Sendagi: Stepping back a century

By Vicki L Beyer

The Yanaka-Sendagi area of Tokyo is a residential district that was popular with industrialists and literati in the early 20th century. The atmosphere of that bygone era can still be found by wandering through this older neighborhood.

To get a real flavor of the area, start from JR Nippori Station. Exit through the wickets of the North exit, go out the West exit and turn left. After about 100 meters, you'll find yourself at the top of a staircase leading to Yanaka Ginza, a narrow laneway of shops. Take a minute to observe the lay of the land. "Yanaka" means "in the valley." Even carpeted with buildings as it is, the shape of the valley is very much in evidence.

The merchants of Yanaka Ginza offer everything one might need in daily life. "Mom and Pop" shops sell groceries, fresh produce, home-made pickles, sweet potatoes roasting on coals, fancy cakes and teriyaki chicken. Other products available here include toiletries, pharmaceuticals, light bulbs, children’s clothing, traditional footwear, and hardware. It's all here. While many Tokyo neighborhoods once boasted such markets, in more modern residential areas these small shops are often forced out by larger supermarkets. Not so here.

Yanaka Ginza ends at the bottom of the valley. Turn left onto Yomise-dori. This road was once a watercourse with a night market on either side of the stream. The stream was culvertized in the 1930s (a common public works project during the reconstruction of Tokyo after the 1923 earthquake), but the mercantile nature of the remaining roadway lives on. Although the road is wider and lacks the atmosphere of Yanaka Ginza, there are points of interest. Look especially for Yanaka Coffee, with its fresh roasted beans. A little further on, you can buy homemade “dango” sweets in various flavors for just 10 yen a piece. Just before the convenience store on the left, duck into the narrow alley on the right. This alley, about 70 meters long and barely wide enough for a car, is actually a residential street—can you imagine living here? When you reach Shinobazu-dori, a major roadway which leads to Shinobazu Pond near Ueno Park to the south, cross and follow another narrow residential alley to the entrance to Sudo Park, a little green space that provides locals a little respite from their cheek-by-jowl lives. The wisteria here is spectacular in its season.

At the base of this hillside park -- the other side of the valley -- is a pond with an island housing a shrine to the goddess Benten. Pay her a short visit and then continue through the park and up the stairs to exit the park at the top of the hill. Follow the left-hand road to a "T" intersection. Turn right and after about 50 meters, you’ll find a traditional wooden gateway, the entrance to the Yasuda House (Former Kusuo Yasuda Residence), on the left.

Lovingly preserved by the Japan National Trust, the Japanese-style house, built in 1919, is a treasure trove of 20th century Japanese history. The house was occupied by members of the industrialist Yasuda family from the 1920s until the turn of the millennium. It is open to the public on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Volunteer docents provide detailed tours explaining the design and construction of the house as well as the building materials used and how it has been restored and preserved. The house has an elegant Western-style room in the front, which was used for entertaining. This room is connected to the family's living quarters by a long corridor. Unusually for a Tokyo historic house, even the kitchen is open to visitors; the gas oven and skylights are particularly unique.

Another unique feature of this house is its bomb shelter, built by government order during World War II. Ordinarily visitors are shown only the location of the entrance and a photograph of the inside, but the shelter is opened on the Saturday before August 15 (mark your calendar).

The bathroom, with its wooden tub and modern (for the time) shower and upstairs bedrooms round out your visit. During the cherry blossom season, the weeping cherry tree in the well-maintained traditional garden is spectacular, particularly viewed from the upstairs windows. When the house was built and there were no tall buildings around, it was possible to see all the way to Shinobazu Pond from these windows. It's hard to imagine today.

As you leave the Yasuda House, turn right and walk down to the traffic light. This is the top of a slope known as "dango-zaka" (dumpling hill). It is interesting that while in the West when a hill is given a name it is the entire elevated area that bears the name, in Japan it is the flank or slope that is named. So one "hill" (as a geological elevation) may have several names, depending on where it is approached from.

To continue this walk, we'll go down the hill and back to Shinobazu-dori. But, if you have an interest in Meiji-period history, you may want to make a quick detour to the Mori Ogai Memorial Museum that is across the street and about 30 meters up the hill (show your ticket from the Yasuda House and get a discount on admission).

A modern concrete structure built on the site of Mori Ogai's Tokyo home, the museum contains a fascinating timeline of Mori's eventful and impactful life (alas, only in Japanese). Born in 1862 and licensed as a physician at the age of 19, Mori was a leading figure in Meiji Japan. He became an Army doctor, studied in Germany and eventually rose to the position of Surgeon General. He is best known for his literary work, editing a literary journal and authoring a number of historical novels and biographies.

Cross Shinobazu-dori at the bottom of dango-zaka and keep going up the hill on the opposite side. Curiously, this slope also uses the name dango-zaka.

There are a number of interesting small shops along this road, as well. Look particularly for the Isetatsu paper shops on the right-hand side -- one in a modern building just after you cross Shinbazu-dori and another older shop further up the hill. The original Isetatsu paper manufacturing concern is in the warren of buildings behind the Yanaka Elementary School further along; these shops are an outlet for its products. On the left-hand side of the street and halfway between the two paper shops, Kikumi Senbei offers its traditional rice crackers from traditional glass cases.

Daienji, across from Yanaka Elementary School, is a Nichiren Buddhist temple dating to the late 17th century. Uniquely, the temple and its guardian shrine are housed in the same structure (built in 1919), with separate entrances side by side. The easy way to know which entrance is which is to look for the rope that usually hang over a shrine's collection box to enable supplicants to ring the bell and announce themselves to the gods.

In front of the temple's cemetery is a small monument commemorating O-sen, a teahouse girl of 18th century Edo. O-sen worked as a waitress in her father's tea house in the area now occupied by Yanaka Cemetery. Her famed beauty attracted many customers and she was memorialized in poetry and woodblock prints.

From Daienji, continue up the hill. The road leads to the edge of Yanaka Cemetery. There is a lot to see in this historic place as well, but this time of year you may want to just wander among the cherry blossoms and soak up more atmosphere on your way back to Nippori Station.

© Japan Today

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Magical place, indeed. Thanks for the story, Beyer-san !

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A beautiful place, indeed.

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