There comes a point when you think Tokyo is nothing but skyscrapers, shopping and neon signs.
Then someone told me about Yanesen, a suburb full of temples and shrines, with shops housed in buildings dating from the Edo period. I expected it to be a long train ride away, but Yanesen sits right there on the JR line (Nippori station is the nearest). Yet it feels as if it is a million miles away from the skyscrapers and neon lights of the city.
Yanesen comprises the suburbs Yanaka, Nezu, and Sendagi (it takes its name from the initials).
There are an impressive 117 temples and shrines in the area; even by Tokyo standards that is a lot.
The ‘High Street’
Yanaka Ginza is the main shopping street, and a good place to start your exploring. It is only a few hundred metres from Nippori station.
The area escaped much of the bombing during world war 2, so it still consists of old timber shops and cafes, reminiscent of pictures of ‘old’ Tokyo.
The area has been given the nickname cat town, due to the high number of cats that have ‘moved in’. The cats tend to make themselves scarce whilst there are people around, however you can’t avoid noticing the cat theme gong on in Yanaka Ginza.
From shops selling ‘cat’ merchandise to hidden cat statues, the street is full of these cat references. There are in fact seven cat statues to find in the street.
It is a great place to just wander around and disappear down the various alleys and see what you find.
Being the start of cherry-blossom season, I couldn’t resist a walk along the side of Yanaka cemetery. This is a popular walk at cherry-blossom time.
There are 76 temples and shrines dotted around the cemetery area alone. The most famous is Tennoji, a Buddhist temple.
Temples and shrines
You can easily become completely templed-out in Yanesen.
I’m not a big fan of visiting lots and lots of temples. The main ones to see here are Tennoji (Buddhist) temple next to Yanaka cemetery and the Nezu Shinto shrine, a 30-minute walk from here (or a couple of stops on the Chiyoda line if your feet are hurting by now).
However you might also want to stop off at Enjuji, where people come to pray for recovery of various diseases of the legs, or for sporting success. Yes seriously.
Shinto and Buddhist religions live side by side in Japan. Many Japanese identify as both Buddhist and Shinto. For example, weddings are normally Shinto (although sometimes they are Christian). Funerals are generally Buddhist.
Shinto shrines have the torri gates.
Shintoism influences many facets of Japanese life, such as the harmony of nature which is strongly present in architecture and garden design. Also the practice of removing shoes before entering a building came from Shintoism.