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Sample quiet rhythms of Tokyo's Yanaka

TOKYO -- The typical visitor to Tokyo envisions a futuristic city of skyscraper canyons and electronic gadgets, but in the eastern part of the city, an older way of life persists.

“In Yanaka, you have the history, the tradition, the temples,” says Allan West, who's lived there for over 30 years, but “without any of the self-consciousness you have in Kyoto,” a city known for cultural preservation.

Yanaka is one of a trio of neighborhoods called Yanesen after their first syllables (Yanaka, Nezu, and Sendagi). They are part of the shitamachi or old downtown district of Tokyo. Yanaka has a mid-20th century vibe uncommon in Tokyo, which was mostly destroyed twice in the 20th century by earthquake and war. Small one-product shops that have sold rice crackers or traditional handicrafts for generations co-exist with modern art galleries and young bakers of artisanal European breads, set on wandering streets and alleys with a low, human scale very unlike the high-rises of familiar Tokyo neighborhoods like Shinjuku and Shibuya.

Shop Local

Yanaka has few of the big franchise stores, often Western, that you see in the rest of the Tokyo. “People live above their businesses,” says West, an American artist. “None of this has a big corporation behind it. Pretty much the individuals who run them are there.”

The easiest place to start exploring is the old Yanaka Ginza shopping street, a short walk from Nippori Station. As you leave the station you'll pass Yanaka Cemetery, worth a visit for the interesting gnarled cherry trees even when they're not in flower. There you may have your first encounter with the wandering cats that are mascots of the neighborhood.

Continue down the hill from the station and you'll come to a broad staircase leading down to Yanaka Ginza, where the visitor can find old and new crafts, old and new food, and souvenirs and gifts. A Western-style bakery that boasts of an oven made with stone from Mount Fuji stands next to a shop that sells traditional Japanese sweets. There's a shop entirely devoted to items handcrafted from bamboo, a tiny stall where you can get T-shirts custom-printed with illustrations of various animals, and a shop that sells traditional wooden and straw-rope sandals.

You'll see the feline motif throughout, from a modern gift shop of cat-themed gifts to a shop that sells the traditional bean paste-filled cakes usually made in the shape of a fish, but here, of course, in the form of a cat. If you're hesitant about a bean-flavored dessert, order one of the soft ice cream cones and it'll come with a tiny one to sample.

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This Oct. 29, 2013 photo shows artist Allan West in his studio in the Yanaka neighborhood of Tokyo. Only nine stores remain in Japan that sell the traditional pigments West paints with, four of which are in Yanaka. (AP)



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