During a working day the district of Yanaka is a tranquil oasis in an otherwise frenetic Tokyo. In contrast to much of this great city, Yanaka has its roots firmly planted in the Edo period of Japan’s history (1600 to 1850’s) as the area survived the destructive force of both the 1923 earthquake and the bombing in World War 2.
Traditional butchers, grocers, confectioners, food stalls, hardware outlets all competing for customers from neat fronted shops along the pedestrian Yanaka Ginza shopping street only reinforce the old world village atmosphere of the district, as do the narrow lanes and small houses that crisscross its centre.
Nippori station serves Yanaka; but I decided to amble there via the beautifully laid out Ueno Park. The park is also where you find a number of museums including the National Science, Metropolitan Art and Western Art museums as well as Japan’s first zoo.
This route takes in many of the temples that were relocated in Yanaka from the inner city after the Great Fire of Meireki destroyed between 60 and 70% of Tokyo in 1657. Some of the temples worth a visit include the peaceful Tennoji Temple where only muffled birdsong disturbed the silence and the faded charm of the Chanoji Temple where the stone stupas (a mound that houses sacred relics) date from the 13th century.
It was a cold day when I visited the area but I was still a little taken back to see statues of children wearing red knitted bibs and hats. These garments are offered not only in thanks by grateful parents whose children have survived life threatening illnesses but, sadly, by those grieving their lost sons and daughters.
While in the mood to contemplate my own ephemeral existence on this earth I visited Yanaka Cemetery, one of Tokyo’s largest. Unexpectedly, I stumbled across a children’s playground in which swings and slides sit incongruously surrounded by the graves and tombs of 7000 souls.
However, I saved the best till last as I ended my day in Yanaka with a visit to the unassuming Jomyoin Temple. The building is nondescript, the real interest lies in the massed ranks of 20,000 jizo that line up in the temple grounds. Jizo are statues of Buddhist divinities (or bodhisattva) that are the patron of children, expectant mothers, firemen, travellers, pilgrims and both aborted and miscarried babies.
I began to appreciate devotion as I walked among the rows of weather beaten statues; not by the small gifts left at the feet of some but because they were imbued with a quiet dignity. As I stroked the rough stone of statues I fell into a meditative frame of mind; thinking of my family I silently asked for their continued health and my safe return to them.
Yanaka is the perfect antidote to the terminal velocity of modern Tokyo. I visited the district on a working day; I heard that it’s very busy at weekends as both tourists and locals bustle along the narrow lanes window shopping, enjoying the wonderful street food, searching for bargains in the fifty yen store or just soaking up the atmosphere of this captivating district.
(for info: temples are Buddhist and shrines are Shinto)