Sanya, an area within the Taito Ward of Tokyo, located somewhere between Ueno and Asakusa, just south of the Sumida River, is one such destination. The neighborhood which dates back to the Edo period was once home to lower caste laborers, butchers, tanners and leatherworkers. However, the municipality decided to take it off every Tokyo map after 1966 turning Sanya into Tokyo’s “lost district.”
Since Sanya does not appear on any maps or tourist guides, it is difficult to pinpoint its location as a tourist. The Minami-Senju stop on the Hibiya Subway line is the closest station.
Once you do wonder into the old Sanya, you will find a depressing landscape of vacant buildings and half empty streets. Day workers, the homeless, foreign students and backpackers comprise the population of this unique neighborhood.
During the Edo era, the lower caste who inhabited Sanya were forced to carry out all the “unclean” tasks which the Shogunate needed done, but were not allowed to perform themselves because of their Buddhist faith. This meant butchering, skin curing, etc. The lower caste were also given the responsibility of slaughtering criminals and burying them in mass graves. There is a Buddha statue which can be seen from the train approaching Minami-Senju, which marks the site of the killing fields where more than 200,000 were killed. On the opposite side of the station is the Namidabashi (Bridge of Tears) intersection. The bridge no longer exists but a sign bearing its name was left to remember the crossing leading to the execution grounds.
Despite what conditions appear to be, Sanya is not a particularly poor town. Ordinary people live and work there too. There are many shops, factories and houses where normal life is being carried on.
The flophouses offering dorm style accommodations, which were once filled with day workers have been transformed into cheap doya or business hotels catering mainly to backpackers. You can find a room for as little as ¥1,500 per night.
There are also plenty of cheap eateries serving anything from yakitori to ramen. Nearby in old Yoshiwara, Edo’s Red Light District, you will discover one of the oldest restaurants in Tokyo! Iseya (1-9-2 Nihonzutsumi, Taito Ward) is a small tempura restaurant that has been operating since the 1880s.
In the heart of Sanya you will come across a shotengai (shopping arcade). It is littered with smashed vending machines, passed out drunks and vacant shops. There is a large liquor store and the few open shops cater mostly to the day workers, selling everything from construction gear to clothing at a bargain. Sanya is also dotted with leather factories and old shoe shops, a tradition surviving from the Edo custom of animal-skin handling by the lower caste.
Sanya offers something very different from the other glitzy districts in Tokyo and is continually drawing more and more budget conscious travelers. Just remember to respect the locals when you are there. This is Tokyo’s skid row and the scenery is not very different from the skid row districts of other cities you may be familiar with.