Tokyo is so much more than bright lights, technology and tradition. Here, each neighbourhood, or district, has a unique personality that can only be discovered by exploring the local food, shopping, culture and art scene.
Tokyo’s 23 districts, or ku, divide the world’s most populous city into digestible neighbourhoods. Each district is often nicknamed after whichever train station serves them. Step off and you might find yourself caught up in a whirlwind of neon and nightclubs in one ’hood, or traditional gardens and teahouses in another. This is V&T’s guide to seven neighbourhoods loved by locals to explore on your next trip to Japan’s capital.
Asakusa and Kappabashi: Downtown Tokyo’s historic heart
There are few places in Tokyo that encapsulate tradition quite like Asakusa – unsurprising, given that it’s home to Sensoji Temple. This is the oldest Buddhist temple in the Japanese capital, and one of the prettiest of its kind in the world. Sensoji is marked by its imposing Kaminarimon Gate and giant red lantern.
Arguably the best way to get to Asakusa, on the banks of the Sumida River, is via a Tokyo Water Bus ferry from Hama-rikyū Garden, Odaiba and Toyosu. When you arrive, you’re not only greeted by historic Sensō-ji but also jaw-dropping vistas of the city’s tallest landmark, the Tokyo Skytree.
We recommend exploring via rickshaw. If you have a love for all things culinary, you’ll want to walk the short distance to neighbouring Kappabashi. This is Tokyo’s ‘kitchenware town’ – there’s not much you can’t find here to stock an enviable kitchen.
Local Foodie Tip: If you love the diversity of street food, you’ve come to the right place. Try delectable savoury pancake, okonomiyaki at Tsurujiro, or devour crispy tempura at Tempura Daikokuya. In Funawa you’ll find all manner of Japanese sweets.
Yanaka and Nezu: City life with a retro vibe
Step back in time when you visit Yanaka and Nezu. These districts are remarkably well-preserved thanks to the fact that both areas escaped major damage during the world wars and Tokyo’s natural disasters. The vibe is retro and charming, evoking a bygone era where time seems to stand still.
Must-visit historic sites include Yanaka Cemetery and Nezu Shrine (one of Japan’s oldest), tucked down alleys and hemmed by traditional wooden houses. There won’t be just window shopping at Yanaka Ginza, the region’s retro retail street. The stores and galleries here are too enticing to resist.
Speaking of art, visit HAGISO for eye-popping paintings and installations. This renovated wooden apartment is now part hip cafe and part gallery. Then drop in on SCAI the Bathhouse, formerly a public bathhouse (sento), transformed into a contemporary art gallery.
Local Foodie Tip: Unsurprisingly, this neighbourhood is bestowed with restaurants (and snacks) that date back generations. Try rice crackers at Kikumi Senbei, and meat cutlets (menchi-katsu) at age-old restaurants like Niko no Suzuki and Nikuno Sato in Yanaka Ginza.
Nakameguro: Cool cafés, bars and bookstores
Along the banks of the Meguro River and within walking distance of fashionable districts like Daikanyama and Ebisu, Nakameguro holds its own in the sophistication stakes. The area has become a bit of mecca for fashionistas.
You’ll find many in the new Nakameguro Koukashita. The street is home to 700 metres of bars and stores anchored by the uber-modern Nakameguro Tsutaya Books. Nakameguro is a bustling bastion of cool throughout the year, but you’ll find the crowds swell in late March and early April. It’s at this time that the densely packed riverside cherry trees bud and blossom, creating an ultra-photogenic tunnel of pink.
Local Foodie Tip: Our pick of trendy cafes to frequent? Onibus, for coffee every which way and served by dapper waiters. Then enjoy modern French at Craftale, vegan fare at Saido and craft beer at Spring Valley Brewery Tokyo.
Aoyama and Omotesando: The Champs-Elysee of Tokyo
Close to the youth fashion meccas of Shibuya and Harajuku, this elegant shopping district is a playground for well-heeled grown-ups. Omotesando is a tree-lined boulevard with stylish brand-name shops, cafes and malls. Here you’ll find the Omotesando Hills Shopping Centre – think of this part of the city as the Champs-Elysee of Tokyo.
Besides the shopping and cafe culture, it is particularly known for its numerous buildings designed by superstar Japanese and international architects. Among them is the Nezu Museum of Art, housing a vast collection of more than 7,400 works of Japanese and East Asian art. The uniting modern and traditional Japanese architecture with harmonious gardens.
Close by, the Aoyama area is one of Tokyo’s most affluent neighbourhoods. This district is popular for its international fashion boutiques, cafes, restaurants and antique stores. Head to Kotto-Dori Street to discover the latter.
Local foodie tip: For healthy eaters, a number of specialist organic cafes and restaurants are located in the area. Or visit the traditional Japanese tea ceremony gardens at Nezu Museum of Art.
Ryogoku: Sumo with a side of art
Ryogoku sits on the eastern side of the Sumida River and draws wrestling fans from around the world as the home of Japan’s national sport, sumo. Other cultural attractions abound in this fascinating Tokyo district, from museums to arts and crafts.
Sumo enjoys a staggering 1,500-year history, with tournaments held across Japan each year. Three of these are held in Tokyo at the Ryogoku Kokugikan Arena in January, May and September.
Another highlight is the Edo-Tokyo Museum. Step inside to journey through Tokyo’s cultural and economic development over the last 400 years with eye-opening displays. For more artistic work from the Edo period, Sumida Hokusai Museum is dedicated to the works of ukiyo-e (a Japanese genre of art that translates as ‘pictures of the floating world’) by artist Katsushika Hokusai.
Across the river, the Asakusabashi district is a hub for all manner of arts and crafts. Think leather, wood, glass and metal. Edo kiriko (cut glass) is one of Tokyo’s homegrown crafts, and glimpsing its production here is fascinating. The Sumida Edo Kiriko-kan has a tour of its glass factory, and you can even create your own distinctive piece of cut glass.
Local foodie tip: Try chanko-nabe, a protein-rich hot pot with meats and vegetables that’s popular among sumo wrestlers. Chanko Kuroshio and Tomoegata are local favourites within walking distance of Ryogoku Kokugikan Arena.
Shimokitazawa: Heritage and Culture
Shimokitazawa, or ‘Shimokita’ as it’s fondly known by locals, has reinvented itself into a neighbourhood where you’ll get the best of both worlds – onsens, ryokan and traditional food, mixed with trendy coffee shops, theatres and hip clothing stores.
Sitting west of Tokyo’s Shibuya district, just three minutes from Shibuya on the Keio Line, or eight minutes from Shinjuku on the Odakyu Line, Shimokita is a world away from the frenetic pace of the central city. Known as the ‘town of plays’, start your local theatre experience at Honda Theater, one of the most well-known drama and live theatre venues – shows are regular and held in Japanese, but the experience won’t be lost on you.
Love vintage clothing? Shimokita is the place to shop. Bonus Track is a group of stores connected by pathways with an ‘owner’s face’ philosophy where you’ll meet the makers, and when you need to rest weary feet, call into the sake bar. A trip to Japan isn’t the same without it.
Stay at ryokan Yuen Bettei Daita, where you can soak in an open-air bath in the soothing, mineral-rich waters from Hakone hot springs. Afterwards, pull up a chair at the teahouse for homemade sweets and Japanese tea, and as the sun goes down, swap your tea for a craft cocktail and cheers to finding one of Tokyo’s coolest spots.
Local foodie tip: Shimokita is fast becoming known as ‘the city of spice curry’ – helped in part by the annual Shimokitazawa Curry Festival (held in September/October), which in 2022 saw 117 curry restaurants on the food ‘trail’. Each restaurant created traditional Japanese cuisine infused with curry. Think spicy burgers, soba noodles, takoyaki, taiyaki cakes and gyoza. Not travelling during festival dates? Try any number of restaurants for your local spicy fix, like Rojiura Curry Samurai – a restaurant dedicated to sustainability, sourcing all ingredients from local producers.
Shinjuku: Tokyo’s nightlife district
Shinjuku Station is one of the busiest transport hubs in the world. West of the station lies a forest of skyscrapers and electronic megastores. The east is the access point for shopping, dining and entertainment.
On the south side of the station, you’ll find Shinjuku Expressway Bus terminal, as well as a cluster of modern shopping complexes. At night, Shinjuku turns into a futuristic city of neon lights with endless opportunities for dining, drinking and entertainment.
Tokyo’s one-time red-light district, Kabukicho, is now home to high-end nightclubs, cinemas and oh-so-cool bars and lounges. Enjoy sipping sake in establishments around the Golden Gai and Omoide Yokocho, where tiny bars are squeezed into narrow alleys.
Shinjuku offers plenty of daytime diversions as well. Visit the 45th-floor observation decks of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building for stunning vistas over the city. In contrast to the hustle and bustle of the town centre, Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden offers a pleasant and leafy reprieve.
The Samurai Museum and Ninja Trick House are also great cultural experiences in this exciting Tokyo district. Days can be lost exploring the boutiques of department stores including Isetan, Odakyu and Takashimaya.
Local foodie tip: Shinjuku is a ramen mecca so keep an eye out for queues – the best restaurants will have the longest lines outside. As for bars, The Open Book is an unpretentious speakeasy for lovers of literature while Albatross is the place for house-infused spirits and spicy gin highballs.
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