“One of the greatest regrets in life is being what others would want you to be, rather than being yourself.” ~ Shannon L. Alder.
Are you hoping to not stand out as a tourist in Japan, but instead blend in amongst locals by exploring lesser-known old town Tokyo neighbourhoods? You’re in luck because I know the ideal place for you!
Most first-time visitors to Tokyo stick to a small handful of popular neighbourhoods: Shibuya & Shinjuku with their glitzy glass buildings towering above; Ginza and its funky modern architecture lining the streets; Minato and its symbol of post-war Japan, Tokyo Tower. But what about Old Tokyo?
You don’t need to go all the way to Kyoto or Kanazawa for old-world experiences. They can be found right here in Tokyo with some local knowledge! If all your five senses enjoy being delighted by nostalgia, you’re going to absolutely love this gorgeous little neighbourhood I’m about to introduce you to. Yes, Old Town Tokyo still exists today – in Yanaka!
Dotted with Showa-era charm, ancient temples bearing scars of historical events and an iron-clad community spirit binding the area together, Yanaka 谷中 will leave a lasting impression in your heart. And, who better than a local to show you around the best foodie spots to leave a lasting impression on your tastebuds, too?
If you want to learn how to gobble your way through 10-12 local dishes in the historic Yanaka Ginza area and how afterwards I was treated to one of the most special Japan cultural experiences I’ve been bursting to share, read on for more!
I experienced this Yanaka food tour as a press invite. As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own. This post contains affiliate links, at no extra cost to you. I may earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.
Who are Arigato Japan Tours?
I had the absolute pleasure of exploring Yanaka with Arigato Japan Tours. Specialising in small group experiences with a focus on culturally significant foods and drinks throughout Japan, Arigato Japan Tours help connect visitors with local businesses in a meaningful way.
This win-win situation for tourists and locals is one I’m very passionate about, so much so I’ve written an entire book about it. It’s also one of the reasons I created my Japan travel blog to help you achieve this!
The best part is tours can be especially tailored to suit your dietary requirements, so just let them know at the time of booking.
TIP: Being able to explore the city with a local is the perfect way to blend in.
Types of Tokyo experiences with Arigato Japan Tours
Exploring Old Town Tokyo: Yanaka
My wonderful guide for this tour was Lauren, she’s lived in Japan for 25 years and her love for this city is infectious! Before we got started on our tour, she shared a Japanese icon hiding in plain sight at our meeting point near Nippori Station. See if you can spot it before you’re told!
NOTE: Your 5 stops in Yanaka may vary slightly to mine depending on whether some stores are open on your particular day, dietary requirements of your group, etc. You’ll find it hard to believe you’re in Tokyo at times!
With the familiar and very-much-missed aromas of street foods wafting through the air, my stomach began to grumble in anticipation of the delicious morning that lay ahead of me.
As we made our way to our first foodie spot, Lauren explained that while much of Tokyo was destroyed during the firebombing of WWII and the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the Yanaka area managed to survive and is not so well-known amongst foreign visitors.
TIP: Before I begin the review, make sure you check the following Japanese snacks in my simplified guide so you know what I’m talking about, hehe.
Snacking on traditional senbei in Yanaka
Our first stop was a lovely senbei store, the visible machinery in the back working hard at making them.
For my first snack, I chose a large cracker with a matcha coating. Two things I thought were an unusual combo, but the slightly salty crunch of the cracker with a hint of sugary matcha went quite well together – 10/10 would get again!
We then meandered along the winding streets, passing narrow laneways and beneath typical Japanese-style overhead powerlines. Lauren would point out and explain the significance of the tucked-away temples we passed (there are over 100 in Yanaka!) until we reached our next stop.
Strolling down Yuyake Dandan, the “Sunset Stairs”
Often mistaken as the stairs featured in the popular anime “Your Name” (2016), we then arrived at Yuyake Dandan. Translating to “sunset stairs,” this steep staircase framed with red railings is a hit with locals as the sun descends beneath the horizon.
A few steps from the staircase lies the iconic triangular entry gate marking the beginning of Yanaka Ginza shopping street, at 170-metres long. Lauren explained that cats are popular in Yanaka, so keep an eye out for them (in real and wooden form) as you explore.
Tightly crammed with Showa-era stores (1926 – 1989) on either side selling street foods, handicrafts, souvenirs, leathers, tea, homegoods, clothing and more.
Visiting a century-old artisan sweets store of old town Tokyo
For me, visiting family-owned stores that have been passed down through generations is very humbling. And as I’m a literal sucker when it comes to traditional sweets, I absolutely adored our next stop!
This sweets store has been in operation for 100 years, the owner’s grandfather created his own “honey” lollies recipe from scratch that he still uses today (they don’t actually contain honey, but look like it).
With old greyscale photos of his grandfather and Yanaka Ginza proudly on display, I scooped up 3 bags of various flavours for 1,000 yen. All sweets are handmade and unique using the old method. How special!
Members of the local Owner’s Association band together in this community to help preserve the nostalgic, old identity of the neighbourhood.
Trying fried deliciousness and baked goods
Moving on, we then came across a bakery with the most amazing aroma seeping onto the street through its doors – maybe it’s due to the oven being made from Mt Fuji’s volcanic rock?
Next up from a yakitori store, I chose a tasty Japanese-style croquette, filled with a beef mixture, coated in panko crumbs and fried in oil, absolutely delicious. Note that the owner of this store is not fond of photos, so keep your smartphone hidden!
Then we visited a cute little store specialising in baked “cat’s tails” – not literally, but in a cronut-like form! The “tails” come in loads of flavours, so I chose the signature maple flavour. It was really yummy and the packaging is adorable.
Witnessing exceptional craftsmanship of Japanese blades
Japan is world-famous for blades (think back to the samurai and their katana) and I learnt SO much about the different kinds of knives at our next stop.
I’m now able to recognise differences between knives for sushi, meat or vegetables; why handles and their materials differ; how to identify whether a blade is from the Kanto or Kansai region, left vs right-handed knives and more.
The prices are very reasonable for the quality. You can choose from handmade blades, knives, scissors, pocket knives and any other kind of blade you can think of!
Located within an old restored building, this family business is run by Fukumoto-san and he is a master at his craft. His exceptional skills at restoring and sharpening old blades to pristine condition are clear to see.
Sampling yuzu in a restored sake shop of old town Tokyo
Now onto one of my favourites. Keeping in with the yokocho theme of plastic crate seating out front, a yuzu/sake shop in a recently restored building!
Here, I was able to sample a generous glass of yuzu (Japanese citrus alcohol). The lemon flavour was so rich, refreshing and delicious. I really wanted to buy the mega bottle but was already worried about the weight of my suitcase from my previous days’ shopping. Then it was lunch time!
TIP: If you happen to be driving in Japan, you need to have zero alcohol in your bloodstream.
Sound good so far?
Enjoying a flavourful lunch at an antenna shop
No, I don’t mean a TV antenna shop, which is what immediately sprung into my mind when Lauren asked if I knew what she meant!
In short, an antenna shop specialises in everything a particular region in Japan is known for (your guide will explain why these came into being). Our antenna shop was from Kyushu in the south of Japan, filled with products from the region with a small cafe in the back.
For our starters, we enjoyed delicious egg and sesame soup, slightly sweet sliced omelette (especially orange in colour from the Kyushu region) with pickled plum and beans. Let me tell you, tamago (eggs) in Japan are something else – make sure you don’t leave without trying!
From the menu I opted for a chunky-crumbed local chicken breast, topped with a special Kyushu tartare and citrus sauce, served with boiled rice, fried lotus root and a green salad on the side. The chicken was very light, incredibly tasty and the specially-made tartare danced on my tastebuds.
Making room for dessert at a karinto dumpling store
By this point, my stomach was almost at bursting point. However there is always room for dessert!
Having been featured on Japanese TV, this store specialises traditional Japanese sweets and snacks such as mochi, dorayaki, karinto manju and daifuku. Flavours can change according to what’s in season.
I opted for their “No. 1” signature sweet, the karinto manjyu – a small fried bun with a crispy exterior, filled with sweet red bean paste. The texture was kind of like a chewy cookie, crunchy on the outside yet soft and sweet inside. Scrumptious.
Special additional experience: Wagashi making & tea ceremony in Tokyo
This next part of my tour is an additional experience you can opt for when booking your Tokyo Old Town Yanaka tour. Having done a tea ceremony in Kyoto previously, I absolutely ADORE these kinds of experiences because they help us delve deeper into the Japanese mindset, uphold centuries-old traditions and give us a greater appreciation for Japanese culture.
In short, we were taught how to make these beautiful ajisai (hydrangea) wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) by hand using a few simple wooden tools, followed by a lovely tea ceremony where we were able to select our own tea bowl. Some bowls were antiques, over 200 years old, and we decorated our own dishes with our sweets for eating during the ceremony.
My goodness, I was so thoroughly impressed by this experience, there was enough to write an additional article about so I’ve shared in detail my Tokyo tea ceremony here. It was certainly one of the highlights for me on this Japan trip. Yes, tea ceremonies with geisha are possible in Tokyo, too… go take a look!
Learning why Japanese cemeteries aren’t the same as in the West
Finally on our way back to Nippori Station, we leisurely strolled through Yanaka Cemetery. The idea of a cemetery in Japan is quite different to how we see them in Western countries, so have an open mind.
You’ll learn why locals walk their dogs here, why children’s play equipment are beside the gravestones and why this is a special place for families to visit annually.
Can you recognise the old style tanuki hiding along the footpath on the way back to the station?
How to book your Old Town Tokyo food tour in Yanaka
If this Yanaka Food Tour and tea ceremony experience is now a must for you, click here for prices and to book!
Allow 3 hours for this tour, in addition to the 1.5 hours for your Tokyo tea ceremony experience.
TIP: I’ve rounded up the many and best food tours in Tokyo I’ve enjoyed and highly recommend you add to your itinerary!
Concluding this Old Town Tokyo tour in Yanaka Ginza
As we gobbled our way through the pedestrianised streets, Lauren explained all the culturally-significant things hiding in plain sight I wouldn’t have realised on my own and revealed the best local food the Yanaka area has to offer.
This tour is perfect for first-time visitors to Tokyo looking for an offbeat experience away from the usual sights (and even serial visitors like me who had yet to explore this area). It’s also especially suited to visitors who may not have the chance to see other old preserved cities such as Kyoto during their trip.
Go on! Explore a more authentic side of Tokyo, learn how the local businesses all support one another, sample delicious local specialties and be immersed in Japanese history every step of the way. Book your Old Town Tokyo Yanaka tour here.
Sending a huge thanks again to Arigato Japan Tours for inviting me on this unforgettable day!
For more experiences like this, take a look at my guide to planning a trip to Japan, my tried-and-tested Japan itineraries, guide to Japanese for tourists (with FREE cheat sheet!), Japan’s off the beaten path destinations, more hidden gems and reviews of other cultural experiences to help you “be invisible” during your trip!
Until next time,
Like it? Pin it! 📌
This guide to Yanaka: Old town Tokyo contains some affiliate links, at no extra cost to you. I may earn a small commission if you decide to make a purchase and if you do, thanks for your support! This helps with the costs of running my blog so I can keep my content free for you. As always, I only recommend a product or service that I genuinely love and use myself!