Shimokitazawa: Tokyo’s Greenwich Village

Shimokitazawa: Tokyo's Greenwich Village. Shimokitazawa's narrow streets are a refreshing mixture of bohemian individuality and countryside inelegance.
Shimokitazawa's narrow streets are a refreshing mixture of bohemian individuality and countryside inelegance.

Wandering through the crowded streets, I notice that there is something different about Shimokita. It is the lack of glitz, neon, and salaryman culture so prevalent in other parts of Tokyo. In place of this void is a refreshing mixture of bohemian individuality and countryside inelegance.

The next stop is Shimokitazawa Station, announces the Odakyu Line metro PA system. Today is an ordinary weekday and I have decided to spend the rest of the afternoon in Shimokitazawa, or Shimokita, as the locals affectionately call it. As I arrive the station, buildings enclosed in construction safety nets begin to peek through the opening spaces of the station platform.

A controversial redevelopment project for Shimokita is in progress. This plan, centring around the station itself, calls for the construction of a major thoroughfare that will split the neighbourhood in half. It is an effort to modernize its streets and commercial activities. Of course, not all see it that way. Many believe that the plan will kill the very charm that makes the neighbourhood so wonderfully unique.

Shimokitazawa: Tokyo's Greenwich Village. Christmas banners along the street in Shimokitazawa. Shimokitazawa: Tokyo's Greenwich Village. Ethnic restaurants in Shimokitazawa. Shimokitazawa: Tokyo's Greenwich Village. A typical Japanese shop in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo. Shimokitazawa: Tokyo's Greenwich Village. Skewers shop in Shimokitazawa.

A controversial redevelopment project for Shimokita is in progress. Many believe that the plan will kill the very charm that makes the neighbourhood so wonderfully unique.

And there is a good reason for this concern, as I soon realize. Wandering through the crowded streets, I begin notice that there is something different about Shimokita. It is the lack of glitz, neon, and salaryman culture so prevalent in the busier parts of Tokyo.

In place of this void is a refreshing mixture of bohemian individuality and countryside inelegance. It is almost five and the streets are filled with teenagers. But there isn’t an office worker in sight.

It is rare to see a street in Tokyo without the presence of salarymen – the slim-fit black suits issued with a standard leather briefcase; the short hair layers brushed across the forehead with just enough Gatsby wax to don a stylish spike; the incessant dozing-off complying with the ethics department of corporate Japan.

These soldiers of capitalism and the after-work culture they spawn, like mizu shōbai, are the building blocks of Japan’s bourgeois institutions.

Shimokitazawa: Tokyo's Greenwich Village. Cyan-coloured building at an intersection of Shimokitazawa. Shimokitazawa: Tokyo's Greenwich Village. In the afternoon the streets of Shimokitazawa are populated with teenagers getting off school. Shimokitazawa: Tokyo's Greenwich Village. Teenagers playing in the arcade.

In Shimokita, it is precisely this lack of conformist culture that makes it stand out. Instead, its streets are littered with countercultural paraphernalia.

In Shimokita, it is precisely this lack of conformity that makes it stand out. Instead, its streets are littered with countercultural paraphernalia – co-opted English signs and murals decorating jazz bar entrances; recycling clubs like Honeywood Used Clothing selling eccentric peasant blouses made of recycled hemp; thrift stores like Juxtaposition stocking paisley dresses and political t-shirts.
There is Village Vanguard for vintage books and kitsch; stage theatres and music clubs showcasing aspiring local artists. Even the streets themselves are impossibly narrow and a major deterrent to car traffic. Following the streets, I pass a few street musicians and arrive at Gempachi, a traditional izakaya in the back alley. There, I embark on a special dining experience in its lanterns-lit, wooden interior.

Shimokitazawa: Tokyo's Greenwich Village. A street musician in Shimokitazawa. Shimokitazawa: Tokyo's Greenwich Village. Countercultural paraphernalia litter the street of Shimokitazawa. Shimokitazawa: Tokyo's Greenwich Village. Cafe offering English conversations.

In many ways, Shimokita is like the 1960s Greenwich Village. They are both a haven for those who desire cultural independence and avant-garde aesthetics.

A few sake and skewers later, I continue my excursion in Shimokita feeling satisfied. In many ways, Shimokita is like the 1960s Greenwich Village. They are both a haven for those who desire cultural independence and avant-garde aesthetics.

While Shimokita may not have received the international recognition like its U.S. counterpart, it has no doubt garnered a reputation as Tokyo’s bohemian capital. We just have to see the Save The Shimokitazawa movement in 2004 to get a sense of the love and pride people have for this place.

As I walk back to the train station, I start to wonder what will become of this place now that the redevelopment is underway. Will bohemian spirit prevail over the new design? Can it co-opt them into a more exciting version of its former self? What is the soul of a neighbourhood if not the people who inhabits it?

Like many parts of Tokyo that are undergoing redevelopment, there is no doubt that this place will be very different after the city’s 2020 Summer Olympics. I look forward meeting the new Shimokita the next time I visit.

Shimokitazawa: Tokyo's Greenwich Village. Ramen Vending Machine. Shimokitazawa: Tokyo's Greenwich Village. A paper-lanterned restaurant in Shimokitazawa. Shimokitazawa: Tokyo's Greenwich Village. The narrow back alley where Gempachi is located. Shimokitazawa: Tokyo's Greenwich Village. Gempachi, a traditional izakaya in Shimokitazawa.

 

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