I’m in Tokyo with my sister. We’ve just had an accidental offal incident in Shinjuku’s tourist-jammed streed-food alley “Memory Lane” (she it handled well and I didn’t), and we’re recouping in a tiny bar in Golden Gai, an infamous Shinjuku square packed with closet-sized bars, each with room for a mere four or five patrons.
I tell the bartender that I’m excited to check out a neighborhood called Shimokitazawa in Tokyo’s Setagaya district, and he breaks into a broad grin. Turns out he he lives there. I realize I’ve inadvertently stumbled into a discussion about the “cool kids” neighborhoods, and I eagerly mention another neighborhood called Koenji. He smiles knowingly, patting down his vintage jacket. Feeling emboldened, I start gushing about a neighborhood called Yanesen, a supposedly off-the-beaten-track slice of old-school Tokyo.
He looks at me like I’m gushing about Staten Island and sidles down the bar to talk to his buddy.
Just like that, I’ve lost my cool cred. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted.
We never did make it to Yanesen, but we did explore a few of Tokyo’s quirkier neighborhoods in our week or so of just-past-cherry-blossom-season excursions. Here’s a rundown of our favorites, starting with Shimokitazawa, where I found the puppy café that stole my heart and ate into most of my budget.
Cool Kids and Ambient Beats in Shimokitazawa
Tokyo is clean as a whistle. Even the chaotic roar of chain-smoking men playing slot machines is contained in neat little cartoon-like buildings.
But Shimokitazawa is a little dirtier, edgier, and—as I suspected—full of impossibly cool looking Tokyo hipsters.
Just as my bartender friend said so, they hang out at a place called The Cage, a literal giant cage under a railway bridge containing a flea market by day, DJs by night, and hundreds of intimidatingly cool looking in-the-know kids (sadly, the pop up space is now defunct). The crowd spills out into a few pedestrianized streets lined with thrift stores, bars, coffee shops, used book stores, and a distinctly post-punk-gone-chic flair.
The streets and buildings feel shrunk to me. It’s almost as if Shimokitazawa’s been run through the wash and come out a touch smaller. I wonder if Tokyo hipsters would find Brooklyn just as oddly oversized, as I mull over sunglasses and vintage pins in an Americana-themed store.
Down the street, on the third floor of a tiny building just off the main shopping strip of Shimokitazawa is Puppy Café Rio. The twenty or so pups living there are all rescues, and they run around the large café while people lounge in deckchairs.
The puppy café, which is designed to look like a little park, is impossibly kawaii: cute in a distinctly Japanese way.
There’s even a television playing Disney’s Lady and the Tramp on repeat. My heart skips a beat when I see the smaller puppies sitting around the television on beanbags, wagging their tails, and watching cartoon dogs fall in love.
You pay when you walk out based on the amount of time you spend in there. Beware that time seems to disappear and it’s not too difficult to blow a cool hundred cooing at puppies for a few hours. I go back with my sister several times and try to convince the girls who work there (via Google translate) to let me adopt the puppy I’ve become enamored with. They look at me like I’m slightly deranged and politely decline.
Apart from the puppy café, my favorite spots in the neighborhood are a ramen spot with a chicken logo and a name I can’t read (although the cheap and satisfying dish can be found on every street corner in the neighborhood), a café called Pebble, which is run by a surfer-looking Japanese barista-come-DJ who wears faded Hawaiian-style shirts with towns like “Tuscon” and “Reno” written all over them in big neon letters. He makes fresh juice drinks and spins trippy ambient Japanese beats while patrons sit around playing video games on their phones.
I also hang at a more famous spot called Little Soul Café (which sells an impressive array of soul records and beer in dim, sexy, red lighting) and browse for vintage finds at the Shimokitazwa Garage, which hosts live gigs by local bands at night.
Japanese Pancakes to Die For in Manga-drenched Akihabara
Tokyo’s famous alternative-culture hub Akihabara is a well-trodden mecca for Japanese manga, electronics, and sex-positive culture. On a bright day, its colorful array of reflective buildings really make it feel like you’re wandering through a Sonic the Hedgehog game.
Unassumingly tucked under Akihabara station is a chic row of design boutiques, concept stores, and Café ASAN, one of Tokyo’s best spots for deliciously fluffy, thick, cake-like Japanese pancakes.
The quirky spot is loaded with plants, swing-seats that hang from the ceiling, and young, hungry patrons.
Be prepared for a wait—the pancakes are made to order and take 20 or so minutes to rise to their heavenly, fluffy heights—but trust me, they’ll be worth it.
Walk off the sugar high (or ride out the wait for a table) with a run around the unmanned pastel pink and blue vending machine stores across the street dispensing erotica, electronic gadgets, and comic books.
Indie Threads and Mom-and-Pop Moments in Koenji
A little further afield is the not-so-obviously-cool Koenji neighborhood, an erstwhile punk-hub turned indie shopping gem.
Shimokitazawa’s cornered the market on Americana themed baseball caps, sneakers, and branded T-shirts, but Koenji is where you’ll find a slice of Tokyo’s indie and vintage pop-up clothing scene. My sister and I amble down the Koenji Pal Shopping Arcade and wind up with bags full of jackets. For some reason, the shopping arcade’s jacket game is seriously on point.
Incidentally, another great spot for outerwear is Not Conventional (an upscale gender-neutral boutique in Harajuku) where I maxed out my credit card on a minimalist leather jacket.
Sadly, the ubiquitous and impossibly stylish Tokyo trench that we hunted for throughout our trip evaded us.
Etoile Street, just off Koenji’s shopping arcade, is crammed full of vintage shops, record stores, and food spots. We would have wound up eating there if our hearts weren’t stolen by a tiny blink-and-you’ll-miss-it mom-and-pop diner about half-way down the shopping arcade that hasn’t been touched by modernization since the fifties.
It’s run by a couple in their eighties, and despite their prime location, it’s obvious they don’t get too much traffic any more. The husband clangs about the kitchen while the wife potters around tidying chopsticks and fussing over our drinks in a way that reminds us both of our grandparents.
Our hearts melt into our simple bowls of ramen and we’re putty in their hands.