7 Trendy Stops in Shimokitazawa
By Taryn Siegel on 16 Jan 2017
Just one express stop from the raucous downtown district of Shibuya is Shimokitazawa. Alternatively considerable as Tokyo’s Greenwich village (circa 1950s/60s), Williamsburg, or Camdentown, Shimokitazawa is Tokyo’s hipster, bohemian hub. Although geographically very close to Tokyo’s downtown center, it stands in stark contrast to the iconic chaos of Shibuya crossing or the wide boulevards of Ginza. The streets of Shimokitazawa (or, “Shimokita” or even “Shimo” as it’s affectionately called) are narrow and winding, with the contents of hundreds of bordering boutiques and cafes nearly spilling out onto the pavement below. Just strolling around these streets and peering into the eclectic mix of building facades would make for a pleasant afternoon. But to really grasp the heart and fascination of this area, I offer you—in no special order of rank—the 7 unique spots you should be sure to hit.
Bear Pond Espresso
Bear Pond Espresso is, for one reason or another, one of the most famous coffee shops in Tokyo. And the friendliness of the servers and owner are befitting the conceit that one would expect from such a reputation. Actually, their service has been so repeatedly reviewed as unfriendly that you have to wonder if they’re just catering to that expectation at this point. Fortunately, though, the quality of their coffee also matches their repute, and their prices are even a bit more reasonable than you would expect. The café has a strict no photo-taking policy inside (with the exception of close-up drink shots), which is a shame because its simplistic stylishness would be well-captured in a photo. Both the exterior and interior look something like a small garage. In lieu of proper seating, a couple of wooden shelves are nailed into the far-side wall to serve as tables and several wooden crates are pushed up against the front windows next to the door to serve as seats. During peak hours, though, all of these “seats” are filled and you can even expect a line to snake out the door.
Flash Disc Ranch
From Bear Pond Espresso’s café garage, loop around back towards Shimo station and climb into a record store attic. The stairs to Flash Disc Ranch, with U-haul boxes piled up on one side, so resemble real attic stairs that you would probably never realize this was a store entrance if not for the blue monster-shaped awning outside.
After climbing the dubious staircase, you’ll emerge into an extremely cool record shop (nonetheless still feeling like you accidentally walked into someone’s attic). The interior is like a tiny warehouse, with slightly dirty, translucent windows, every corner piled with records and boxes, but nonetheless spacious enough to navigate around the rows easily. The records are all sorted by genre, and as proof of their authenticity and coolness, most of these genres were ones I didn’t even know existed—ex: “Neo Rockabilly,” “Psychobilly,” and “Inst Rock.”
Probably what Shimokita is best known for is its vintage and second-hand shops. Nearly every street in the area is lined with at least a handful of these shops. If you just meander enough, you can find dozens and dozens of enchanting boutiques and eventually some excellent pieces. But the best collection of second hand shops to be found in one place is the Garage Department. A great, sloping ramp that they’ve named “Ocean Blvd” for some reason leads from the street into the indoor collection of shops. All the shops are open and wall-less and, since space is somewhat limited inside, they sort of spill into one another, such that it’s not always perfectly clear where one shop ends and another begins. All the shops in the Garage Department are required to sell original, hand-made items, so in addition to most of the clothes and accessories being remarkably stylish and surprisingly inexpensive, you can also be sure that every last item is original.
Shimokitazawa Three & Basement Bar
While the daytime streets of Shimo are swelling with merry shoppers in hipster garb, the nighttime scene is quite different. The winding streets are illuminated with the shop fronts of bars and live houses, and young people with instruments slung on their backs seem to pour out of the station exits. If daytime Shimo is known for its cafes and shopping, nighttime Shimo is known for its music. The neighborhood hosts something like 40 live houses of all different styles. About an 8-minute walk south from Shimokitazawa station and down a winding staircase, you’ll find two of the more famous live houses right next to each other: Shimokitazawa Three and Basement Bar. Shimokitazawa Three is probably the slightly bigger of the two, but both have a pretty similar layout—a corner stage, with a sizable lounge/floor in front. You can check the clubs’ websites (three; basement bar) for their live show schedule. Each venue has multiple shows going on every weekend and some week days too, with entry ranging from around ¥1000-¥2500. They have some free events too, though, just check the schedule. The acts are all local bands of various musical styles (a lot of rock), some extremely talented, and some quite famous in the underground Tokyo music world with a devoted following.
Music Bar RPM
For more of a bar scene and a chiller music vibe, another great live house is Music Bar RPM. This one is also underground (as are most of the Shimo live houses, actually), a 3-minute walk from Shimokitazawa station’s south exit. Descending the wooden staircase, you’ll emerge in the center of the basement room, with the bar on your left, the counter of which winds around into the far corner. Opposite the bar, and sort of hidden by the staircase, is the music area. When no performances are on, this area is filled with extra seating, with shiny guitars and basses hung tantalizingly on the walls. When the music is on, the tables are pushed towards the back corner and a makeshift stage is assembled. You can also check the Music Bar RPM website for their live schedule. They have some kind of show going on literally every night, though, with most entry around ¥1500, so you might just want to pop in spontaneously and see what’s on.
Shimo’s a popular late night hub not only for its live music scene, but also for its sheer volume and variety of bars. It’s hard to even know where to start for recommendations, so I’ll narrow it down to one with by far the coolest décor, and another with by far the best drinks.
Stroll out from Shimo station’s south exit, down one of the busy drags for a few minutes, turn a corner, and you’ll do a double take as you pass Mother’s entrance. It looks like the surrounding concrete melted inwards, leaving the jagged faces of a mosaic-tiled cave wall. At first, it’s so disorienting, it might take you a second to locate the small wooden entry door at the center. Inside, it looks as though the earthen cave has been carved out and polished to produce a few crudely shaped tables, benches, and a bar. Although the Gaudi-esque décor is definitely the main attraction here, they also have a full food menu (the nachos are incredible) and some excellent drinks. My personal favorite is a concoction called Mori. Every ingredient of this drink is a mystery. When I asked my server, who’s also one of the bar’s owners, along with his wife, to tell me the secret contents, he explained that he couldn’t tell me, because he himself doesn’t know. Only his wife knows the secret recipe. Whatever it was, it was strong, a little spicy, and delicious.
Ushitora might be Shimokita’s most famous bar—definitely its most famous beer bar. This craft beer mecca is split between two adjacent shops: Ushitora One (a sit-down place) and Ushitora Two (a standing bar). You can order beer in either bar, though, (and food in the sit-down place) and freely walk between them. Together, they have 35 beers on tap from microbreweries all over Japan and a few imports as well. Even put together, the bars don’t have a huge amount of space, so on weekend nights you can expect a bit of a wait for a table in the sit-down bar and a pretty boisterous crowd around the standing bar.
Shimokitazawa is the perfect break from the glossy chaos of the rest of Tokyo. While there’s so much to be mesmerized by in Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Harajuku, only in the subdued stylishness of Shimo can you really immerse yourself in the local culture and start to understand the real soul of Tokyo.
Hi there! I'm a freelance writer, part-time Physics tutor, and amateur musician living in Tokyo, Japan. I'm originally from New York, but have also lived in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and Scotland. My interests are nearly equal parts reading, writing, travel, guitar, coffee, and Physics. When I'm not trekking around glorious Japan, I'm likely biking around Tokyo, reading in cafes, or at a live show of one of my greatly more musically talented friends.