We set out from Ueno Park heading towards the Yanaka district, located just south of Nippori Station. It is is one of the few remaining quarters in Tokyo that wasn’t bombed and destroyed during World War II. If you seek a traditional and historical part of Tokyo with the spirits of a bygone time, this is absolutely the place. Artisans still thrive in the area, making a living by selling their craft products. Small local shops flourish and Japanese cuisine reaches the street.
Little by little the neighbourhood changes character, and to our surprise we suddenly find ourselves in a village-like part of the city with twisting streets full of cyclists going in all directions.
Where to stay in Tokyo? HOTEL HILLARYS Akasaka at the Imperial Palace, with a public hot bath, the square hotel GINZA in Ginza, with a public hot bath, Hotel Gracery Asakusa top location near the Sensoji Temple.
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The intricate quarter features small houses with green bamboo and lots of flowerpots and pot plants at the entrances. Hadn’t we known that we are in fact in the metropolis of Tokyo, we could easily have believed to be in a remote village somewhere in Japan.
A little bit further ahead we enter the large and famous Yanaka Cemetery. What in particular draw our attention are the tall, engraved or painted, wooden sticks or sotobas placed behind each grave.
Actually, Japan’s last shogun is buried in Yanaka Cemetery, too. Searching around we try to see if we can find his grave.
Out again, we find another intriguing place. A tiny tea shop sells sweet, appetizing bean cakes for a few yen, and before long we are sitting on the dark red velvet cushions on the outdoor bench enjoying the sweets with a cup of green tea.
While ambling around the curving lanes, energetic cyclists repeatedly overtake us. It is insanely silent and definitely differs a bit from the Tokyo you usually picture.
After strolling around for a while we reach a surprisingly crowded street. It is Yanaka Ginza – the ‘busy’, traditional local shopping street in Yanaka.
Japanese heritage and history inevitably pop up here and there in Yanaka Ginza, creating a unique mix of the ultra-modern and the old Tokyo.
At this time of the day Yanaka Ginza is pretty packed with Japanese housewives and others going for provisions before dinner. We spot take-away meals, dried fish, colourful sashimi or sushi and beautiful ceramics for a tea ceremony in the old shops. Yanaka Ginza really features a good mixture of inviting food, traditional atmosphere and quality artifacts. It is at the same time slightly quaint and yet extremely fascinating.
Most shops in Yanaka Ginza seem to have expanded to the street, so passing through the vivid street with appealing scents from kitchens and stalls is like being on a huge outdoor market.
Curiously, a bit down Yanaka Ginza, I enter a pottery shop to admire the handicrafts. The owner immediately offers me a cup of freshly made green tea. I follow the impressive racks of unique pottery to the very back of the room, adjacent to a small kitchen where they actually use some of their own craft products for cooking. I find nearly all they sell extremely beautiful, so it is hard to select just a few items. This is one of the moments that I wish I would be able to take infinitely many things back home – without being restricted by my bag of limited size!
The other end of Yanaka Ginza is right by Nippori Station from where we later conveniently take the Yamanote Line back to Okachimachi and its whirling streets. Barely ten minutes away, but there is a world of difference between the settings.
The contrasts in Tokyo are stark. Modern buildings and high tech – side by side with a traditional Tokyo with reminiscences of the ancient Edo or Tokugawa period. Densely populated streets and quarters surrounded by village-like roads and fine single-family houses as in Yanaka. The metropolis is everywhere multifaceted and surprisingly varied.
Tokyo’s specific skyscraper districts are dispersed among quarters of more local character, green and blossoming parks, temples and shrines. To the more famous ancient buildings in Tokyo belong the old, colourful Buddhist Sensoji Temple, also known as the Asakusa Kannon Temple, and the Shinto shrine Meiji Jingu – both rich in history.
The Meiji Jingu Shrine in Tokyo was dedicated to the old Emperor Meiji who ascended the throne back in history – in 1867. This was the end of the feudal era. Emperor Meiji moved the capital from Kyoto to Tokyo – or Edo which was the old, historical name for Tokyo. The Meiji era, which lasted until 1912, was the era of modernisation and technological improvements and an approach to western lifestyle.
There, at the famous Meiji Shrine with the massive and tall torii gate, we are as fortunate as to stumble across the ceremony and procession of a Shinto wedding. Curiously, we are contemplating the elegant white wedding kimono of the bride as well as the outfit of the groom and the close family members. It is a fascinating glimpse into old Tokyo, as well as Japanese traditions, culture and history.
Chiyoda Imperial Palace is another significant, historical site in Tokyo, which is still today the residence of the Emperor of Japan. Moreover, it is the location of the former Edo Castle. Edo Castle, dating back to 1457, was the impressive residence of the Tokugawa shogun who ruled the country in the years 1603 – 1867. Subsequently, also Emperor Meiji took residence at Edo Castle from 1868 to 1888.
Entering the East Gardens totally breaks the illusion of being in a bustling metropolis with its absolutely vibrant life. It is surprisingly quiet around the defense area of the monumental Edo Castle. From the architectural style here you easily get the impression that the place is stuck in a 15th-century time warp. There is nothing around to contradict it. The place is outstanding in beauty and simplicity.
A few steps out of the East Gardens, everything changes again into a contemporary Tokyo. The contrasts between old and modern are striking and keep on surprising us. The variety is precisely what contributes so to the charm of the vast, sprawling metropolis.
The small village Edo was inhabited by the old Edo clan already in the 12th century. They fortified it throughout the years and in 1457 the construction of the impressive Edo Castle began in the East Garden of the Imperial Palace.
It was not until 1590, when Tokugawa Ieyasu established himself in Edo, that Edo got a central role in the country. He became the first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603. Relatively peaceful times followed during the next centuries. Despite many natural disasters, such as fires and earthquakes that stroke the city, Edo became the political and cultural centre of Japan. By the mid-eighteenth century the population had risen to over a million.
The peace lasted until the American Commodore Matthew C. Perry arrived and forced the country to allow import of foreign goods. This drove prices up and eventually led to inflation. It all resulted in riots among the population and finally the last Tokugawa shogun, Yoshinobu, was overthrown in 1867.
A new era began with the Emperor Meiji who moved from Kyoto to Edo, now being renamed to Tokyo. With this Japan’s capital changed location from Kyoto to Tokyo. During the Meiji era (1868-1912) Tokyo became a city with stone and brick houses, paved roads, telecommunication lines, steam locomotives and partly adopted western lifestyle.
During the Taisho era (1912-1926) Tokyo attracted even more people, the education level rose and the culture flourished.
The Showa era (1926-1989), beginning shortly after the devastating Great Kanto Earthquake, brought further urban and political development and welfare to the metropolis.
The Pacific War which broke out in 1941 brought about further changes and the metropolitan administrative system was established. During the war there were heavy bombings of Tokyo resulting in a great loss. When the war ended in 1945, facts were that the population in Tokyo was only about half of the size in 1940, namely 2.8 million.
In May 1947 the new Constitution of Japan was introduced, and Seiichiro Yasui was elected the first Governor of Tokyo. Shortly, the special 23-ward system was introduced in Tokyo.
Tokyo held the Summer Olympics 1964. During the following decades many technological inventions became part of the everyday life, and the standard of living changed accordingly. Expressways and Shinkansen trains contributed significantly to the new infrastructure. After the Oil Crisis in 1973 was over, Japan played a leading role in the development of technology, engaged in global activities and experienced a rapid economic growth. Tokyo’s population increased to 11 million!
However, the Lost Decade of Japan, occurred in the 1980s. A debt bubble developed – and burst in 1990 bringing about a tremendous recession. Since then Japan has taken steps to recover again.
Japan was in 2011 set back by an earthquake and the resulting tsunami causing a disaster on the nuclear power plant Fukushima Daiichi.
Nevertheless, modern Tokyo is again a cultural magnet and attracts every year large numbers of tourists. Tokyo is known to the world as the safe, civilised, clean and efficient Asian metropolis to travel in – with a rich history and an interesting cultural life.
Read more about Tokyo (vibe, see & do, accommodation, price level, transport, safety, climate, history) in our Facts About Tokyo – Travel Guide.
Do you need a 3-day itinerary in Tokyo?
If you have only got 2 days in Tokyo to explore, you may consider this 2-day itinerary: Best Things to Do in Tokyo – Itinerary 2 Days
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‘Step into Quaint, Old Tokyo History’
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