Take Harajuku and remove the bustling crowds, clamour of street noise and the somewhat gaudy aesthetic. What you get is the quaint, trendy neighbourhood of Shimokitazawa (下北沢), also known by locals as Shimokita for short: a town stripped down to a refreshingly organic form with its own unique personality thrown into the mix.
If you ask youngsters in Tokyo where they would like to live, Shimokita usually makes it into the Top 3. I was curious to find out what made this place so attractive to youths, and after my visit there last February, I could definitely see its appeal.
Shimokita makes quite a striking first impression with its charming physical layout. I use the word ‘layout’ with some hesitation, because the town is more of a haphazardly combined jumble of low-rise buildings, shops, cafes and bars, each with its own distinct flavour and character. Yet, each unit is unconventionally elegant and feels thoughtfully, even playfully considered. As such, at every nook and cranny lies a quite a different and unexpected experience. The roads are confusingly windy and narrow, conspiring with the wandering pedestrian against the automobile. Without GPS and knowledge of the area, you can expect to get lost. Yet somehow, the small lanes inevitably lead you back to your starting point, usually the entrance of the train station. People often recommend planning out specific shops to visit in order to fully experience Shimokitazawa. However, if time permits, I think aimless wandering in this labyrinth of a town is perhaps the best way to appreciate and immerse in all its whimsical peculiarities. Time passes naturally and the day feels unforced as you take a stroll around or enjoy a cup of coffee, admiring the quaint architecture, artistic murals generally laid-back, comfortable atmosphere.
At night, the town transforms into a stage. Musicians of varied styles come out from hiding to entertain at bars, cafes and small intimate theatres.
Anyone interested in indie fashion, vintage knick-knacks and alternative music will fall in love with Shimokita. The fashion sense of clothing stores littering the streets is both bohemian and trendy. Most are second-hand goods, thereby warranting affordable prices that cater to the budgets of students who frequent this hip district. Antique stores sell all sorts of impractical novelties that we love to hoard, from cat-print handkerchiefs to handcrafted traditional wooden stamps. Often, the goods are spilling out of the shops onto the streets – clothes hung on adjoining walls, baskets of trinkets displayed outside for all to see—enough to cater to anyone and everyone’s tastes for a satisfying buy or even just an interesting browse. At night, the town transforms into a stage. Musicians of varied styles come out from hiding to entertain at bars, cafes and small intimate theatres—a perfect place to start before venturing out to make it big. It is no wonder that Shimokita is famously known for its music scene, with popular live music events held throughout the year. The chaos of shops, sights and sounds thus adds a wonderful colour and flavour to this previously quiet, residential neighbourhood, ensuring that locals and visitors alike never feel bored.
This charming little town is full of contradictions—peaceful yet energetic, messy yet organised, bohemian yet elegant—which makes it all the more fascinating for the average traveler. If you are in Tokyo, do save a day to experience the magic of this lovely neighbourhood—a rare gem that has all the qualities of ‘cool’ while not trying too hard at it.
To access, take the Odakyu Line or the Keio Inokashira Line, just around 10 minutes from Shibuya and Shinjuku respectively.