You’re in Tokyo and you’ve got limited time to explore one of the most formidable cities in the world. Which route do you choose? Do you take the well-trod tourist path or do you look for local, authentic experiences?
In Suginami Ward, a district in western Tokyo, you can easily explore the second option. Here, you’ll find in each section a microcosm of the daily life that carries on across the city, tourists or not, in all its idiosyncrasies.
Suginami is the Tokyo of purple-haired grandmas bartering over the price of gobo (burdock root) in covered shopping arcades while salarymen hedge their bets in a pachinko parlor next door. One where cute cafés offer a space to do homework for groups of high school kids and anime producers create the products that get rabidly consumed in nearby Akihabara. Down the street, otaku (nerds) trade gaming tips over Princess Peach cocktails while metal bands rock out in a livehouse.
Made up of four distinct neighborhoods: Nishi-Ogikubo, Ogikubo, Asagaya and Koenji, it’s easy to explore the highlights in a day. Follow our recommended route to make every minute count and experience Suginami to the fullest.
Morning: Nishi-Ogikubo and Ogikubo
10 a.m. Anime primer
Start your day in Nishi-Ogikubo with total immersion into the world of Japanese anime at the Suginami Animation Museum. Spot the circular pillar strewn with the signatures and doodles of famous artists before attempting to absorb the complex history of animation on the giant timeline wall. Now that you’ve got your anime primer, it’s time to lend your voice to Astro Boy in the “Anime Afureko” dubbing booth and bring to life your own drawings on the digital tracing boards. Head upstairs to see the featured exhibition that changes regularly or catch a dose of nostalgia with a childhood cartoon in the theater. A hidden highlight is the museum’s library — stocked with books and DVDs that are free to use.
11 a.m. Cat napping
Make your way towards Ogikubo for a chance to experience the uniquely Japanese craze of new and improved animal petting cafés — now with hedgehogs, owls, rabbits and reptiles — though cats are where it all began, partly to serve the many pet-deprived Tokyoites (it’s difficult to own a pet in such a densely populated city). Cat Room Korune offers the full, therapeutic experience: free manga, video games, cheap drinks and snacks plus a posse of friendly felines, making it feel more like you’re chilling at a cat-loving mate’s house. They even encourage cat naps for customers.
12:30 p.m. Spiritual retreat
Asagaya Shinmeigu Shrine has long provided a place of spiritual respite as Suginami repeatedly rose and fell around it. A beautiful set of Shinto buildings, it has the same intensely calming atmosphere as the famous Ise Jingu, Japan’s most sacred shrine, to which it is related. The Honden (main hall) is where you’ll find one of Shinto’s most important deities — Amaterasu, the sun goddess — enshrined. If you’re around in March, the grounds play host to a special event to celebrate the cherry blossoms.
1 p.m. Panda lunch
Not a panda café in the way you’re thinking (that would be an adorable but logistical nightmare), this charming spot on the second floor is all about celebrating the panda: from the decorations to the tableware to the skillfully poured panda lattés — it’s a coffee-fuelled love letter to the vulnerable species. Panda Coffee’s affable owner, Kanazawa-san, will let you read the educational books along the wall or browse the panda-themed trinkets while you’re there. Classic kissaten (traditional Japanese café) dishes on the well-executed menu will top you up for the rest of your adventure.
2 p.m. Hunting for pearls
Suginami is known for its many shotengai — wonderfully retro, covered shopping arcades that give you a glimpse into local Japanese life. Asagaya Pearl Center is a picture-perfect example. Here you can browse through generations-old sweets vendors, curious brick-a-brack shops and kitsch kissaten — spotting the odd modern anomaly like Family Mart along the way — until you reach the end. In Tokyo in August? Don’t miss the spectacular Asagaya Tanabata Festival, one of the city’s largest tanabata celebrations featuring giant papier-mâché floats, carnival games and tons of street food.
3 p.m. Detour to Totoro’s garden
Spare 30 minutes for a whimsical detour to A-san No Niwa, a teeny gem of a garden designed by Studio Ghibli’s legendary creator, Hayao Miyazaki. Taking over the site of a former home fondly nicknamed the “Totoro House” by locals — endearingly, niwa means garden and “A-san” is the name for anybody who visits it.
3:30 p.m. Back to the past via the future
From Asagaya, it’s only a 15-minute walk to the next stop on your Suginami tour. Take the futuristic Asagaya Anime Street as your starting point where you’ll discover a tunnel of Japanese pop culture beneath the railway tracks. Opened in 2014, the street is part of Suginami’s efforts to boost its reputation as the serious mecca of anime culture and showcases different stores, including cosplay retailers and exhibition spaces.
Continue walking under the railway tracks until you reach an altogether different kind of mecca. You’ve arrived at the vintage-meets-grunge punk paradise of Koenji just in time.
5 p.m. Hand me down
The second-hand shopping scene in Koenji is reputed to be one of the best in Tokyo. Travel in any direction from the station and you’ll see why. There are vintage stores aplenty. They occupy almost every other store along Koenji Pal Shopping Street (another picturesque shotengai), leading onto Etoile Dori Street and Koenji Look Shopping Street. You’ll find them hidden between the mishmash of chic eateries and recycle stores that jostle for space along Koenji Junjo Shopping Street. Koenji Minami Shopping Street onto Konan Dori Street opposite the station’s south exit has its fair share too. Try not to lose it in the kiddy wonderland that is 2000 Collectable Toys — the name says it all.
6:30 p.m. Easy pickings
Take your pick from the array of laidback restaurants that go with the flow of Koenji’s hippie reputation. For yakitori (chicken skewers) and a raucous atmosphere, slip under the railway tracks via Central Road. North of the station is good for quirky hybrid dining adventures such as at Cocktail Shobo, a “book bar” that serves secondhand tomes along with food inspired by fiction. Always buzzing and with a foreigner-friendly atmosphere, over 200 restaurants in the area have menus in English — Experience Suginami Tokyo (a dedicated travel guide for the area) has a list of each with a link to the menu if you want to check beforehand.
9 p.m. Go live!
Koenji is most famous for its live scene and is the hood to head to if you’re looking to enjoy an intimate gig, all-night concert or unplanned jam on the street. Punk, funk, jazz, rock and heavy metal; you’ll find it all in and among the low-lit streets. There are too many venues to list here, though you can go with the place pictured above, Penguin House, for a good introduction. It’s best to put your ear to the ground and follow the rhythmic rumble — you’re bound to stumble upon something memorable. Fans of gaming should make the U-turn back to Asagaya for 44 Sonic, an anime and karaoke bar run by a former film director who makes cocktails based off of your favorite anime or video game character.
12 a.m. Sleep with art
BnA Hotel Koenji is both a community gallery and an accommodation at the same time, showcasing the projects of up-and-coming Japanese artists while offering travelers the chance to get close to (as in, sleep inside) local works of art. Currently, there are just two rooms — so it needs to be booked well in advance — plus an event space and bar which is fast becoming the hangout for the local artistic community. Even if you can’t book a bed, it’s well worth taking a look inside to see what Suginami’s most colorful creatives are up to.
For opening hours, prices and more information about the places listed, check out EXPERIENCE SUGINAMI TOKYO, a website dedicated to helping foreign visitors discover the area.
Suginami Animation Museum
- 3F, 3-29-5 Kamiogi, Suginami-ku, Tokyo. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (Last entry at 5.30 p.m..). Closed Mondays (or the following Tuesday if Monday is a national holiday). Closed December 28th to January 4th for New Year.
Cat Room Korune
- 3F, 5-23-13 Ogikubo, Suginami-ku, Tokyo. Opening hours may vary, please check before you go.
- 1-25-5 Asagaya-kita, Suginami-ku, Tokyo. Open all day.
- 2F, 3-31-14 Asagaya-minami, Suginami-ku, Tokyo. Opening hours may vary, please check before you go.
Asagaya Pearl Center
- 2-15-4 Asagaya-minami, Suginami-ku, Tokyo. Most shops open around 10 a.m. until 7.30 to 8 p.m..
A-san no Niwa
- 5-45-13 Asagaya-kita, Suginami-ku, Tokyo. Open all day.
Asagaya Anime Street
- 2-40-1 Asagaya-minami, Suginami-ku, Tokyo. Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.. Actual opening hours for each store may vary.
2000 Collectable Toys
- 2-43-9 Koenji-minami, Suginami-ku, Tokyo. Opening hours may vary, please check before you go.
- 3-8-13 Koenji-kita, Suginami-ku, Tokyo. Opening hours may vary, please check before you go.
- B1F, 3-24-8 Koenji-kita, Suginami-ku, Tokyo. Opening hours may vary, please check before you go.
- 2 -12-4 Asagaya-kita, Suginami-ku, Tokyo. Opening hours may vary, please check before you go.
BnA Hotel Koenji
- 2-4-7 Koenji-kita, Suginami-ku, Tokyo. Opening hours may vary, please check before you go.