Downtown girl

It’s nearing the end of my second week here in Tokyo – time sure flies. It’s been quite a scramble this week so I couldn’t be happier when Ayaka, our extremely adept intern at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, took me and my colleague Charli away from the office today.

We headed to Yanesen, a part of what the folks here refer to as “downtown Tokyo” or shitamatchi. The word has taken on differing meanings over the many ages, but Ayaka tells me shitamatchi essentially refers to what one would call the real, traditional Tokyo. Old school, in my books.

Yanesen itself is actually an abbreviation of three neighbourhoods that are all within walking distance of each other – Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi. They all possess a similarly rustic, traditional feel and hearken back to the days of a much older, quieter Tokyo; one that is quaint, uncrowded and authentic. After facing the massive sardine fest in trains and along major streets on a regular basis, this was a much-welcomed respite. I’ll let some of the pictures do the talking.

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The Yanesen area is a dotted with shrines and temples – this particular shrine had an adjacent cemetery right in front of it.

A majority of the buildings in and around Yanesen largely escaped unscathed during the incessant bombing of Tokyo in the second world war, which explains why a lot of the area feels distinctively well-preserved.

Most of it never had to be recreated or rebuilt in the first place, unlike many other parts of the city. You notice these nuances in the rusted and peeling metal gates and when you walk past rain-beaten wooden doors and walls.

Some of the structures here have been around for more than a century, and the shitamatchi area was once regarded as the heart of Edo (Tokyo as it was known during the time of the Tokugawa shogunate between the 17th and 19th centuries).

Yanesen has an eclectic mix of traditional snack stores, tea and craft shops, artisan cafes, souvenir stalls and narrow alleys with hidden restaurants serving up a bowl of soba – hot or cold.

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The entrance of this antiquated sushi shop gives you a pretty detailed idea of what you’re in for.

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Yanesen is abound with little craft shops like these peddling handmade ceramic creations

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The eclectic mix of goods at this one particular store also provides the perfect pair of traditional shoes – extra large available if you need more space for those toes

Many of these spaces have retained their traditional wooden facade, just like this restaurant right here.

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What I really like about the Yanesen is how removed it is, or feels at least, from the hustle and bustle of the rest of this metropolitan city. There weren’t even many tourists, which was a nice change from the more popular spots like Ginza, Shinjuku, Asakusa or Shibuya.

You get the sense that time has stopped for a moment, and while you’re there, it’s easy to soak in the atmosphere and boy was I soaking and dipping and rolling in it.

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A traditional snack shop selling an assortment of coated biscuits, crackers and the likes

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There’s a lot to snack on in this part of town, and as part of an overarching attempt to immerse myself in all things Tokyo during this trip, I had to forcefully (read: wilfully) indulge, starting off with a traditional 100yen ($1.16) sweet white bean snack, with the paste sandwiched between two generous pancake layers.

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For some reason, Yanaka Ginza, probably the most popular street in the Yanesen neighbourhood, is filled with cat-related souvenirs and crafts, which are supposedly a harbinger of good fortune. There’s a lot of cute to be had.

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Entrance to Yanaka Ginza

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Just before heading off, I stopped to have a chat with 66-year-old cafe owner Hiroshi Ogawa, who gamely sat me down to explain the charms of Yanesen.

The area, he said, was in the past a thriving mecca for both craftsmen and artists as well as regular folks to gather, and that old-school suburban ambience can still be keenly felt today, a century on.

The spritely-looking sexagenarian is himself a true shitamatchi native who has lived and worked in the surrounding neighbourhood for most of his life.

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Cafe owner Hiroshi Ogawa

I liked the one phrase he left me with: “You can feel it right? The old Tokyo, all you need to do is walk through here and you can even smell it.”

I could, I really could.

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