10 Best-Kept Secrets In Tokyo
Home to over 14 million inhabitants, Tokyo is an incredible fusion of old and new. Only in this sprawling metropolis can historic neighbourhoods like Yanaka live in harmony with the cyberpunk nightlife of Akihabara without citizens batting an eye. Yet somewhere between these two extremes — traditional and modern, past and future — Tokyo never runs out of hidden gems to offer visitors.
Even if you’ve managed to accomplish Tokyo’s greatest hits on your first visit, there’s still plenty of ground you can cover. From slowing down in mellow parks to entering a temple surrounded by cat statues, these experiences will take you off the beaten path in Tokyo.
1. Browse A Treasure Trove Of Books At Jimbocho Book Town
Visiting a bookshop in Tokyo can be rewarding in and of itself, but checking off several literary haunts in one block? That’s every bookworm’s dream. Last year, we rounded up some of Tokyo’s most picturesque bookshops, but here’s another discovery we love: the charming neighbourhood of Jimbocho, which goes by the name of Tokyo’s “Book Town.”
Situated in the Kanda district of Tokyo, Jimbocho Book Town stands at the intersection of Hakusan-dori Avenue and Yasukuni-dori. Here, you can explore more than 150 used bookshops and publishing houses that are so close to each other, they’re practically neighbours!
Shelves are stocked with a wide variety of selections, ranging from pre-loved books to print magazines to rare volumes of art. Furthermore, you can even find antique maps and original Japanese woodblock prints dating back to the Edo period.
ooking for books that aren’t in Japanese? Keep an eye out for this kanji character: 洋書, which stands for “yosho” or “foreign books.” For English-language books, you can also check out Kitazawa Bookstore, Isseido Booksellers, and Komiyama Bookstore.
Address: Kanda-Jinbocho, Chiyoda City, Tokyo 101-0051, Japan
2. Wander Around The Old Japanese Houses In Yanaka
You don’t need to travel all the way to Kyoto to witness Japan’s traditional past. Walking through Tokyo’s downtown area of Yanaka will take you a century back in time, where the quiet winding lanes and Japanese wooden houses embrace a slower side of the city.
Formerly a farming village and a temple district during the Edo period, Yanaka holds on to its old-world atmosphere and nostalgia. Meanwhile, sacred and traditional Japanese attractions like Tennoji Temple and Nezu Shrine — some of the oldest historical sites in Tokyo — evoke a mood of peace and serenity.
Continue your stroll to the old-fashioned Yanaka Ginza shopping street. Here, you’ll stumble upon tea houses, family-run restaurants and cafés, small fashion boutiques, rice ball stands, and dessert shops offering Japanese confections such as daifuku and taiyaki.
Needless to say, Yanaka is a far cry from the pulsing neon lights of Tokyo’s electric districts. Drop by this neighbourhood around midday for the best photographs; in particular, we recommend the staircase of Yuyake Dandan or “Sunset Stairs,” bathed in warm afternoon light.
Address: Yanaka, Taito City, Tokyo 110-0001, Japan
3. Shop For Vintage Clothes And Listen To Chill Beats In Shimokitazawa
While we love the preppy colours and kawaii energy of Harajuku, the crowds can be overwhelming. And shopping for clothes there can feel like finding a needle in a haystack.
For truly affordable finds, Shimokitazawa is a trendy, artsy, and hip neighbourhood that is a true haven for thrift shopping. You can shop for vintage clothes, handicrafts, vinyl records, and all kinds of Japanese souvenirs without blowing through your budget.
Drawing hipsters, yuppies, and hippies alike, Shimokitazawa is one of the best places to go off the beaten path in Tokyo. It’s packed to the brim with trendy concept stores, jazz bars, coffee shops, art galleries, theatres, independent record stores, and live music venues. All of them bursting with creative and bohemian energy.
Want to cap off your night with chill beats? For the funkiest bars this side of Tokyo, Shimokitazawa is known for its lively and exciting nightlife scene. Bars and clubs play a wide range of music, from soul to R&B to city pop — a carefree and retro style of Japanese pop music that grew popular around the 1970s and 80s.
Address: Shimokitazawa, Kitazawa, Setagaya City, Tokyo 155-0031, Japan
4. Pay Respects To Hachiko Without Other Tourists Nearby
Waiting in line for other tourists to finish taking a gazillion photos of the Hachiko Statue can test your patience. That area in Shibuya tends to be one of the busier parts of Tokyo, even without considering the flock of tourists who gather around the memorial near Shibuya Station. Little do people know, another tribute to this faithful dog stands off the beaten path at the University of Tokyo. This time, Hachiko isn’t alone.
Built in honour of Hachiko’s 80th death anniversary on 9 Mar 2015, a bronze statue at the campus shows the Akita leaping with joy upon meeting his owner. Moreover, the statue happens to be located in front of the agricultural department — the same faculty where Hidesaburo Ueno taught as a professor.
For nine years, nine months, and 15 days, Hachiko would wait at Shibuya Station for his owner to appear, not knowing Professor Ueno had suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and could no longer return home. Now, we can imagine a happy ending to the story: Hachiko and Professor Ueno finally reunited after decades of being separated. We’re not crying, you’re crying.
Address: 1 Chome-1 Yayoi, Bunkyo City, Tokyo 113-0032, Japan
5. Take A Coffee Break In Kiyosumi-Shirakawa
We’re almost halfway through our off the beaten path itinerary for Tokyo. But first, a coffee break.
Every coffeeholic will have a blast exploring the coffee scene in Tokyo. If you want to hit multiple high-quality spots in your coffee crawl, then we recommend Kiyosumi-Shirakawa, a neighbourhood that is currently undergoing a coffee renaissance.
From independent roasters like Arise Coffee Roasters to espresso chains like Allpress Espresso Tokyo Roastery & Cafe, Kiyosumi-Shirakawa enjoys an increasing number of cafés that offer delicious brews and a diverse selection of beans. Expect no gimmicks or distracting interiors outshining the menu here; the Japanese coffee specialists take deep pride in the process of making coffee, and it shows.
If you look carefully, you’ll notice that many of these coffee joints in Kiyosumi-Shirakawa are set up inside timber warehouses and old factories; hence, the industrial touches. Many Japanese café owners saw potential in these massive and spacious warehouses, precisely because they were the ideal size for a full-blown coffee operation.
6. Retreat To The Green Oasis Of Inokashira Park
After hitting up entertainment districts like Akihabara or Roppongi, no one will blame you for wanting to come up for fresh air. Of course, what better way to escape the tourist crowds than to take refuge in a park? Not just any ordinary park in Tokyo for that matter, but one of the greener, leafier, and more secluded lungs of the city.
Older than 100 years, Inokashira Park is beloved among Japanese locals for its soothing atmosphere and scenic walking trails. It’s nestled in the lively neighbourhood of Kichijoji, just a stone’s throw away from Ghibli Museum.
More than a sanctuary for city dwellers, Inokashira Park is also a great place to observe Tokyo’s seasonal foliage. It’s especially popular for the cherry blossoms that bloom near the shore of the pond.
Starting at ¥600 (S$7.69), you can rent a rowboat or swan boat and paddle around the cherry blossom trees. Now, isn’t that an activity you wish you knew in your previous visits to Tokyo?
Address: Kichijoji Dori, 1-18-31 Gotenyama, Musashino City, Tokyo 180-0005, Japan
7. Visit The Cat-filled Gotokuji Temple In Setagaya
Tucked away in the Setagaya ward of Tokyo, the Gotokuji Temple is a must-see attraction for anyone who loves cats. At this Buddhist temple, you will be greeted by cat statues and figurines of every size. These are believed to bring good fortune to their owners.
Usually displayed in many shops and restaurants in Japan, the maneki-neko (“beckoning cat”) depicts a cat sitting upright with one raised paw, sometimes moving up and down mechanically, as if inviting you to come closer.
Around this “Lucky Cat” Temple, you can also find wooden plaques with cat designs or take home a maneki-neko souvenir of your own!
Address: 2 Chome-24-7 Gotokuji, Setagaya, Tokyo 154-0021, Japan
8. Admire The Riverside Cherry Blossoms In Nakameguro
Tokyo is full of cherry blossom-viewing spots that are postcard-perfect. If you’re visiting the city during springtime, you can have a wonderful hanami experience in the residential neighbourhood of Nakameguro. Over 800 sakura trees grow alongside the Meguro River, turning the streets into a pink and white paradise. When evening falls, the riverside promenade bedazzles with the nighttime lights.
Compared to other tourist mainstays like Ueno Park or Yoyogi Park, Nakameguro isn’t as chock-full of foreign tourists — though it remains a popular attraction among the locals. Whether you’re picnicking, biking along the path, or simply heading out for a coffee run at Onibus Coffee, this area is one of the hidden gems of Tokyo you can’t miss.
Address: 2-2 Nakameguro, Meguro City, Tokyo 153-0061, Japan
9. Eat Like One Of The Locals At Shinjuku’s Omoide Yokocho
Our guide to off the beaten path experiences in Tokyo wouldn’t be complete without recommending some delicious grub to eat. Sure, a night visit to the iconic Omoide Yokocho (“Memory Lane”) in Shinjuku might not be as remote as other hidden gems in Tokyo. It’s quite famous, after all. Even so, you’d be surprised at how many tourists give this place a pass, due to the language barrier.
Down this smoke-filled alley with red lanterns, you can pull up a chair and settle in for a long night of drinking. Omoide Yokocho has around 60 casual eateries or izakaya squeezed together, offering Japanese food staples like yakitori (grilled chicken on a skewer), paired with chilled beer and sake at affordable prices.
Admittedly, this is not one of the cheapest things to do in Tokyo. For one, you need to pay a seating charge to eat at one of the counters. Plus, ordering multiple skewers can rack up a hefty bill.
But dining side-by-side with the locals? Surely, that’s one of the most authentic experiences you can have in Tokyo. Even if you might see a tourist or two, you’re more likely to rub elbows with Japanese salarymen winding down from a day at the office with grilled meats and sake. That’s how you know it’s good.
Address: 1-2 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 160-0023, Japan
10. Drown Your Troubles With Cocktails At This Fairytale Bar
We’ve walked into a number of funky and eccentric bars over the years, but few can hold a candle to Tír na nÓg, formerly known as Iron Fairies Ginza. Only a few minutes from the Higashi-Ginza Station is this secret cocktail bar in Ginza, which opens with an iron door and leads visitors into a whimsically decorated space of butterflies, fairy statues, and bottles of magic dust. Designed like an enchanted den, Tír na nÓg takes after Celtic myth and fairytales; and it’s immensely popular with the locals, too.
Cocktails named “Heaven Lonely Flows” and the “Fairytale Mule” reflect the unique vibe of the place. Aside from these drinks, Tír na nÓg offers a wide variety of Japanese whiskey and craft beers as well.
Whether you want to go off the path in Tokyo or drink the year away in a watering hole that only the locals know, Tír na nÓg is a visually striking bar that’s hard to find in any other city but Tokyo. And that’s one hell of a cocktail we can’t resist.
Address: B1, 5-9-5 Ginza, Chuo City, Tokyo 106-0061, Japan
That’s a wrap for our round-up on things to do while going off the beaten path in Tokyo! If you know any other hidden gems in Tokyo that we might have missed out on, we’d love to hear from you.
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