Koenji: Tokyo’s capital of subcultural cool
By Darren on 2 Apr 2018
Koenji, located a couple of stations west of Shinjuku, is often described as being Tokyo’s equivalent of hip neighborhoods such as NYC’s Williamsburg and London’s Shoreditch. As in those towns, artistic individuals and underground scenes thrive in a slightly grungy environment ignored by the mainstream. This is not the full story though. While those two US and UK districts were transformed by hip creative types only for chain stores and upmarket apartments to appear just a few years later, Koenji has held on to its non-conformist spirit. Even as other sections of Tokyo are transformed as the 2020 Olympics approach, Koenji remains defiantly unchanged.
This is an old town by Tokyo standards, but not quite shitamachi (‘downtown’) old like Asakusa, for example, or Yanaka. Much of Koenji, as it stands now, dates back to the 1960s-70s. This gives it a retro atmosphere making it both the perfect location for one of Tokyo’s vintage fashion hubs and a nostalgic place for Japanese over a certain age. Koenji, unlike so many other hip districts, has a multi-generational appeal. Here you’ll find twenty-something students and retired folks drinking and relaxing side-by-side.
Koenji is accessed via the Chuo or Sobu lines, with the former being quickest at just six minutes from Shinjuku JR station (be careful though: on weekends and holidays only the Sobu line stops at Koenji). And the train line that cuts through the town does more than simply get you here: directly underneath the railway bridge itself (head west from either north or south station exit) are nestled some of Koenji’s most charming little eating and drinking spots. At these rough-and-ready places, you can sit upon an upturned crate and enjoy foods such as yakitori (grilled chicken on skewers) or motsu-nikomi (stewed pig intestines) that are traditional favorites of Japanese oyaji (‘old fellas’).
Also scattered under the bridge are a handful of used clothing, book and record/CD stores worth checking out, as well as stylish counter bar Haco and, a little further westwards, Godzilla-ya. This long-established bar is almost a shrine to retro Japanese pop culture, with a counter absolutely covered in vintage toys (including Godzilla of course) that you can play around with as you sip your drink.
Emerge from under the railway bridge, on its south side, and running directly parallel to the train line is one of Tokyo’s very best places for people watching. This street, dominated by more yakitori shops including the affordable and highly welcoming Ken-chan, attracts a vibrant crowd, particularly on weekends and holidays. It is one of Tokyo’s simpler pleasures to pull up an outdoor seat here (or often a beer crate) and sink a cold beer as you observe the kind of eccentrics rarely glimpsed elsewhere in the city. One favorite memory from here is of spotting an otherwise conventional-looking middle-aged salaryman who had something just a little odd about his way of walking. Glancing downwards I noticed that his standard black suit was paired with a pair of purple women’s stiletto shoes.
Beyond the vicinity of the station, most of the action in Koenji is centered on the south side of town. But don’t miss the main, pedestrian-only street that begins on the immediate opposite (north) side of the bridge, and snakes to the north-west. Three to four minutes along this street, on the left, is the Kita-Kore building. This ramshackle yellow construction, unmissable thanks to the pair of fierce ‘eyes’ that look out from its red awning, is a Tokyo fashion landmark. Housing a selection of tiny stores from cutting-edge labels, Kita-Kore once held a sale, organized by famed art collective Chim-Pom, at which a tear from the eye of a girl could be bought. How about that for avant-garde? Nincompoop Capacity, a couple of shops, further along, offers similarly bold clothing.
Back on the south side, the streets branching off the Pal covered shopping arcade (which runs south from our people-watching hotspot) are home to literally dozens of vintage clothing stores interspersed with live music venues (‘live houses’ as the Japanese call them), eateries ranging from casual Mexican to French bistro, and a mix of bars that vary between hip new establishments each with a distinct concept, and tiny counter bars known as ‘snacks’ that have stood unchanged for decades. For non-Japanese visitors, the former kind is generally easier to enter, with a greater likelihood of English being spoken. One firm recommendation is Dining Bar Shakure Kurubushi where you stand a high chance of making new friends regardless of any language barriers.
Along with the smaller Asagaya one station, further along, Koenji has long been regarded as Tokyo’s capital of all that is punky and grungy. Koenji has the city’s largest number of tattoo shops, for example, with Inkrat being among the most popular. But in terms of vintage fashion, there is something for pretty much every taste offered here, from hip-hop-flavored ’80s streetwear all the way through to elegant dresses made in France almost a century ago. For on-trend Tokyo vintage, check out the shop's Trunk for smart menswear with a traditional vibe; Frescade for chic womenswear with an emphasis on strong patterns; and Encore Boutique for European military and workwear.
As you will have gathered by now, Koenji is a true anything-goes melting pot where grungy meets elegant, traditional meets modern, and young meets old. Jump on a train and discover its broad-minded delights for yourself.
Darren came to Japan to study 11 years ago, and never made it back home to the UK. Since then he’s built up a detailed ‘mental map’ of Tokyo by intentionally getting himself lost, and loves taking visiting friends way off the well-beaten tourist track. In his free time Darren can usually be found in the backstreets of Koenji or Asagaya, with camera in one hand and a yakitori stick in the other.