Like some kind of mysterious local secret, the suburb of Jiyugaoka is popular with so many Tokyoites but weirdly overlooked in the international press. Home to a huge selection of cute cafes and quaint boutiques, as well as a strangely large amount of fancy pet clothing stores, it’s definitely worth adding to your Tokyo itinerary. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why, but the area oozes European appeal, it’s probably in part to the many cake shops and cafes but also potentially has a lot to do with La Vita, the neighbourhood’s little Venice, which is located a few minutes from the station. The area comes complete with a small canal, gondola, and venetian bridge. About a 10-minute train ride from Shibuya, it’s easy to get to and a great place to spend the afternoon.
Tokyo is going through a little bit of a coffee revolution at the moment, and there’s no place where this is clearer than in Kiyosumi Shirakawa, the city’s most caffeinated pocket. A once working-class neighbourhood, the area is now a trendy go-to for weekenders looking to spend the day sampling some of the city’s best brews. Big coffee players like the US-born Blue Bottle and New Zealand’s Allpress both have large flagship-style stores here, while there are plenty of smaller local hangouts too.
If you’re after a little old-world charm, then make your way to Yanaka, arguably Tokyo’s most traditional area. The streets are filled with family restaurants, food vendors, local artisans and a unique ‘shitamachi’ (old world) atmosphere. A huge contrast to the clean futuristic streets of Shibuya and Shinjuku, this ramshackle neighbourhood is a great place to escape the manic energy of the centre of the city. A short walk from Ueno Park, the area’s main heart is arguably Yanaka Ginza, a shopping street that looks like it’s been frozen in time.
Hop off the train at Kagurazaka station, and you’ll be forgiven for thinking you’ve just turned up in a European city. Rising to prominence during the Edo-period as a hanamachi (popular geisha district), the area is a fascinating blend of French culture with a little old-world Japan thrown in for good measure. A wonderful place to spend an afternoon strolling the cobblestone streets and sampling the freshly baked pastries, be sure to put aside a little time to visit Akagi Jinja, a modern marvel that looks more like a contemporary gallery than a place of worship.
One stop from Shinjuku, Tokyo’s most iconic centre, you’ll find Shin Okubo a small corner of the city that feels worlds away from Japan. Known to the locals as ‘Little Korea’, this neighbourhood is home to the city’s densest population of Korean restaurants, cafes, beauty stores and bars. Expect to hear K-pop blasting through the open-fronted stores, and the aroma of sizzling Korean barbecue wafting through the air. Thanks to its rather mixed foreign crowd, the area is generally considered by Japanese people to be a little seedier than other corners of Tokyo, but that’s seedy by Tokyo standards, the city where you can leave your wallet on a table without it getting stolen, so really it’s still pretty safe.
Known as ‘Harajuku for grannies’, Sugamo is a bit of a retiree hot spot, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fascinating. Running down the centre of the area is where you’ll find Jizo Dori, a strip of stores, cafes, and restaurants where locals gather to shop, pray and hangout. The centrepiece of Sugamo is Koganji Temple, located halfway down the street. The temple is home to a statue of Togenuki Jizo, a figure that’s said to heal ailments. Many people visit to wash their aching body in the sacred water for healing and relief. If you want to hang out with some of the city’s longest-living locals, this is the place to do it.
If you’re a hardcore anime fan you’ll recognize Takadanobaba as the home of Astroboy (the character from the cartoon series of the same name). If you’re a sci-fi geek then maybe this name also sounds familiar, that’s because Takadanobaba is the naming inspiration behind the Star Wars world Takodana. Takadanobaba is also where you’ll find Toyama Park, a beautiful sprawling park during the day, but a supposedly haunted hangout at night. It’s said that this site is where the bodies of over 100 victims of human scientific experiments lie.