There’s an expression in Japanese: Aji ga aru, which means “It’s got flavor.” It describes something that’s a little used, a little time-worn, but better for it. That describes Western Tokyo. The stations along the Chuo line are surrounded by shotengai—pedestrian shopping alleys packed with tiny independent shops and restaurants—which makes strolling a special pleasure.
We’ll be walking around the Koenji area, but don’t bother getting started early: Koenji doesn’t really get going until after noon.
Start off at Shin Koenji station and walk north. You’ll be at the south entrance to “Rukku” (Look) shotengai. On the right across from the Sanpei Supermarket is Coffee Amp the Roaster. This small shop is short on ambiance but takes coffee very seriously. They roast their own beans, and offer blends as well as single origin brews. The limited menu offers only a handful of drinks, but you’re sure to get a smooth, balanced cup. There’s not much space to sit here, so grab one to go and stroll up the street.
Stop at one of the many thrift or vintage shops on this route–Koenji is famous for its plentiful “recycle shops,” as they’re called in Japan. You may also be drawn to one of the few yaoya (greengrocers) along the way, where you can examine domestic produce like daikon, mizuna, and mikan. At the end of Look Road, just after entering the PAL covered shopping arcade, turn left onto a side street. Across from Seiyu you’ll find Meu Nota, up a narrow staircase. Here, you’ll see how to prepare and eat those veg: Meu Nota is organic and macrobiotic, and a perfect spot for light lunch. Their lunch plate, which might consist of things like brown rice, radish cakes, miso soup, and pickled vegetables, is a wholesome sampling of earthy flavors, prepared country style, for just around $10.
Built for the 1964 Olympics, it has since hosted heads of state on its astonishing lot with a 400-yr-old Japanese garden on site. All that AND it’s a bargain.
Time for a postprandial chillout session. Back in PAL shotengai, you’ll walk two short blocks and take a left, down another side street. Aru zadokushokan, on the second and third floors of a nondescript building, is a curious cafe where silence is golden and talking is not allowed–at least not on the second floor, which is lined with books and is strictly for people who want to read, drowse, and sip tea silently. The third floor is more relaxed, full of curio cabinets, trailing ivy, and little alcoves where you can sketch, dream, and share secrets while listening to the tinkling of miniature water fountains and look at bizarro Victorian art. Spend some time here, and if you’re up for it, try the hot yuzu honey tea with a slice of pound cake.
The afternoon light is growing long, and you might need a touch more caffeine now. Another worthwhile coffee shop is Poem, across the PAL shopping street and adjacent to Koenji Hikawa Shrine. The classic kissaten-style coffee house has been around for 40 years, and it shows. Jazz pipes in over the speakers and grannies and beatniks discuss politics, the weather, and gossip while smoking (they’ve even got matchbooks). Try a cup of their pour-over coffee, each cup meticulously prepared and perfectly balanced. Order a kissaten classic along with your cuppa–thick cut toast or a dish of Hayashi Rice–a kind of beef stew with demi-glace sauce over steamed rice.
Walking north past the station for half a dozen blocks, you’ll duck into an alley to the right to find Kadoya, a old-fashioned dagashiya, or candy store. This tiny cramped space is run by the ubiquitous granny and is stuffed with nostalgic sweets, snacks, and dime-store toys. Packs of Milky caramels, Felix gum, and pickled sour plums are staples for me. Take your time: the obaachan (granny) seems to have endless patience as you decide how to spend your few yennies.
It is now, as it so often is in Japan, time for beer. A block north and west of Kadoya you’ll find Koenji Beer Kobo, a little craft beer restaurant inside what feels like someone’s apartment. The beer is constantly changing as they make new batches, and is arranged from light to dark with handwritten notes on each posted on the wall. I like the cream ale—a fruity, hoppy brew that can be accompanied with the beer-pickled vegetables and miso cream cheese spread, or perhaps the three mushroom and chicken hot pot. This shop has since expanded to half-dozen locations, but the beer is still handcrafted and delicious.
It’s dinner time, but Koenji is too rich and varied to limit yourself to one spot. Start at the stalls. Departing Beer Kobo, head west along the street until it dead ends and turn left. After two blocks, you’ll see a dim doorway with 大一市場 (Daiichi Ichiba) written overhead. Formerly a dry goods and produce market, this space now holds half a dozen food stalls in its dim environs. Try the Vietnamese yakitori at Binh Minh or a steaming bowl of shoyu ramen at Hiraishi–made without chemical seasonings, with egg-free noodles and accompanied by jumbo gyoza stuffed with minced pork and cabbage.
A bit of shopping between bites: Across from the entrance of the market is the small friendly Tsukiji tea shop. If you browse for more than a minute, you’ll probably be offered a cup of tea to sip as you shop. The folks at Tsukiji import their tea domestically from Shizuoka and Kyoto Prefectures and can make recommendations based on your preferences. I love the earthy, roasted flavor of genmaicha—green tea mixed with toasted puffed brown rice—and always walk away with several varieties.
From Tsukiji, continue south for another half block and turn right at the corner. You’re now on the Naka-dori shopping street. At the tiny Nantoka Bar, the helm is taken by different hosts every night, and each host makes their own food and chooses specialty drinks. One night you might get crispy chicken, shiso and cheese rolls; another you could fried meat and vegetable skewers. Drinks are cheap, starting around ¥300 ($2.65) and the vibe is lively.
Two blocks further down is Cocktail Shobo, another tiny bar that looks like a bookworm’s somewhat derelict living room. Stacks of old books line the walls, and patrons can grab one of about ten seats. There’s a tiny menu that changes daily and is posted on a handwritten sheet of notebook paper. Leaf through old tomes while sampling dishes such as the fresh sashimi of the day, fried sunfish, simmered sole in mushroom sauce, and sesame-miso-tofu salad, while sipping on a selection of Nihonshu (sake).
At the end of your walk, you should be wired, full, buzzed, and enchanted. And the beauty of Western Tokyo is that you could take a different version of this walk with entirely different stops and new discoveries a dozen times or more. It’s got flavor.