June 14, 2017
Besides the touristy Asakusa I have never seen much of Tokyo’s Shitamachi, the once-marshy part of town where the lower castes such as merchants and artists lived during the Edo era. This time I decided to stop going back to Shimokitazawa and its ilks and spend what little amount of available time I had in Yanesen, the collective name for the Yanaka, Nezu, and Sendagi neighbourhoods and one of the best preserved districts in all of Tokyo.
National Museum of Western Arts
Instead of Nippori station, I got off at Ueno station and made a detour to the National Museum of Western Arts in Ueno Park, freshly inscribed as a World Heritage Site last year as part of the “The Architectural Work of Le Corbusier”, a joint nomination of seventeen buildings across seven countries.
Le Corbusier was one of the most influential architects of the 20th century and a true visionary in contemporary architecture. His Five Points of Architecture (pylon, roof terrace, free plan, ribbon window, free facade) has since been incorporated into buildings around the globe. He designed the National Museum of Western Arts in Tokyo, completed in 1959 as a symbol of the resumption of diplomatic ties between Japan and France after World War II. As one of Le Corbusier’s later works, the three-story, reinforced concrete building had borrowed many elements from his earlier famous designs.
The building, with a rectangular layout, is rather simple and wouldn’t look out of place in many university campuses. In fact my alma mater UBC has several that are very similar. Despite how common it appears now, the National Museum of Western Arts has been an inspiration to Japanese architectural titans like Tadao Ando, Shigeru Ban and Kenzo Tange.
Nobody goes to Tokyo for western arts. Nor temples. However, one of Tokyo’s most famous ones, Kan’ei-ji, is right next to Ueno Park and worthy of a quick peek. Commissioned by the Tokugawa shogunate, the Buddhist complex was built in 1625 as an attempt to emulate Kyoto’s Enryaku-ji and protect the Edo Castle against the northeast, said to be the direction where evil spirits roamed. At its peak it was certainly extremely powerful, consisting of over 30 buildings and covering a large part of what’s now Ueno Park. 6 of 15 Tokugawa shoguns were buried here.
The Great fire of Meireki of 1657 and the Battle of Ueno in 1868 almost completely destroyed the complex; the majority of which was never rebuilt. Much of the ground, including the Shinobazu Pond, became part of Ueno Park. The current main hall was taken from Kita-in in Kawagoe and transferred to the site in 1879.
Adjacent to Kan’ei-ji, Yanaka Cemetery, covering 100,000 square meters and home to more than 7,000 graves, is one of Tokyo’s largest and most picturesque graveyards, as well as a beloved cherry blossom viewing spot. For most of the year it is usually very quiet — I hardly saw anyone during my visit — but 150 years ago part of this ground was a bustling entertainment district outside of Tennō-ji.
As stated before, Buddhism had been a vital part of Japanese political lives since its introduction from China in the 6th century. That also turned out to be its downfall; its influence waned in the Meiji era when it was seen as too closely connected to the Edo-era shogunate. Shinto, which over the previous millennium was incorporated with Buddhism into a syncretic belief, was promoted as the state religion.
This separation of Buddhism and Shinto created many issues, including how to conduct burial as most cemeteries were owned by Buddhist temples till that point. As Shinto funerals became more common, public burial grounds like Yanaka, created in 1872 after confiscating much of the land previously owned by Tennō-ji, were high in demand.
Walking through Yanaka is supposed to be a quick tutorial of who’s who in contemporary Japanese history, but clueless foreigners like myself wouldn’t be able to tell your Shibusawa Eiichi from Yokoyama Taikan. The last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, was also buried here at a gated compound dedicated to the Tokugawa clan. His abdication to Emperor Meiji in 1867 ushered in a new era which resulted in him being the only Tokugawa to receive a Shinto burial rather than a Buddhist one.
There are certainly enough temples to spend a whole day in Yanaka, but instead I headed straight to Yanaka Ginza after passing through the cemetery. Take note that some of the temples forbid any trespassing.
Yanaka Ginza is a 170m shopping alley named after the famous district in Chuo Ward, yet you will be hard-pressed to find any luxury good at the 70 odd timeworn shops, many of which sell edibles and souvenirs. Even on a random weekday afternoon the pedestrian-only strip was bustling with tourists both domestic and foreign. While often advertised as an Edo-era experience, Yanaka Ginza feels distinctly linked to the post-WWII period of the 1950s. Many shops have decades of history, such as the bamboo-craft specialist Midori-ya and the tea store Kanekichien.
I quickly breezed past the crowded Yanaka Ginza and turned right on the first available intersection. Unfortunately the two heavyweights on this quiet side street, the Asakura Museum of Sculpture and Space Oguraya Gallery, were both closed on this afternoon. The latter is a pioneer in redeveloping the area’s many historic yet dilapidated buildings, and now more buildings have been converted to commercial use, including right on this street the pottery shop Skanda and the antique store Gate of Life.
But remodeling old buildings is an expensive expenditure. Many more are simply knocked down to make room for new ones. Given Yanaka’s prime location near Ueno and its ever-increasing popularity, the process of gentrification will only intensify.
Scai the Bathhouse & Ueno Sakuragi Atari
I didn’t come across any of Yanaka’s famous stray cats until I arrived at the doorstep of Scai the Bathhouse, a 200 year-old bathhouse turned contemporary art gallery since 1993. The exterior and entrance have retained the original design while the former bathing area has been converted into an exhibition hall with a very high ceiling. As often the case with contemporary art, I had no clue what Daisuke Ohba was trying to convey with his iridescent pearl paintings, but the building itself justified a visit.
A stone’s throw away to the east of Scai the Bathhouse is a beautiful unit of three refurbished wooden houses called Ueno Sakuragi Atari. Remember Kan’ei-ji, the temple near the beginning of this walk? This area was the eastern tip of this formerly powerful temple, which became a residential neighbourhood called Ueno Sakuragi in the Meiji era, home to the merchant class as well as artists and writers. It continued to thrive as a fortunate corner in central Tokyo to avoid widespread destruction from the Great Kanto Earthquake.
In 1938 a real estate developer built what now becomes Ueno Sakuragi Atari as a family home. After serving as a private residence for much of its existence, a collaboration between the controlling family and various NPOs had transformed the compound into a multi-purpose unit with a beer hall, bakery, olive oil store, activity spaces and residences. Any successful preservation of history is far from inevitable — these antiquated houses were considered to be turned into a parking lot as recently as 2012.
My last stop was Kayaba Coffee on Kototoi-dori. The coffee shop is housed in a building built in 1916 and reopened in 2009 by a local NPO and the team behind Scai the Bathhouse after the original proprietor died in 2006. A good place to let the legs rest a little after walking non-stop for hours.
Is Yanesen unique? Or is it only a common neighbourhood that just happens to have a few old wooden buildings? As I reached Nezu subway station on Shinobazu Dori, a major throughway lined with monotonous apartment blocks just like much of central Tokyo outside of Yanesen, I seemed to have crossed an invisible boundary — the buildings were taller, there were more cars, even the people walked slightly faster. I wish the quaint neighbourhood on the other side of this invisible boundary can remain the way it is now for as long as possible.