Tokyo is nothing if not a city of extremes and hidden delights, and while the slick inner-city neighborhoods—like Shibuya and Akihabara—are a lot of fun, they make up just half of the town. Tokyo is a metropolis that’s been through more than its fair share of structural destruction.
The WWII bombings and the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 demolished many of the older buildings which occupied the city center. If you head a little farther out though, you’ll find plenty of traditional pockets standing proud in their ramshackle glory. These areas are the real, authentic Tokyo, and one that’s a whole lot of fun to explore.
Positioned just northeast of Ueno Station, Yanaka is a hybrid neighborhood. These days it’s as much a home to hip cafes and unique art galleries as it is an old-timey relic, but the latter ambiance still does shine through. During the bombings of WWII, this pocket of the city managed to avoid any severe damage. This is why you’ll still see parts of pre-war Japanese architecture taking up prime real estate throughout the area.
Historically, this side of the city was known as the ‘lower’ side. It was an area for the less affluent ever since the Tokugawa shogunate designated higher grounds to aristocratic families. The title ‘Shitamachi’ (lower city) is given to this side of town—it’s a title with both literal and economic connotations. Landwise Yanaka is built on marshlands, while the ‘higher-class’ areas were built on higher land. Although in the past, this Shitamachi tag may have seemed derogatory, these days it’s a massive part of its charm. It’s where ramshackle food stands, and snack stalls are manned by friendly baba-chan (grandmas). Here older folks sit and chinwag on the streets, dusty kissatens serve hand-dripped coffee, and local makers sell their wares. Don’t expect any slick department stores here.
The area has many historical attractions including the sprawling Yanaka Cemetery, which is especially stunning lined with sakura in spring, and Yanaka-Ginza, the shopping street also affectionately known as the Grandma’s Harajuku. For more info on just what to see and do in this charming pocket of the city, be sure to bookmark our guide Yanaka: Old Town Tokyo at Its Best.
Shibamata sits in the northeastern ward of Katsushika, right by the Edo River. While it’s a richly historic area, it’s one overlooked by most tourists who bypass this little time capsule of a town for the more well-trodden haunt of Asakusa.
There are two reasons why this quaint area is famous with the locals: its impressive temple and movie-star history. Let’s talk about the cinema connection first. Between 1969 and 1995, an incredibly popular Japanese film series known as Otoko wa Tsurai Yo (translated title: It’s Tough Being a Man) ran for an impressive 48 feature films. The story followed the journey of Tora-san, a man who was unlucky in the love department. The films would always finish the same way, with Tora-san returning to his family shop right here in Shibamata. As a dedication to the great Tora-san, there’s a museum in Shibamata covering the creation of the series.
The neighborhood is still lined with traditional-style snack stores and retail stores, but the sacred Taishakuten Temple is the most impressive old-Tokyo feature. The temple was constructed in 1692. Around the area is a traditional garden complex that also features a 500-year-old pine tree, which some say looks like a dragon, so keep an eye out!
Just a short journey outside of central Tokyo, in Saitama Prefecture, 30 or so minutes from Ikebukuro, is where you’ll find Kawagoe. The locals call this place ‘Ko-Edo’ (translation: Little Edo) because it’s just like an Edo-period (17th to 19th century) town frozen in time. This pocket of the city was once a castle town run mainly by merchants who’d do business from an impressive-looking warehouse adorned in glossy tiles and finished with delicate engravings. Many of these warehouses have managed to stand the test of time—others not so much—but it’s these historical buildings that give the area its traditional charm.
Kurazukuri Street is Kawagoe’s main street; it’s home to gracefully aging warehouses and stores selling all types of souvenirs and snacks. In 1893, a fire passed through this strip destroying several buildings, which is why you may notice that the stores feature steep tiles and fire-resistant clay on the walls. The other main street you can’t bypass is Kashiya Yokocho, aka Candy Alley. This colorful road has cute stores selling cheap, Show-era style sweets that make for excellent souvenirs. If you’re interested in diving a little deeper into this charming day-trip destination, have a read of our day-tripping guide to Kawagoe: The Little Edo.
Wedged between the glitzy lights of Minato Mirai and the baseball and sports bar loving neighborhood of Kannai sits Noge. It’s a whole different side of Yokohama, and one most folks have never experienced. Noge is a boozy, bar-lined backstreet, where the locals hang after dark and that the tourists miss. The charm of Noge is its gritty, dated exterior, while it may not look like a lot from the outside, behind the closed doors are where the action is. Jazz, whiskey, wine, long nights, and lost memories are what Noge is all about.
While it is overflowing with Showa-era ambiance, there isn’t a lot to recommend in Noge in terms of sightseeing, given the fact that it’s not a neighborhood, but simply a laneway of bars. But, if you’re looking for something a little different on a night out after exploring the sights of Yokohama, here is where you’ll find it.
Most of the previously mentioned old-town haunts have been relics of less wealthy areas. However, Kagurazaka is quite the opposite. This corner of Shinjuku was once a popular entertainment district located on the outer moat of Edo Castle. It was a nightlife hub, home to geisha houses and ritzy restaurants. Stroll along the narrow backstreets, and you’ll find meticulously maintained and mysterious bars and nightlife establishments that still retain that air of sophistication.
Today the neighborhood also has an unmissable sense of French influence thanks to the French schools in the area. When it comes to getting a taste of traditional Japan—in the literal sense—Kagurazaka has options. There are plenty of high-end dining establishments located along the cobblestone alleys. But one place you shouldn’t miss is Kinozen, which opened up in 1948, making it one of the oldest sweet stores in the area—so treat yourself to something classic. For a little strolling and plenty of nostalgia, then Kagurazaka is the place to be.
There are certain times in the year that can make your visit to Tokyo less than idea.