Tokyo is an intoxicating blend of tradition and progressiveness, modesty and fetishism, stoicism and animation. Youth dressed in cosplay mix with salary men in sharp business suits against the backdrop of incessant flashing neon lights and the ching-ching of the pachinko gaming parlours. It’s hyper-intense and wholly exhilarating. The sheer size of this sprawling metropolis can be overwhelming with the city made up of 23 administrative wards that are further divided into ‘smaller’ neighbourhoods, each with its own defining personality. It’s no wonder that visitors are often perplexed as to where to stay in Tokyo.
Here’s a beginner’s guide to the neighbourhoods of Tokyo to help you to decide on where to stay in Tokyo.
If you’re not staying in Shinjuku, it’s likely that you’ll be spending a lot of time here during your stay in Tokyo – if you can ever navigate your way out of Shinjuku Station, the busiest train station in the world. Through the whirling kaleidoscope of lights and sounds, you’ll find Kabukichō, an entertainment and red light district, full of flashy restaurants, clubs, love hotels and hostess bars. Alternatively, the Golden Gai is a small pocket of narrow alleys lined with eccentric shanty bars where you can drink shoulder to shoulder (literally) with Japanese salarymen – choose a bar that’s foreigner-friendly. There are whispers that Golden Gai may disappear before the 2020 Olympics, so now is the time to go.
In a word: entertaining
Shibuya is considered the youth culture hub of Tokyo and the epicentre of Japanese youth trends. The main pedestrian street, Center Gai, is lined with trendy fashion stores and boutiques, but it is the iconic Shibuya 109 building that sees gaggle after gaggle of giggling teens going ga-ga over the latest kogal and ganguro subculture fashion. Shibuya is also home to the busiest pedestrian crossing the world and a perfect spot to take a token tourist snap.
In a word: youthful
Akihabara comes straight out of your boyfriend’s fantasies – and I’m not just talking about the maid cafes, although there is no shortage of those being coyly spruiked by kawaii girls in frilly French maid costumes. Akihabara is a mecca for electronics and gadgets galore, and the center of Japan’s otaku and anime culture. There’s also a few sex stores selling barely-there Sailor Moon costumes and who-knows-what-else on the upper men-only floors. See what I mean about your boyfriend’s fantasies? Regardless of your level of interest in gaming and electronics, you’ll still be fascinated by the counterculture and latent sexuality that underscores this tech town. You’ll be surprised (or perhaps not) how a seemingly innocent manga store can quickly turn into something more risqué.
In a word: nerdtown
If Shibuya is the centre of youth culture, then Harajuku is the centre of alternative youth culture – of the extreme variety. The always-bustling Takeshita Dori is where all the action happens, crammed with fashion stores stocking everything kawaii. It’s colourful, it’s kitsch, it’s completely over-the-top, and you’ll see plenty of offbeat characters as well as the famous Harajuku girls. Try not to gawk for too long. Alternatively, nearby Cat Street is a pedestrian thoroughfare filled with more high-end street fashion boutiques, and Omotesando is a tree-lined avenue often referred to as the Champs-Elysées of Tokyo. Harajuku is also next to Yoyogi Park, in which you’ll find the Meiji Shrine.
In a word: alternative
Upmarket Ginza is the posh area of Tokyo and the wealth is immediately apparent as soon as you enter this neighbourhood. Flashy department store buildings, shiny plated-glass flagship stores and opulent designer luxury labels line the boulevards where you can indulge in some wishful window shopping or guiltily spend your hard-earned cash. The main street, Chuo-dori, is closed to traffic on weekend afternoons, allowing you to meander as you please.
In a word: exclusive
Ueno is the home of Ueno Park and during Hanami, or cherry blossom viewing, there is no better place to be during your stay in Tokyo. The cherry blossoms (sakura) in bloom are a feast for your eyes and you will be in awe of the intense yet delicate beauty of the carpet of sakura trees, which are usually in bloom during late March and early April. Other attractions in the park include: the Tokyo National museum, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum and Ueno Zoo.
In a word: pretty
There is a sense of nostalgia that seeps through Shimokitazawa. It’s a small town, a warren of winding laneways offering a quieter pocket of Tokyo in which you can momentarily escape the organised chaos. Cars aren’t allowed in the narrow alleys and you can wander and get lost in the maze of streets as locals ride by on vintage bikes. Explore the abundance of secondhand stores, vinyl record stores, and hip small bars and eateries. Although Shimokitazawa isn’t on the JR line, it’s still just a few of stops away from the main stations of Shinjuku and Shibuya and well worth the visit.
In a word: hipster
Another neighbourhood offering respite from the cacophony of lights and sounds is Koenji, which is often described as being a more grown-up version of Shimokitazawa with a great reputation for live music. While Shimokitazawa leans towards ‘quaint’, Koenji lies on the ‘edgy’ end of the spectrum which is perhaps explained by the fact that it was once home to Tokyo’s punk scene. There is an abundance of thrift stores that you can rummage around in for bargains, particularly around Look Street.
In a word: retro
The picturesque tree-lined canals of Nakameguro are reason alone to explore this charming neighbourhood (particularly during Hanami), but there is also the myriad effortlessly cool designer boutiques, bars and cafes that run along the Meguro River that will keep you coming back. Characterised by its cool, calm and cosy atmosphere, Nakameguro is a magnet for the creative crowd as well as young families.
In a word: trendy
Roppongi, aka expat central, is one of the few areas in Tokyo where you can find nightlife that caters to foreigners, and is one of those places that you will either love or hate. It has a notorious ‘sleazy’ reputation but is also a hub for entertainment that fluctuates interminably between classy and crude. Alternatively, if you want to skip the party and prefer an injection of culture instead, do the Roppongi Art Triangle, comprising the National Art Centre, the Mori Art Museum and the Suntory Museum of Art, all within walking distance of each other.
In a word: expat
Odaiba is a man-made island that is a popular tourist destination and well-known date spot for young coupled Tokyoites. There are plenty of attractions to keep you preoccupied including large shopping malls, entertainment and dining complexes, leisure centres and even a replica Statue of Liberty.
In a word: fun-park
Where did I stay during my time in Tokyo?
Before our trip, my hubby and I were unsure about where to stay in Tokyo. We eventually decided on Shimokitazawa and it was without a doubt our favourite neighbourhood. It was the perfect cocoon to return to in the evening after the sensory overload of neon lights and constant sounds in other parts of Tokyo, and it also had an excellent – and more intimate – dining and drinking scene. Nakameguro had a cool but sophisticated atmosphere and I enjoyed wandering along the canal and browsing the adjacent boutiques and bookstores. Drinking in the Golden Gai area of Shinjuku was a real highlight and it was a quintessential ‘Tokyo’ moment for me. I couldn’t get my hubby out of Akihabara – surprise, surprise.
WANT MORE JAPAN INSPIRATION?
LIKE THIS POST? PIN IT FOR LATER!
Note: This post may contain affiliate links, which means that I will receive a commission if you click a link and purchase something that I have recommended. Clicking these links won’t cost you any extra money, and I would never recommend anything that I don’t wholeheartedly endorse! ?