Hop off the train at Kagurazaka station and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d arrived in a European city. Rising to prominence during the Edo period as a hanamachi (a popular geisha district), the area is a fascinating blend of French culture with a little old-world Japan thrown in for good measure. Stroll along the cobblestone streets and sample freshly baked pastries; just make sure to put aside a little time to visit Akagi Jinja, a modern marvel that looks more like a contemporary gallery than a place of worship.
Like some kind of mysterious local secret, the suburb of Jiyugaoka is popular with many Tokyoites but is often overlooked in the guidebooks. The area oozes European appeal, in part due to the many cute cafés, cake shops and quaint boutiques, but mainly because of La Vita, the neighbourhood’s little Venice, located a few minutes from the station. The area comes complete with a small canal, gondola and Venetian bridge. Just a 10-minute train ride from Shibuya, it’s easy to get to and a great place to spend the afternoon.
Kichijoji is located west of Tokyo proper. The neighborhood attracts those looking to escape the cramped city, it is particularly popular with new parents and retirees. Because it also attracts a lot of local tourists, it gets great foot traffic without the high property rental fees found further east – perfect for new businesses.
If you’re after a little old-world charm, make your way to Yanaka, arguably Tokyo’s most traditional area. The streets are filled with family restaurants, food vendors, local artisans and a unique shitamachi (old world) atmosphere; the area’s main shopping street, Yanaka Ginza, looks as if it’s been frozen in time. The neighbourhood is also nicknamed Tokyo’s Cat Town after its population of friendly stray cats. A huge contrast to the clean futuristic streets of Shibuya and Shinjuku, this ramshackle neighbourhood is a great escape from the manic energy of the center of the city. Yanaka Ginza is just under a 10-minute walk from Ueno Park.
Shin Okubo is a small corner of the city that feels worlds away from Japan, yet it is just one stop from Shinjuku. Known to the locals as Little Korea, this neighbourhood is home to the city’s densest population of Korean bars, cafés, beauty stores and restaurants. Shin Okubo is one of the best places for Korean food outside of Korea, and the aroma of sizzling Korean barbecue wafts through the air. The area is generally considered by Japanese people to be a little seedier than some other corners of Tokyo, but that’s seedy by Tokyo standards, a city where you can leave your wallet on a table without it getting stolen, so it’s still pretty safe.
If you’re a hardcore anime fan you’ll recognize Takadanobaba as the home of Astroboy, the character from the cartoon series of the same name. If you’re a sci-fi geek this name may also sound familiar, because Takadanobaba is the naming inspiration behind the Star Wars world Takodana. Takadanobaba is also where you’ll find Toyama Park, a beautiful sprawling park during the day, but a supposedly haunted hangout at night. It’s said that the bodies of over 100 victims of scientific experiments on humans lie here.
Known as ‘Harajuku for grannies’, Sugamo is a retiree hotspot, but it’s fascinating nonetheless. Running down the centre of the area is Jizo Dori, a strip of stores, cafés and restaurants where locals gather to shop, pray and hang out. The centerpiece of Sugamo is Koganji Temple, located halfway down the street. The temple is home to a statue of Togenuki Jizo, a figure that’s said to heal ailments. Many people visit to wash their aching bodies in the sacred water for healing and relief. If you want to hang out with some of the city’s longest-living locals, this is the place to do it.