We’re lucky enough to have friends in Tokyo, so we try to stay near where they live in Ogikubo. This gives us a unique insight into local life there every time we visit. Here’s a brief summary of things we love about Tokyo off the beaten track. It covers: Kōenji, Asagaya, Ogikubo, and Kichijōji. This area is basically a western section of the Chūō-Sōbu line: one of the most crowded commuter train lines in Japan (which is really saying something).
If you want to visit somewhere in Tokyo without the tourists, where normal people live, and where the huge 20-storey buildings give way to low-rise winding streets, this area is perfect.
At this point, we must mention that Chris’s BFF Tom (who has lived in Japan for over a decade now) has played a critical role in helping us get under the surface of the place, not to mention the confidence to head off the beaten track. Even with without such support, our conclusion is simple: just go for it! Every Japanese person you meet wants to make sure you have a good trip. Without fail. Menus might be baffling, street signs might be non-existent, but there’s always someone to help.
Wandering the low-rise streets of western Tokyo
Tokyo is really hard to comprehend, never mind do justice to. Central Tokyo is everything you imagine it to be: big, bright, busy. But venturing further out of the centre, there’s a different side to the city. You enter a maze of winding, endless bicycle-lined streets bursting with little restaurants, shops and bars waiting to be discovered.
One of the best descriptions we’ve ever heard of Japan as a whole is ‘pleasantly baffling’. Exploring anywhere off the beaten track in Tokyo really lives up to this. You’re usually the only tourist amid a sea of locals and you find yourself marvelling/puzzling at everything going on. This makes just walking around the many, many, many streets one of the best activities you can do. There’s no end to taking it all in. You never will.
Interesting and dense shopping
What do you want to buy? Everything? Good, they have that in stock here.
One of the most fun things you can do in Tokyo, or anywhere in Japan, is go into a pharmacy. That’s one section of the exterior of one in Ogikubo in the first photo below. Just let that sink in. Below that photo is one of a bento shop in Kōenji, selling bento boxes containing everything you could ever want for lunch and more. And below that is obviously a florist, which we just thought was really pretty and isn’t actually that overwhelming. Just very orderly!
Finding green spaces
For a city so built up, Tokyo breaks up the madness with little garden areas beautifully. They usually feature some tranquil water and koi, too. As we mentioned in our Takamatsu blog, they sometimes use a smaller-scale version of ‘borrowed scenery’ to trick the eye into thinking they’re bigger than they are. Or at least, they’re lined with thick trees to disguise the surrounding buildings and make you feel like you’re locked in a verdant little world. The garden pictured below is in Ogikubo.
Food halls that go on forever in Kichijōji
These photos are from Atre Kichijōji, which is an indoor shopping centre with a huge food hall.
Experiencing a Japanese food hall is one of the most intense experiences you can have. Like everything in Japan, it’s orderly chaos. The choice is overwhelming and of course, all the food is exceptionally good. You have to walk for a good ten minutes to get from one end to the other and everything is just delicious-looking. Especially all the cheese.
Side note: You’ve probably heard of all the unusual KitKat flavours available in Japan, such as green tea, wasabi, sake, and sweet potato. They’re brilliant – this is Japan and they only do incredible food. Don’t let anyone tell you that green tea chocolate is ‘weird’ when we have that repulsive orange-flavour muck in the UK. Anyway, more interesting than the flavours is the fact that in Japan, KitKats are not the cheapo wafery snacks they are in the UK. Somehow, they’ve managed to market themselves as exciting and posh. They also make cakes out of them, as shown below. I have a horrible feeling that was a suggestion for a wedding.
Lit up streets at night
If you think the streets are interesting to walk round in the day, you’ll be even happier when you see them at night.
Everywhere you look, there are lanterns, fairylights and illuminated signs vying for your attention. And despite the crazily long Japanese working hours, evenings are buzzing. Shops stay open late, because everything is about convenience for the workers so everything is available all the time.
More and more bars and restaurants light up as the night sets in, soon filling with their evening customers. It’s a magical landscape. And the smells emitting from the myriad of tiny izakayas (casual bar-eateries) are enough to build up your appetite.
Where we ate in this area of western Tokyo
You knew that was coming next, didn’t you?
So of course, the best thing about being in Japan is eating the most exquisite food in the world. And usually not spending very much money on it at all. It’s pretty much impossible to narrow down ‘where to eat’ because there’s just so much choice and none of it is bad. Our friend Tom has lived in this part of Tokyo for years now and even then, he couldn’t have visited even half the restaurants just in the small zone around their apartment. In Japan, most restaurants are tiny and all in close proximity to each other. Look how little this Italian is in Asagaya. We’ve never been in it, but it always sticks in our minds when trying to describe the scale of the restaurants.
In the street photos throughout this post, you can pick out about 100 restaurants in one shot – and that’s only as far as they eye can see. The streets go on and on and these are just low-rise buildings with two levels of restaurants. In some areas of Tokyo, you’re looking at about eight or more floors of endless food. God, writing this is like comprehending the enormity of the universe. Hopefully reading it is less unnerving?
So here are a few things we ate. But you can probably eat anywhere and it will be amazing. It’s just the battle of trying to figure out where serves what!
Cheap eats: Donburi in Ogikubo
There’s a chain of restaurants across Tokyo called Isomaru Suisan. They serve cheap and tasty donburi (a bowl of rice with veg/fish/meat on top). Perfect for a hearty, quick lunch. We ate at the Ogikubo station branch of Isomaru Suisan on our first day. There was a picture-based menu, which in most countries is an instant alarm bell for bad food, but in Japan is a total blessing because of the whopping great language barrier.
Asagaya: home of the best ramen we’ve ever had
We’re now regulars (ahem) at Ramen Cique in Asagaya, having been there on both our trips to Japan in recent years. That’s regular isn’t it?!
It’s a tiny, unassuming place on the main road. Inside, there are stools at the bar – enough for about five people. You order using a vending machine (utter relief: there are photos of the food on the buttons) and take your ticket to the chef. From what we remember, there’s either salty or not-so-salty options for the broth and then the usual toppings to pick from, including an essential soy egg that really is the crowning glory. We should have popped it open to get the yolk out for this picture, but we were too busy wanting to eat it. Soz.
An indoor collection of tiny restaurants in Kōenji
One our last night, we went to this indoor market-style thing called Uoichiba. It’s hard to describe, but if you can find it, GO. It’s one of those places you feel so totally lost, in a good way. Last time, we’d almost eaten there but hadn’t, for some reason, so it was somewhere we wanted to go back to. There are all kinds of restaurants inside and it’s really bustling and incredibly Japanese.
We opted for some delicious Vietnamese in Binh Minh restaurant. And although we had Tom with us, there were pictures on the menu so we might even have been able to fend for ourselves if we’d had to.
Cake or ice cream at Rose Bakery, Kichijōji
On our first visit, we had the best carrot cake we’ve ever tasted here. This time, we had two unspeakably amazing ice creams. Rose Bakery has branches around the world and several in Tokyo, which are going to be the best, obvs.
This one in Kichijōji has some lovely staff – we once left a cake there before going off for a picnic and when we went back, they remembered us and had held onto it for us.
North American food, Japanese style, in Koenji
We went for dessert and craft ale at El Pato in Kōenji, one of Tom’s favourites. It serves US food – something we’ve not really specifically tried before, apart from the obvious international dishes. We shared a chocolate brownie and something we’d heard of, but never had: s’mores. It’s a sort of marshmallow-wafer sandwich served warm. Opinions were divided. But the main meals served here looked incredible, so definitely somewhere we’ll have to go on our next visit. It might be interesting for North Americans even, to see how a Japanese chef puts their own take on it.
It was also a really lovely atmosphere for our last night when both of us were feeling rather melancholy. The craft beers helped, which leads us onto the next topic…
Craft beer: hopping up everywhere
It’s fair to say that the majority of our spending money for our trip went on this American-style hoppy stuff. Like at home in the UK, it isn’t cheap, and also like at home, it’s growing in popularity all the time across Japan. So there are lots of places to sample it in Tokyo and luckily Tom has rootled out some of the best ones to introduce us to. We say us, but it’s really Chris’s thing. Mostly due to the horrific bloating effect it has on Caroline.
There’s a small chain of bars called ‘Craft Beer Market’, pictured below. It wasn’t anything to write home about really, but the fact craft beer is being done as a chain shows you how popular it is.
A really good place that we sadly got no photos of but we’ve been to twice, was Stone Asagaya, on the second floor of a building near to the train line.
As mentioned in the food section, we also had beer at El Pato in Kōenji. The staff were really lovely and replaced a spilt pint, free of charge. That’s Japan for you. They also took a photo of us.
One of the most memorable places we drank was Masa Tonik bar, Asagaya. We took a photo of the outside of it to help us find it again, because like everything in Tokyo, finding it is half the battle. It’s upstairs in a building near Stone. Good luck if you want to hunt it out.
It had beers and umeshu (plum wine), one of the best drinks in the world. It can be served hot or cold and if you get a hot one, it’s like having an alcoholic fruit tea. Brilliant. Caroline had three of these in Masa Tonik and drew a cat in their guest book. They were also kind enough to take a photo of the three of us, so we took a photo of the owner/manager in return. A lovely chap.
Where we stayed in western Tokyo
When you’re incredibly drunk off umeshu and craft beer, you might want somewhere to sleep it off. Mid-range hotels in Japan (as discussed in our Kobe blog) tend to be hard work to find.
Last time we were in this area of Tokyo, we stayed at the Route Inn, Asagaya. It was one of the few places near our friends’ old apartment, but that was the only redeeming feature. Smoking in hotels is still permitted in Japan and the smell really clings to every fabric within the building.
This trip, we were adamant we’d not return there, so we first stayed at Smile Hotel Asagaya. This place’s logo is a smiley emoji that looks inexplicably like the acid house symbol. That could explain a lot actually. It had what can only be called a dust issue. Luckily, we were only there for a few days at the start of our trip.
When we returned to Tokyo for the last few days of the trip, we’d booked a newish hotel in Kōenji station, called Hotel Mets Kōenji. It’s owned by JR, of train fame. This is definitely where we’ll stay next time too. There were no problems at all and we actually had our first decent night’s sleep in Tokyo there. Also, delicious Japanese breakfast.
So that concludes our brief introduction to Tokyo off the beaten track, or rather just our ‘western section of the Chūō-Sōbu line area’. That name is really going to catch on isn’t it?
Despite two visits there now, we still haven’t scratched the surface, given the density of it all. The Guardian recently said that Kōenji is the coolest neighbourhood in Tokyo but you heard it here first.
So until next time…
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