Memories of Yanesen
My fascination with Japan originally stemmed from a love of Ukiyo-e woodblock prints and the history of old Tokyo, which soon expanded into a wider appreciation of the country. So when in the new year of 1987 I eventually set off to Japan I was determined to live in an area with historical connections to “old Edo” (Edo is the old name for the city).
This actually proved more difficult than I’d imagined, as my very first residence, provided by my erstwhile sponsor, was right out on the very edge of Tokyo in a new town that was even younger than me. It took a few months before I could eventually find a place of my own choosing, by which time I’d had plenty of time to explore the old districts of the city. From the moment I first walked around Yanaka I fell in love with the area and knew this was where I wanted to live.
The three districts of Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi span the borders of Taito-ku and Bunkyo-ku wards, and together are known as the Yanesen district. Though part of the old city of Edo, Yanesen was always distinguished as a separate town of temples and shrines. Crucially, it was untouched by the 1923 earthquake and wartime bombing, so still retained much of it’s ancient character, with numerous traditional wooden houses dispersed amongst the popular religious locations in the area. More residential and altogether more serene than the noisier jumble of other shitamachi (downtown) areas like Asakusa, Yanesen seems an oasis, full of cultural charm, surrounded by, but somewhat apart from the modern city, a bridge between old Edo and modern Tokyo, with a large number of traditional shops and businesses surviving. Or at least, so it was when I moved there in the Spring of 1987.
Finding a place to live there was difficult though, because many rental real estate offices simply would not deal with foreigners, claiming they “had nothing available” before I’d even told them what I was looking for, or “the owners would not be comfortable”. One even suggested I “try Roppongi”. The fact was, few Westerners lived in the area and that’s the way they wanted to keep it. Nevertheless I persevered, and eventually found an apartment in Ueno-Sakuragi, just off Kototoi-dori near Yanaka Cemetery, not an old traditional house as I’d hoped, but it was at least in the right region. I was a few minutes walk from Geidai and Ueno Park, Yanaka and Nezu were my local areas.
I lived in the apartment for just one year, soaking in the history and aesthetic culture of Yanesen. During that time I photographed, painted and drew the buildings (most of the artwork now unfortunately lost), studied Japanese and worked on adapting my illustration portfolio for the Japanese market.
Yanesen was the perfect place for inspiration, I loved it to bits and would have stayed longer. However things were moving rapidly for me, and eventually escalating illustration commissions, relationships and other factors persuaded me very reluctantly to move uptown to the other side of the city. And there I stayed, much to my regret.
Through the following years in Japan I moved home several times, but never went back to shitamachi to live. However, a couple of years after leaving the area I had the opportunity to once more walk around Yanesen. It was just two years since I’d lived there, but the change over that time was simply shocking. Several of the old wooden buildings I’d recorded had been torn down, replaced with ugly shoe-box buildings, or temporary car parks. A glaring 7-11 convenience store had opened on the top of Kototoi-dori. I was stunned – the character of the town was being torn apart.
On my most recent trip back to Tokyo this spring I had the chance to once more see a little of Nezu and Yanaka, 25 years after I lived there. It’s still an attractive area, important buildings are just as I remember them, but so much of the rest has changed now the town was barely recognisable. This was one of the main reasons I never moved back to the region – the wanton destruction of the old architecture was just too sad to witness. I understand that wooden buildings were difficult to live in, many were inefficient and rundown, but it is possible to preserve the facade while renewing interiors.
It’s not all bad news though, Yanaka and Sendagi attracts tourists, buildings are being saved by people dedicated to preserving something of the old town’s atmosphere, Yanesen has become a haven for artists and others looking for a lost part of Japanese culture. Many of these artists are people from outside the area, including foreigners – it’s ironic that the very people who 25 years ago would have found difficulty moving into the area are now those who are safeguarding it’s old buildings.
Here I’ve posted some of my old photos from 1987-88, compared to Google street views of the same locations today. I’ve many more photos of the area, but virtually all my sketches from the period have been lost. If I find anything though I’ll post it!
You can find more ‘then and now’ photos of the area by others comparing to the 1980’s in this Japanese language blog.