What sights would you see with a ¥10,500 ANA ticket to dreamland destination Tokyo? The answer is easy, as Tokyo is filled to the brim with cool tourist spots (including one or two noteworthy towers) and infamous scramble crossings, with enough people and unique shops to make your head spin. Yet, Tokyo is also full of hidden, underrated gems, and that’s where the real Tokyo lies, and where the locals go on with their daily lives. Step away from the crowds and catchy touristy traps, and spend a day or two ambling around some lesser known neighborhoods.
Hop on the Yamanote line for a few stops, and find yourself in old Tokyo, mere minutes away from the bustling centers of Shinjuku and Shibuya. A short walk from Nippori station, you’ll quickly find yourself surrounded with temples, wooden homes, and the unmistakable scent of street food being cooked: welcome to Yanaka, a beautiful historical area of Tokyo, tucked in some hills and still overlooked by tourists.
Don’t come here expecting to find Starbucks and high-end clothing brands. Instead, wander about the narrow shopping streets and stumble upon countless food stalls, meat and vegetable markets, textile shops, secondhand and vintage clothing havens, pottery, as well as tiny shops carrying traditional crafts such as Japanese paper and handwoven bamboo baskets.
At first sight, Ikenoue doesn’t look like it belongs in Tokyo: you very well could be in any typical small town Japan, and that’s part of the appeal of the neighborhood I made my home. Quaint, quiet, and undoubtedly affluent, the area is filled with massive traditional Japanese homes and impeccably trimmed trees, which is pure eye candy for an afternoon of sauntering about. Elderly folk greet you, cats roam around, and if you’re lucky you may witness a raccoon family crossing the street.
Head out of the station, cross the tracks on either side and you’ll find yourself surrounded by a multitude of small shops: futons, textiles, flowers, cakes, fruit, and a handful of kissaten, which are traditional Japanese cafés. Sit down to sip on a cup of freshly roasted beans at Kamakura Café (right across the exit of the station), from where smells lure you all the way from the actual train tracks. Continue down that path down the road to Pâtisserie Pierre, a renowned establishment with the locals. Rows of traditional and Western-style sweets await you, and if you peek through the kitchen window, you can watch the chefs mastering the confectionery art. Make sure you don’t leave without a few “Four Sec” cookies, their most famous item, in a flavorful selection ranging from orange to chestnut. With a full stomach, you can easily walk to bohemian Shimokitazawa in under 10 minutes, to pursue your treasure quest.
Mere steps away from Shibuya lies a small stretch of land, tucked between the infamous, dingy and aptly named “Love Hotel Hill”, and the upscale neighboring streets brimming with massive houses. Known simply as Shoto, you could blink and miss it after a night of nightclub festivities. Small but not to be overlooked, Shoto has become one of my favorite places to walk through on my way home.
Start your walk from easy-to-spot landmark Don Quijote in Shibuya, turning left off Bunkamura-dori, and you’ll suddenly find yourself in Shoto. The street is lined with stylish wine bars, French eateries and fine tableware shops, and bars all more sleek and sophisticated than the next. Amid the chic establishments, two of my favorites places to grab a bite are found: Junkadelic Jalopy!, a colorful little Mexican outlet that serves hearty burritos and cold Coronas. If you keep walking and cross the overpass, you’ll find Tokyo’s best-kept secret, a small wooden shop selling the most exquisite falafels. I’m reluctant to share the name of the shop as it’s sinfully good, so I’ll let you walk there and find it…..
I think the real “cool” Japan is tucked in the nook and crannies of this buzzing city…. take a bite, and try not to get addicted.