Tokyo: Off the beaten path
I‘ve said it before – Tokyo is a city of thousand layers and there is a lot more to this sprawling metropolis than its biggest tourist destinations I listed in my Tokyo Guide for First Time Visitors. Real pleasures here are in fact smaller and subtle, yet just as transporting. If you’re looking to find a warm and human vibrancy you miss when just hopping from one big sight to another, it is worth going a bit off the beaten track to quieter areas that exude a sense of neighborhood in this urban setting.
Amidst the concrete jungle and hustle of Shinjuku, Shibuya or Asakusa, there are numerous low-rise neighborhoods where locals make cozy communities in the midst of this vast, high-powered city. This is where people go grocery shopping in local shop that’s not part of a chain; relax over a cup of coffee at the corner patisserie; pick up the fresh wagashi at the artisan confectionery store; walk their miniature dogs and push baby strollers. This is where you discover different side of Tokyo and get a glimpse of real life of the Tokyoites.
While not all of the neighborhoods listed below are “off the beaten path”, they are all unique in their own way and provide a beautiful insight into a different dynamic of the Tokyo life. Without further ado, here are a few Tokyo neighborhoods I recommend you explore if you have some extra time to spare in the capital.
I had to start with my favorite! Unfairly omitted from most guidebooks, this lovely area often referred to as osharena machi by the locals, or “a stylish and sophisticated place,” is a hub of fashionable boutiques, trendy cafes and narrow paths that make you feel as if you’ve transported yourself to the streets of Europe’s most fashionable cities — and yet, it carefully incorporates an authentic Japanese touch. There is plenty to explore here and I list it all in my detailed guide to Jiyugaoka.
NAKAMEGURO, EBISU, & DAIKANYAMA
I call these three the triplets. They are hubs for trendy, fashion-forward Tokyoites and expats who like to while their time away sipping coffee and shop for the latest labels in local designer shops. Nakameguro is particularly lively during the cherry blossom season when the dozens of cherry trees lining up along the Meguro river bloom in unison. Ebisu is a charming neighborhood and a favorite for locals and expats alike packing amazing options for eating and drinking. Daikanyama has also plenty to offer, from one of the best breakfast spots to galleries and impressive bookstore space at Daikanyama T-Site.
Shimokitazawa is a definition of hipster. With its bohemian vibe and laid-back atmosphere, the area smacks of urban modern cool, with numerous hipster coffee shops, laneways full of secondhand and vintage fashion, hole-in-the-wall eateries, recorded music outlets and live music venues. It has the verve like no other in Tokyo. Read more about it here.
SANGENJAYA IN SETAGAYA WARD
I think Setagaya ward is a very fascinating ward filled with lots of hidden gems and atmospheric neighborhoods and Sangejaya is definitely one of them. It has a sleepy village feel and tight-knit community, and the low-rise wooden homes make it a fantastic area to explore away from the crowds.
Nakano is another spot to go find retro hidden treasures of Tokyo. It is a low-rise neighborhood of meandering pedestrian streets, independent ramen shops, a bustling covered shopping arcade, and an entire mall devoted to Japanese pop culture. The long, covered shotengai (shopping street) to the north of Nakano Station is full of both cheap chain stores and shops run by locals and leads right to the entrance of Nakano Broadway – 1970s shopping center selling everything you can imagine, from secondhand manga through to sewing supplies. In short, a place where you can find some really interesting treasures. There is a shop called “The shop that sells things people left on trains”, as well as a shop whose name loosely translates as, “Shop full of shit too weird for our 25 other stores.”
Asagaya will be of particular interest to jazz lovers. Star Road houses a collection of streets filled with hundreds of eateries, bars, and clubs that host live jazz, blues and world music. Many of these, such as Jamb Jamb, Yellow Vision and Manhattan, are so small they can barely fit a double bass, let alone many customers.
Setagaya is also home to the probably most unconventional green space in the city: Todoroki Valley, a natural gorge, about 1km long, which is not only a welcome respite from the concrete jungle.
Noisy college town, ramen shop ‘battleground’ and nondescript transport hub – the funny-sounding Takadanobaba is all of these things. Cheap izakayas and other services geared toward students dominate the cityscape. The curious place name means ‘Takada’s horse grounds’, after an actual riding site found here in Edo times, and residents continue to uphold tradition with yabusame (horseback archery) demonstrations held every October in a local park.
Yurakucho stands in a bit of a stark contrast with its neighboring glitzy Ginza. Its main draw is the numerous izakaya and yakitori located under the train tracks. It is very atmospheric and a great place to land at the end of a long day of sightseeing.
Tokyo’s star neighborhood with an expanding creative scene and a center of alternative youth culture. Removed from the masses in the center of the city, this cozy hood exudes a laid-back attitude of the kind where shoppers endlessly browse in pursuit of vintage gems, and local izakaya stay filled with the sounds of clinking glasses, hearty cheers, and buzzing conversations till the wee hours of the night. Read more in my guide here.
Shibamata is another quaint neighborhood where you can get away from the hustle and bustle of the modern city and go to experience quintessential charm of the Showa-era Japan. Don’t miss Shibamata Taishakuten Daikyoji temple, constructed in 1629, which features intricate wood carvings; Japanese garden of Yamamoto Tei; and the main promenade lined with senbei (rice cracker) and dango (mochi dumpling) shops.
The story of this district goes all the way back to the Edo period when it became a prominent hanamachi (geisha district) with numerous restaurants and geisha houses, some of which have survived to the present day. With winding cobblestone streets, charming atmosphere and abundance of fine French food – all topped off with French accordion melodies playing along the main street all day – a visit to this atmospheric corner of the town will make you feel like you are transported to the back alleys of Montmartre.
Yanaka Ginza is a wonderful area to explore on foot. It oozes the nostalgic shitamachi atmosphere with its pre-war winding alleyways, untouched wooden architecture and slow pace of life. Don’t miss Nezu Shrine, which is lined up with torii gates similar to Fushimi Inari in Kyoto and is particularly picturesque during the azalea blooming season in late April. You can also enjoy the rustic charm of the Yanaka Ginza shopping street which is lined up with quaint artisan shops. Ueno Park and numerous museums like Tokyo National Museum, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum and the National Science Museum is within walking distance as well.
This neighborhood on the Yamanote train line is jokingly known as “Grandmothers Harajuku”. It is mecca for fashion and entertainment trends for the over-60 set. And by extension, it is one of the city’s strongholds of traditional culture. Amongst local temples, mom-and-pop food stalls, pharmacies and dried fish galore, you will find shops selling the area’s trademark red underwear (believed to promote vigor in the wearer).
Jimbocho is a real heaven for bookworms. Known as Tokyo’s book town, Jimbocho is center of used-book stores and publishing houses, and as a popular antique and curio shopping area. In fact, according to Japan Times it is “one of the world’s biggest centers for browsing used books, with around 160 stores selling volumes that range from the musty and dusty to antiquarian. Tokyo’s.” Bibliophiles flock here in search of rare manuscripts, vintage magazines, collectors’ editions and good deals on used books. Most items are in Japanese, but there are a few shops that sell foreign books to keep any book lover prowling the shelves for hours. Here’s a great list from a fellow blogger that lists quintessential bookshops that you should visit in Jimbocho.
If you want to enjoy a bit of nature without going too far out of the city, then Mt. Takao – Japan’s third holiest mountain and a favorite hiking spot – is a perfect spot. It it topped with a monastery, a beer garden and a monkey park. Other features are a tree that looks like an octopus and a hallucinogenic 3D art museum. Most importantly, this is the area where yu can find an absolutely amazing restaurant – both food and ambiance – Ukai Toryama, which is one of the most wonderful hidden gems in Tokyo.
If it’s a time-warp you’re looking for, Jindai Motomachi is the place to find it. Recalling an old Edo village, Jindai Motomachi in western Tokyo is a relaxing day-trip devoid of bustling masses. Frolic among houses with a sleepy atmosphere, old-style soba noodle shops (a must-try local specialty), Jindai Botanical Gardens or the grounds of Jindai-ji, the second-oldest temple in the Tokyo built in 733.
Apart from a vibrant mix of stylish cafes and restaurants, sundry shops, and boutiques, the point of interests include Studio Ghibli Museum, Inokashira Park and Haamonika Yokocho (Harmonica Alley), where about 100 stores, eateries and izakaya (pubs) are concentrated in a small area where their rectangular frontages line up like the air holes in a harmonica.
There you have it, Tokyo off the beaten track (or at least, off the most frequented touristy paths). I hope this list will inspire you and give you options of what to explore. If you want to get up close and personal with Tokyo, I recommend you spend time strolling one of the neighborhoods listed above, each with unique character and atmosphere. Taking time to explore the untapped side of this city has proven to me that what you discover beyond the guidebook is the stuff you’ll never forget. So be adventurous!
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