After you’ve seen Shinjuku’s bright lights, Harajuku’s bizarre fashion, and Asakusa’s touristy traditional district, you might be searching to find something a little more authentic. If you’ve been thinking to yourself that you’d like to avoid the usual tourist spots and find the real heart of Tokyo, then you’ll have to leave Shibuya Crossing behind and head to a quieter side of the city: Nishi-Ogikubo.
Although Nishi-Ogikubo is only 12 minutes away from Shinjuku by train, the two couldn’t be further apart in terms of character. Often called Nishiogi by the locals, it is a quaint little neighborhood full of independent businesses and quirky cafes. It is easily accessible along the Chuo Rapid and Chuo-Sobu train lines. This is one of the last neighborhoods in Tokyo that has managed to retain its traditional identity while not becoming a commodified tourist spot. In fact, there’s nothing touristy about Nishiogi at all–and therein lies its beauty.
This residential area has a unique, community-oriented atmosphere–a rarity, even for most of Tokyo’s smaller neighborhoods. The streets are quiet during the day, but if you go exploring you are sure to stumble upon one of the many cute coffee shops and antiques stores. It is well known in Tokyo for its shops, cafes, dining, and nightlife.
If it’s your first time in Nishiogi, I recommend setting an hours aside to explore these shops and walk around. Even if you don’t plan to buy anything, you’ll walk away with a better sense of the art and inspiration that influences everyday life in Tokyo. You’ll be able to see what local artists are working on, and the many antiques and vintage stores will give you a glimpse into Tokyo’s historical past, as well as current styles and trends. Nishiogi has a huge selection of thrift stores for clothes, decorations, and furniture. Nandemo Recycle shop is one such shop popular for its obscure and diverse collection of used items. It’s a great spot to visit for some unique vintage finds, but be aware that it is only open from 9:00 PM to 1:00 AM. Many of the shops keep odd hours because they are not necessarily the owner’s full-time job; often, these shops are kept open as a labour of love.
Along the north side of the station, you’ll pass by a number of art galleries. Nishiogi is a haven for small business owners, and everyone within this tight-knit community loves this traditional aspect of the neighborhood. This area really prides itself on its small community of artisans and craftsmen, and all types of traditional and non-traditional art are celebrated here. From gorgeous pottery at Rozan to antique crafts and designs at Fall to Turkish decor and accessories at Sofa, you can definitely find something unique and beautiful to take home. The art and products of this neighborhood are so popular that, on the last Sunday of each month, there is an artisan’s market held at Iogi Kaikan which offers handmade jewelry, clothing, antiques, and crafts, as well as some food and drinks.
One of my favourite local hangouts is Monozuki cafe, which offers excellent drinks in a kitschy and inviting climate. The entire space is decorated with old wooden clocks and other antique ornaments, creating a warm and comforting mood. This cafe tends to be pretty popular with locals and visitors in the area, because it embodies a lot of the cultural and aesthetic values of the neighborhood. Its vintage charm and delicious coffee definitely make it a good first stop when exploring Nishiogi.
Another of Nishiogi’s best-kept secrets is Wokashiya, a wagashi bar. Wagashi are traditional Japanese sweets, such as manju, dango, and nerikiri, for example–a unique choice for an izakaya, or Japanese-style pub. But even more surprising than the traditional desserts on the menu is the full-time guest of honour–a fluffy barn-owl in the window, letting you know the pub is open. The owner of the izakaya pairs her hand-made sweets with high-quality sake, creating gorgeous traditional desserts made from mochi and white bean paste right in front of you. Wokashiya effortlessly blends the casual feel of a bar with the quiet perfectionism of a master craftsman.
If you hadn’t already guessed, Nishiogi is a neighborhood that welcomes a mix of different cultures. The area surrounding Nishi-Ogikubo station is home to a number of small eateries that seamlessly blend Japanese lifestyle and foreign culture. On the north side you’ll find Amy’s Bake Shop, a New York-style bakery with delicious coffee, muffins, and pound cake. Nearby is The Old Arrow, a Medieval-English tavern with a great selection of beers, ciders, and even mead, served with an awesome meat pie or fish ‘n chips. On the south side, you’ll find Piyototochat, a quirky cafe that boasts a different menu every week inspired by Taiwanese food, Indian food, Russian food, Italian food, and more. For those with a sweet tooth, be sure to visit Trim, a completely vegan sweets cafe with a deliciously decadent chocolate cake. If you’re looking for more vegan and vegetarian options, you could try Kin Mama, a cozy Korean restaurant offering vegan-friendly options, or Cafe Orchestra, a cafe specializing in chickpea curry and chai tea, but just be sure to specify vegan when ordering!
When you walk into a shop or cafe, you may be asked where else you have visited in the area, and you will soon realize that many of the owners are friends. They often support one another by visiting each other’s stores and restaurants in their free time. If you have enough Japanese to ask for their “osusume” (recommendation), shopkeepers are often happy to lead you to some other great spots in the area!
If you’re looking for something more filling after a day of shopping, definitely make a stop at Menson Rage Ramen (麺尊RAGE) on the south side of the station for some delicious yet affordable ramen. They have a few different types, ranging from regular salt ramen (shio ramen) to duck ramen (kamo ramen). I recommend trying the brothless ramen (maze soba), as it’s their most popular! There is always a line up outside, especially at peak hours. But at only 800 yen for a regular bowl, Rage offers a serious bargain for ramen lovers. Depending on the type of ramen, you can even upgrade the size for free!
Hainan Chicken Rice Mu-Hung is an excellent choice for lunch or dinner. They have some of the best fried chicken in Tokyo, and a meal set is a total bargain, especially at lunch! You can choose between fried or grilled chicken, either as a chicken & rice set (their famous specialty), or as a set with curry and rice or roti. Served with plenty of veggies, there are many delicious add-ons possible as well. It’s a great option to try something unique for lunch in the city.
Of course, for dinner I’d have to recommend the famous Ebisu for yakitori. Well-known among locals of Nishiogi, this is a must if you want to try some delicious grilled chicken skewers in a lively atmosphere. They of course serve the usual chicken breast and thigh, but they also have some interesting options like tail (bonjiri), heart (hatsu), and cartilage (nankotsu). As the sun sets, the place gets packed, so try to get there early! There is always a crowd drinking and dining at Ebisu. If you want to get to know some of the locals, this is the place to go.
When walking around, you’ll quickly stumble upon a number of interesting restaurants and izakayas ranging frm traditional to fusion-inspired. Definitely make time to stop at one or two of these cafes and eateries on your day in Nishiogi and you won’t be disappointed. They have food and drink options for everyone, and you’ll get a better feel for the community and what people in the area often do in their free time. I recommend trying a few small dishes at multiple locations while you browse the area, rather than taking one long break for lunch or dinner.
What brings Tokyoites to Nishiogi in the evening, is its distinct bar-hopping scene. In this close-knit community, it’s common to be considered a regular at many of the bars and izakayas, as one often stumbles from one place to the next in search of food and drink on any given night out. The atmosphere is very casual, and it’s not uncommon to make friends with the bartender and other patrons on your first night out. If you aren’t sure where to go, just take the South exit out of the station and turn left.
On a typical night in Nishiogi, you could start off the evening at Maasando, an Okinawan restaurant, for some spare ribs and cocktails. Then head over to Nigi Nigi, a local standing sushi bar, or perhaps stop over at Bakawarai Izakaya for some yakitori and highballs. Finally, follow all that up with some specialty lemon sours (a lemon, soda, and shochu cocktail) at Saigo ni Warae at the end of the night. There, they serve four unique versions of a lemon sour, but I particularly recommend the “Jack” if you like it strong and sour! This is just an example of the bar hopping culture in this area. If you are coming to Nishiogi in the evening, I recommend not getting too full at any one place, and keep exploring while you eat and drink your way through the neighborhood.
You could spend the entire evening bouncing from bar to bar along the main street, where you’ll find an endless amount of delicious yakitori and seafood, or you could seek out some of the best tucked-away spots for a more intimate experience. My personal favorite is Pit Bar, a basement bar with different live music every night. The genres range from rock to funk to hip-hop, so you’ll be pleasantly surprised when you go! Another popular live music bar in the area is Heaven’s Door, a tiny live venue and music bar. While generally the performances are mostly rock, lovers of all genres are welcome. On nights where there is no musician booked, Heaven’s Door supplies their own set of instruments and equipment for anyone to use! If you want to join in a live jam session, or perhaps just watch one, this is a great option. Both are fun and lively options, and display a spirit of inclusivity not often found in other parts of Tokyo.
Whether you’re coming to Nishiogi in the daytime or the night time, there’s something unique for everyone. If you’re looking for warmth and connection with locals, this is definitely the spot to find it. Each and every visit to Nishiogi results in a one-of-a-kind experience, but only if you are willing to tread off the beaten path and forge your own adventure.