Quieter Tokyo suburbs: Going underground

BEN GROUNDWATER
Last updated 05:15 27/05/2014

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It's hard to believe a place such as Shimokitazawa can really exist. That it exists in Tokyo is even stranger. In a city of giants, this is life lived in miniature.

In this megalopolis of Godzilla-like skyscrapers, glowing bright with their neon fangs, it seems a suburb as small and quaint as Shimokitazawa would be devoured, munched into tiny glowing pieces.

But it survives. It lives.

You want to know where the cool kids in Tokyo are hanging out? Where the weird and wonderful becomes almost mundane? It's here, in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo's uber-hip underground hub.

It's different here, and that's why they like it.

Emerge from the train station and have a look around. Gone are the superhighway overpasses of Shinjuku, the transport nucleus just a short train ride away. Gone are the crowds that flood the pavements of Shibuya, another mega-suburb only a few stops from here.

Instead, in Shimokitazawa you discover surprising peace in a network of narrow little lanes, lined with cute two-storey buildings and tiny shop windows. These buildings house people, but they're also home to the latest in Japanese hipster cool, the type that gives "Shimokita" its reputation.

You can shop for vintage Chanel couture in Shimokitazawa. You can see a punk band play in an old bomb shelter. You can talk manga comics with girls in fancy dress at a microscopically small eatery. You can pet a cat while drinking a coffee. You can sit in a tiki bar and sip a Pina Colada served by an old Japanese guy in a Hawaiian shirt.

Take a walk in any direction, through the warren of tiny, neat streets, and check out the shops that line them. Vintage is what this suburb does best. Some boutiques have done the legwork for you, and stock only the finest in used couture. Others, such as the frantically busy New York Joe, or jungle-like Flamingo, leave the choice in your hands, displaying rack after rack, row after row, of vintage clothes and outlandish accessories.

By day, Shimokitazawa is a quiet little place, where shoppers roam the narrow streets untroubled by cars or manic crowds.

There's a pleasant, neighbourhood air to the suburb as mothers walk past, pushing prams, and artsy types sip coffee in small cafes. People wander in and out of record stores. Fashion boutiques do a steady trade. You wonder if anyone actually has a job here.

Well, the cats do. Up near the train station, Shimokitazawa has its own version of a distinctly Japanese oddity - a "cat cafe". Cateriam is set up for residents who don't have a pet of their own, but are prepared to pay to sit on the cafe's carpeted floor, drink a coffee and attempt to pet one of the 12 or so kitties that roam the interior. Today there's just a single customer, a young woman who nestles in a beanbag and reads a book while a procession of cats tries her lap for size.

Back outside, the sun is setting, and Shimokitazawa's streets are beginning to fill - the gaming arcades glow and ding, the shops are filling with customers, the bars have thrown open their doors and the suburb has gone from sleepy hibernation to alert and alive.

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This is Japan, so you want food. Good food. Round a few corners, down a few alleys and there's a place called Hiroki that specialises in cuisine from the south - okonomiyaki. These "Japanese pancakes" are cooked on a large grill plate by chefs who almost outnumber the diners. There's space for maybe 10 people to crowd around the grill, a metal sheet that serves as cooking utensil and crockery, as the chefs cook the pancake and then slide it across the hotplate towards the lucky diner who ordered it.

Down the street from Hiroki, the "fish izakaya" Uoshin serves only cuisine from the sea, fish so fresh it's laid out in ice-filled crates that surround the central kitchen. You point to the creature of your choice and watch as it's filleted and presented with meticulous care. Perfection.

But you haven't just come to Shimokitazawa for the food. A suburb so synonymous with music and Japanese counter-culture is a suburb in which you want to stay late into the night. Maybe begin your nocturnal wanderings at A-Sign Bar, a dark, comfortable place that recalls the American occupation of Okinawa. After tasting some of the notoriously strong Okinawan sake, you might not recall much else.

Then you need to see a band, and this is what Shimokita does best. You want underground music? Try seeing a band in a bomb shelter. The venue is called Shelter, and it's one of the pioneers of the Shimokitazawa scene, a tiny little place under an apartment block that hosts the coolest of this area's cool musicians.

Tonight the venue is playing host to four bands, three bartenders and about 100 screaming Japanese rock fans, who bump and shake and scream on Shelter's tiny dancefloor. Drum beats reverberate off the bomb shelter's thick walls as the crowd pulses with energy and joy.

After an experience like that you need a drink, so you wander Shimokitazawa's tiny streets deep into the wee hours, looking for something interesting, a manga-themed bar with space for four drinkers, or an English-themed rock bar, or a place with cane chairs and seashell lamps and tropical cocktails. It's called 808 Lounge. Outside, the night ebbs and flows in a gentle procession. It's life lived in miniature. You wonder how it even exists.

The writer travelled at his own expense.

TRIP NOTES

STAYING THERE While there are no hotels in Shimokitazawa itself, visitors can either stay in the nearby suburbs of Shibuya or Shinjuku, or do as the writer did and rent an apartment via the website airbnb.com. Search for "Shimokitazawa Wakana". Wakana's property costs about $120 a night and is well located.

MORE INFORMATION jnto.org.au.

FIVE PLACES TO EAT IN SHIMOKITAZAWA

BIO OJIYAN CAFE This friendly little diner specialises in "ojiya", a sort of Japanese risotto that can be taken with any number of different condiments. All are delicious.

IZAKAYA ISM Down one of Shimokitazawa's tiny alleys is this raucous restaurant that serves sake in bamboo sticks and will blow-torch a mackerel at your table.

HIROKI The best okonomiyaki in Shimokita - here it's done in the Hiroshima style, which means lots of noodles and big hunks of fresh seafood.

OUSHIN IZAKAYA There's very little English spoken here, but if you can make your order for a whole fried fish understood, you're on your way to foodie nirvana.

BALLON D'ESSAI Japan in general doesn't offer great coffee but this little cafe is one of the glorious exceptions.

- FFX Aus

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