Within seconds of leaving the Nippori metro station, the sound of birdsong replaces the rumble of metro trains. The noise of traffic – barring occasional pushbikes, often with entire families balanced on top – simply disappears.
There’s something ironic about the fact that the Tokyo neighbourhood of Yanaka is just a few kilometres from Akihabara, a neon-soaked district famous for its seven-storey electronics stores selling everything from robots and 3D televisions to talking toilets and animatronic Hello Kittys. Yanaka, an area to the north of Ueno Park, is part of Tokyo's Shitamachi, old town neighbourhoods that have been around since the Edo period.
Yanaka's narrow shopping streets © Hanare Hotel
While neighbourhoods such as Akihabara have modernised and are thriving, Yanaka, one of the few areas to be spared by the bombs of WWII, has struggled. Despite its proximity to the centre of Tokyo it simply wasn't on the tourist radar of – hardly surprising when many Tokyoites hadn't heard of it either. A new hotel, the Hanare, is hoping to change that with its innovative approach to tourism.
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In 2011, the building which now doubles as the hotel's reception was a creative hub for architects and artists, some of whom lived on site. Then the 2011 earthquake hit, and the owners decided to demolish the building. The artists who lived and worked there were horrified, and staged a series of art exhibitions – which they referred to as a funeral – to bid farewell to their workplace.
The exhibitions were a hit, attracting huge visitor numbers to the neighbourhood. When architect Mitsuyoshi Miyazaki (who'd worked out of the building while studying at nearby Tokyo University of the Arts) suggested turning the building into a cultural complex instead of demolishing it, the owners relented. In 2013 the building was transformed into a café, art gallery, architect studio and hair salon, before the Hanare Hotel opened in 2015.
The Hanare Hotel's unassuming entrance © Hanare Hotel
Miyazaki's aim was to create a hotel which operates in harmony with the neighbourhood, encouraging visitors not just to its ryokan-style accommodation but to explore Yanaka's independent businesses, ancient temples and bedroom-sized bars. This is reflected in the hotel's motto – "The whole town can be your hotel".
Chain hotel behemoth this certainly is not. When I check in, I'm greeted by employee Kyoka Arisawa in a plant-filled room with an antique medicine cupboard instead of a reception desk. Arisawa shows me how to get to the hotel's swimming pool – a Sentō (public bathhouse) that guests share with local residents – and points out what she refers to as the hotel's souvenir shops along the way: local stores selling everything from rice crackers and beautiful hand-painted ceramics to lanterns and sake.
One of the inviting, living-room-sized restaurants in Yanaka © Tamara Hinson
Kyoka offers to show me around the area and as we navigate its narrow lanes lined with plants, she reveals that this part of Tokyo is known as Temple Town, due to the high density of temples in the area. "In the seventeenth century, this area had one of Tokyo's largest Edo temples," she explains. "Yanaka means 'in the valley'. This was a rural area, and lots of smaller temples sprung up too." A constant reminder of the area's rural roots is the Himalayan cedar tree which stands in the centre of Yanaka. It's over 100 years old, and is seen as the symbol of the neighbourhood.
Kyoka takes me to Tokyobike – a branch of the uber-cool bike shop which was founded here in Yanaka but now has branches in Shoreditch and Fitzrovia in London. "Yanaka is so calm," says employee Miyao Kohei, who grew up in the neighbourhood and never moved away. "It's incredibly quiet, although there are certainly more foreigners discovering it."
Next, Kyoka shows me what she refers to as the area's nightlife district, an impossibly narrow alley lined with tiny, lantern-lit izakayas (Japanese pubs), before detouring into the cherry blossom-filled courtyard of a Buddhist temple. "Tokyo started expanding very quickly but there was still plenty of space here, which is another reason so many temples were built here or moved to this area," says Kyoka.
Tokyobike, housed in one of the neighbourhood's traditional wooden buildings © Tamara Hinson
There are plenty of museums and galleries, too. Yanaka is close to the Tokyo University of The Arts, and many of its alumni have set up shop here. We stop by the Asakura Museum of Sculpture – the former residence of the legendary late sculptor Fumio Asakura – where a sculpture of a baseball cap-wearing youth peers down from the rooftop, and the startlingly minimalist Mori Ōgai Memorial Museum, where manuscripts and other artefacts provide an insight into the life of the revered Japanese playwright.
The sun is slowly sinking beneath the Yanaka's cherry blossom trees, so I turn in for the night. Hanare has just five rooms (more are planned), tucked inside a beautiful wooden building just down the road from the reception where guests check in. Accommodation is ryokan-style: my room has delicate tatami mats and I sleep on a raised platform on a traditional futon which is rolled up and stored away in the morning. It's all wonderfully relaxing, and the only noise is the occasional rattle as a passing bike rumbles down the cobbled street outside my room.
Rooms at the hotel are purposefully spare © Hanare Hotel
In the morning, I find a note left for me by Kyoka. She wants to add that another the reason the Edo shogunate built one of their largest temples here was because Yanaka was one of the main entry points to the city in the seventeenth century, and having a temple here helped to protect it from invasion.
It seems somewhat fitting that 400 years on, the Hanare hotel is doing a similar thing – protecting this beautiful, ancient neighbourhood, but this time, by encouraging Tokyo's modern-day invaders to venture off the beaten track to discover its hidden treasures.