If I have one recommendation for any visitor to Tokyo, or any long-term resident for that matter, it is to go to Koenji. At some point you are going to get jaded and exhausted of the finely tuned commercial process of central Shibuya, Harajuku and Shinjuku, you are going to yearn for an environment where you don’t get hassled by over-enthusiastic sales staff, the spirit of rummaging and dare I say, even finding an actual bargain. And while the former places do offer tastes of the latter and Koenji is hardly entirely free of those negatives, it does offer not only an alternative, but something genuinely different. I thought I would run through some useful maps and pictures that I have picked up on my travel to help you discover this wonderful little part of Tokyo that not enough people ever make it out to (I lived in Tokyo for over a year until I did…).
Continue reading for my Koenji guide, enjoy!
Now, upon arrival at the station you probably won’t notice all that much to separate it from any other low-rise Tokyo and if you just wander around you can’t rely on tripping over the good stuff. Trust me, you could be walking past an amazing shop for years without noticing it and there is really nothing that is going to help you out bar having a damn good explore. Producing a perfect map is equally futile as shops come and go in the breeze, so if you use the following as a guide to where it might be worth a look you won’t go too far wrong. My advice is just to head in the direction of the yellow dots on the following maps –
This is the south, and easier to navigate part of town.
And the north. The other interesting part of town is under the train tracks around the station – you will know when you are near the interesting shops the more dilapidated it gets…
Talking of which, you really can’t mention Koenji without gushing over the Kitakore Building, which I want to cover in a separate post (as I have a ton of pictures). It is a sprawl of stalls and shops in a ramshackle building by small designers and collectors of vintage oddities, in many ways it reminds me of Dog in Harajuku or a cheaper Candy. Here is a taste of one of the shops/stalls in the midst of sale season.
Anyway, you have to pop in if you are in Koenji, but I want to give this the focus it deserves at a later date.
Koenji is a pretty cool, liberal place, there are a good number of great punk bars, tattooists and most of the shops worth seeing definitely fall on the edge-subculture line that most tourists expect to find more of in Harajuku.
But it is also home to a number of high-end shops – like Wolfman BRS pictured above. Likewise with the housing in the area, there is clearly a lot of money, but equally places that are probably squats.
It is also home to Spank! which is worth the price of your train ticket alone.
The majority of shops are pretty un-assuming vintage clothes shops but you honestly never know what you will find. I went into one like the place pictured above (it could have been this one, but they all kinda blur) and they had a load of Japanese WWII era jewelry that I for one was not expecting to find!
There are also the kind of unbelievably specific shops of a non-geeky nature (that is all in Nakano Broadway). Always worth a look for the merchandising alone.
I just like the colorful graphics and objects that define the streets. It is not like Shibuya where there simply is not enough space for this kind of stuff, in Koenji shops can sprawl out into the streets without fear of bothering anyone.
The only annoying thing is coming to Koenji specially for a specific shop, only to find it closed and operating under erratic opening times… But you can almost forgive them when their shutters look like this.
This is the slightly dodgy area north of the station, very small by Tokyo standards and next to some really nice bars.
Lots of fun theme bars – the wrestling one comes in particularly recommended!
One of the best things about not being in a particularly wealthy area of Tokyo is that not everything has been torn down and replaced in the last 5 years. So you get some really fun architectural reminders of Japan’s boom years.
I hope I have managed to persuade you to visit or re-visit this wonderful area, it really does demand your attention when you are in the mood for something different. Whether it is fashion, street-art or food everything in Koenji is just saturated with character. Yes, it is a little rough round the edges in places, but that is all part of the charm, and charmed you inevitably will be.