Story and Phot by MC2 Matthew Duncker, PAO, NAF Atsugi
Atsugi, Japan - Southwest of the heart of the Tokyo Megalopolis, lies a neighborhood that at first glance could be mistaken for Williamsburg in Brooklyn or Fish Town in Philadelphia, it is an area filled with coffee shops, vintage clothing stores, record shops and restaurants. Amongst the narrow streets and hills, locals and visitors, the old and the young, intermingle in a place that has become the bohemian center for modern day Tokyo: Shimokitazawa.
Shimokitazawa, or “Shimo” as many locals have come to call it, was originally a rice farming village located on the outskirts of Tokyo. The catalyst that changed it from a farming district occurred in 1923 after the “Great Kanto Earthquake” which left thousands of east Tokyo residents homeless, thus energizing the urbanization of Shimo. In 1927 Shimokiazawa Station was opened and thus connected the new prospering neighborhood to the larger metropolitan area. The area still retains a majority of its pre-war architecture, narrow streets and utter lack of parking spaces for vehicles. In the 1970’s Shimo saw a large influx of students due to the cheaper rent and development of Shinjuku and Shibuya into more commercial areas of Tokyo. Several establishments began to cater more to “youth culture” and thus laid the foundation for what is the Shimokitozawa that is known to the world today.
Visitors traveling to Shimokitazawa can exit from either the north or south exits of Shimokitazawa Station to enter into the eighborhood, after passing the construction in the area, an interconnected series of narrow roads connect the neighborhoods together, cars are very rarely seen as the streets are mostly populated with bike and pedestrian traffic. Dating back to the neighborhood’s roots as a post-war black market, the district is littered with an abundance of vintage and second hand clothing stores that sell everything from classic Japanese brands to military surplus, to 1990’s streetwear. In addition to clothing, used record stores sell rare collectibles from yesteryear as well as rare copies of Japan Surf Rock, Hip Hop and Punk.
Due to the very diverse crowds that flock to the area, dining options are numerous and can satisfy any craving a visitor has. Anything from Vietnamese bahn mi sandwich shops, Thai green chili, Neapolitan pizza, French cuisine and British style pubs can be found all around. Typical Japan fare can also be had with izakayas and yakitori street vendors. One notable area that can be seen as an amalgamation of these different restaurants is the Shimokitazawa Cage. This commercial enclave is a park, beer garden, market area and performance space all under the local train tracks and surrounded by a chain link fence. Food trucks park outside and sell the latest in Japanese and western street food to customers. With a rising food scene, the area has also seen a rise in cafes since the 1990s.
Coffee house are on every street selling typical cafe fare but also pour over drip coffee, custom made sodas and matcha lattes. Also, Shimokitazawa is known for its thriving live music and theater scene. Since the influx of younger Tokyo residents in the 1970s, dozens of live houses, music venues, are scattered throughout the district. Shimo is known for producing many of the nationally famous tour bands from their small nook in the large metropolis. Theater is also popular with Shimo and contains several small theaters such as the Suzunari and Honda Theater.
If guests are drawn to a more traditional experience, there are various shrines located throughout Shimo but the two most notable are Shinganji Temple and Kitazawa Hachiman Shrine. Shinganji is extremely notable for featuring a large ginkgo tree and transparent telephone like shrine dedicated to the goddess of music, Benzaiten, located on the grounds.
While Shimokitazawa does not have a long a storied history dating back to the Edo period like most of Tokyo, in the short time of its existence it has garnered enough attention and praise that it is among the mustvisit locales along with Shibuya, Harajuku and Ginza. To those from the west it will seem like you’re transported to somewhere familiar yet still new and different.