In Tokyo, a traditional neighborhood with a bohemian vibe


Shimokitazawa’s Mikoshi-Matsuri Festival, or portable shrine festival, takes place every September in this neighborhood of Tokyo. (Julie Wan)
June 12

I first learn of Shimokitazawa, a suburb west of Tokyo, on a vacation rental site: “Imagine a neighborhood . . . run by hippies,” says the listing. It goes on to tout alleyways lined with vintage clothing stores, bars, small theaters and live-music venues, all emitting a bohemian vibe.

Just as intriguing to me, though, is the area’s affordability, especially after days spent looking at one expensive, claustrophobic Tokyo hotel room after another. By the time a Japanese friend tells me that she used to live in Shimokita, as residents affectionately call it, I’ve already got an apartment booked there.

Shimokita is only a few stops from Shibuya, the iconic heart of bustling Tokyo made famous in the movie “Lost in Translation.” But it’s surprising how quickly the frenetic atmosphere fades as my husband and I, with our toddler son in tow, board a clackety train to Tokyo’s western edges. Just three stops later, the world seems to have shrunk significantly.

As we leave the station, it’s as though we’ve come upon one of the miniature-train-set worlds that my son and I construct on our living room floor, complete with toy-box-size houses, cozy coffee shops and overflowing thrift stores all packed in a row. A tangle of narrow lanes crisscross up and down the hills. The few roads that allow traffic are wide enough only for a single car.

“This is where intellectuals coexist with high society and hippies,” Wakana, our landlady, tells us when we meet her the next day.

Wakana was born and raised in Shimokita in the 1970s and exudes the town’s personality — simultaneously laid-back and sophisticated. She sports a stylish bob, and on this day is wearing a sleeveless shift dress that appears both effortless and chic, with pieces of white cloth patched together and stitches and frayed ends showing. “My mom thought my dress was inside out this morning,” she tells us, laughing.

Wakana has invited us along to the Mikoshi-Matsuri Festival, Shimokita’s annual temple celebration. We sit in her living room with snacks before heading out, and within minutes, my son has adopted Wakana’s mom and aunt as his Japanese grandmas, the three of them conversing perfectly in a combination of toddler babble and Japanese.

“Sometimes old people don’t want young artists” invading their space, Wakana explains when I ask what makes Shimokita unique. “Here, there’s old people and young people living in harmony. And it didn’t just happen yesterday; it goes 50 to 80 years back.”

Shimokita has boasted writers for decades, and following student protests against the Vietnam War in 1969, it became a haven for even more artists, musicians and other free spirits. Then the Honda Gekijo theater was built in 1982, and Shimokita established itself as the focal point of underground theater and live music. While the rest of Tokyo was overrun with skyscrapers, Shimokita enforced building-height restrictions and preserved historic sites.

“When the Americans — ” Wakana starts, then turns to us with an apologetic chuckle, “sorry — when the Americans, uh, dropped the bombs — ” We laugh at her politeness as we realize why she’d paused. “They missed this area,” she continues, “so the trees, et cetera, are still here. In the east area, there was a lot of damage, so there are new buildings there now, but we have stuff here from before World War II.”

More recently, though, Shimokita has been under a different kind of threat. Since 2003, the city has been slowly implementing a redevelopment plan that involves, first, moving one of Shimokita’s train lines below ground, and second, constructing in its place an 85-foot-wide expressway through the town center. The first part of this plan is already in place, but the second part is still the subject of great dispute.

Proponents of these changes have their eye on economic growth. Those opposing construction of the highway, however, argue that it would rob Shimokita of its charm. One community group proposes that the now-empty land be turned into a park instead, in the spirit of Manhattan’s High Line, where old railroad tracks have been converted into an elevated green space. But nothing’s been determined yet.

As we stroll toward the temple festival at dusk, with neighborhood children dashing about us in the lanes, it’s not hard to see why this atmosphere would be worth preserving. Shimokita somehow comes across as vibrant yet relaxed, countercultural but still traditional.

At the festival, Wakana hands us coins to toss into a well. Afterward, she receives a blessing written on a wooden stick that she will swap out with the one from last year in her living room.

During our four-day stay, we find ourselves making it to only a few of Tokyo’s must-see spots, often lingering in Shimokita instead. One morning, we meander over to Bear Pond Espresso, a tiny Shimokita coffee shop with an international cult following, to order a special called the “Dirty” — a shot of espresso topped with cold milk topped with a second shot of espresso.

On our last evening, we decide to try a local izakaya that Wakana recommended, called Uoshin. We arrive to find a Japanese-language-only wait staff and no English menu, which certainly signifies a good meal, as it turns out to be. Afterward, we wander through nearby thrift shops, where we unearth several maekake — vintage indigo-dyed Japanese aprons — to bring back as souvenirs.

“I like introducing my mom to my guests,” Wakana told us at some point that weekend. “She can’t imagine why anyone would want to come to Tokyo and see Shimokita.”

Thanks to Wakana, we’re happy to have done just that.

Wan is a writer based in Beijing.

DETAILS

Shimokitazawa

Shimokitazawa Station is served by two train lines from central Tokyo — the Keio Inokashira line from Shibuya Station and the Odakyu line from Shinjuku Station. Airbnb.com has studio and one-bedroom apartments from about $100 a night. The B Sangenjaya Hotel in nearby Setagaya has singles from about $80 and doubles from about $100.

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