Japan Travel Advisor Headline Animator

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Tokyo Travel Spot: Shimokitazawa (下北沢)Part I

(Photos courtesy Guwashi999 's Flickr Photostream)

Bridge Art on the South Side of the Station, next to
The Honda Gekkijou (The Honda Theater)
When I was in Japan, I fell in love with a town called Shimokitazawa (下北沢). At the crossing of the Odakyu and Keio-Inogashira lines, it's about five minutes from Shibuya and ten from Shinjuku, and is one of the most popular places to shop with the young indie crowd. 

It's easy to see why people love Shimokitazawa--by day, it's streets are packed with shops whose merchandise spill out of open-faced shops, cafes and coffeeshops boasting an array of gastronomic delights for even the most discerning of java junkies, and throngs of young Japanese shoppers at their bohemian best. Fashion hits Shimokitazawa at a somewhat sideways angle, leaving it with a concentrated sampling of the trendy, the bag-lady, and the downright weird. 

Why Shimokita?

South Side storefronts at night.
Shimokitazawa is a tiny art town dropped in the middle of big-city Tokyo, and like many art towns, feels simultaneously very new and very old. Young people flock to Shimokita to catch shows at one of its many live-houses, search out rare records at any number of retro music shops, or dig through the trendy clothing stores. You won't see any gray walls in Shimokita, either--after closing time, storefronts roll down garage doors, and while most of Japan has to look at bland neutrals, every storefront, garage door, and retaining wall in Shimokita is decorated with hand-painted graffiti.

North Side of the Station
A short trip from the North side of the station, however, reveals an old shrine, which houses an enormous Tengu mask--rolled out every year at Setsubun for the Tengu Matsuri. Any number of older ladies dressed in traditional kimonos haggle with the produce vendors, tucked away under the corrugated tin roof of the market next to the station. 

South Side of the Station

Manga Man!
The South side is most popular with the young crowd. Here you'll find clothing stores, arcades, karaoke-kan, bakeries, and restaurants. At any time of day, amateur musicians and artists set up shop under the railroad tracks or on the grimy sidewalks. If you see the "Manga Man", toss a coin in his collection tin, and he'll do a dramatic reading from any one of his hundred manga. 

Once, I watched a man in a skin-tight spandex bodysuit draped in rainbow-colored Christmas lights, clutching a guitar. He banged out an original song that translates roughly to "STFU, blockhead!" Not too long after, I sat down with a pair of young Japanese men who spent their free-time hand-grinding coffee, which they percolated over a palm-sized gas stove and served to me out of a paper cup. Apparently, one of them had backpacked across Okinawa, trading coffee for food and supplies. That's hardcore.

There's a lot to see in Shimokitazawa on both sides of the tracks, but today I'm just going to focus on some of my favorite spots on the North Side of the station. Keep your eyes open for the continuation, including the South side of the tracks.


This is where you'll find the coffeeshops, the tiny French or Italian restaurants, and the quirky antique stores. Browse around, and make sure you're looking for the coffee shops...above street level. Spot the Kanji 加非, or the hiragana コーヒー and you're golden...it means coffee! Like anywhere in Japan, shopping is a matter of not just looking around...but looking up. Here are some of my favorite restaurants and stores:

The Indian Restaurant

In America, I probably wouldn't have set foot in this place. It's got the appearance of a shabby dive-bar, and the concrete floor wouldn't look out of place in a prison cell. The once-cheery rose-tinted paint, and the clutter of brightly-colored Idol pictures are grease-stained, and...was that a roach? If you get bothered by little things like appearance in Shimokitazawa, you'll miss out on the best places you could eat.

Leave through the North exit and turn right; you'll see what appears to be a shanty-town or market stalls underneath a corrugated tin roof. It's dark, it looks dingy and when you step out of the bright sunlight, it takes a moment for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. The temperature drops by several degrees, like you're entering a cave. Nervous? Don't be. You don't want to miss what's inside. 

Pass the Yakitori place on the right, and take a left at the vegetable seller, Mr. Tanaka, and find the bright yellow storefront with red-and-white checkered tables. This is some of the best Indian food you will ever eat. The Indian owners speak English and Japanese, and cook everything right there in front of you on a gas stove. Watch in amazement as they stretch nan dough over a padded disc and slam it into the tandoori oven, only to bring it out--piping-hot and mouthwatering--a minute later. I learned to make some of the best spicy cucumber salad I have ever eaten just by watching the couple of ingredients.

Make sure you don't eat and run, though, or you could miss out on the complimentary chai latte, served to you in a little tin cup. Get to know the owner of this place a little, and he'll say hello to you every day for the rest of your life.

If you're in the mood for dessert, hop back out onto the street and walk to where the road tees at a huge cherry-blossom tree. Turn left and you'll soon find:

I walked by this place every day on the way to work. Not only were the gelatin and ice-cream hand-made, but the staff was extremely friendly. 

My friends and I thought the place was a little sketchy at first, because of all the mushroom paraphernalia, but the staff greeted me every morning as I walked by, so I eventually got brave enough to ask about the mushrooms.
"Oh," said the staff member. "We use them because Tengu eat mushrooms."
If you like soy, I highly recommend their "Tonyuu" flavored ice-cream, but if it's winter, be sure not to miss their hot custard! It's the best I've had anywhere, and they'll give you a small cup of hot chocolate on the house.
Sunday Brunch

Picture Courtesy www.bento.com
On the North side of the station, down where the coffee-shops and boutiques cram themselves on streets too narrow for taxies, is a spacious place to eat. Aptly named "Sunday Brunch", this place serves western fare like avocado and shrimp salad, or various types of breakfast foods. The place has an airy, industrial feel, with pressed tin and clustered lights on the ceiling, and enough windows to make it feel almost like you're eating outside.

My number one recommendation is the French Toast. It's made with a baguette, and served with fresh cream, syrup, and powdered sugar. It's the best French toast you'll ever eat. I promise. Also, check out the gift shop, where you can find cute stickers and fun stationary...because you'll want to write home about it.

Day's has flowers, clothes, and stationary. Best yet? It's right
across from Sunday Brunch! Picture courtesy akiba_gab
And of course, there are hundreds of coffeeshops on the south side of the station. To get to the real shopping streets, all you have to do is take a right out of the station, walk until you get to the first cross-road, and take a left. Pretty soon, you'll be right in the thick of things!

No comments:

Post a Comment