Western Taito Ward is a paradise for nonconformists who stray off the beaten track. Throughout the incense-scented alleys of Yanaka, and across the parklands of Ueno, it’s hard to miss the area’s preponderance of “strays”; tourists, artists and the homeless who, with a surprising number of cats, all wander this quintessentially shitamachi (downtown) neighborhood.
The Asakura Choso Museum in Yanaka, a 5-minute stroll from JR Nippori Station, is an excellent place to begin getting the lay of the land, literally and figuratively.
Fumio Asakura (1883-1964), known as the father of modern Japanese sculpture, designed his own residence and studio, which now houses the museum. Displays feature the artist’s bronze sculptures, notably “Toki no Nagare (Flow of Time),” a classic work that captures the supple flesh and nonchalant balance of a young woman, and expressive likenesses of some of the 15 or so stray cats Asakura looked after. Many visitors, however, come primarily to study the museum’s architecture. The black ferroconcrete atelier visible from the street sequesters inside a breathtaking home in the sukiya (traditional aesthetic) style, arranged around a courtyard garden and spring-fed pond.
From the atelier’s lushly planted roof garden, it’s a delight to join several of Asakura’s sculptures in gazing out over the greenbelt of Yanaka’s temples and numerous wooden buildings that somehow survived both the Great Kanto Earthquake (1923) and the bombings of World War II.
Not even the encroachment of commercialism from the south has swamped the old-fashioned spirit of kaiwai (tightly knit community) that characterizes Yanaka. Modest contemporary residences sidle up to wood-frame stores selling antiques, Japanese sweets, rice crackers and handicrafts such as woven baskets and paper lanterns. Isetatsu, purveyor of Edo-style chiyogami (woodblock-printed paper) since 1864, showcases its decorative papers with a clean simplicity that honors the quality of the traditional product.
Mixing old beauty with new ideas is one of Yanaka’s special charms. For example, dip into exhibits at SCAI, an avant-garde gallery in a former, two-century-old bathhouse supposedly frequented by Nobel Prize-winning novelist Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972). The nearby community design center Yanaka Gakko also aims to preserve and teach traditional crafts, and you can pick up an artistic map of the area there. Even without a guide, though, you’ll stumble on artistic installations everywhere in Yanaka.
At event cafe Sankenma, an 80-year-old wooden home with an open tatami area and seating for guests, I discovered the entrance blocked by a virtual curtain of little plastic bags, pendulous with colored liquid and rubber balls. Behind the bags, I found a party, with two yukata-clad artists handing out drinks and chatting with customers. Bag-concept artist, Sayaka Ishizuka, and printmaker Yuka Takane, both 27, turn out to be members of Dekoboko House, a small artist collective based in Shonan, on the coast in Kanagawa Prefecture. They rent Sankenma for shows several times a year. “People here clearly love their neighborhood,” said Kei Maruyama, 25, another of the group, “so there’s a lot of spirit here.”
There’s a lot of spirits, too, in nearby Yanaka Reien Cemetery. Meander among the cats — there seems to be one for every headstone — to find the tomb of writer Higuchi Ichiyo (1872-96), that of Japan’s last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu (1837-1913), and the final resting place of Taikan Yokoyama (1868-1958), a painter credited with modernizing Nihonga, or Japanese-style painting on silk. The Memorial Hall there (open Thursday. through Sunday. from mid-August) displays Yokoyama’s work and lifestyle in his former Ikenohata home, just south of Yanaka.
Drifting toward Ueno, the din and dust of high-rise developments clanging into existence, plus a summertime whiff from Japan’s oldest zoo made me want to make a beeline back to Yanaka. But luckily, Shinobazu Pond offered relief, both comic and cooling. There, fleets of turtles watch flotillas of swan boats plying the waters on the west side of Bentendo Temple, dedicated to Benzaiten, goddess of arts and wisdom. East of Bentendo’s man-made promontory, the pond itself all but disappears in summer (despite its name, which suggests “unconcealable”) beneath a blanket of floppy-leafed lotus plants. An enthusiastic employee at Ueno Zoo, one of its volunteer “Meet the Hippopotamus” crew, urged me visit the pond at dawn, when, she said, “the lotus blossoms make sounds — pop, pop, pop — as they open.”
Since opening as a park the 1620s, Shinobazu has at turns been surrounded by a horse racetrack, filled and tilled as post-World War II farmland — and narrowly missed being converted into a sports arena. Today, homeless people wander the circumference, quietly stroking cats and handfeeding sparrows, gazing benignly at tourists trolling the Ueno Summer Festival Events (through Aug. 5) for snapshots of lanterns bobbing in the breeze.
The most convenient route uphill from here is through the Inari Fox Shrines (don’t miss the tiny one in a grotto) leading to the main building of the Gojo Shrine. From there, keys to Ueno’s history are to be found left and right.
After Ieyasu Tokugawa moved Japan’s political capital from Kyoto to Edo in 1603, in 1625 his successor, Hidetada, decided to build Kaneiji, a temple meant to protect the city’s northeast corner, the one Buddhists believe most vulnerable to evil spirits. An impressive pagoda from the former, vast temple complex survives today in the zoo, near the elephant enclosure.
A third Tokugawa shogun, Iemitsu, built Ueno Toshogu Shrine (1627) to honor his ancestor, Ieyasu. Ornate in vermilion and gilt, and notable for its sando (entrance walkway) flanked with rows of somber stone lanterns, Toshogu is a rare surviving Edo Period structure. In late afternoon, you are likely to share the otherworldly, gold-flecked interior of this designated national treasure with little more than shadows.
By the mid-1800s, the last Tokugawa shogun was prepared to hand over the capital to young Emperor Meiji. However, diehard Tokugawa supporters resisted and made an ill-fated stand at Ueno. In the fires of this battle, nearly all the ancient structures were razed. Then, not long into Meiji’s reign that began in 1868, samurai warriors smarting at their loss of dignity and social status found a leader in Takamori Saigo, who led the doomed Satsuma Rebellion of 1877. A statue of Saigo, a large-eyed and robust figure walking his dog, can be seen near the park entrance.
Ueno has seen many additions since being designated a national park in 1873. There’s the zoo with its celebration of pandas, and Japan’s oldest and largest collection of arts, antiquities and archaeological relics in the three facilities comprising Tokyo National Museum, along with a Smithsonian-like spread of other museums and academies.
But at the end of the day, if you are moved to stray from cultural pursuits, the hurly-burly of Ameyokocho awaits, tucked under the Ueno-to-Okachimachi train-track arches. Once a thriving postwar black market in ame (sweets) among other sought-after items, plus a play on the word “American,” the market thrives today with good-natured barkers hawking squid, shoes, cosmetics, clothing and foodstuffs.
In this neck of the woods, it’s all good, clean and deviant fun!