Laid-back. Live music. Bohemian. These words call to mind the area of Koenji—the dormitory town which offers convenient lodging for salarymen and office ladies who commute to Tokyo daily. Koenji appears to be stuck in time (in a good way), as this area is home to multiple second-hand clothing and vintage record stores. With its abundance of retro electronics and vast collections of vintage items, Koenji is a retro haven. This nostalgic vibe is also reflected in the architecture of the area.
More than just the face of retro, Koenji has a hip music scene. You can see musicians armed with their instruments, singing a tune at some of the underground venues there. Koenji also has earned the title the "punk rock music capital." However, regardless of your music preference, you are undoubtedly welcome here.
Koenji also hosts the summer Awa Odori Festival (Awa Dance Festival), showcasing drum beats, dancing, and food. Aside from Awa Odori, other festivals grace Koenji and make this laid-back town a stage for music, dance, and other performance arts. Koenji is also a melting pot of cheap food and drinks. You'll find stores selling secondhand (but never been opened) bottles of liquor or sake. Koenji also has hole-in-the-wall food joints along sidewalks, which at times utilize wooden crates as chairs and tables. You're likely curious about where to eat in Koenji, so let's delve more into the Koenji food and drink scene.
Those craving some authentic Okinawan food should stop by Dachibin. The restaurant is owned by Junko Takahashi who cooks up Okinawan dishes with ingredients coming all the way from Okinawa, at an affordable price point. She made a name for herself, pioneering the Okinawan food scene in Tokyo over 30 years ago. At Dachibin, they offer staple Okinawan dishes that highlight Okinawan produce, such as goya champuru (bittermelon stir-fry) and umibudo (a type of seaweed called "sea grapes"). Don't forget to eat Okinawa soba, a special type of soup with thick noodles reminiscent of Japanese udon. As for drinks, they have Orion Beer (a brand that's headquartered in Okinawa), on tap, as well as sake from Okinawa.
2. Tensuke Tempura
With only 12 seats, you'll have to wait out the rest of the customers, who line up before the shop even opens, but it's worth it to watch the chefs at work in the open kitchen before you. It's quite a show, and you can observe as each piece of perfectly light and crisp tempura emerges from the fryer to be placed before you. The tempura set meal goes for ¥1300 and while there's no paper menu available (let alone an English menu), there is an English-speaking chef on staff who can assist you.
3. Gut's Soul
For those who love yakiniku (Japanese BBQ), head on to Gut's Soul, where they offer tabehoudai (all-you-can-eat) yakiniku for as cheap as ¥1,280 for 90-minutes. Bring a group of friends or family so you can orchestrate a fun evening of grilling right at the table. The quantity of food is huge, so you'll want to have backup. You can also tack the ¥1,020 nomihoudai (all-you-can-drink) plan onto the ¥1,580 ultra all-you-can-eat course for 120 minutes of gluttony!
Craving your daily fill of gyoza? Akaten in Koenji has perfected these Japanese pan-fried dumplings at its quaint, retro shopfront. They sell 7 pieces of gyoza for 250 yen, and who doesn't adore great food at a low price, especially when it has such a crispy outer skin and juicy interior, bursting with vegetables and meat. While you can eat at the counter, they also have takeaway for those who want to scurry home to eat it in the comfort of their own home.
5. Chadokoro Tsukiji
And after the feast, why not detox with a sip of tea (or even buy some tea) from Chadokoro Tsukiji. The shop manager and staff speak English and are very welcoming, giving free samples of a variety of tea. You'll likely want to try their sencha tea from Shizuoka, a prefecture famous for its fields of Japanese green tea. In addition to their range of teas at reasonable prices, they also carry Japanese teapots.
6. Hattifnatt Koenji
Love your coffee beans? Koenji is also home to artisanal coffee shops like Hattifnatt Koenji, with its artsy décor and a vast array of latte flavors. They also have a huge variety of cakes like Mont Blanc (chestnut cake), cheesecake pudding, and fluffy chiffon cake. The atmosphere is more like an illustrated children's book than a trendy Tokyo cafe, and that's part of its charm, with paintings of animals and cute characters along its walls you'll feel like you've popped into a storybook (if not for the range of alcoholic beverages and cocktails).
7. Koenji Bars: Secret Base Zero and Muryoku Muzenji
No Koenji guide would be complete without a nod to its bohemian bars. Secret Base Zero is a cozy little bar (with no cover charge!) where beers and liquor go for just 500 yen each. It's all rustic wood and mod red barstools, with a cozy sofa corner and mismatched chairs, the perfect place to while away the evening. Open from 21:00-5:00, you'll likely want to stay here until the sun creeps up on you. Then there's Muryoku Muzenji, an artsy underground venue located beneath the Chuo Main Line tracks, where punk, grunge, and experimental music reign. It's a funky, surprising spot in Koenji, with walls that are absolutely covered in a mishmash of artwork, posters, pop culture references, flags, toys, and streamers, all aglow in red. The atmosphere should be moody, but it's still welcoming and warm.
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From Okinawan food to all-you-can-eat yakiniku to retro gyoza, now you're in the know about where to eat in Koenji, Tokyo's bohemian neighborhood. Koenji may feel like it has been left behind by modern-day Japan, but this district's untouched old-school charm, music, and free-spirited vibes are truly worth a trip.