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When visiting Tokyo for the first time, most people opt to stay right in the belly of the beast, known as Shibuya. While it’s a blast to experience the insanity of the "Times Square of Tokyo," it’s just as nice to get the eff out. Once the excited stimulation of it all wears off, you may want to head to Shimokitazawa.
Shimokitazawa is more like the Williamsburg of Tokyo. Like Manhattan’s East Village to Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, Shimokitazawa or “Shimokita” as the locals call it, is one express subway stop away from Shibuya. And Shimokita is a welcome relief from the busy streets of Tokyo.
The neighborhood is very self-contained, young and trendy with tons of shopping, incredible restaurants, intriguing bars, bike shops, rehearsal studios for musicians, foreign hipsters, and specialty shops. Gentrification has been taking place over the past few years and the neighborhood is exploding. The subway station has been redone and the train tracks have been moved underground. There is also a rumor that a highway is going to be built that will cut Shimokita in half, regardless of the “Save Shimokitazawa” movement that has sprung up to fight it.
Currently, there are no hotels in the area so the best way to experience Shimo is with Air BnB. All the action surrounds the North and South Gate of the ShimoKitazawa station and spreads out from there. You can walk ten minutes in either direction and experience all of the goodness that Shimokita offers.
Therefore, staying in an apt anywhere from 2-15 minute walk is recommended. This is important, as the station is your key to getting everywhere else you may need to go in Tokyo. One express stop and you are at the major hub of Shibuya where you can catch multiple subway lines and the JR line.
Here’s a list of some of my favorite Shimokita experiences:
Shirubei (or Shirube): This widely popular izakaya is a must. You will most likely have to wait in line to get in but come here for the incredible izakaya fare, lively atmosphere, flowing Japanese draft beer, and vibing with the nightlife of Shimo.
Nasu Oyaji: Infamous amongst Shimo (and non-Shimo) residents for their mouth-watering Japanese-style curry dishes. Get a seat at the bar where you can witness the chef preparing each dish to order while moving with the grace of a ballerina. You can feel the love in his food. Options include Beef, chicken, fish, vegetable or the special (all of it!).
The author at Ikkyu
Ikkyu Donut: Blink and you might miss this tiny, street-side shop serving “Soy Cream” and cake doughnuts. The Soy cream is the most popular item, but I could not stay away from the doughnuts. They use soy milk in addition to dairy and the result is a crispy and flaky cake doughnut yet light and airy on the inside. The texture is alluring. I literally ate one or two daily.
Robson Fries: Need a break from Japanese food, but not from the precision and care they put into their food? Robson fries is a great mid-day snack of Canadian poutine-style fries. The 3 sentences in Japanese in the store say: 1) We make you wait because we fry after you order. 2) All their oil is 100% domestically grown rice oil. 3) 0 trans fat. Delicious, locally conscious, and not that bad for ya. Triple threat.
Yawaza: There’s something really fun about going to a Yakiniku (Japanese style of cooking small pieces of meat, usually beef, over charcoal or gas grill) in Japan. The process of the server bringing out dish after dish, different cuts of meat and you have no idea what you’re eating since they don’t speak much English. For a self-proclaimed control freak, this was way too enjoyable. While there are many Yakiniku style restarauts in the hood (always advertise with the English word yakiniku in the window), I happened to go here. Very good quality meat, casual atmosphere and apparently, it’s a popular date spot.
Mother/Mother's Ruin: These brother/sister bars feel like you are walking into a pub from the Lord Of the Rings if it were to take place in Japan. Uniquely carved wooden furniture, stone-filled walls, figurines and bartenders with sassy attitudes and neon red hair (when Haruna’s working). Even if you don’t drink alcohol, go and order a nice cold Oolong-Cha (oolong tea w/ice) and marvel at the beauty, craftmanship and décor of this place. It’s a great way to spend an evening.
Shimo Bike Store
Flowerbar Gardena: Who knew buying flowers and drinking would make such a great combo? Regardless of buying flowers (if you are visiting you prob won’t) it’s quite an interesting bar. Definitely a unique place to get a drink. Another great way to spend an evening and buy flowers
Shimochari: The title is a combination of “Shimo” for “Shimokitazawa” and “chari” which is cute, Japanese slang for “bicycle”. Go visit a neighborhood fixture, Hajime, and see his incredibly crafted line of bikes called “Californian Bike”. Now that would be quite a gift for someone.
Shimokita Chaen: Another small shop in the shopping lanes of Shimokita. This is a tea shop that has the perfect amount of options run by an very friendly older couple. Think Granma and Grandpa who are tea masters running their own specialty tea shop. They even poured us hot tea of the types we were looking to purchase. Stop in while wondering around and get some of the good stuff.
Vintage Clothes/Record Shopping: Walk around the North/South gate of Shimo and it’s loaded with shops. You’ll find a bunch of vintage clothing stores and even a few record shops. They still exist!
Street Art: Shimokita is a very colorful place. There are tons of murals and art painted on the closed gates of shops. Anything to simple designs to intricate.
Jared Blake Scharff has been the guitarist for NBC's "Saturday Night Live" House Band since 2007. Splitting his time between NYC/LA he spends as much time circling the globe for authentic eats and new adventures. Currently engulfed in his obsession of Ramen. He's also a contributing writer to Gothamist and Midtownlunch, and a Matador Network Ambassador.