Whenever I ask Japanese people (or residents of Japan) where I should go exploring next, they consistently mention Koenji in their list of places. I find that I’ve been doing the same thing when asked by visiting friends. So what is it about Koenji? I headed over there again last week with my friend Kirk (who lives nearby and knows some friends there) to get a closer look.
After tacos we stopped for a drink in this barely lit bar that claimed to play “American indie and British pop,” serve imported beers, and possibly even be vegan (that part was a mistake – there was a “meat is murder” sticker on the door but it was apparently not placed there by the owner). We got a beer and started asking the owner (41 year old Japanese male) some questions.
What kind of place is Koenji? Hmm…Well there are a lot of used clothing shops and the prices around here are low so its a good place for young people. There are also some bars that open from 5am so taxi drivers that have worked all night can stop in for a drink. [roughly translated]
Would you say there is a ‘Koenji Type’ person? [hmm, haw] Generally speaking, I don’t have a very good image of people in Koenji. Its kind of an image of hippies, lazy people. Oh a lot of foreigners come here too.
There’s a lot of grafitti here, what do you think about it? Oh yeah, I don’t like it, but that’s because I’m an old man.
This guy was pretty nice but his beer was a little expensive for us (700 yen) so we finished our drinks, said thanks, and moved on. We walked around browsing the more intriguing used clothing shops and some specialty shop selling old action figures while we waited for some friends that live in Koenji to show up.
I saw these guys sitting outside of their shop just chatting so I asked them for a picture.
かっこいから写真を取ってもよろしいでしょうか。”You’re cool so can I take your picture?”
かわいいからOKです。”You’re cute so OK.”
Eventually we ended up in a shisha (hookah) bar near the station. There were some other foreigners in the bar so we struck up a conversation.
Ashley, in the middle, has been teaching English in Tokyo for the last couple years and just recently moved to Koenji. She said she did a lot of research on good places to live in Tokyo before moving to Koenji. The area is more relaxed and diverse than other parts of Tokyo, has a lot of character, and an awesome variety of shops and ethnic food restaurants.
I asked why Koenji to the Japanese friends living there too –
Who said what is all a jumble in my head now (especially since it was in Japanese) but responses were: Its cheap, its really similar to Shimokitazawa, its relaxed, there’s a cool underground music (especially punk) scene, there are lots of cool record and clothing shops, and its a good location for getting around.
– Koenji is famous firstly as a center of alternative youth culture, in particular for its second-hand clothing stores: the most of anywhere in Tokyo. Within its approximately 2 km2 area are 18 shopping promenades.
– Koenji is also renowned for its music scene. It has a reputation as the birthplace of the punk movement in Japan, and is packed with “live houses” (i.e. tiny clubs for live bands). Koenji’s many second hand music stores are a music collector’s paradise stocking a lot of rare items.
– In 2006, when the Japanese PSE law went into effect restricting the sale of electronic goods built before 2001, Kōenji was chosen as the site for a protest due to its active “retro” culture and used equipment shops.
– Kōenji is primarily a bedroom community with easy access to Shinjuku and Tokyo Stations. It was largely unaffected by the 1980s building boom and therefore many of the houses and shops in the area are small and reflect the character of pre-boom Japan.
My thoughts? CHARACTER. Thats why Koenji. Its exciting to find that in such a massive, fast paced city. My recommendations for other areas with a similar feel: Shimokitazawa, Daikanyama, Jiyugaoka, Ura-Harajuku, and Kichijoji.
Thanks for reading.
*click images for full view