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
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.
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.
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.
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?