One of Tokyo’s coolest neighborhoods exists outside the city’s central bustle. A 30-minute ride on the Chuo line will get you to Kōenji, an emerging enclave where underground musicians, artists, and vintage-shop thrifters thrive. Yet the neighborhood has retained its traditional roots, including temples tucked into residential streets and plenty of family-run restaurants. Its history is most evident during the Koenji Awa-Odori, an annual festival centered around a 400-year-old dance called the Tokushima. Held on the last weekend of August (this year, the 26–27), the festival entices locals and thousands of visitors into Kōenji’s narrow streets to watch as nearly 10,000 dancers parade through the streets in vibrant folk costumes, accompanied by traditional music played on lutes, drums, and flutes.
The neighborhood is named after Kōenji, the main drag lined with restaurants, bars, convenience stores, and small, secret-feeling shoutengai (shopping streets) that are ideal for aimless wandering. Here’s where to find vintage vinyl, expertly roasted coffee, and the best tempura on the block.
Flip through funk, soul, hip-hop, and dance albums at EAD Record Shop, or pretend you’re in High Fidelity as you sift through the vinyl at Enban. Linger over towers of CDs and used books at S.U.B. Store (note the logo’s homage to American indie label SUB Pop), a homey hangout that also serves coffee, beer, and Indonesian food. At the curiously named vintage shop, Slut, browse the selection of plaid button-down shirts, vintage denim, and oversized North American college sweatshirts. Or play radical dress up at Hayatochiri, which sells new clothing made from vintage fabric as well as shirts and jackets embellished with bike chains or plastic discs. The Great White Wonder, a stationery and trinkets store with a curated selection of notebooks, tote bags, candles, and pottery, is a solid stop for omiyage (souvenirs).
In Kōenji, sweet shops hawking ice cream and artfully frosted baked goods seem to be everywhere—even in the subway stations. Hold out for the Kōenji outpost of Floresta, a wildly popular doughnut shop that makes animal-shaped doughnuts topped with almond icing that are as kawaii (cute) as they are delicious. (Bonus: They’re organic!)
For something more savory, brave the lines at Tensuke, which specializes in tempura delights like soft-boiled eggs dipped in tempura batter and lightly fried. Or slurp noodles with the locals at Menya Hayashimaru, a ramen shop known for its tsukemen, or dipping ramen. Neighborhood favorite El Pato traffics in elevated North American fare with a Japanese accent. (Chef Kiyoshi “Kiki” Daito cooked his way across the United States before returning to Tokyo to open the restaurant.) For a more outdoorsy meal, pop into the camping-inspired Outdoor Kitchen, where hammocks hang from the ceiling and most dishes are served in small black pots. Want to experience Okinawan cuisine? Dachibin, a super-friendly neighborhood institution, serves a mash-up of island specialties and dishes influenced by the U.S. military presence (Spam makes a frequent appearance).
Fuel up at Coffee Amp, a small-batch roaster that turns out excellent espresso drinks. After sunset, cocktail crawls are the way to go—a general rule of thumb is to wander the alleys that run beneath the subway tracks to find cool bars and late-night snack spots. According to Kōenji locals, the narrower the alley, the better the places will be. Get the neighborhood scoop at the BnA Hotel, the bed-and-art inn created by (and featuring) local artists who put this neighborhood on the map.
Even if you’re not staying in one of the two upstairs rooms, pop by the intimate seven-seat Bar Front Desk for a coffee during the day or a cocktail in the evening. AMP cafe, a gallery space and bar, is another artist-focused find. At Bar Tico, a standing-room-only bar with inventive cocktails, tip back a seaweed or bonito-flavored cocktail or try the saffron-infused liquor. Cap the night with specialty shōchū and izakaya-style snacks at Disco Dai-zou, an intimate space where DJs spin records on the weekends.