The art supply store Tokuouken is another Yanaka landmark. The century-old space is home to one of the few shops in Japan that specializes in pigment paints used in traditional Nihonga artwork and has customers ranging from art students to contemporary artists such as Takashi Murakami. The shop’s walls are lined with more than 300 bottles of different colored powder pigments, each made from careful blends of minerals, shells and rare stones. “Many Nihonga painters lived in Yanaka in the past,” explains fourth-generation owner Yukiko Miyauchi. “Today, mainly art students and artists come here. The paints are difficult to use, so only people who know about them visit.”
But everything in Yanaka isn’t old-school. One relative newcomer is Atelier de Florentina, a calm, minimal bakery set up by former food writer Mihoko Kajiwara. She first opened a tiny space on Yanaka’s Snake Lane in 2010 before moving to Yanaka Ginza several years ago. Today, she bakes half a dozen different types of Florentine cookies a day in flavors such as yuzu and baked apple. She believes that the allure of the area is multifaceted, from the “warm air” that flows through Yanaka’s lanes to the locals’ respect for small businesses and handmade products. “We love this area so much,” she explains. “Yanaka isn’t just an old town—it also has a mixed culture and a variety of faces. It’s an art town, a temple town, a tourism town, a writer’s town. Instead of large chain shops, there are lots of attractive individual stores. It’s all about small places, handmade products and communication.”
Hajime Sonoda, a talented shoemaker who runs a small boutique that painstakingly handcrafts leather shoes from scratch, echoes the same sentiments that Mihoko expresses. Like many of the best things in Yanaka, his shoes are made quietly and slowly using quality craftsmanship, soft leathers and a self-described “modern vintage” aesthetic. His customers travel from far and wide, and they not only have impeccable taste but also patience: A single pair can take up to eight months to be completed from the first fitting to final delivery. “We have a good sense of community in this area,” he says. “We greet each other and have brief conversations every morning when local people pass by. We sometimes also gather for dinner or invite people to our atelier for nabe hot pot.”
This lack of pretension among residents—usually found in rural communities rather than hyper-modern cities—filters down to the local businesses. One such example is a design boutique called Classico. Set on a quiet green lane in two simple rooms that seem more like a home than a retail space, the store showcases humble, functional items for everyday living from stationery and toothbrushes to ceramics and basic clothing. Owner Ryu Takahashi is unwaveringly clear about the type who is drawn to the area: “It’s for people who have their own sense of style. Many specialty shops are scattered throughout residential areas here. Individual owners are able to represent what they like in their own way.”
While Yanaka is clearly handcrafted heaven, its appeal goes far beyond shopping. Home to many tiny blink-and-you-miss-it gastronomical gems, Yanaka also celebrates the art of good eating (without rushing, of course).
Some swear by Lemon no Mi, where visitors wait in line to sit at a wooden counter and eat whatever homemade dish the owner Maiko fancies making that day. Other hungry locals make a pilgrimage to Tabi Bagel, a tiny bakery filled with an exotic selection of bagels. Hagiso, a house converted into an atmospheric café and gallery, is another popular lunch spot, and locals also swoon over the steaming bowls of soba noodles washed down with sake at Takajo.
In addition to being spoiled with both food and shopping options, Yanaka’s residents have something else to celebrate: an impressive community spirit that casts an invisible link between everyone in the area. Ask any newcomers about their experiences here and they’ll name a number of residents or businesses that have been especially kind and supportive.
One person who knows all about this open spirit is Masami Shiraishi, the president of one of Yanaka’s most inspirational landmarks: SCAI the Bathhouse, an independent art gallery housed in a 200-year-old former bathhouse. Here, beneath a charmingly curved tiled roof and towering chimney, exhibitions by world-class artists such as Anish Kapoor, Lee Ufan and Tatsuo Miyajima are regularly showcased.
Masami is a pioneer in the area: He opened his gallery in 1993 and more recently renovated the generations-old coffee shop Kayaba just around the corner. He continues to play an active role in the community today—his latest project involves transforming three abandoned houses into a bakery, beer hall and small market. “Yanaka has a close-knit community with intimate local interaction,” he says. “People greet one another across narrow residential streets and many traditional manners are still being practiced. Much of Tokyo’s cityscape has lost its original charm, but those charms have been kept intact in this neighborhood. And it’s conveniently located within the Yamanote line, so it’s not even in suburban Tokyo.”
But the ultimate endorsement for Yanaka can perhaps be echoed by some of its most populous residents: the cats. As Mihoko from Atelier de Florentina muses with a smile: “Cats have always been drawn to quiet, peaceful neighborhoods. They know that in Yanaka they’ll be safe and find food. They basically understand that it’s the nicest place to live in Tokyo.” And cats don’t get that kind of thing wrong.
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Production:Tina Minami Dhingra