Looking for the spirit of Edo? It’s in Yanesen.

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Comfortable Nostalgia in Old Collectibles Antique Market

Annamarie Sasagawa  Nationality:Canadian

Looking for the spirit of Edo? It’s in Yanesen.

Even if I spent a day in Tokyo’s Yanesen district without opening my eyes, I’m sure I would know where I was. The sounds and scents in this traditional district, which is made up of the Yanaka, Nezu, and Sendagi neighborhoods, are so distinct from the rest of the city.

Because Yanesen’s neighborhoods escaped the bombing of World War II with comparatively little damage, the traditional wooden buildings, temples, shrines and shops of old Tokyo, or Edo, still remain. There’s nothing flashy about Yanesen, but that’s the point. It’s a slow-paced place where tradition lives.

Some signature Yanesen sounds are the soft swish of a sliding wooden door, the smell of roasting senbei rice cakes, and the tinkling of lucky five-yen coins as they land in the donation box of a Shinto shrine. That last sound, in fact, was one of the highlights of a recent trip I made to Nezu Shrine, in the heart of Yanesen.

Nezu Shrine, according to legend, was founded by the Shinto priest Yamato Takeru 1900 years ago. It was moved once, in the Edo period, but has stood just north of the University of Tokyo (another Yanesen landmark) ever since. There are many things to like about Nezu Shrine—the intricate carpentry of the buildings, the brightly painted wooden archers guarding its gates, the stone bridge over its carp ponds—but what I enjoyed most on my visit were its bright red rows of torii gates.

These gates, which are usually made of stone or orange-painted wood, are called torii gates. At some Japanese Shinto shrines, including Nezu Shrine, local businesses or families who give donations can have their names, the dates of their offerings, and their wishes inscribed onto the back of a torii gate that is then erected at the shrine. The gates create a sort of beautiful orange tunnel that leads to a central shrine.

When you are walking through the tunnel towards the central shrine, you can’t see any names or dates, but when you turn around, you can see on the gates a sort of community history of who donated to the shrine in past years and what they wished for. If the inscriptions on the torii gates at Nezu Shrine are to be believed, the merchants and families of Yanesen have been wishing for happy families and healthy businesses for decades. 
As I walked through the torii gates, I thought about what wish I would send to the Shinto gods. I decided that if I could, I would ask the Shinto gods to make the shrine’s azalea bushes bloom more quickly. Nezu Shrine is one of the best spots to view azaleas in Tokyo. The several thousand bushes at the shrine explode with color when azalea season finally arrives, in late April or early May. In the end, though, I decided to be patient and let the Shinto gods focus on other requests.

Yanesen, I discovered, is an easy place to be patient. After my visit to Nezu Shrine, I took a walk through the back streets of Nezu, through Sendagi, and into Yanaka. I passed many old wooden houses, some local cafes and art galleries, a senbei rice cake shop, a Japanese sweet shop, a number of Buddhist temples and a traditional public bathhouse before I ended up in Yanaka Ginza, a bustling shopping arcade.

If you are planning a trip to Japan, many people will tell you to visit Tokyo for its urban energy and cityscapes, then travel to Kyoto to experience traditional Japan in the shrines, temples, and gardens there. Kyoto is a beautiful place to discover Japanese history, but it’s not the only place in Japan to encounter tradition lives. If you’re looking for Tokyo’s living past, it’s right here, in Yanesen.

 

Access:
Nezu Jinja is a five-minute walk from Nezu or Sendagi stations on the Tokyo Metro Chiyoda subway line. It’s also a five-minute walk from Todai-mae station on the Tokyo Metro Nanboku subway line, and a ten-minute walk from Hakusan station on the Toei Mita subway line.In addition to the stations above, you can also access the Yanesen district from Nippori Station on the Japan Rail Yamanote line. From Nippori, it is a twenty-minute walk through the Yanaka neighborhood to Nezu Shrine.

 

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