Those who come to Tokyo will soon find themselves entranced by the neon lights and millions of people rushing by from every direction. Yet, while these places are great to see, you have to wonder if you’re missing something. In fact, those who see only the main attractions miss the true treasures scattered throughout Tokyo. For those who want to experience another side of Tokyo, here are ten places where the locals go:
The Area Around Nakano Station
First on the list, because it’s not entirely known only to locals! However, there are fewer tourists here than other destinations. Want a place that rivals Akihabara on the otaku and technology scale without the madness of Electric Town? Head over to Nakano Ward, a special area in Tokyo that not only houses an important stop for Japanese subculture, it has several gorgeous temples and shrines, like Baishoin and Araitenjin, accessible from Araiyakushimae Station on the Seibu Shinjuku line.
Several floors of otaku collectibles, rare figurines from across the globe, arcades, used clothing stores, second-hand kimonos, cosplays costumes, discounted items, dollfies, train and car models, a U.S. Army-themed store, music… seriously, anything you want, you can find at Nakano Broadway. If you’re looking for great food, there are small cafes inside as well, including a place called Daily Chiko which serves 8 different flavors of ice cream. And yes, you can try them all at once!
2. Nakano Sun Plaza and Sun Mall
Although the Sun Plaza and Mall attract many foreigners, you will see fewer here than you would at Roppongi Hills or Tokyo Midtown, for example, Sun Plaza is a hotel that has sports facilities and a great café. Meanwhile, Sun Mall is actually a lengthy street akin to Nakamise Dori in Asakusa or Ameyoko in Ueno—but again without all the craziness of crowds and souvenir shops. The open sky ceiling is quite breathtaking.
In 2015, this unique location in Tokyo was named “the most sensuous” ward. No doubt, there is a romantic ambiance in many of the sites one can find in Bunkyo-ku. Since Bunkyo is an educational and residential district, there are many historical and interesting places to be found. Despite that, it is not a real tourist magnet.
This is where the Hydrangea Festival happens in the first few weeks of June. The park is absolutely stunning, no matter the season. Not only are the grounds sprawling, there is a lot more to see than flowers. Events take place frequently at Koishikawa Korakuen. There are bridges dating back to the 1600s. One is called the Full Moon Bridge, because of the shape of the reflection on the water that it spans.
4. Nezu Shrine
Built in 1705, this Shinto shrine has remained unbothered by the changes of the world around it. While this shrine is glorious and one of my personal favorites, tourists do not assemble here. You are free to wander the grounds and enjoy the tranquillity. Walk beneath endless rows of tori gates, then watch the turtles and Japanese koi swimming in the pond. In April and May, there’s also a fantastic Azalea Festival.
This art museum has been around since 1858, is free, and focuses solely on the art of origami. You’ll see more than the quintessential paper crane here. Some of the exhibitions are so breathtakingly incredible that it is hard to believe that they were just made from paper. On the 3rd floor is a stationary store with stunning sheets of paper and other uniquely Japanese items. It’s a great place to pick up souvenirs. On specific days at the museum, you can also attend classes on the 5th and 6th floors, but they are done in Japanese only.
Want an alternative to the Tokyo Metropolitan Building that gives you a clear view of several parks, Mount Fuji and Sky Tree? The Civic Center’s Observation Deck is free to access. Though it is not as tall as Sunshine City in Ikebukuro, there are not a lot of skyscrapers in Bunkyo to block your view.
The district of Shimokitazawa
Looking for where the bohemians and hipsters live in Japan? Then you need to head over to Shimokitazawa in Setagaya-ku. The narrow streets of this neighbor are crammed with vintage and second-hand stores for more than just clothing. You can also find a huge collection vegetarian/vegan and organic cafes and grocery stores like Nature House. Setagaya is also unfathomably cheap. You can get a lot of Harajuku-esque fashion finds for half the price in this neighborhood.
7. Toyo Hyakatten Shimokita Garage Department Store
On the outside, this department store looks like some kind of rundown warehouse covered in graffiti. However, it is the place to shop for non-conventional and counter-culture goods. There are over 20 shops inside. The industrial-themed interior is quite marvelous, so even if you just come to window shop, you will undoubtedly be entertained.
8. The Garden and The SHELTER
These are two examples of the theaters that exist only in Shimokitazawa. The area is popular for local indie and punk bands and other performing artists. If you want to hear something other than J-pop or party with the locals in a much safer locale than Roppongi, The Garden, and SHELTER ensure nothing but pure entertainment.
Want a tranquil place to take in the beauty of Japan without distancing yourself from Tokyo? Then one of the most quiescent regions, known as Nerima-ku, has something special to offer for those seeking a little bit of everything. You can see a different side of Japanese daily life, go to the amusement park called Toshimaen or visit the multitude of shrines and temples hidden amidst residential buildings and farm plots.
Off the Seibu Ikebukuro line, this area is home to the Nakamurabashi Art Museum and a street of traditional Japanese eateries and confectionary stores. You can wander roads that seem to send you back into time then approach the whimsical grounds of the art museum. There are statues of animals that become the focus of playground games. As for the museum, it offers a mix of modern and classic art from around Japan and elsewhere. The displays change with the seasons.
10. Shakujikoen Station and Park
Want a tranquil place to take in the beauty of Japan without distancing yourself from Tokyo? Then one of the most quiescent regions, known as Nerima-ku, has something special to offer. Shakujikoen is a station accessible off the Seibu Ikebukuro line. Around the station are small shopping malls, cafes, organic produce markets, discounted items, and lastly, a gorgeous park and several small shrines. Sui Shrine and ShakujiHikawa Shrine are not well-known and not as decorated as places like Meiji Jingu. However, you will find an air of spirituality at either place that is truly relaxing. The park itself has a decent walking path, plenty of places to set up a picnic, and even swan boats you can rent.
11. Sainenji Temple
Built around 1590-1600, this temple is the resting place of the legendary ninja Hattori Hanzo. Those who enjoy Japanese history, especially around the Sengoku period, have something worthwhile to see here. If you are expecting a busy temple, you’ll be surprised. The serene grounds are absent of the flair and crowds of more famous spots. You can saunter through the graveyard to where Hattori Hanzo lays buried. And if you are lucky enough to arrive when sermons are not being held, you can enter the temple to see articles the ninja owned, included the real remnants of his long spear.
Tokyo is more than those must-see photography places. Beyond the crowds and past the flashing lights of the tourist hubs, there is another side to Japan that often goes unseen. The places you never heard of have the best deals and food and hidden wonders. Stepping off the main roads provides you the chance to go on a marvelous adventure and experience Japan as the locals do.
Updated: August 6, 2016