These 5 Neighborhoods are Tokyo’s Hidden Gems


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As one of the largest cities in the world, Tokyo has no shortage interesting places to explore. Unfortunately, it would take you several lifetimes to see it all, and I’m willing to bet your vacation in Japan is slightly shorter than that. To make the best use of your time, check out these 5 Tokyo neighborhoods that are guaranteed to be the highlight of your trip.

Shibamata

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For all of its bright lights, towering buildings and borderline sci-fi aesthetics, Tokyo can leave those looking for a more traditional Japanese experience in wanting. Thankfully, this need not be the case if you know where to look. In Tokyo’s east end, the neighborhood of Shibamata has managed to retain all of the charm and laidback atmosphere of Japan’s bygone era. As you walk the stone tiled street of Taishakuten-Sando; flanked on either side by shops selling snacks, handmade sweets, and souvenirs, it’s easy to imagine yourself having stepped back in time.

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At the end of the shopping road, a massive, hand-carved wooden gate marks the entrance to Taishakuten Temple. Take some time to walk the perimeter of this Buddhist temple and you will find it is covered in ornate carvings depicting images such as the twelve Chinese zodiac animals and tales from the Buddhist sutras. If you choose to pay the ¥400 entrance fee (and you absolutely should), you can explore the temple’s gorgeous wooden interior. At the back of the temple, you will find yourself in a traditional tatami mat room overlooking a Japanese garden where you can enjoy freshly prepared tea.

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Although it’s only 30 minutes or so from some of Tokyo’s much more central locations, Shibamata feels worlds away. For those with limited time on their hands who want to experience Japan both old and new, an afternoon trip to Shibamata is for you.

How to Get Here: From Shibuya Station, take the Ginza Line to Shimbashi Station. Once here, change to the Asakusa Line on platform 2. Take this train to Keisei Takasago Station. Lastly, board the Keisei-Kanamachi Line to Shibamata Station.

Travel Time: Approximately 1 hour.

Kichijoji

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Often cited as one of Tokyo’s most desirable neighborhoods to live, Kichijoji is a modern, trendy area, home to many young working professionals. Near the station, you can get happily lost in the maze of back alleys packed with seemingly endless hole-in-the-wall restaurants and standing bars. If you’re looking for an authentic local experience, it’s hard to beat standing shoulder to shoulder with salarymen while eating karaage (Japan’s take on fried chicken) and drinking highballs. 


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As you get a little further from the station, bars are replaced with cozy cafes as the general vibe becomes much more relaxed. Nearby, Inokashira Park is a sprawling green space where visitors can ride swan boats in the large central pond. If you’re lucky enough to be here during cherry blossom season, it’s also one of my favorite sakura viewing spots in the city. Not far from there, the Studio Ghibli Museum is also a must-see for fans of the iconic Japanese anime studio.

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How to Get Here: From Shibuya Station, take the Inokashira Line to Kichijoji Station.

Travel Time: Approximately 15 minutes.

Shimokitazawa

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If I had to compare Shimokitazawa to somewhere in the US, I would describe it as Tokyo’s Brooklyn. This hipster neighborhood is a hub for Tokyo’s artist and musician community. As you walk through its streets, rife with Japanese street fashion and expertly done graffiti, you’ll notice that the neighborhood is almost entirely devoid of big chain stores. Most of the businesses here are privately owned, giving the whole place an air of uniqueness. The area is particularly big on secondhand clothes stores, so anyone in the market for excellent condition vintage clothing should be sure to pay a visit.

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Of course clothes aren’t the only vintage finds in Shimokitazawa. It’s also home to countless antique shops selling everything from dinnerware to vinyl records. For the foodies among us, Shimokitazawa stands out with a wide variety of restaurants ranging from traditional Japanese, to western foods, to all sorts of fusion. The lack of big chain businesses may not seem like much on the surface, but give the shops and restaurants in Shimokitazawa a try and you’ll quickly find that the love and pride they put into their work comes across in every product they sell. As an added bonus for those traveling with a camera, it’s a great spot for Tokyo street photography throughout the day.

How to Get Here: From Shibuya Station, take the Inokashira Line towards Kichijoji and get off at Shimokitazawa Station.

Travel Time: Less than 5 minutes.

Koenji

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If Shimokitazawa is Tokyo’s Brooklyn, then Koenji could be considered its Portland. Also home to a thriving yet laidback arts scene, Koenji’s take on the genre is slightly more mature and a bit less edgy than Shimokitazawa’s. As the former home of Tokyo’s punk music movement, it still has a sense of that anti-establishment vibe, albeit a bit more grown-up and refined since its mohawk and studded leather days. That being said, it’s still a top pick for vintage good and tiny music venues oozing with ambiance and charm.

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Koenji’s biggest draw is its annual Awa Odori festival. Held at the end of August each year, it’s the largest street festival in Tokyo, with over 10,000 dancers parading through the streets and spectators numbering over 1,000,000. Set to the rhythm of pounding taiko drums, dance groups in yukata or jinbei make their way through the crowds, each with their own syncronized movements. While watching the performances, be sure to take the opportunity to try some of the classic Japanese festival foods like takoyaki, yakisoba, and dango.

How to Get Here: From Shibuya Station, take the Yamanote Line to Shinjuku Station. Once here, change to the Chuo Line and take this to Koenji Station.

Travel Time: Approximately 15 minutes.

Jimbocho

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For anyone who loves the feeling of browsing bookstore shelves and the familiar scent of aging paper, Jimbocho is paradise. Famed as Tokyo’s book district, it is home to nearly 200 bookstores. While some of these deal in new, modern books, the vast majority are home to gently used and greatly loved classics. Many of these stores deal in books for English speakers as well, assuming you haven’t quite mastered Japanese kanji yet (same here). It’s hard to top the nerdish sense of excitement I felt when I found one of my favorites; The Great Gatsby, available in a variety of different hard and soft cover designs, most of which I had never seen before. If old books aren’t quite your thing, the neighborhood also features a number of shops dealing in rare, vintage prints and mint condition vinyl records.

Once you’ve found your vintage treasure, settle in to one of Jimbocho’s many cafes for a relaxed afternoon of reading.

How to Get Here: From Shibuya Station, take the Hanzomon Line to Jimbocho Station.

Travel Time: Approximately 15 minutes.

Wrap-up

Tokyo is a city that is as diverse as it is large. For those looking for a slightly off the beaten path experience while here, the five neighborhoods introduced above will give you a unique glimpse into how the locals live.

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