Tokyo is not known for its picturesque city centre and well-preserved buildings. Rather, a high-tech bustling metropolis full of the latest skyscrapers is what many tourists expect to find. Nevertheless, some areas have retained a traditional character where you can sample Japan’s traditional culture.
Asakusa is promoted as the number one district with an atmosphere of old Tokyo. However, with so many foreign visitors it often feels like an amusement park, rather than an old neighbourhood. In my opinion, a visit to Sensō-ji temple and a walk around the neighbourhood at night are indispensable from any Tokyo itinerary. However, I highly recommend a visit to any of the neighbourhoods below as the main visit during the day to get a taste of traditional Tokyo.
1. Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi
Yanaka is special as it came unscathed out the great calamities that struck Tokyo in the 20th century. This temple town is home to one of the largest an oldest cemeteries and the most cozy traditional shopping street in the capital. At the same time, you can walk among the numerous temples that bring you along narrow lanes and typical shitamachi districts.
Nezu and Sendagi are part of the same area (referred to as Ya-ne-sen, taking the starting sound of each neighbourhood). Kusuo Yasuda’s Former Residence, the main highlight of Sendagi, is a 7-minute walk from the western edge of the Yanaka Ginza shopping street. Nezu Shrine, the main highlight of Nezu, is 20 minutes away on foot from Yanaka Ginza.
More information: Yanaka area guide, Nezu area guide, Sendagi area guide, Ueno Sakuragi area guide
Nearest station: Nippori Station (Yamanote line, Jōban Line, Keihin-Tohoku Line, Keisei main line and Nippori-Toneri Liner)
Location in Tokyo: north-east close to Ueno and Asakusa, 14 minutes by train from Tokyo Station, 20 minutes by train from Shinjuku Station
Shibamata is a town that was developed around the major Taishakuten temple. It has a beautiful approach to the temple lined with many old shops. From an esthetic point of view, this neighborhood is probably the most beautiful in all of Tokyo. Particularly the Nitenmon gate and the temple garden leave a strong impression. This area received popularity (mainly among Japanese) due to a quite different reason though. The movie series “It’s Tough Being a Man” (Otoko wa tsurai yo) had its main character Tora-san based in this area. Each of the 48 movies between 1969 and 1995 featured this neighborhood, putting it firmly on the map in Japan as a tourist destination.
More information: Shibamata area guide
Nearest station: Shibamata Station (Keisei Line)
Location in Tokyo: right on the border with Chiba Prefecture in the eastern tip of Tokyo, 40 minutes by train from Tokyo Station, 50 minutes by train from Shinjuku Station
Ningyocho (literally doll town) used to be a town of doll makers, puppeteers, and puppet theaters during the Edo period (1603-1868). It also serves as the birthplace of Edo Kabuki theatre. Moreover, many of the traditional restaurants and craftsman-shops are over 100 years old.
This town has many beautiful buildings, but you have to seek them out. Unfortunately, it is not one distinct area in which visitors can wander around. Nonetheless, it is a very enjoyable neighbourhood and features one of the most famous traditional shopping streets in Tokyo: Amazake-Yokocho.
Ningyocho is the most central of the three neighbourhoods in this article, just a 20 minutes walk from the Yaesu exit of Tokyo Station.
More information: Ningyocho overview, Amazake-Yokocho guide
Nearest station: Ningyocho Station (Hibiya line), Suitengu-mae Station (Hanzomon line)
Location in Tokyo: just east of Tokyo Station (20 minutes walk), 20 minutes by train from Shinjuku Station