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A subculture breakdown of Tokyo’s suburbs

A guide to the most interesting subculture obsessed areas of the city

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For a city with such an iconic identity it’s fascinating to notice that Tokyo is a compartmentalised city. You can go from the super futuristic lights of Akihabara’s tech-toy outlets to the dusty footpaths of Jinbōchō aka ‘book town’ in just 10 minutes.

What’s so endlessly fascinating about Tokyo is that each major suburb has its own speciality—or subculture. Of course most people have heard about ‘Harajuku girls’ but the Japanese propensity to turn casual fandom into full-blown obsession goes way beyond just fashion. Here’s a guide to the healthiest and most interesting subculture obsessed areas of this city.

01. Otaku (nerd stuff) — Akihabara

Akihabara is the city’s technology district and is home to ‘otaku’ (geek) and collector culture. It essentially represents the anime obsessed ‘weird’ version of Japan people who don’t really know anything about Japan expect the country to be.

Not doing too much to change its reputation, this super central Tokyo area boasts a dense concentration of maid cafes where girls in cosplay will serve you food, laugh with you, and praise you for doing nothing. Oh and naturally it’s also home to one of the biggest sex stores in Japan.

Though the rise of accessibility and a more globalised consumer society means we can get whatever we want from wherever—the ‘tech’ side of Akihabara has kind of lost its appeal. Probably now pushing about 20 years beyond it peak, the way the area teeters on endearing and almost cringeworthy geekiness makes it still worth your time.

02. Streetwear and hip-hop — Harajuku/Shibuya-ku

The area of BAPE’s origin, the home to flagship outlets for Supreme, NEIGHBORHOOD, and GR8, and an uncountable amount of sneaker stores, Harajuku is hypebeast haven.

Already a typical tourist hotspot thanks to the western appropriation of Harajuku style, there’s so much more to this area than the overcrowded, commercial mess that is Takeshita Dori (aka Takeshita Street).

The hidden Harajuku is more local and tasteful side to this much-mythologised suburb. Once you persevere through the main strip of crappy 100 yen stores and crepe outlets and branch off onto Aoyama and Shibuya-ku you’ll discover independently run boutiques sharing walls with high-end fashion houses.

03. Vintage style and rock clubs — Shimokita

Shimokitazawa is to vintage what Harajuku is to streetwear. A few minutes from the heart of Shibuya, it’s a retro fetishist’s dream. Whether it’s clothing, books, or records you’re chasing Shimokita (as locals call it) is your best bet. Super laid back and unpretentiously cool, it’s easy to feel at home in this intimate pocket of Tokyo.

Thanks to its cheaper rent the area has also spawned more adventurous business endeavours that may not have otherwise survived in this densely occupied city. Ambitious independent projects like small publishing houses, book stores that sell beer, and experimental coffee houses have rejuvenated this former farming village.

Rock clubs and tiny dive music venues have also benefitted from Shimokita’s affordability and influx of creative types. Unlike the strict venue regulations in Australia, Japan’s more relaxed attitude to drinking and late night happenings, mean music venues have never been healthier. Here in Japan rock is still king, and scattered throughout Shimokitazawa are bars and venues dedicated to unabashed love of the electric guitar.

04. Major nightclubs — Roppongi

If you’re planning a night outclubbing in Tokyo and heading to Roppongi, be warned—you’re playing Russian roulette. Depending on who you’re with, where you go, and what you know, you could be in for the best night of your year or the worst of your life.

On a Saturday night this more ‘high-end’ entertainment district is overrun with cashed up ‘gaijin’ (foreigners) ready to shun the shackles of Japanese etiquette and embarrass themselves. So naturally like any city there are a few shadier types ready to take advantage of this perfect situation. Most commonly the reports of drink spiking, credit card fraud, and violence in Japan come from this area in this specific time period. However it’s still Japan so generally it’s probably no more dangerous than any Australian city.

If you’re all about trying to live the celebrity life with mega clubs, bottle service, and enough stage LEDs to burn your retinas, then Roppongi is an experience. But if it’s more about the music than stick to Shibuya.

05. Art galleries — Roppongi

You could say Roppongi is an area with two faces. On one side there’s EDM mania but during the week, when the sun shines bright and scares the nightclub vampires away, it’s an incredibly diverse artist commune.

As well as being the location of The National Art Centre Tokyo (which is currently exhibiting the buzzed Yayoi Kusama retrospective ‘My Eternal Soul’) and the architectural icon that is Mori Art Museum, the area also boasts smaller, more niche art spaces.

Though they may be a little difficult to locate, the smaller galleries reveal an insight into Tokyo’s scene beyond blockbuster exhibitions. From Gallery MoMo Projects which hosts works by up and comers to the Issey Miyake designed 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT space, there’s more galleries than you can visit in one weekend.

06. Korean & K-Pop — Shin Okubo

Sitting on the JR Yamanote, one of the city’s main train lines is a corner of the city that feels like a separate country all together, kind of because it is. A few minutes from the oversaturated lights of Shinjuku is Shin-Okubo, aka ‘Korea Town’.

Quickly garnering a reputation for being Japan’s cool cousin, Korean culture has started to permeate and inspire the Western world in the way Japan did a few years ago. Featuring Hangul (the Korean alphabet) as the default sign-writing language it’s an incredibly authentic mixing pot of Japanese and Korean culture.

If you’re interested in K-pop, Korean food, or serious street fashion, and bizarre beauty products, Shin-Okubo is worth a visit.

07. Books and literature — Jinbōchō

Jinbōchō, also commonly referred to as ‘Jimbocho’ is a suburb made of books. In a country so driven by high-tech innovations, it’s surprising to notice that Japan’s publishing and bookselling industry is still thriving. Meet the locals of Jinbōchō and you’ll realise reading and book collecting isn’t just a hobby but a straight up lifestyle.

Thanks to the Japanese appreciation of magazines, novels, coffee table books, and manga there’s a believable rumour that the country produces more paper for reading than it does toilet paper.

In this little nook of this Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward, you’ll find 160 independent and chain stores not only lining the footpaths, but literally flooding the streets with paperbacks. It’s home to specialist outlets for every taste (most notably incredibly art-centric stores) so you can definitely find whatever you’re looking for (depending on your patience). It’s also a humbling reminder that though contemporary technology is great and all, there’s something special about embracing a slower more thoughtful way of life.