness. If you haven’t tried one, I warn you: you won’t be able to eat just one

The Last Tea Bowl Thief was chosen as an Editor’s Pick for Best Mystery, Thriller & Suspense on Amazon

 For three hundred years, a missing tea bowl passes from one fortune-seeker to the next, changing the lives of all who possess it…read more

“A fascinating mix of history and mystery.” —Booklist

Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Japan, produces the monthly e-magazine Japanagram, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: