July 15, 2021

Backyard Tourism Vol. 11

Found west of Shinjuku, Koenji is Tokyo's top retro neighborhood. From vintage clothing to old school eateries, Koenji has much on offer.

People exit from Koenji's Pal Street in western Tokyo

As anyone who has visited Tokyo before can attest, Japan’s capital city is like one of those Matryoshka dolls. Every time you think that you’ve reached the bottom of what Tokyo has to offer, it always surprises you with something new. While haunts like Shibuya and Akihabara will always be perennially popular with overseas visitors to Japan, there’s just so much more to Tokyo than these iconic, mainstream spots. While I’ll admit I am a bit of a snob when it comes to hidden gems, I believe that authenticity is integral to creating lasting travel memories.

On that note, I’d like to move on to introducing the next installment of my Backyard Tourism series. This time, I’ll be featuring the charmingly retro neighborhood of Koenji. Found just to the west of Shinjuku, this part of Tokyo is ever so slightly removed from the insanity of the inner city. As a result, it has a far more laid back vibe when compared to the oppressive neon lights found in and around Shinjuku. Honestly, the contrast between the two is shocking when you consider their proximity to each other.

Historically speaking, Koenji was little more than a sleepy farming village along the highway that connected Japan’s capital with present-day Yamanashi Prefecture. Following the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, the region then saw a large influx of residents seeking to flee the devastation that Tokyo’s core had been subject to. Eventually, this led to the local economy taking off and soon thereafter, Koenji was home to a bustling culture of its own that is starkly different to that of other parts of Tokyo.

People walk down one of Koenji’s many side streets in western Tokyo

In comparison to Shimokitazawa, Tokyo’s other hipster neighborhood, Koenji tends to skew a bit more towards the mature end of the spectrum. Perhaps, this is due to Koenji being the epicenter of Tokyo’s punk scene which reached its peak during the 1970s. While these musical roots are still visible all throughout Koenji today, the denizens of the area aren’t the same youthful champions of underground culture that they once were. Alas, none of us are exempt from the ticking of the clock…

Anyway, perhaps in a nod to its countercultural legacy, Koenji also has a bustling nightlife scene. All around Koenji Station, you’ll find an eclectic assortment of old-fashioned coffee shops and bars. Additionally, there’s also a dizzying number of izakayas and yakitori shops strewn about the area. At these hole-in-the-wall establishments, you won’t find any of the posh trappings that you might find downtown. Nevertheless, there’s just something about sipping a cold beer while sitting atop an upside down crate that screams Koenji.

Now, given that there are so many amazing places to see in Japan, I’d be lying if I said that Koenji is a must visit. As with all other articles in the Backyard Tourism series, my goal here is to showcase that just about anywhere in Japan has potential if presented right. Still, I do highly encourage those on longer stints in Japan to check out Koenji. Even if it’s only for an unpretentious night out on the town at one of Koenji’s many watering holes, the memories that you’ll make with the locals are worth the added effort.

Getting to Koenji

The entrance to the JR Koenji Station in western Tokyo

As alluded to, Koenji is located but a mere stone’s throw away from Shinjuku. Thanks to this, access via the mega hub of Shinjuku Station is about as easy as it gets. All you’ll need to do is hop on one of the JR Chuo Line trains bound for western Tokyo. The total travel time should be no longer than a few minutes. That said, be sure to refer to Hyperdia or a similar service to avoid getting on an express train that entirely skips Koenji Station. Failing to heed my advice here will only lead to you ending up going far past Koenji so do be careful!

Once you’re actually in Koenji, you’ll want to mentally prepare to explore on foot (read: don’t go during summer!). Thankfully, most of the attractions are located within walking distance to Koenji Station. When I visited with Cheesie, the only other person who can stand traveling with me, we were able to hoof it to all the spots we wanted to explore in just half a day. Unlike some other locations, Koenji isn’t a region that you need to allocate copious amounts of time to…

What to See in Koenji

The main torii gates of Koenji’s Mabashi Inari Shrine in western Tokyo

Koenji isn’t a place that one visits for a single specific attraction. Instead, the whole area is littered with small and niche allures. While I’ll detail all of the draws that I found worth a visit below, I’d recommend that you devote ample time to just strolling about. After all, Koenji is rife with all sorts of retro cafes and vintage clothing shops that are just waiting to be discovered by visitors to the neighborhood. Do your due diligence and explore every nook and cranny of Koenji!

  • Mabashi Inari Shrine
    Pictured above, this sanctuary is hidden in the middle of one of Koenji’s residential sections. The shrine has a stone torii gate that is adorned with a pair of dragon carvings. Known locally as soryu in Japanese (lit. “paired dragons”), it is believed that if one touches the rising dragon while making a wish, the serpent will take it up to heaven with it. Just be sure that you don’t bequeath your deepest aspirations to the falling dragon by mistake…
  • Hikawa & Kisho Shrines
    Koenji’s local Hikawa Shrine is home to a tiny little sepulcher known as Kisho Shrine. Considered to be Japan’s one-and-only shrine dedicated to the weather deity, Kisho Shrine is a popular pilgrimage for people like myself who are afflicted with being an “ame-otoko” or “ame-onna” (basically, a person whose presence always seems to bring rain). If you read Japanese, be sure to check out some of the hilarious wishes to “graduate” from being cursed by the weather deity!
  • Koen-ji (the Temple)
    This sleepy temple complex is where the area gets its name from. You’ll find it not too far away from where the Hiwaka & Kisho Shrine grounds are located. Note for the reader, I usually render temples with the commonly used “-ji” suffix but all instances of Koenji (the place) are written without the dash. To avoid any confusion and to show up better in search engines, I am breaking with my standard protocol when talking about Koenji, the neighborhood.
  • Shopping Arcades
    No mention of Koenji would be complete without noting its many shotengai shopping arcades. These covered lanes are chock full of an amazing array of vintage clothing shops and other such vendors. Of the many options, I suggest taking a peak at both Look Street and Pal Street. While I am not a fashionista and therefore cannot comment on where you should visit, I’ll go as far as saying there’s probably something for everyone here in Koenji!

Of course, in addition to the above spots, I also recommend that you partake in the local nightlife scene. Especially for the imbibers out there, there’s few things more pleasurable than kicking back a few cold ones with friends while nibbling on grilled meat. Alternatively, there’s also a few other temples to explore as well as some great public baths too.

The Koenji Awa Odori Festival

Dancers perform at the Koenji Awa Odori Festival

One odd thing about Koenji is that the area has its own take on Tokushima Prefecture’s Awa Odori Festival. Originally held in 1957, the Koenji Awa Odori Festival was conceived as a means of revitalizing the many small shopping streets found throughout the neighborhood. Since then, the local celebration has grown and now welcomes over 10,000 dancers and over 1,000,000 spectators every year.

While things are of course on hold as of this writing due to the persistent presence of the coronavirus, the Koenji Awa Odori Festival is usually held during the last weekend of August. Should you be in town and able to brave the oppressive summer heat, I cannot more highly suggest that you check out this unique Tokyo offering!

Attractions Near Koenji

Dragonball figurines at a shop in Nakano Broadway

Before wrapping this one up, I have one final suggestion for all of the anime and manga fans out there. If you’re going to go to Koenji, you really ought to budget enough time to also check out Nakano Broadway. Found just a few minutes from the next station over from Koenji, this maze-like complex easily rivals Akihabara, the incumbent nerd capital of the world. During our visit, Cheesie and I were able to comfortably fit both Koenji and Nakano Broadway into a single day so it should also be feasible for you, the reader, to do so.

If you’re not a fan of anime and manga, know that western Tokyo also has a number of other great allures too. I’ve covered many of these before so please reference some of my prior work if you’re looking for an add-on to Koenji.

Until next time travelers…