The old-school, low-rise district of Yanaka boasts tree-lined streets, temples aplenty, fresh air and a sense of connection with Tokyo’s past that has long been paved over elsewhere. What it lacks — and this is a plus, not a minus — is a subway station, with the accompanying bright lights and commercial developments found in other areas of the city.
However, the area does have one very mellow, low-key focal point: Ueno Sakuragi Atari is a complex of three handsome, 80-year-old minka (traditional private residences) that have been converted into a community space. In the three years since it opened, Atari has become one of the essential stopping points in the area.
For most visitors, the primary attraction is the two-story timber-clad building closest to the street: Yanaka Beer Hall dispenses craft ales and lagers from the August Beer microbrewery, both on tap and in bottles, along with snacks and simple lunch platters. More than anything, though, it serves up ambience and atmosphere, a place to rest and rehydrate in retro style.
But now there’s an even more compelling reason for making the pilgrimage to this quiet, laid-back corner of the city: Located right behind the beer hall, in a separate house of similar vintage, you will find Vaner, Tokyo’s first (and right now the only) bakery specializing in traditional Norwegian-style whole-wheat bread.
The man in charge here is Tsukasa Miyawaki. Before launching Vaner in August, he spent a year in Scandinavia unlocking the secrets of the Nordic sourdough tradition. He uses heirloom species of wheat, such as emmer and spelt, which he imports from Norway and grinds in quantities just sufficient for the next day’s production.
The loaves are left to proof overnight and are then baked first thing in the morning. Arrive early enough and you find them filling the modest shop with their warmth and tantalizing aromas.
Miyawaki likes to say he makes the best bread in Japan. Fans of French baguettes or soft white “English” loaves might disagree, but when it comes to sourdough, he may well have a point. Sliced open, his loaves have a firm but springy texture, wholesome and chewy, with a satisfying light acidity on the tongue. Break out the pastrami, the hummus, the cheese and olives: This is bread that means business.
Unlike most Japanese bakeries, the menu at Vaner is short and only a little sweet. Besides bread, Miyawaki makes excellent sourdough cinnamon and cardamom rolls — think of them as Japanese-Norwegian Danish pastries — and turns out croissants and pains au chocolat using sourdough techniques he picked up from Swedish master baker Petrus Jakobsson.
Miyawaki’s Nordic connections run deep, all the way to Fuglen Tokyo, the cafe-roastery in Shibuya that brought Oslo-style coffee to Tokyo. Not only does he serve the coffee in his store, in return he supplies the two Fuglen locations (in Tomigaya and Asakusa) with his pastries.
Just a few months in, Miyawaki is already finding it hard to keep up with demand and is often sold out well before his 6 p.m. closing time. Especially on weekends, plan to get there in good time. You can always have a beer or two afterward.
Bread from ¥400, cinnamon rolls ¥300; English menu; English spoken