Tokyo cameo – Yanaka, Ueno

One of my favorite areas in Tokyo is the quiet, residential, historic enclave of Yanaka (谷中). Three years ago, I took a wonderful guided half-day tour here (see my post from Feb. 2020), and was fortunate to have the guide all to myself. That day, I was able to visit the extraordinary Nezu Shrine, the last wooden shrine in the area. As I think back, Covid was looming over the world then, and I may have been one of the last tourists left before Japan closed its borders.

After three years, Japan is just now opening up to international tourism again. Yanaka is still intriguing, and steeped in nostalgia, with its preserved wooden buildings that pre-date WW2, and its massive cemetery (Japan’s biggest). Traces of the Edo period are here, mingling with the modern. Here, it’s easy to forget that one is in the world’s biggest metropolis. The pace is languid, and the crowds and traffic are blissfully absent. I didn’t hire a guide this time – I was on my own, and loving it.

Yanaka is a part of a greater district called Ueno, which is in northeast Tokyo. Just south of here, Ueno Park is home to many wonderful museums, including the Museum of Science and Nature, which I visited the day before visiting Yanaka. A great way to make one’s way to Yanaka is to alight at the Ueno Metro stop, and walk through Ueno Park, south to north. Pass by the Tokyo National Museum, the Ueno Park Zoo, and Tokyo University of the Arts; once outside the park’s borders, you’ll emerge near Kanaeji Buddhist temple, a marvelous landmark that dates to 1625. It’s a fine starting point for a meander through Yanaka.

Since I’d been in Yanaka before – and I like to linger rather than rush – I only had a couple of places on my list to visit this time. One of them was Yanaka Beer Hall, a tiny, hidden, locally-adored pub that serves some of the finest craft beers I’ve quaffed in Japan. I hadn’t originally planned to visit the beer hall; instead, I was thinking of going later to Popeye, which is a much better-known beer pub and closer to my hotel (I’ve visited Popeye in years past, and it is wonderful, too).

Finding the general area of the pub wasn’t too hard, since I used Google Maps to get me there. However, it was a little more tricky finding the front door, as it was a side entrance and, as so many things in Japan can be, low profile. Inside was a real treat, as the wooden building is beautifully preserved, and inside is small but cozy, and decorated simply, with natural fibers and old-timey jazz playing softly in the background (see video).

The bartender greeted me warmly, and it was easy to order from the electronic menu. I used my Papago app to translate the things I couldn’t read. My tasting set included a mellow stout, two hoppy ales, and a refreshing pilsner.

Beer probably isn’t the first drink people associate with Japan, but small scale creative breweries are becoming popular here. Craft brewers are experimenting with all kinds of styles.

It was so fortunate that I came when I did, because the place was not too busy at all. I heard that it can get busy on the weekends. At first, it was just me and a lovely Japanese couple. Then as I was leaving, I met a darling French couple who didn’t know if they needed a reservation, and I explained they could just walk in. It was good to see more intrepid foreigners come to appreciate.

VIDEO: Yanaka Beer Hall interior

After that pit-stop, I continued on to Isetatsu, a historic shop selling traditional color woodblock prints and exquisite papers. Isetatsu was originally founded in 1864 in Iwamotocho, and the owners are now in their fifth generation of printmakers. Nothing in this shop is mass-produced; it is as much a shop as it is an institution, preserving a heritage art form that has a special niche all its own. The loving care and detail are apparent in every item.

I visited this shop for the first time in 2020 on my guided tour. It was as gorgeous as before, and I managed to snap a couple of photos of the interior before the shopkeeper asked me not to take photos. I hope you enjoy these contraband photos! 🙂 You can see some things I bought (below).

In a previous post, I share more information about Isetatsu and other shops that focus on origami papers.

I have more to share with you from Japan! As I’ve just begun my semester, my posts will unfortunately come more slowly. I’ll leave you with a little collection of images gleaned from my habitual dogspotting – all taken in Tokyo.

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