Hidden from Tokyo’s hustle-bustle is Shimokitazawa, a little-known Tokyo neighbourhood with big heart. Often likened to Melbourne’s Brunswick by Aussies, Shimokitazawa shares Harajuku’s flair and creativity, but displays it at a pace far less chaotic than the centre of the city.
Shimokita (as it’s affectionately known by locals) is formed around a network of tiny streets and alleyways almost too narrow for cars, making it unusually quiet. But, what it lacks in traffic, it makes up for in an exceptional music, art, and bar scene.
Located just four minutes from Shibuya Station on the Inokashira Line and seven minutes from Shinjuku Station on the Odakyu Line, Shimokatizawa isn’t hard to find. You could check it out on a day trip, but there’s plenty to do that make it an overnight destination.
Outside the train station, you won’t see the superhighway overpasses of Shinjuku or the overwhelming crowds of Shibuya. Rather, you’ll be struck by rows of designer apartments and traditional Japanese homes.
But because of its size and a lack of looming skyscrapers, there are no hotels in Shimokitazawa itself. The best way to stay is to rent an apartment or a room in a hip loft on Airbnb. You should be able to score an entire place for about $110 a night.
Once you’re settled in, take a turn down the labyrinths of tiny, humming streets and wander through the shops that line them. Vintage and recycle wares are Shimokita’s specialty. Broken-in band tees, dungarees and remodeled jackets make for a kind of thrift-shop dress code.
Some boutiques are refined and orderly, stocking only the best in second-hand couture. Others leave shoppers to do the digging, with every inch of wall space occupied by racks upon racks of vintage goodies and eccentric accessories. These stores are easy to spot, spilling out onto the street with intimidatingly cool employees hanging near the front.
You’ll find quirky clothing gold in ever-popular stores like Ocean BLVD and New York Joe Exchange. The former is a great place for someone with limited funds, their one-off pieces a favourite among regulars. At New York Joe Exchange, customers can swap their own threads for stuff on the shelf. Even if you don’t find anything to buy, the store, which occupies an old public bathhouse, is worth a visit.
When you’ve shopped enough to work up an appetite, skip Starbucks and sip local. Shimokita cafes are always busy, with locals chatting over fresh juices or writers sipping espresso while they fill their notebooks.
Outdoor dining is particularly popular, and is something you’ll be hard-pressed to find in Tokyo’s busier areas. Take your latte to the street and enjoy the show – many of the cafes double as galleries and performance spaces.
Popular with the locals, Bookends Coffee Service is an unhurried spot to enjoy a well-priced cuppa and a moment of respite. Or – if you’ve been bouncing around Japan for a while and are in need of some home-style creature comforts, try Frankie Melbourne Espresso. It’ll satisfy any pangs of homesickness with Anzac biscuits and smashed avo.
As night falls and the cafes close up shop, head out to see a band. Trendy musicians carting guitars and drum kits appear seemingly out of nowhere, filling alleyways and tunnels with rock ‘n roll. Small, intimate venues host eclectic bands until the early hours of the morning.
If you really want to immerse yourself in underground music, you can see a band in a bomb shelter. Shelter is a pioneer in the Shimokitazawa’s music scene; a teeny, tiny little spot under a suburban apartment block that hosts some of the area’s coolest musicians.
It, and the neighbourhood it calls home, might be one of Tokyo’s best-kept secrets.
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