The Backwaters of Tokyo

Tokyo is a quintessential stop on the trail of any traveler, both for foreign tourists on holiday and expats looking for a weekend away. But the popularity of the destination doesn’t mean that it must be a common trip. Having tapped out the tourist circuit the last time I was in Tokyo (Asakusa, Shibuya, Harajuku, Tsukiji, etc.), I opted for something a little more low-key this time on a 48-hour visit with a friend.

Our first stop was Shimo-kitazawa, a location beloved by young Tokyoites looking for style and deals. Its charms got me the first time- I’ll forever be a loyal customer. Forget Harajuku- this place is less crowded and more eclectic, with many shops ranging from Bohemian imports to second-hand items to small booths and even boxes rented out to local jewelry-makers and clothing designers. I picked some artsy souvenirs and a few weird T-shirts. There are also many great, inexpensive restaurants and pubs in the area, from Thai to Spanish to Italian to standard Japanese fare. Our choice that day consisted of a drink at what was basically a lean-to.

Next, I went to Sangen-jaya (affectionately known as Sancha to locals). This area is a veritable maze of restaurants and bars where you are sure to find something unique to eat or drink. I had come for a nomi/tabe hodai experience offered by a Brazilian establishment called Bancho. For 3000 yen we were given T-shirts and free reign over a lavish buffet-style feast and bottomless drinks. Glorious hunks of beef and more than a few caipirinhas later, we were winding our way through the streets between the two branches of the restaurant: challenging but fun.

We ended up at a small “club” in Shibuya that was a hole-in-the-wall… literally. We wandered up some stairs in a building full of what might have been storage units. Through the first steel door we saw a sparse room with furniture that might have been collected at the corner on garbage day. The theme appears to have been “your weird uncle’s 1960’s living room”. There was a small bar on one side and a DJ booth on the other; the entertainer stationed there kept receiving fake calls on a blue handset as he turned French filter house. After things slowed down here, we ascended one floor to a bar where we sank into a sofa to play Jenga and wait for the first train.

The following day we went to Yokohama- but you need not traverse that far to enjoy what I did there. We had rented a kitchen in a community center and proceeded to cook the food of at least 8 different nationalities. Because space is so limited in Japan, this was an incredibly effective way to have a cheap, enjoyable night-in with friends. And there’s always a conbini or supermarket close by if you run out of ingredients. My favorite dish of the night was a Senegalese curry over cous-cous.

Before heading out the final day, I did stop at Harajuku after all… but not for the suffocating shopping frenzy that is inevitable there. I went instead for a stroll in Yoyogi Park. The autumn foliage was a secondary treat in addition to the great people-watching available there. Specifically I had been clued in to the existence of a group of “rockers” who could be relied on to bring large stereos and dance to 1950’s diner music on Sunday afternoons at the park’s entrance. Locating them and settling in to observe, I wasn’t disappointed. Every one of them was dressed like the Fonz- black leather jackets and greased up hairstyles that had to be constantly sprayed and combed. We did brave the Harajuku crowds momentarily just to have lunch at an art gallery/café called Design Festa- I elected a random combination of Jerk Chicken and a pot of Earl Grey Tea (outdoor seating on a chilly day!)

Overall I passed another great weekend in Tokyo. It was a much-needed break from the stress of work. Hopefully you can add some of these side-jaunts to your itinerary in the future.

Author of this article

Nicole Sauer

Nicole is a traveler, teaching to pay the bills and because she enjoys it! She loves discovering and taking photos of hilarious English fails on public signage ("Please use a toilet finely!") She currently lives in Nagoya. Check out her other site at

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