After staying in quiet little towns, it was quite the shock when we reached Tokyo and met the mass of people in the city. After all, the capital of Japan boasts over 12 million people in the metropolitan center alone, and the megacity is the largest urban area in the world with a total population of 37 million people.
My wife and I have been to Tokyo before, and we didn’t want to visit the usual places again. Tokyo’s full of interesting areas like Meiji Shrine, Ueno Park and Omotesando, but this post isn’t about the popular spots. It’s about the new (to us) places we discovered this visit to Tokyo.
‘Cheap’ and ‘shopping’ are two words you’d normally wouldn’t hear about Tokyo, but the clothes in Shimokitazawa are surprisingly affordable (if not exactly cheap). The little shops along this grid of alleys are sometimes kooky but always interesting. Shimokitazawa is smaller, less developed and less crowded than the more popular places like Shinjuku and Harajuku – exactly why we love it.
Of course, since I was in Shimokitazawa, I just had to visit Bear Pond Espresso, one of the places to have coffee in Tokyo. Bear Pond is hard to find, I only had a printed map with me and we walked past it without realising; the store-front is a minimal white and its name is set in small type. It was worth the effort for a coffee-lover like me though, the coffee was full-bodied, chocolatey with a nutty aroma – in a word, delicious.
No photographs are allowed inside, but I asked if I could take a photo of the outside. The New York Times Magazine has more photographs of Bear Pond and its coffee, as well as a handy guide to good coffee in Tokyo. If you do visit Bear Pond, go early as there’s no espresso after 2 p.m.!
In comparison to the laid-back and offbeat Shimokitazawa, Daikanyama is more upscale and proper, reminiscent of Aoyoma and Omotesando really, and stylish in the way that only Tokyo can be.
My wife and I enjoyed the trendy shops here so much we visited twice, and I especially liked the clothes in the shop Journey, as well as the rich indigo clothes of the shop next door called Okura (they’re both pictured below).
If you love books and beautiful places, you must visit the Daikanyama T-Site. This place blew my mind with how insanely cool it was (excuse me, I’ll be gushing). Anjin, the lounge on the second floor, is impossibly chic; a large Japanese painting lines one long wall, while a grand piano sits off the side. The bookstore is lined with volumes of art, design and photography books, as well as a surprisingly large selection of books about cars, where I bought a couple of vintage racing postcards for my brother. Even the Starbucks inside looks amazing. And don’t get me started on the beautiful people in the store…just go.
All that walking worked up an appetite and we walked into the nearest place we could find, Sasa Grill Burger Club, right next to Daikanyama Station. The restaurant is surprisingly big for Tokyo, with lots of space between tables, and the burgers were superb. I ordered a small burger, which wasn’t satisfying enough, but meant I had space for one more delicious burger!
Kagurazaka is a district in Tokyo with a slopping shopping street, lined with shops and restaurants. It’s not a long street, but my wife and I really enjoyed it. Louise Hawson of 52 Suburbs says Kagurazaka was spared bombing in WWII, which explains the old-world feeling you can still get there. Hawson’s blog, by the way, with its beautiful pictures of Kagurazaka, is what pushed me to visit the place.
Kagurazaka has exquisite traditional sweet shops, which instantly made it a new favorite street for me and my sweet tooth. These aren’t the sweets you’d find in your standard tourist shop, while they may look similar there’s a clear difference. We’d seen the same kind of sweets below in a tourist shop, but the level of detail in the carvings was night and day. The sweets are a little pricier than usual, but they also taste much better.
(If you’re looking for old Tokyo, I must also mention Yanaka Ginza, which we visited three years ago. It’s a charming, old-fashioned shopping street with a relaxed atmosphere and warm locals, with a different vibe from what you’d get in central Tokyo.)
Note: I benefitted from reading fellow travellers’ experiences as I was planning this visit, and these posts are my way of paying it forward. However, I’ve realised that reading about what to do in a foreign land isn’t complete without knowing the people writing about it.
My wife and I don’t enjoy hurried visits, we’re travellers who prefer to take our time getting to know a place. We’re not big on shopping, and prefer cultural to party places. We love standing in nature, and would give up a day in the mall for a day in the mountains. If you’re planning for your own visit while reading my recommendations, I hope you’ll keep these caveats in mind.