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The Story of Shimokitazawa

There's history behind this hipster 'hood, once dubbed the coolest neighborhood in the world.

By 9 min read

Shimokitazawa, “Shimokita” to the locals or just “Shimo” to the syllable-adverse is a southwestern corner of the capital city that’s been touted as a hipster haven, a thrift store goldmine, an epicenter to the city’s boho community and Tokyo’s answer to Greenwich Village in New York.

Although these labels aren’t necessarily incorrect, there’s so much more to this former farming village turned black market, turned “World’s Coolest Neighborhood” according to a 2014 listing by Vogue, nestled between the well-trodden locations of Shibuya and Shinjuku.

It’s a corner of Tokyo that’s long thrived off the power of community, where local traditions and modern ideologies meld together to embody a vibe that can’t be matched. It’s innovative, but the area’s evolution couldn’t be more organic. There’s a reason why it’s so loved, but to really appreciate Shimokita, you’ve got to learn a little about its history.

Agricultural beginnings

Look at a map of Tokyo from the mid-1910s (if you can find one!), and you’d see the area that made up Shimokita was actually a mass of farming land, framed by fields and forests, with the Kitazawa river running through the middle from west to east. Shinganji Temple and Kitazawa Hachiman Shrine are the only real markers of the area in that time that still exist in their original location today.

Shimokitazawa is a stop after Shinjuku on the Odakyu Electric Railway Line.

After the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, residents of the inner-city settled in the area to avoid the dangers of a potential future disaster. Four years later (1927) the Odakyu Odawara line opened, and more Tokyoites started setting up home there, attracted to the positioning between the city’s major business hubs as well as the extra space suburban-style living offered. Word spread, and by the 1930s Shimokita’s landscape had begun its full transition from farming land to residential center. The transformation was rapid, between 1920-30 the population of the area skyrocketed.

Black market religion

Following World War II the neighborhood became one of the city’s most important black markets.

“People didn’t have enough products or enough food, so the back market popped up” explains Harumi Komura, a Tokyo local who now runs regular tours throughout the area. This market mentality is one that still proudly runs through the streets of this eclectic neighborhood. It’s why, explains Komura, “Shimokita has so many second-hand stores today.”

Thrift stores are aplenty in Shimokitazwa.

Along with the market community, another iconic addition to the neighborhood opened up around the same time, the Catholic Setagaya Church. Tucked up a slight incline behind The Suzunari Theatre complex just five minutes walk northeast of the station, this understated but welcoming church was founded in 1946.

Setagaya Catholic Church.

According to Komura, “It still has a membership of close to 700 people, so that’s big for Japan.”

“We discovered this site from a local person” Komura explains. “We just stopped him and asked him ‘where do you like to hang out?’ He’s a shop owner, and he was from Nagasaki, so he often goes to this place,” she says.

Nagasaki is a prefecture with a high density of churches — it was once the home of Japan’s Kakure Kirishitan (hidden Christian community). Although the ban on Christianity was lifted by 1873 — presumably way before the man’s time — the religion has stayed active in Nagasaki. It’s a testament to Shimokita’s malleability that a Christian man from Nagasaki can find a piece of home in this delightfully mismatched neighborhood.

Organic suburbanization

By the 1950s and ‘60s, over a decade after the war, the area became far more urbanized. Legitimate retail outlets sprung up, outnumbering the black market stalls. As the neighborhood evolved, the city’s layout morphed into something new. Still, the change was organic as the previously farm-based structure made way for shop-centric planning. This is one of the reasons Shimokita is far more pedestrian friendly than many other corners of the city.

Suzunari Theater.

A train-centric neighborhood, the 1960s saw the south side of the station become a new outpost for red light district business, set up to serve the city’s salarymen, presumably on their way home from the office in Shinjuku or Shibuya.

By the 1970s, it had gained a reputation for being an excellent, accessible, affordable, and central area for the younger generation of Tokyoites who had previously occupied pockets of Shinjuku and Shibuya.

Counterculture split

Shimokitazawa is more than just a hipster haven.

It’s from this point in the chronology that Shimokita’s reputation for being a countercultural hub really came into being. Read any travel story on Shimokita and you’ll stumble across the adjectives “bohemian,” “retro,” and “hipster” time and time again. And although sure, those are fair markers of the style of the city, they run the risk of pigeonholing Shimokita as a single fashion trend. It’s far more than that. Within Shimokita itself, there are so many sub-factions of the neighborhood.

One unofficial local historian is Masao Tsubaki, the owner of the long-serving record store Flash Disc Ranch. Tsubaki not only opened the independent store in Shimokita in 1982, but he also grew up in the area.

Flash Disc Ranch.

“Shimo is divided into two cities,” he explains while sorting through endless piles of record sleeves and paperwork. “There’s the north and south side, and it’s totally different. Most of the long-term businesses are on the north side, and the south is rather new.”

Shimo is divided into two cities

Tsubaki is an excellent spokesperson for Shimokita’s history; he knows it more intimately than most. When quizzed about whether he thinks the area’s changed a lot during his time, he relays an all-too familiar story of gentrification.

Flash Disc Ranch.

“Nearby was a produce store, one of my friend’s parents ran it, but it went out of business, ” he says. This is thanks in large part to the big name chains taking residence in hopes of capitalizing on the expanding population.

But there are still many businesses that have continued to thrive despite the threat of outside influence. Mother, a cozy, local bar is Tsubaki’s favorite example. Still standing proud today, Mother has been a Shimokita institution for over four decades. As a teenager, he’d frequent the bar on nights when he probably should have been home studying — the Shimokita nightlife was too much of a drawcard.

Mother.

“When I was in high school, about 16,” he reminisces, “we were always treated by the local [store] owners, so we thought one day, ‘okay we’re going to treat them back.’ We went to Mother and bought a bottle of whiskey. I was sitting in the bar facing the owner and my friends, and they were staring at something behind me. It was my mother. She wondered why I hadn’t come home, so she traveled from the edge of Shimo [to find me].”

“I had no idea how she could have found me” he laughs, “though, in those days, the area was pretty compact.”

“It wasn’t until 20-30 years later that I asked her, how did you find me? She said she was wandering and found stairs and walked up and found me. It was the first place she entered,” he says.

Preserving the Shimokitazawa legacy

Scenes like these perfectly represent Shimokita’s vibrant, community-centered nightlife scene, a place where communities are built around passions and interests rather than age demographics. It’s a quality that’s rather unique to the area, where multilayered generational groups come together to make something new, but with respect to what came before.

The live music scene is another ideal example of that.

Shimokitazawa is a great place for live music.

“I’m always amazed by the number of venues in the area,” says Tsubaki. “[Previously] there weren’t many venues run by younger people. But, nowadays I see the generational change. Live venues have to charge high entry to maintain business and pay musicians. It’s not cheap for the fans, it means that only passionate fans of the bands can go.”

However, with the changing of the guard comes a new way of looking at things. “So the younger people have been thinking about how to change the business structure to lower charges,” relays Tsubaki.

The culture of Shimokita is built on new generations finding innovative new ways to keep the neighborhood’s legacy alive. Thrift clothing store New York Joe Exchange is another example of this ethos. Taking over the space of what was once a public bathhouse, it retained the basic layout of the original building, tiles and draining pipes still intact — a homage to the store’s previous life.

A local’s Shimokita welcome

With such a focus on the local, it’d be fair to assume that the people of Shimokita would be cold to outsiders, too worried of protecting their carefully cultivated culture to be infiltrated by outside influence.

But in reality, it’s quite the opposite.

Get to know the locals at yakitori restaurant Sakae.

There’s one stop-off Komura likes to take her guests during the end of her tours. It’s a compact, locals-populated yakitori joint called Sakae run by two generations of the same family.

“When we were making the tour,” says Komura, “this was one of our first choices, but because it’s famous around the area, and because it’s so local, we thought they’d decline [being on the tour]. Actually, they were more than welcoming.”

Sakae.

“The original owner doesn’t work anymore” Komura explains (the restaurant is now run by the owner’s daughter and her husband) “but he is always sitting around here, he has regular customers, and he’s always there to chat with them.”

This local appreciation is what makes Shimokita one of the only neighborhoods where a shop like Captain’s Donut, an independent takeaway stand specializing in soy-based donuts can thrive in a city populated by mega-chains and convenience stores. Once local, always local, the community supports one another in a way that feels more like a country town than a fragment of one of the world’s biggest cities.

Captain’s Donut.

The open-minded attitude that permeates every inch of this friendly local pocket of Tokyo has had a run-on effect beyond just the city. It was once home to many of the nation’s biggest celebrities. “A lot of Japanese actors started off in Shimokita” Komura mentions, “they were part of the local theatre scene, so we still see many of them hanging out in places like the Suzunari Theatre.”

Suzanari Theater during the day.

It seems that it doesn’t matter how far you go, or how long you’ve stayed — one week or an entire lifetime — there’s someone infectious about Shimokita. Once you’re bitten by the bug, you can never entirely forget the place, and you wouldn’t want to.

Win a Cool Local Tour of Shimokitazawa

Win a Tour of Shimokitazawa

All of the locations mentioned in this article are part of a Shimokitazawa neighborhood tour designed by Ellista Local Tour. GaijinPot is giving readers and their friends a chance to go on the tour themselves in a special Instagram photo contest! Food, drink and behind-the-scenes banter all included. We’ll also give you ¥10,000 spending money and send you a bunch of top-notch merch to sweeten the deal. Entrants could also be featured in our pick of the best snaps on the GaijinPot Instagram.

Find out more about the contest and how to apply.

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