A longtime resident looks beyond the bright lights of Japan’s dizzying, dynamic capital to reveal a quintet of neighborhoods that brim with character, authenticity, and more than a few surprises.
Photographs by Irwin Wong.
Twenty years ago, I arrived in Tokyo from England as a fresh-faced graduate with a plan: spend a year, maybe two, working as an English teacher in what I thought must be one of the craziest cities on the planet, and then go home with enough money saved to study some more. I was expecting neon and high-rises, subway trains packed like sardines, and late nights at karaoke—all the glorious clichés. The English school that brought me over had different plans. They stuck me in a flat in a quiet, out-of-the-way neighborhood that I couldn’t find any mention of in my guidebook: Shibamata.
Thanks to Cupid’s arrow, my plans to stay just for a year didn’t pan out either. Happily, I am still in Tokyo. Having spent so long here—and almost 15 years making a living writing about the country—I have no doubt that anyone visiting the Japanese capital ahead of or during this summer’s Olympic Games will have an unforgettable trip regardless of where they stay and explore. But for those who want to experience something other than Shibuya, Ginza, and the rest of the city’s well-beaten path, Tokyo has plenty of lesser-known (though no less interesting) neighborhoods to discover. Here are five, each with their own unique vibe.
An east-side temple town full of nostalgic appeal (and delicious grilled dumplings).
My home for my first year in Japan, Shibamata is located east of the Sumida River in Katsushika-ku, one of the 23 wards that constitute Tokyo’s metropolitan core. The area is best known to Japanese for the long-running movie series Otoko wa Tsurai Yo, featuring the lovable vagabond Tora-san, which was largely shot here from the 1960s to 1990s. Even when Tora-san made his big-screen bow in 1995, Shibamata looked almost no different to how it did 48 Tora-san movies earlier; and no different to when I arrived a few years later. It’s that retro charm that brings in Japanese sightseers who want a glimpse into Tokyo’s past.
The main street, Taishakuten Sando, now has a few more tourists and trinkets than in my time living there, but its wooden buildings and family-run stores and restaurants are just as nicely aged, bordering on ramshackle. At the end of the street, Shibamata Taishakuten (founded in 1629) was the first Japanese temple I ever laid eyes on, and its hundreds of intricate wood carvings are still some of the best I’ve seen. They were reportedly crafted by the same artisans who worked on the World Heritage–designated Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, north of Tokyo.
Taishakuten Sando was also part of my route to and from work. I would often stop at Takagiya Shinise to buy mitarashi dango, rice-flour dumplings grilled on skewers and coated with a sweet-savory sauce. I’ve had a dango habit ever since. Two other Shibamata favorites are the tempura rice bowls at 150-year-old restaurant Yamatoya (7-7-4 Shi-bamata) and the charcoal-grilled unagi (freshwater eel) at Ebisuya, which has been around since the 18th century.
One place I never visited during my time living in Shiba-mata was Yamamoto-tei, the former residence of businessman Einosuke Yamamoto. I missed out. The two-story wooden building dates to the late 1920s, when Tokyo was still being rebuilt after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and is a mixture of traditional Japanese design and Western influences. The tatami-mat rooms are lovely, with a subtle straw-like aroma, paper-screen doors, and views into a traditional landscaped garden where stepping-stone pathways wind around a small pond and waterfall. Like Shibamata in general, it is very mellow. That’s not an adjective one usually associates with Tokyo.
Home to third-wave cafés, a great garden, and Tokyo’s premier contemporary-art museum.
Close to 20 years after moving to Tokyo, I still live on the east side, albeit now in Koto-ku. A large part of the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games will take place in the south of this ward; if I could get tickets—a big “if” given the high demand—I could cycle to the swimming and archery events. While much of Tokyo will be inundated with visitors during the Games, my part of northern Koto-ku should remain nice and quiet. It isn’t in most guidebooks, but the neighborhood of Kiyosumi-Shirakawa is well worth exploring over a lazy afternoon.
For Tokyoites who know Kiyosumi-Shirakawa (many don’t), it’ll be as a hub for artisanal coffee. Over the last decade, numerous cafés and roasteries have set up in the neighborhood. One of the forerunners of the scene is Iki Espresso, whose Japanese-Kiwi husband-and-wife owners Teru and Kim Harase have brought flat whites, long blacks, and antipodean flavors like avocado toast to the area. Iki is my choice for a laidback brunch or caffeine-fueled chat with friends, but on a sunny day I also like to grab a takeout from Allpress and have a stroll around nearby Kiba Park.
I like that the area has some artistic credentials, too. A highlight is the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, which reopened after a three-year refurb in 2019. Located at the north end of Kiba Park, its galleries rotate through a 5,400-piece collection of mostly postwar Japanese modern art; a three-month solo exhibition devoted to Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson will kick off in mid-March.
For me, though, the most attractive side of Kiyosumi-Shirakawa is the Kiyosumi Teien gardens. I have an annual pass—for 600 yen (less than US$6), it’s the best deal I’ve ever had in Tokyo. For that, I can thank the 19th-century founder of Mitsubishi, Yataro Iwasaki, who developed the gardens into their current form in the 1870s as a place where his employees could unwind and the company could entertain visiting VIPs. That current shape is a classic Japanese stroll garden, with a central islet-accented pond, stepping-stone path-ways, an iris patch that blooms in June, and many other subtle and seasonal features. It’s a lovely setting for a bit of downtime with a takeout coffee.
Old-town ambiance meets bohemian cool.
Like Shibamata, Yanaka is a shitamachi (“lower town”) neighborhood—a traditional, low-rise area that in the Edo era would have been the preserve of artisans and merchants. But what sets Yanaka apart is its abiding bohemian atmosphere. Relatively low rents have long attracted creative types—legendary novelist Natsume Soseki lived here for a time in the early 1900s—and today the area’s old buildings are home to a cool collection of galleries, cafés, and bars.
During the day, Yanaka lends itself to strolling. Start at Yanaka Ginza, the old main street lined with everyday family-run stores and shops selling groceries, crafts, tea, and and snacks like senbei (rice crackers) and manju (little buns usually filled with sweetened lima or adzuki bean paste). Then get lost—as I still do—in the neighborhood’s warren of winding backstreets. One art venue worth seeking out is the Asakura Museum of Sculpture (7-18-10 Yanaka), the former residence and studio of sculptor Asakura Fumio. Another is SCAI the Bathhouse, a contemporary gallery housed in a onetime public bathhouse. You’ll find it just south of the Yanaka Cemetery, which in springtime makes a pretty spot for viewing cherry blossoms. More than anything, though, walking around here is a chance to soak up an older part of Tokyo, mostly free of high-rises and chain stores, and still mostly free of tourists.
By night, Yanaka is also great for a drink. Because this part of town escaped the devastation of the Great Kanto Earthquake and the firebombing raids of World War II, it still has plenty of old wooden buildings like the creaking two-story home of the Yanaka Beer Hall. Owned by Kenji Sakamoto, who also runs the craft brewery August Beer, the bar (which, despite its name, is a relatively snug affair) serves eight year-round August brews plus a few seasonal styles. On a recent visit, I enjoyed a limited-release cream ale that Sakamoto-san told me he had made for his birthday.
The brewer’s most recent venture is a two-minute walk away: a counter-only sake bar called Kogarashi. Taking a novel approach to Japan’s signature tipple, it serves only one high-grade junmai daiginjo sake, but it does so at four different temperatures—5, 20, 35 and 50°C—to allow you to appreciate how the flavor profile changes.
A former geisha district with a French twist.
For a quick hit of new-meets-old Tokyo and a spot of souvenir shopping, I often take visiting friends and family to the sloping street that leads from this neighborhood on the edge of Shinjuku toward the adjacent district of Iidabashi. These days I start with La Kagu, a newish landmark across the road from Kagurazaka Station. Designed by Kengo Kuma—the famed architect who’s also behind Tokyo’s new Olympic stadium—La Kagu is a revamped 1960s book warehouse that now serves as a stylish retail and events space. A branch of Ginza’s Akomeya, which specializes in artisanal foodstuffs and cookware (all beautifully packaged, of course), occupies its first floor alongside a chilled-out café, while the second floor rotates through a selection of monthly pop-ups.
From here, it’s a 20-minute walk downhill to Iidabashi Station, though with all the places to stop and browse, you could easily spend an afternoon poking around. Iwakura is worth making a beeline for. The shop sells contemporary Buddhist and Shinto paraphernalia alongside power stones, fun smartphone cases, essential oils, and beaded jewelry. Follow the side street leading away from Iwakura if you want a taste of Kagurazaka’s older side. It leads to a maze of cobbled alleyways and older buildings with noren curtains, many of which would have been exclusive teahouses and restaurants in the neighborhood’s heyday as a geisha district. Nowadays, there’s a mix of pricey and affordable here, and a mix of styles—thanks to the proximity of l’Institut Franco-Japonais and Lycée Franco-Japonais’s Tokyo campuses, Kagurazaka is known as much for its French bistros and bakeries as its tempura and ryotei restaurants. The area is particularly atmospheric in the fading light of dusk.
Chic boutiques and bookish diversions in the so-called “Brooklyn of Tokyo.”
Trendsetting urban complexes have popped up with regularity during my time in Tokyo. Roppongi Hills, Omotesando Hills, Tokyo Midtown, Hikarie, Ginza Six—the list really could go on and on. Since 2011, the Shibuya neighborhood of Daikanyama has had one too: Daikanyama T-Site (store.tsite.jp/daikanyama).
To be honest, it took a while for Daikanyama to grow on me. Its hip designer boutiques and denim ateliers get rave reviews and help give the area a cool, quirky vibe that’s often compared with Brooklyn, but I’m just not that into fashion. But T-Site is worth the detour. Unlike other such complexes in Tokyo, it almost never feels overrun with people; it’s smaller and more intimate, like a village center. It’s also home to what is very possibly the best bookstore in Japan. In fact, T-Site predominantly is a bookstore, one that has landed Tokyo-based designers Klein Dytham Architecture a slew of major awards for the sleek way they interlinked the site’s trio of lattice-fronted buildings. There’s a superb range of high-end art, architecture, design, photography, and travel tomes and periodicals that you could easily spend a whole afternoon browsing. There are also a few cafés and restaurants on hand, notably Ivy Place and the leather sofa–strewn Anjin Lounge.
Elsewhere, those looking to stock up on apparel should visit Okura for clothing made using the ancient indigo-dyeing method aizome; the Hillside Terrace outlet of Giraffe, which sells a range of original ties, bow ties, and necklaces; and Paris-born fashion house Maison Kitsuné, whose co-founder, Masaya Kuroki, has decked the store out in retro interiors inspired by the 1960s modernism of Tokyo’s Hotel Okura. Then end your afternoon at the wood-enveloped Spring Valley Brewery on Log Road, where the excellent craft brews include a Japanese white beer made with yuzu and sansho pepper. For prime people watching, grab a seat at one of the outdoor tables.
This article originally appeared in the December 2019/January 2020 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Less-trodden Tokyo”).