Cat cafes have been a real draw for not only cat-lovers but also people who are willing to pay for kitty snuggles and cuddles for a couple of hours. However, they’re “domesticated” cats who will put on their best puss-in-boots impersonation for some kibble. Where are the real bad boys in town? Will the real cat town please stand up?
Yanaka is an old suburb in Taito, northeastern Tokyo that gives visitors a taste of the Edo period and is also known for being a ‘cat town’ because of the number of stray cats that reside there. This has even prompted the locals to include cats in their district flag, as well as various memorabilia on the main Yanaka Ginza street.
Alighting at Nippori station conveniently located on the Yamanote line, the cemetery is a 5-minute walk from the station and spans a huge area. The Tennoji shrine, wherein a Buddha sits in a tranquil garden, borders the cemetery. In the temple hall, there was an ancient script (kodai moji) artist group that was having an exhibition on their works. The words and phrases on display showed the origin of kanji from Chinese characters, and the universe and nature.
Walking further down to the cemetery, where the cats supposedly live, we were surrounded by gray tombstones most of which were very elaborately carved. Sakura trees lined the pathway, and a pretty poster depicted how it looked in each of the seasons. There was also an explanation about the types of weaves for bamboo fences in the cemetery. A large portion of the cemetery belongs to the Tokugawa Yoshinobu family, the 15th and last shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate.
Going down the quiet winding streets, we passed dozens of temples and little stores before arriving at the Yanaka Ginza street. It was lively with people who looked more like visitors than residents, and the stores and restaurants were bustling. There were grilled squid crepes, amazingly cheap yakitori, roasted chestnuts, fresh fruit, and vegetables, as well as a bento store.
There was also a store selling cat shaped pancakes, of the prosperity cat (maneki-neko). Almost every other store had a stand along the street selling a breaded deep fried pork and beef mince patty (menchi-katsu). As fall was approaching, a variety of oden skewers such as konnyaku were being sold as well. There were craft stores that sold cat t-shirts and customizable hanko stamps, Japanese ceramics and pottery, various knick knacks, and also a Turkish mosaic lamp workshop.
The street led out to a bigger one that was perpendicular to it. The shops here took a turn toward the past, with an air of nostalgia, such as a barbershop with a blue and red twirl, a laundromat with its sign almost completely faded, old school bakeries, and a tiny soba and udon shop. The restaurants though were more modern, with patisseries, cafes and some serving up Indian, Sri Lankan, Persian and Uzbekistanian cuisines. The fusion of old and foreign new is an interesting mix.
It was pleasantly coincidental that there was a fall festival (matsuri) and campaign against alcoholism going on at the time, and the locals were dancing and cheering enthusiastically on the street along with a boat float and performers. There were old lady dancers, young rope pullers, as well as a troupe which was playing the taiko to a hypnotically stimulating beat atop the float. It was nice to see everyone taking part in a festival together. Imagine how fun it’d be if the cats could join in the song and dance! Yanaka is becoming increasingly popular with visitors and could get in the ranks of Asakusa and Ueno soon, so get your share of catty fun before it gets swamped!