Tokyo is a city full of surprises; sometimes that surprise might be a (robotic?) polar bear in the middle of Shibuya or an orderly parade of flesh-eating zombies. Happily, there are also surprises that don’t want to kill you, which come in the form of amazing little-known neighborhoods that whisper stories of old Tokyo. If you’re looking for an off-the-beaten track adventure check out these places below.
An old downtown residential area just east of Ueno Park, Yanaka has survived numerous attempts at destruction by earthquakes and a world war to retain its authentic ‘shitamachi’ atmosphere and is a great place to glimpse what life would have been like in twentieth century Tokyo. Wander down Yanaka Ginza shopping street and watch locals trade handmade crafts and sweets while groups of children play with spinning tops – yes, it’s that nostalgic.
Himitsudo kakigori (shaved-ice dessert) shop is open all year round and has 132 seasonal toppings that change daily. They even hand-shave the ice using a handle-operated machine for extra nostalgia points.
From Nippori station, take the west exit and head up the hill. You can walk the short distance from Yanaka to Ueno Park or explore the rest of Yanasen (Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi combined) to get more of that traditional shitamachi feel.
Cut off from Tokyo’s edge by two rivers, Tateishi seems to be a place that both time, and people, forgot about. The train to the station crosses a rusty old bridge past low-rise buildings, flickering neon signs and battered doorways of smoky izakayas filled with drunken salary men watching some old Japanese TV drama. There’s a covered market that looks like it’s about to fall down next to the station with tiny stands/restaurants selling yakitori and suspicious-looking drinks. The average age of patrons here is about 80 so it’s the kind of place where you might hear some incredible life stories and then later wonder if it was your imagination aided by one too many shochus.
Sakaezushi is a standing-only sushi bar which serves cheap but great quality sushi, including oysters and scallops, and where eating with your hands is approved.
Take the train to Keisei-tateishi station (not Tateishi station or you’ll end up in Kyushu) and the market is adjacent.
Toshimaen has a retro amusement park that in the winter becomes a magical Christmassy carnival wonderland with Tokyo’s biggest outdoor ice skating rink. Step through candy colored gates and underneath fairy lights, past rickety wooden rides (which you can go on), and skate along to an incessant AKB48 soundtrack. Entrance to the park (around 1000yen) includes unlimited access to the ice rink as well as the park’s other amusements so you basically get to run around a giant playground like a giant kid.
Niwa-no-yu onsen is next door to the amusement park and has indoor and outdoor baths, steam rooms, saunas, and a Dead Sea pool all fed by natural water pumped from the ground below. This is actually quite a posh onsen so wear your adult persona.
Toshimaen is on the Seibu-Ikebukuro line. The park is about a 2 minute walk next to a European-looking central plaza.
Also known as ‘Book Town’, Jimbocho is home to over 180 second-hand bookshops, as well as several publishing houses. The entire area burned down in 1913 and it was after this that the first publishing company in the area was established there. Soon after it became a haven for liberal intellectuals and the atmosphere still feels palpably intellectual with lots of boutique cafes hosting open mic nights for students coming from the universities nearby. It’s also, weirdly, a great place to shop for cheap ski and snowboard gear.
There’s an annual book fair in late October when hundreds of booksellers set up stalls on the streets and sell books at discount prices.
Get out at Jimbocho station and explore in and around Yasukini-dori with Kudanshita in the West and Akihabara in the East.
What’s your favorite neighborhood in Tokyo? Let us in on any secret areas you know about? Comment below!