Under the radar in Tokyo
Take the time to explore some of Tokyo’s lesser-known districts to sample a slower, more authentic side of the city.
With so much to experience in Shinjuku and Shibuya, it’s no wonder that many visitors spend the majority of their time among the bustle and energy of these neon-lit districts. However, you only need to travel a few stops on the Metro to experience a completely different take on Tokyo. From the booming youth culture of Kiyosumi Shirakawa and the winding back alleys of historic Yanaka to the European charm of Jiyugaoka, we focus on three districts that deserve your attention.
While many parts of Tokyo still hold onto their historical roots, many neighborhoods, like Kiyosumi Shirakawa, are quickly becoming more modern. Trendy coffee shops, small-batch breweries, independent restaurants, and thriving gallery spaces are now commonplace especially to explore this booming food and art scene.
If you visit on a Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday, expect to find many of the galleries closed and coffee shops quiet. The area really comes to life Thursday to Saturday, when locals travel across the city for exhibition openings or to catch up with friends over coffee as the week draws to a close.
Where to grab a coffee: The baristas around here know how to make a very good flat white, and you can find some of the best brews from U.S.-born Blue Bottle Coffee and New Zealand’s Allpress Espresso.
Where to find peace and quiet: This low-traffic area is worlds away from the constant bustle of Shibuya and Shinjuku. It’s also home to Kiyosumi Gardens—one of Tokyo’s best preserved traditional landscape gardens, beloved for its sacred stones and year-round displays of purple azaleas, hydrangeas, and irises. It costs ¥150 for adults, so we recommend bringing some cash.
Yanaka offers a glimpse of old-world Tokyo, and even though this historic area borders the overcrowded tourist hub of Ueno, it remains relatively low on most visitors’ radar. With restoration triumphing over rebuilding, much of the architecture remains unchanged. Adventurous travelers might enjoy navigating the network of back alleys to discover traditional wooden houses and semi-hidden ancient shrines. Visitors may also find themselves stumbling upon an enormous cemetery—a peaceful escape from urban life.
Where to hit the shops: While you’ll find plenty of independent coffee shops and small market stalls tucked away in the back streets, most shoppers descend on Yanaka Ginza, a narrow, pedestrian strip that’s a fantastic place to shop for gifts. Begin at the eastern end, where you can enjoy a brilliant view of the street from the gently sloping staircase, and bring plenty of cash to sample the street food.
Where to stop for a drink: For a glimpse of the area’s community spirit, head to Ueno Sakuragi Atari—a row of three traditional houses that were saved from demolition and transformed into a space for meeting, eating, and drinking.
Known as “Little Europe,” you'll find piazzas, café-culture, Venetian bridges, and even canals complete with gondolas. It may sound gimmicky, but there’s a thriving community here and it’s become one of the most sought-after places to live in the city.
Where to shop: Like Paris, the area is fashion-conscious and lots of big-name brands have stores lining Marie Claire Promenade and Green Street. For clothes made by local designers, branch off to Hiro and Maple Street.
For a glimpse of old-world Japan: The area may have almost completely embraced modern life, but there are still some pockets of tradition to be found. Perched on a small hill to the north of Jiyugaoka Station, the 800-year-old Kumano Shrine offers a place of solace for locals. Pass through the photogenic gateway into a world of ancient zelkova and oak trees, as well as other hidden statues.