1. "Yanesen" (Yanaka, Nezu, Sendagi), Good Old Tokyo
For a glimpse of the good old Tokyo, head towards Yanaka, Nezu, Sendagi, (known collectively as Yanesen), a shitamachi or downtown area that has preserved the traditional commercial and working class neighborhood. Tracing its roots back to the Edo Period, the area has fortunately survived both the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake and Second World War bombings. Walking around Yanesen feels like a visit to an open museum to life in early 20th century Tokyo. In your lazy meandering (this area is perfect for it), you will find architectural elements authentic to the period.
Start at Yanakaginza, a quaint shopping street where, as in ages past, shops specialized in one product crafted the traditional way. Yanaka is home to Tokyo's best kakigori (shaved ice) shop named Yanaka Himitsudo. Open all year round, they top their kakigori with seasonal ingredients so the menu changes regularly. Love coffee and wish to enjoy it in this historical atmosphere? Check out Kabaya Coffee, a beloved coffee shop in a charming old house on Kototoi-Dori that was constructed in 1916. The original exterior and signage have been preserved. Cat-lovers will appreciate the proliferation of stray cats, which the neigborhood has adopted as their mascot, thus the many cat-themed souvenirs on sale.
The Yanesen area has a strong connection with art and artists so you will find small art galleries in old buildings as well as art shops selling handmade tools and custom paints. If art is your thing, you must visit Scai The Bathhouse, a 200 year old traditional bathhouse that has been remodeled into one of Tokyo's top art galleries.
Yanaka cemetery is one of the most beautiful spots to view the cherry blossoms in the spring and the changing colors of deciduous trees in the fall and reflect on the fleeting nature of life. Stroll among the run-down graves and find the resting places of famous people, the most distinguished of which areTokugawa Yoshinobu, the last shogun of Japan, and the novelist Ichiyo Higuchi (1872-1896) who appears in the ¥5,000 bill.
This area is best accessed from Nippori Station. Take the West Exit and follow the signs for Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi.
2. Kōenji, The Rebel Neighborhood
Vintage, alternative, bohemian, retro, and edgy are some of the words you would use to describe Kōenji, a district in Suginami Ward with easy access from Shinjuku and Tokyo stations. Kōenji is known as the the site of protest against the PSE Law (Product Safety Electical Appliance and Material law which prohibits the sale of electornic goods manufactured before 2001) when it went into effect in 2006. Here you will find a lively retro culture and suburban underground vibe in the shops selling used equipment, old records, and vintage clothing. The community was largely left alone in the 1980s building boom, thus retaining the pre-modernization atmosphere. Music lovers might want to check out the many small restaurants hosting live music events. Majority of the used clothing shops are on the south side of Kōenji Station. Used record shops, restaurants and cafes are located on the north side of the station. In the mood for yakitori or a drink? Walk along the station and take your pick from the bars nestled under the tracks. Kōenji is the place for cheap eats. Upturned crates convert to chairs and tables so just grab one and enjoy a low-key open air dining.
If visiting in the summer, you might catch the major two day summer dance event called Awa Odori, a traditional 400 year old dance that has its roots in Tokushima and was adopted by Kōenji. More than 12,000 dancers and 1.2 million spectators join the festivities.
3. Sugamo, Grannie's Harajuku
If you are looking for a neighborhood where you probably will not bump into other foreigners, Sugamo is for you. The area is known as "obaachan's (grandma's) Harajuku" because it is famous for Jizo Dori, an 800 meter long shopping street located on the north side of Sugamo Station. The street has over 200 stores selling food, household items, trinkets, books, and clothes, mostly targeting elderly shoppers, and is particularly popular with older ladies, thus the monicker. It's a refreshingly pleasant place to stroll around amongst the most ordinary of Japanese folk -- no pretensions or airs here.
One shop worth visiting is called マルジ Maruji. You can't miss it because everything all they sell is bright red underwear. This is the place where you can buy red Hello Kitty women's boxers with "Sugamo" printed on the butt. It is believed that red underwear stimulates Qi, the life energy responsible for increased vigor and vitality. Wearing red drawers is purported to boost your concentration and get your adrenaline going. Buyers are warned though that "When sleeping, 'Red Panty' may cause you excite and make you sleepless. So put on ordinary color underwear when you sleep."
From Sugamo, you can also visit the Koganji Temple which is famous for the Togenuki Jizo and the Boddhissattva Kannon -- both believed to have healing powers. The charm of the Togenuki Jizo must be placed above the body part that ails you. As for the Boddhisattva Kannon, you need to stroke the part of the statue that corresponds to where your ailment is located.
4. Kichijōji , The City's Oasis
Kichijōji, a neighborhood in Musashino City, has been consistently voted the number 1 place people wished they lived in. The atmosphere is youthful and energetic but also natural and relaxed and still very much residential, making it a popular destination for people young and old. The area still carries an artistic, hipster feel to it, owing to the areas proximity to several college campuses and the fact that it was originally a haven for subcultures, but it has become much more mainstream nowadays. My favorite place to hang out is the calm and oasis created by Inokashira Park, a cozier and more picturesque version of Ueno Park. You can go boating in the center lake and the lush green walking paths are perfect for walking or jogging. The famous Ghibli Museum is nearby. Head to one of the intimate cafes and small restaurants in the perimeter for a drink or a bite, or explore one of Tokyo's most varied shopping areas featuring trendy retailers and cool shops. Sunroad Shotengai is a covered arcade (something you'll appreciate on a hot day or in bad weather) since the 1970s. Check out the only-in-Kichijōji department stores Kirarina (two floors are devoted to the craft supply shop Yuzawaya) and Coppice (stop by the open-air terrace and the Kichijōji Museum on the 7th floor).
5. Ochanomizu, Music, History and Art
The only reason I go to Ochanomizu was because my dentist works there and I would travel two hours just to see him. He teaches at the Tokyo Medical and Dental University, one of the best dental hospitals in the country and I wouldn't trust anyone else with my teeth. Then I discoved the vibrant "latin quarter" flair of the area. Aside from the dental university I go to, Meiji Uiniversity, Juntendo University, Sundai Preparatory School have main campuses here. One day, instead of rushing back home after my dental appointment, I had lunch at a place recommended by a friend, a quiant Italian ristorante named Trattoria Lemon. This restaurant and bar manages successfully to be both nostalgic and fashionable. Since 1968, Trattoria Lemon has been attracting professors, students, and office workers to its refined interior for a delicious pasta lunch, or to unwind over wine in the evening. The same people who opened the famous art supply shop Lemon Gasui (also in Ochanomizu, which draws a following among artists, architects and designers) started Trattoria Lemon. The artistic sensibilities applied to the restaurant are inspired by the Italian trend of blending art with functional space. Trattoria Lemon is only one of many distinctive restaurants in the area. After a nice lunch, we took a walk around the area and had fun looking inside the musical instrument stores and ski and snowboard shops.
Within a short distance from the dental university is a Nationally Designated Important Culltural Property: the impressive Holy Resurrection Cathedral, the main cathedral of the Japanese Orthodox Church. The original site was on a hill in Kanda Surugadai that overlooked the Imperial Palace. However, the 1923 earthquake seriously damaged the building. Rebuilding and restoration efforts proved to be favorable in preserving original aspects of the previous cathedral as well as adding culturally important new aspects.
A short walk from Ochanomizu Station is the historical Manseibashi Station, which I wrote about previously here. History buffs will want to see the original stairs and wall tiles from 1912 and 1935 which have been well preserved. The viaduct under the train tracks has been converted into a long corridor of shops retailing unique and quirky items. Chic restaurants line the outer side of the viaduct, some with outdoor seating, and offer tempting fares. Look for the noodle restaurant that is recommended by the Michelin Guide.
Go ahead. Visit a place unfrequented by the throngs of tourists and prepare to be surprised.