We got off on the wrong foot. Wildly flamboyant and constantly in your face, you just couldn’t keep up. She works hard and plays hard, has strict rules she sticks to too. With a click of your fingers, she’s goin’ and gone. If you were to meet her at first sight, you’d believe her soul could quite possibly be the centre of the universe – admirable, but I needed a break. In an attempt to scratch beneath the surface to seek for resonation, I found glimpses of peace and humble joy. It was in these moments that I couldn’t deny my growing love affair with she who is Tokyo.
If you know of Tokyo or have been, you’ve most likely heard of mini megacities Shinjuku, Shibuya and Harajuku. Whilst they’re full of character, loads of fun and crazy busy, sometimes you just want to take a breather from swarms of people, chill out and blend in with locals. Here are six things you can do!
1. Explore 180 fascinating book stores at Jimbocho
Jimbocho’s (Kanda Jinbocho, Chiyoda, Tokyo 101-0051) got a lovely bunch of books. Big ones, small ones, some as big as your head… In all seriousness, this town is the largest secondhand books shopping mecca in Japan with over 180 stores! I can’t read one word of Japanese (some stores do offer English reads) but I easily spent half a day wandering through mazes of unusual and rare finds – art collectibles, vintage fashion and entertainment magazines, photo journals barely in one piece – amongst university students, oldies in their berets and other intellectuals. In typical orderly Japanese fashion, everything’s packed neatly for browsing ease. For all of you love-the-smell-of-books-types out there – jackpot. Really, this town holds a place in my heart.
2. Wander through vintage shops in Shimokitazawa aka “Hipsterville”
The heading either reeled you in or had you running for cover. Don’t fret. Ruled by humble, trendy 20-somethings with their independent boutiques, record stores and pop-up shops, Shimokitazawa (Kitazawa, Setagaya, Tokyo 155-0031) – “Shimokita” as the locals affectionately call it – is incredibly charming. The creative spirit through the labyrinth of small streets with mostly pedestrians and bicyclers is palpable. Prepare to rummage and grab a steal in one of the many vintage stores, or simply wander around and admire a taste of pop Japanese culture without the neon lights and manga frenzy. When you’re done with all the diggin’, fun cafes and bars await you. Uber cool.
3. Have a drink at a quirky bar in Golden Gai (Shinjuku)
What, Golden Gai?! Sounds strange for me to direct you to the renowned nightlife area in Shinjuku (1 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo) but head on a weeknight evening and you won’t be rubbing shoulders with passersby in its narrow alleyways. A hot spot for writers, poets and other artists, there are an abundance of diverse small bars catering for quiet types that would seriously make that one unnecessarily really drunk tourist – you know who – feel out of place. Take the time to plop yourself up at a bar and become acquainted with your local neighbour or spark up an interesting conversation with the bartender. It’s the perfect setting for uncovering cultural perspective.
4. Have the most incredible, unique coffee experience at Chatei Hatou (Shibuya)
Calling all coffee aficionados, right this way. Just 5 minutes from the bustling Shibuya station, step into a quiet oasis that is Chatei Hatou (Higasiguti Futaba Bldg. 1F, 1-15-19 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku) and be whisked away by gorgeous gold-rimmed crockery and soft classical music. For what looks more of a bar setting with its long wooden counter and dim lighting, the softly-spoken staff will put on a great production of pour-over coffee-making (Japanese brewing method) for each guest, a form of art they take incredibly seriously. To top it off, find sinful homemade desserts that will bring the health conscious to their knees. No in-and-out operation, this is the place for great conversations and long lazy afternoon teas over indulgent treats.
5. Have a picnic and people-watch at Yoyogi Park (Harajuku)
Brandon Stanton’s next project might as well be ‘Humans of Yoyogi Park’. Just around the corner from Meji Shrine and the eccentric boutiques of Harajuku lies the aforementioned (2-1 Yoyogikamizonocho, Shibuya, Tokyo 151-0052), one of the best places in Tokyo to people-watch. Weekends are lively with street entertainment, especially on Sundays where tourists flock in search of cosplayers. I got a lovely taste of everyday living on a mellowed down weekday afternoon: Japanese salarymen asleep on benches (perhaps on a lunch break), ecstatic school kids practicing rehearsals, musicians having jam sessions, joggers, dog-walkers and more. Soak up the atmosphere in the north side amongst sprawling trees with a picnic or book (read 5 Books That Will Change Your Life). Perhaps not the most beautiful park you’ve ever seen but the warm energy and local activity make it special.
6. Take a stroll through Nakameguro & Daikanyama past unsuspecting gems
When you’re getting off at the very last stop of a train line, you know you’re in for something different. Cross the street from Nakameguro station (Nakameguro, Meguro, Tokyo 153-0061) and after one block you’re rewarded with a cherry-blossom lined canal dotted with authentic eateries without English menus. The pace is slow in this cosy residential area with little grannies carrying their grocery bags and 30-somethings in relaxed, preppy attire. Explore further in between the blocks and you’ll pass cute cafes, hairdressers, bike stores and other home living shops that you’d completely miss if you didn’t look closer. The town with its minimalist vibe still has room to grow but some may think it’s in its sweet spot so perhaps make your way there before it explodes. And it will.
The peaceful wandering continues onto neighbouring fashion-forward Daikanyama (Daikanyamachō, Shibuya, Tokyo 150-0034), a slightly more upperclass town with quality boutiques and pretty things on polished, hilly streets. The only sounds you’ll hear are footsteps and soft engine noises from passing scooters.
Then if you have time, Ebisu (Ebisu, Shibuya, Tokyo 150-0013) – busier although still a small town feeling – is just a stone’s throw away with plenty of great restaurants to eat to your heart’s content.
I stumbled across a shrine in the middle of all its whirl and witnessed how beautifully spiritual the Japanese went about their daily lives: a school girl no older than 10, a young professional couple, and a little old lady each performing a misogi (purifying the body and mind with water) and standing in silence before greeting the deity with a ring of the bell.
Do you also like to travel slow and quiet? Know any more peaceful, cultural gems in Tokyo to add to this list? Write me a comment below.
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Official Japan National Tourism Organisation website.