Tokyo Neighbourhoods, Japan.

Best Tokyo Neighbourhoods – From Laidback Akasaka to Atmospheric Asakusa

The best Tokyo neighbourhoods are the laidback and local areas like Akasaka and the atmospheric Asakusa. While they rarely get a mention in magazines and with no notable sights to speak of, they are a local as ’hoods get with their buzzy izakayas, karaoke spots, pachinko parlours, and children’s parks, and that’s just the way we like it.

As part of our quest to get beneath the skin of places we’re visiting on our year-long global grand tour, this year is about exploring neighbourhoods, rather that ticking off sights. While we’re in Tokyo, we won’t be going to see the Imperial Palace (we visited it on our first trip years ago), just as we didn’t see the need to climb the Eiffel Tower again in Paris.

And we don’t feel like we’re missing out on anything either. We’re very content just to kick back in our own little ‘hood and other. These are the best Tokyo neighbourhoods as far as we’re concerned.

Best Tokyo Neighbourhoods – From Laidback Akasaka to Atmospheric Asakusa

Akasaka

Our apartment is located midway between Akasaka and Roppongi. While Roppongi occasionally appears in Monocle and Wallpaper – Tyler Brulee has called Roppongi’s Zen-like Tokyo Midtown a model mall development – Akasaka rarely gets a mention in magazines and with no notable sights to speak of, appears on very few guidebook contents pages. Akasaka is as local as ’hoods get and that’s just the way we like it.

On the road that connects Akasaka with Roppongi, there are countless restaurants of every kind and a dozen mini-marts, and in Akasaka itself, just a 10-minute stroll away, the streets are jam-packed with izakayas (Japanese bars), fast food places, karaoke spots, pachinko parlours, boutiques, and golf bars where mad-keen golfers practice their swing.

Aside from a tiny Korean quarter where there are BBQ restaurants and grocery shops selling kim chee, and a couple of British-style pubs where expats like to down beers with their Japanese co-workers (as we did one night while we watched the World Cup), there are few foreigners around. Instead, the streets are relentlessly busy with office workers hurrying to and from work, to the ramen, soba and sushi restaurants for lunch, and to the countless bars for drinks after-work.

After dark, it’s mostly locals eating out and spilling out of the izakayas onto the semi-pedestrian streets, and government officials and businessmen ‘entertaining’, and the streets teem with taxis waiting to ferry inebriated drinkers home when they’ve managed to miss the last train home for the night. It’s a fascinating neighbourhood.

Roppongi

A ten-minute hike up the hill in the other direction, Roppongi is a different story. Here, the swish shopping mall developments of Tokyo Midtown and Roppongi Hills dominate what was once Tokyo’s party heart. The main street is still lined with glass towers boasting floor after floor of restaurants, izakayas and “badd girl” bars, but the sleek Roppongi Hills and Zen-like Midtown have gentrified the area somewhat. But at midnight the touts would have a different opinion of just how gentrified it is.

Shinjuku, Shibuya and Harajuku

With their neon lights, narrow lanes and crowded streets, Shinjuku, Shibuya and Harajuku are some of the best Tokyo neighbourhoods for first timers and are also some of Tokyo’s buzziest neighbourhoods must be There’s no denying you’ll bump into foreigners, expats and tourists, but each of these ’hoods still remain as local as they get. Shibuya and Harajuku are shopping meccas for Tokyo’s youth (as is adjoining Aoyama, where you’ll find our favourite mall Omotesando Hills), while Harajuku is also home to the tranquil Meiji shrine, and Shibuya boasts scores of izakaya, bars, clubs, and love hotels. Shinjuku is the place to head for yakitori in the atmospheric alleyways beside the railway line, and drinks until the wee hours in the Golden Gai quarter, but more on that in another post.

Yanaka

While worlds away from Akasaka and Roppongi, laidback Yanaka, with its tranquil leafy streets lined with old, low-rise, wooden houses, is an endearing place and our next favourite neighbourhood. Yanaka epitomizes what Tokyoites call a ‘shitamachi’ neighbourhood, one that is charming and traditional, where life carries on as if it did a century ago. (Asakusa, although a lot more touristy, is another one). As most of the lanes are too narrow for cars, people ride bicycles and water their potted plants outside their doors on what is essentially the footpath. The retro vibe of the area is appealing to Tokyo’s hipsters who are moving in to open tiny bars and boutiques selling vintage clothes, as well as art and crafts.

Asakusa

The quintessential ‘shitamachi’ neighbourhood with atmospheric laneways lined with antique wooden houses, Asakusa remains charming even if it teems with tourists (local as much as foreign) on weekends. While people come primarily to worship at the dramatic Kannon Temple, they also head here to shop for red bean buns and rice crackers (as well as souvenirs), on Nakamise Dori, the little street that takes them there. The more interesting shops, specialising in everything from pretty fans to handmade hairbrushes are to be found on Denboin Dori and its side streets.

Between Denboin Dori and Hanayashiki Amusement Park (Tokyo’s oldest), are dozens of cheap izakaya and yakitori places that are packed with locals on weekends who are here for the off-track betting (which explains why the horse-racing is on most televisions). Most places don’t have English language menus but you can always point. It’s loads of fun. The Hanayashiki Amusement Park and surrounding lanes are where you’ll find most of the cosplay action now the scene has mostly moved on from Harajuku.

They’re the best Tokyo neighbourhoods as far as we’re concerned. What do you think? What are your favourite Tokyo neighbourhoods?

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There are 7 comments

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  1. Kristina

    I love your pictures. And the fact that you focus on local neighbourhoods, rather then on the obvious sights of a city! great post!
    have a good start in the week, viele grüsse, Kristina

  2. Terence Carter

    Thanks so much. We don’t really have anything against the obvious sights or top 10 sights, everyone should go and see the Imperial Palace once, but then explore further!
    Cheers,
    T

  3. Amy

    Hi Terence,
    My husband and i will be exploring Japan in Jan. This is the holiday we’ve been waiting for! Since we do shop alot during any of our tours, i’m finding dificulties to locate the shopping malls in akasaka and Roponggi. By any chance you know the hot ones so that we can focus straight to the location and not waste our time.

    I remember my last trip to Japan in Jan this year, a short stop as it was a business trip, seems that shopping malls in Ginza does not look like the normal shopping malls i have in my country so they are difficult to spot as it look like offices from the outside. Do hope to hear from you. 🙂 Thanks!

  4. Lara Dunston

    Hi Amy

    There are two beautiful malls in the Akasaka/Roppongi area:

    1) Roppongi Hills http://www.roppongihills.com/en/ is a cluster of several towers. People love this place but personally I find this to be a tricky mall to navigate because, as you say, it’s different to the traditional mall layout with a big open centre so you can see what shops are on each level if you stood in the middle. Roppongi is a warren and you have to really spend a few hours here to find everything.

    2) Tokyo Midtown http://www.tokyo-midtown.com/ this was my favourite, and it’s closer to where we stayed. It’s more like the traditional mall design but it’s very zen and very elegant, and has a really lovely feel to it and there are some beautiful shops for Japanese gifts here.

    Do also try to take time to explore the neighbourhoods above though:
    Shinjuku & Shibuya – all kinds of shops, esp. fashion, accessories, shoes, interiors, gadgets
    Harajuku – young, kooky Japanese fashion
    Aoyama – high-end designer brands, Omotesando Hills is a beautiful mall
    Asakusa – ideal for Japanese souvenirs and gifts
    Yanaka – a smattering of funky little stores but they’re spread out & pop up in surprising places; need to take your time here and just enjoy neighbourhood; not good if you’re in a hurry

    Also see my Tokyo Take-Homes posts for specific things to buy and where to buy them. Would love you to come back and tell us how you found Tokyo!

  5. Amy

    Lara,

    i’m having a big smile on my face.. Sigh… At last some one to talk to and to ask.. Honestly my great grandfather who i never got to meet was a japanese, therefore, my visit to Japan last Jan ( was very brief actually) was like a visit back home..

    My heart was at ease and felt so welcome.. Besides, the sceneries in Japan is just spectacular! That’s why i promised myself to take my husband there and indulge in what i was blabbing to him about.. 🙂

    Tq sooo very much for the details, i’m sure to check out all the places. Harajuku is off course a must as i’ve always imagined a winter in Harajuku.. Odd , but it’s just a crazy thot i can’t lay off my mind.

    You bet i’ll be back to share how my trip will be! Thanks again! You’re the best!

    Amy


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