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Popular tourist hotspots in Tokyo come saturated with heavy footfall and worn with notoriety. They end up lacking in local life, and foil the chance to dive into other vital elements of the capital.

Visitors are unlikely to fathom Tokyo’s depths by stumbling down Shinjuku’s Omoide Yokocho, joining the throngs under blooming sakura (cherry trees) in Nakameguro, snapping a selfie at Sensoji or being bewildered by Akihabara. These comprise an abridged version of the capital. After all, it is vast.

For every well-known neighborhood, there are even more lesser known — those in-between or further-out places, areas that thread together a tapestry of the capital.

In an urban landscape where old buildings are torn down to make way for new, art and creativity have taken root in outdated industrial spaces; elsewhere, visitors and residents bump elbows in foodie hangouts and secondhand stores. Ghosts of the past slink in shops crouched under highrises, or hide in sleepy parks; evenings herald a flow of returning commuters, stepping off trains into glowing izakaya (Japanese taverns).

Wandering these areas flips a switch from sightseeing to exploration, revealing the Tokyo that is lived in, worked in and enjoyed by its citizens.

A slice of local life on Jujo Ginza shopping street | REBECCA SAUNDERS
A slice of local life on Jujo Ginza shopping street | REBECCA SAUNDERS

Jujo

Tokyo can seem aloof and unfriendly, but the genuine smiles in Jujo, Kita Ward, say otherwise. Its easygoing allure is enough to enchant any visitor to this area and its old-world shōtengai (shopping street), Jujo Ginza. Home to almost 200 stores, this self-proclaimed “shopping street with kindness” first sprang up in the Taisho Era (1912-26).

Dodging the fate of some run-down suburban districts, Jujo’s working-class roots remain strong. Outsiders and students slot seamlessly among locals browsing low-priced fruit and vegetables at generations-old yaoya (greengrocers). The district is a patchwork of people with its Vietnamese, Malaysian and Indian restaurants, as well as halal food stores — a Tokyo of the future and past rolled into one.

Cheap, delicious food is never far away: Creamy, crunchy korokke (potato croquettes) slathered in zingy sauce — just ¥90 — from Meat Delica Shioya; thick vegetable korokke for ¥30 from Miyoahara Jujo Ginza; Toridai’s famous chicken balls from as little as ¥10. Elsewhere, eat fresh gyōza street-side at Daiwa, or retreat into the old-school kissaten (traditional coffee shop) Umenoki for a strong cup of coffee served atop terrazzo tables.

All that eating calls for a walk. Wander through the neighborhood’s lowrise buildings to the rolling grass of Shimizuzaka Park, a family-and-friends destination with an artificial river to splash in on sweltering days.

Jujo is 10 minutes on the JR Saikyo Line from Shinjuku Station (¥170).

Street eats: The yaki-shōronpō (fried soup dumplings) from Ryuuki, Togoshi, are heavenly. | REBECCA SAUNDERS
Street eats: The yaki-shōronpō (fried soup dumplings) from Ryuuki, Togoshi, are heavenly. | REBECCA SAUNDERS

Togoshi

A bounty of retro appeal awaits in Togoshi, Shinagawa Ward. Its famous shōtengai, Togoshi Ginza (Tokyo’s longest), stretches an impressive 1.3 kilometers and pulses with people on weekends.

The word “Ginza” is tacked onto multiple commercial districts in Japan, but Togoshi was the first to adopt it. After the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, shopkeepers in Togoshi collected rubble from the ruins of the then brick-built Ginza in downtown Tokyo and used it to pave Togoshi’s shopping street, taking the name in the hope of inheriting the original’s prosperity.

It seems to have worked. Today, with its buried electricity cables, polished sheen and cute mascot to match, Togoshi is a downtown district and hotspot for street food. Korokke are among the most sought-after snacks, but the succulent yaki-shōronpō (fried Shanghai-style soup dumplings) from Ryuuki, classic unajū (grilled eel) from long-established Futagawa and Beicon’s mochi-mochi (chewy) rice flour bread, add generously to Togoshi’s foodie credentials.

Away from the main thoroughfare, quiet Miyamae Shotengai leads toward Togoshi Koen, a tranquil neighborhood park with an Edo Period (1603-1868) gate and paths winding around a tree-clad pond — once the Hosokawa clan’s garden for their second home.

Nearby is Togoshi Hachiman shrine, a sacred spot with a community feel. Pick up a fresh home-roasted cup from Emo Coffee, take a seat in the shrine grounds and relax to a soundtrack of tinkling music. Unwind further at Togoshi Ginza Onsen (admission ¥460), a refreshingly modern bath house that offers open-air pools and a sauna. Open until 1 a.m., there is plenty of time to wallow in serenity.

Togoshi Station is 27 minutes on the Asakusa Line from Asakusa Station (¥280).

Renovated in 2016, Suitengu in Ningyocho is a very modern Shinto shrine | REBECCA SAUNDERS
Renovated in 2016, Suitengu in Ningyocho is a very modern Shinto shrine | REBECCA SAUNDERS

Ningyocho

An alternative to much touristed Asakusa, Ningyocho in Chuo Ward emerged during the Edo Period as an entertainment district; it was the original site of Yoshiwara yūkaku (red-light district) before it was relocated — name and all — to Asakusa in 1872.

Bolstering its flesh-based entertainment, it was here in 1624 that Edo’s first kabuki theater opened. Translating to “Doll Town,” Ningyocho was also home to puppet theaters, puppeteers and puppet-makers.

Centuries later there’s not much in the way of puppets aside from two clock towers on Ningyocho-dori; between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. the tinkering figures of little firemen and kabuki characters come to life hourly, harking back to the area’s puppeteering past.

Many old-time establishments and specialist shops add an Edo-like atmosphere to otherwise gray, gridded streets, the most famous of which serve food. For that, visitors should make a beeline for Amazake Yokocho.

Begin at 100-year-old Itakuraya, breakfasting on ningyō-yaki: the red bean-stuffed head of one of the Shichifukujin (Seven Lucky Gods). Stop off for wagashi (Japanese sweets) and green tea at Kanmidokoro Hatsune (established in 1837), then visit venerable Tamahide, founded in 1760, to sample its signature oyakodon (chicken-and-egg bowl, ¥1,700).

Steps from the station, the newly restored Suitengu shrine is dedicated to fertility and safe childbirth — understandably popular with women and couples. Relocated from Mita, Minato Ward, in 1872, the shrine was once a hot spot for trade. For something more modern, try Musee Hamaguchi Yozo: Yamasa Collection (admission ¥600), which displays works by Yozo Hamaguchi (1909-2000), a master of mezzotint.

From Roppongi Station, take the Hibiya Line to Ningyocho Station (20 minutes, ¥200).

Waterfront dining: Popular in summer, T.Y. Harbor on Tennozu Isle serves its own craft beer, brewed onsite. | COURTESY OF T.Y. HARBOR
Waterfront dining: Popular in summer, T.Y. Harbor on Tennozu Isle serves its own craft beer, brewed onsite. | COURTESY OF T.Y. HARBOR

Tennozu Isle

Tennozu began life as one of six daiba (batteries) built to protect Edo after Commodore Perry’s first visit in 1853. The artificial island was largely industrial prior to the 1980s, but redevelopment of the former fort brought bayside boardwalks, highrise condominiums, transport links, shops, eateries and creative spaces taking up tenure in old depots. Street art adorns walls on Tennozu, and sculptures are scattered across its open spaces.

Leading to the waterfront and Fureai Bridge, busy Bond Street is home to vibrant murals by art group Pow Wow. Along the water’s edge — and open early for breakfast — Breadworks is a cafe and bakery installed in an old warehouse built by the owner’s grandfather; its sister establishment, T.Y. Harbor, serves its own craft beer, brewed onsite.

Creativity continues at architectural model museum, Archi Depot (admission ¥3,100), which showcases small-scale models of contemporary Japanese architecture. For something cheaper, The Art Hall is a free gallery inside Tennoz Central Tower allowing visitors “casual interaction” with fine art.

Overlooking Tokyo Bay is Seafort Square, an imposing office and entertainment complex. Inside the steely bubble-era building, the Tennozu Galaxy Theater puts on dynamic performances and arts events ideal for a snug evening. Afterward, amble along the glistening water to Higashishinagawa Kaijo Park.

From Tokyo Station take the Keihin-Tohoku Line to Hamamatsucho Station, then ride the Tokyo Monorail to Tennozu Isle Station (20 minutes, ¥360).

Ravine respite: Todoroki Gorge, Setagaya Ward, bristles with greenery. | OSCAR BOYD
Ravine respite: Todoroki Gorge, Setagaya Ward, bristles with greenery. | OSCAR BOYD

Todoroki

When Tokyo’s concrete towers and crowded trains overwhelm, Todoroki calls. Sat right out on the Oimachi Line in Setagaya Ward, it has a charming ground-level train station, no real shōtengai to speak of, no obvious backstreet drinking holes. But there is something special here — you just have to look.

Not far from the station, past unassuming local storefronts, is Todoroki Gorge, the city’s only natural ravine, and a true urban oasis. Descending the steps beneath the red Golf Bridge reveals another world: keyaki (Japanese zelkova), bamboo and succulents grow thick along the Yazawa River. Stepping stones and footbridges cross the water; there are ducks to feed, a Japanese garden to explore and history to dig up.

Kofun (burial mounds) dating back to the fifth century dot this area; nearby Noge Otsuka is the largest, while in the gorge itself are excavated remains of tombs, offering an eerie insight into Todoroki’s ancient past.

Downstream, trickling over a mossy wall, is Fudo no Taki (Fudo Falls), named for Buddhist deity Fudo Myoo who is enshrined at the 12th-century Todoroki Fudoson temple above. Back in the gorge is Setsugekka, a traditional Japanese teahouse: the perfect spot for Tokyo specialty kuzu-mochi cake (¥500).

Hungry for more? Near the station, try a bowl of nama-yuba soba (buckwheat noodles with soy bean curd, ¥980) at Yabumori, a family-owned joint established in 1923.

From Shibuya Station, take the Tokyu Toyoko Line to Jiyugaoka Station; change for the Oimachi Line and alight at Todoroki Station (17 minutes, ¥200).

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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