We're home. Happy and wide-eyed from the beautiful and bizarre things we saw in Japan. I can't wait to tell you about them, so I will be sharing some stories, recommendations and photos in a series of posts over the next few weeks. (maybe even some video!) Let's start at the beginning...
I feel we owe the Tokyo neighbourhood of Shimokitazawa a love letter, or at least a thank you note. It was the first (and last) stop on our Japan journey and we immediately felt at home.
We rented a tiny and utilitarian AirBnB in the hood, but spent most of our waking hours roaming. Shimokita is well known for it’s vintage (and zakka) shops, music venues, cozy cafes, restaurants and mini design stores. But what’s not apparent at first glance is the friendliness of the locals and the human scale on which everything is built. It’s really more of a small town (and pedestrian haven) that, to us, appears to operate in perfect harmony, a world away from the stereotypical chaos of Tokyo.
This kind of sums up the vibe: Once when waiting for a package at the post office, which was to arrive at precisely 9:30, it struck us that Shimokita was like a life-sized “Lego Town”. The miniature red postal truck arrives on time, skillfully dodging pedestrian and bicycle traffic on the narrow roads; the packages in the postman's cart are colourful, labeled and sorted; the exchange is made with a series of graceful bows and the truck is off. The postal employee then jogs out with a smiling face and hands us our envelope as we sit on the curb in awe.
Our favourite Shimokitazawa haunts: (where available I've included a link to a website or map, others we found by wandering or consulting this excellent guide)
Kate Coffee: Like the living room of a cool, foodie friend. Go there to hang out, have breakfast, read...
Hishimo: Beers and international tapas—from chang mai sausages to taco rice served in a a former laundry, now crowded with cozy, wood cubby seating.
Shirube Izakaya: A super fun and authentic izakaya experience. Don’t miss the saba dish (mackerel) blow-torched at your table.
Mocha: A great shop for girly, patterned dresses.
Darwin Rooom: A natural history curiosity shop to get lost in.
La Befana: The Japanese have truly mastered the thin-crust Neapolitan pizza at this joint.
Oriental department store: A vintage & handmade bazaar with an array of housewares, clothing an accessories shops. My favourite was Sukonbu, a jewellery shop set-up like a dollhouse where each artist curates a tiny cube shop with their miniature handywork.
Bear Pond Espresso: Sit on the bench in front, sip and people watch.
And here are some general Japan tips that really made a difference for us:
Pocket Wifi: It made navigation via Google maps a breeze (which is generally a pain without the knowledge of Japanese). We had ours delivered to us in Japan from this place.
Car Rental: We loved being mobile and independent in the country side. The cheapest rental place we found was Orix but we had help from a local when booking. Tip: If leaving from Tokyo, pick up the car from a location away from the centre, easily accessible by train, like Ikebukuro Station.
ATMs: A recent regulation prevented us from using the ubiquitous 7-11 and local bank ATMs with our Canadian debit cards, so the post offices were a salvation. But check the hours, some are closed early and on Sundays.
Don't expect people to speak English: Smile and arm yourself with some useful phrases. English speakers are rare even in Tokyo and much of our communication was reduced to pointing.
PS. If you’re looking for another cool but peaceful residential neighbourhood in Tokyo, try Nakameguro. It’s centred around a beautiful tree lined canal, dotted with pretty cafes like Water—perfect for a lunch and a cocktail.