Everyone needs a place they can escape to when that ruthless steamroller called life has left you flattened on the sidewalk. For me, this place isn’t a peaceful temple with a quietly gurgling fountain, or a park with a path lined with bamboo trees.
One of my favourite places to unwind in Tokyo is loud, flashy and busy, yet intimate too. It’s a trendy neighbourhood you’ve probably never heard of unless you live here. It doesn’t have the claims to fame of Shibuya, Shinkuku or Harujuku, but what it lacks in notoriety it makes up for in sheer charm. The area consists of one bustling main street that splits off into numerous skinny alleys that beg to be explored. There’s a vibrant, artistic and bohemian energy about the place that never fails to bring me back to life. It’s chilling on the cute designs decorating the doors of closed shops.
It’s glowing at you from the neon signs and the lanterns that line the streets. It’s dancing in your ears as the laughter of impeccably dressed Japanese youth lounging on a bar patio. It’s tickling your nose as the smell of Japanese curry, Italian pasta and Thai soup.
I’m talking about Shimokitazawa, where you can always find a talented young musician on a street corner looking for, and often finding, an appreciative audience. That is, before they move on to live performances at one of the many clubs in the area. If you’re looking for up-and-coming J-talent, this is where you need to be.
If it’s fashion that sets your heart racing, Shimokitazawa has — hands down — two of the cutest accessories stores I’ve ever seen. And there are quite a few second-hand clothing stores where you can get really stylish stuff for less than half of what you would normally pay. Trust me when I say you’ll lose hours browsing these places.
Or if you like games, there are blaring, colourful arcades that beckon you inside with their beeps, clicks and dings, promising fame and glory if you can beat the latest high score. Or you can try your luck at winning a prize in one of the game centres. I’ve seen everything from stuffed animals to cookware to perfume in these machines. I haven’t had much luck, in fact there’s an adorable teddy bear I’ve so far spent 2000 yen (about $20) trying to win with no success, but don’t let that stop you. After all, the chase is half the fun! And there are of course the obligatory pachinko parlours sprinkled around the place, for those who want to trust their fortunes to lady luck.
The restaurants and bars in Shimokitazawa are some of the most exciting and beautifully designed I’ve ever seen, and judging by the crowds inside the food is just as enticing. Whatever you’re craving you’ll probably find it here. There’s traditional Japanese, Thai, Italian, and even a jerk chicken stall tucked away in a corner, with smooth reggae beats playing as customers sit at outdoor tables while a blue disco ball flashes over them.
In fact, disco balls seem to be a theme here, but you won’t hear me complaining because somehow, in Shimokitazawa, it works.