This Is Yanaka

It is Sunday afternoon and I’m sitting on an overturned beer crate on a side street in Tokyo. As I sip my drink, I watch the world go by: the magician drawing in the crowd and performing classic tricks, the woman selling battered and torn kimono out of the back of a truck, the basket seller with a wabi sabi display encroaching on the street.  I sit on my perch and find myself in “conversation” with the shop owner and a few other patrons. None of us can understand each other but it hardly matters. We just keep nodding. A man my age leaves and returns with shots of sake for us all. We yell Kanpai! and drink it back. They are delighted that I enjoy it. My new friends  are Tokyoites but have never been to this part of the city. I hear this again and again.

When I say I fell in love with Tokyo, I mean it. I think people are shocked by this comment, especially coming from me, she who likes a slow pace and cities with less crowds. But that’s the thing, Yanaka provides just that: far fewer cars than bikes and pedestrians; tiny little shops at which you’re the only patron; side streets where you find yourself all alone; temples… morning walks seeing it all come alive: the fishmonger preparing for his day’s work and the monk sweeping the temple steps. Then, when you’re in the mood for something a little more social, in comes Yanaka Ginza.

Earlier that Sunday, I hopped off the train after spending the morning in Harajuku and, like most times I leave Yanaka, needed reprieve. I started my walk that I knew by heart by know, headed uphill from the train. I ran into vendors selling dried fruit and flowers, many varieties I’ve never seen before. Nearby, locals lined up to purchase beautiful, handmade rice crackers. I looked on as the owner of the shop meticulously wrapped each order, big or small

The  crowds increase as I approach the ginza, a market street in the middle of the area. I stumble upon the aforementioned basket shop and curse my limited suitcase space. I could have bought everything, but I mostly fantasize about the market baskets. And the brooms. There were clothes and kimono galore, a beautiful black yukata being scored by the French woman in front of me. Farther down there are cheap clothing stores and specialty shops mixed together. I buy a perfect little teapot, a tea canister, and some chopsticks for me and my love to share upon my return. The canister is covered in cherry blossoms and sits on my kitchen shelf.

I smelled the food stalls and from a block away and joined in the line outside one offering yakitori. Unable to converse in Japanese at all, I end up with one prized chicken kebab and one beef liver kebab. Lesson learned. I spotted a woman walking whilst eating a huge roast Japanese sweet potato, and committed to seeking one out. At last I found it in a little gourmet supermarket. I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.

I completed my culinary tour at a hole-in-the-wall coffee roaster that served damn fine coffee at a good price. Coffee is pricey in Japan (the good kind). Again, as I’m known to do, I perch myself on the street corner, this time on a custom bench rather than a beer crate (same job), and people watch: bikes, fashionistas, repeat. In my dreams I’m made over to sport the clothing of a minimalist Japanese woman.

I walked home, savoring the slow pace of this little neighborhood. Out of the corner of my eye I caught a huge flowering tree… cherry blossoms. At this point they hadn’t yet bloomed, so the mood was one of glee as we all stood under the tree, spinning around while looking up at it’s perfection. From there, I followed my little places that mark my way home: the pottery shop, the woman selling homemade mochi, the temple where I was greeted with such hospitality one early morning when it started to rain and a monk ran out to give me an umbrella.

This is my Yanaka. This is my Tokyo.

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