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Yanaka is part of the Yanesen neighborhood trio, the others being Nezu and Sendagi. The area is famous not only for its old world charm, but for its sizable population of friendly stray cats. This has led the neighborhood to become something of a cat theme park, attracting thousands of feline fans each year.
For the most part, since their beginnings, Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi have managed to avoid destruction from war, fire or other natural disasters. Yanesen is part of the shitamachi (downtown) areas. Historically, these areas were poor and inhabited by people from the lower classes. Yanesen is appealing because it remains one of the few places left in Tokyo where visitors can see a little bit of the old city.
The reason why just so many cats have decided to make a home for themselves in Yanaka is largely unknown. One assumption is that the strays were attracted to the area’s high density of trees and temples. Whatever the reason, the locals have grown to love them so much that they pressured their local district to include cats on their district flag.
You’ll see makeshift homes and feeding dishes, even near the busy Yanaka Ginza shopping street. But it’s not just about the wandering cats. Businesses have long known about the area’s reputation as a cat sanctuary, and shops selling cat-themed desserts, knickknacks and souvenirs can be found all along Yanaka Ginza.
The clever cats go where the food is, but they don’t like large crowds. You’ll often find them hanging out on the steps by the eastern entrance to Yanaka Ginza or taking handouts from the locals, though feeding the strays is discouraged. Yanaka Cemetery is the best place to meet cats, since the spacious wooded grounds provide them with plenty of cover.
If you’re a cat-lover with a sweet tooth, make sure you pay a visit to Maneki-ya. Taiyaki are like waffles filled with a sugary paste made of adzuki beans. They usually come in the shape of a fish, but this taiyaki shop shapes their pastries into the likeness of Japan’s classic lucky charm cat, maneki-neko. If you’re feeling apprehensive about sampling a bean dessert, Maneki-ya also offers several other fillings like beef stew and strawberry jelly with cream cheese.
If you’re vigilant, you will notice that dotted around Yanaka Ginza, there are seven statues of cats perched in various hidden locations. Look up and you’ll find at least one sitting on the rooftop of a cat-themed shop. They were installed in 2008 to bring good luck and happiness to those passing by.
The area is home to plenty of artisanal handicraft stores and other family-run businesses, so old traditions are alive and well in Yanaka. The antique structures and old world atmosphere also make the area a perfect cultural hub in terms of art galleries, museums and historic sites.
Yanesen is home to a surprisingly high concentration of mainly Buddhist temples. Dozens of them are scattered throughout the area, so much so that it would be impossible to see all of them in a day. Some of the most famous ones are Tennoji Temple, Nezu Shine and Kannon Temple, where a monument to the 47 Rōnin is erected.