Traveling around and exploring some of the most well-known attractions in Tokyo is a great idea if you’ve never come here before. However, if you’re looking to truly get to grip with what the city has to offer, you’ll want to dive into some of the city’s coolest neighborhoods like Koenji and Shimokitazawa. But which one should you visit?
On the surface, they may look similar, but there’s enough difference to warrant a trip to both Koenji and Shimokitazawa if you’ve got time. If not, visit Koenji for small streets, vintage shops, and a rough & ready vibe, and Shimokitazawa if you’re looking for a slightly more gentrified, ‘upmarket’ atmosphere full of boutique shops and cafes.
However, you’ll need to learn a little more about each area before making your decision – from their shopping scenes and atmosphere to the nightlife and accessibility. Don’t worry, I ventured out to both of these places, specifically to make this comparison and help you decide!
Granted, it might not be as in-depth as you’d like, but that’s because I’ll be writing an individual guide on both of these places in the very near future. For now, it’s time to look at some pictures and see which one you vibe with best!
Because I could explain all day, but nothing is as good as actually seeing the places!
Buckle up – it’s time to discover Koenji vs Shimokitazawa!
Location and Accessibility
Koenji and Shimokitazawa are two popular neighborhoods in Tokyo, both located in the Setagaya ward.
Koenji is located in the northwest of Tokyo and is accessible via the Chuo Line on the JR East train network.
Shimokitazawa is located further southwest of Koenji, and it can be reached both by the Odawara train line and busses. Annoyingly, although the two of them are relatively close on the map, it takes about 45 minutes to get from one to the other. As I found out!
In any case, they’re both incredibly accessible from Shinjuku and only take five or ten minutes by train. Koenji station is just one stop after Nakano Broadway, and I love that place!!
Koenji has both a North and South exit at its station, allowing you to access a variety of attractions in the area more easily. As long as you pick the right exit!
These include shopping streets like Nakano Broadway (it’s within walking distance), which is known for its variety of electronics, collectibles, and Otaku vibes. Oh, and you’ll likely want to pick the North exit, not the South one that I’ve taken a picture of!
As mentioned earlier, it’s extremely easy to get to from Tokyo, just a bit of a ‘pain’ if you’re hoping to travel from one to the other. You’ve either got to get a bus to Eifukuchō station and then a train to Shimokitazawa, or get the train back to Shinjuku first.
Anyway, for accessibility and location, they’re both awesome. Being literally 10 minutes from Shinjuku, there’s no reason not to visit one of them if you’re in Tokyo!
Atmosphere and Culture
Koenji and Shimokitazawa both offer visitors a unique atmosphere and culture that is sure to be appreciated by almost everyone. Especially those who appreciate a break from the hustle and bustle of places in central Tokyo.
Granted, Shimokitzawa and Koenji are both still busy (for good reason!), but not nearly as overwhelming as some of the other places in the capital.
Koenji was the first place I traveled to out of both of these trendy neighborhoods, and it all felt a little more ‘rough and ready’ than the rest of Tokyo, even though it was only about 10 minutes outside of it. People were a little louder, mask-wearing was a little less, and it had a bit more of a grungey kind of atmosphere.
Part of that is probably to do with the small alleyways and slight lack of tall buildings. It’s difficult to explain, but after living in Tokyo for a long time, it’s a welcome releif. It reminds me of Soho in London, if you’ve ever been. Though, with a lot less sick on the sidewalk!
I wouldnt say Koenji is dirtier than Shimokitazawa, but it’s certainly more rough around the edges. For instance, graffiti on a lamp post, like in this photo, is a fairly rare site in Tokyo.
I’ll get a little more into the small alleyways and shops later on in the article, but this is something you’ll come across almost immediately when you exit the station.
There is a bigger shopping street that doesnt look like this (again, we’ll get to it later), but there are a lot of little alleyways that really give the place a lot of character. Something that’s sometimes lacking in the capital.
Oh, and there’s absolutely nothing like visiting, both these places to be fair, just before the sun sets. The light in Tokyo is beautiful anyway, and both Koenji and Shimokitazawa exemplify that.
Shimokitazawa, on the other hand, seemed a little more gentrified, though it still had relaxed atmosphere and welcoming vibes. It felt like it has more money behind it. I don’t know if that’s true, but with everything that I saw on offer, it wouldn’t surprise me.
Shimokitazawa is also home to a variety of vintage stores filled with second-hand clothing, books, furniture, and records (we’ll talk about those later). Additionally, there are several independent theaters in the neighborhood showcasing local plays and films.
It’s a little like Camden, kind of hipster, and clearly more popular in comparison to Koenji. The vintage stores and quirky vibe is what pulls people here I think.
It’s a completely different feel to central Tokyo, something made all the more clear to me since living there.
So in terms of the vibe and atmosphere of Koenji vs Shimokitazawa, they’re fairly similar. Both look absolutely stunning as the sun goes down, and they’re both very different to the atmosphere of Tokyo’s bigger districts.
However, Koenji seems a little more ‘raw’, whereas Shimokitazawa is the more popular area of the two with a more upmarket kind of vibe. It’s a little hard to put into words, but you’ll understand what I mean if you venture out here.
Entertainment and Nightlife
When it comes to nightlife and entertainment, Koenji and Shimokitazawa are two of the most popular neighborhoods in Tokyo, each offering a unique and highly memorable experience. If you’re looking for something a little different when you come to the capital, these are great areas to explore.
Koenji entertainment and nightlife
Koenji is known for its diverse range of live music venues, which offer everything from jazz and experimental music to punk and rock. To some, this was the birthplace of Japanese punk rock during the 70s and 80s. It’s safe to say that certain part of this place live up to that name.
Many of the venues are small and intimate, making for an up-close and personal experience with the performers. It just feels… real? I’m not quite sure how to describe it. Authentic might be a better word.
Koenji also has a range of traditional bars and izakayas that are perfect for a casual night out with friends. These places offer a cozy and intimate atmosphere, where you can relax and unwind with a drink or two.
Shimokitazawa entertainment and nightlife
In contrast, Shimokitazawa has a more alternative and indie vibe, with live music venues that feature up-and-coming bands and DJs. The atmosphere is equally as laid-back as Koenji.
Shimokitazawa also has a variety of bars and izakayas, many of which have a stylish and modern atmosphere, making it a popular spot for the younger crowd and tourists that love a bit of trendy!
Just like Koenji, Shimokitazawa is also known for its relaxed atmosphere and welcoming vibes. The streets here are lined with quaint cafes, bars, and restaurants that offer an array of cuisines from around the world. Additionally, there are several independent theaters in the neighborhood showcasing local plays and films.
It seems a little more set up for people who want to experience this kind of entertainment, though perhaps that’s just because Koenji looks a little smaller with its winding streets and alleys.
If you’re looking for punk rock, and a look at unfiltered Tokyo with intimate bars and izakayas, Koenji might work best. If you’re after more of a hipster vibe with up and coming bands or perhaps some slam poetry, try Shimokitazawa.
Koenji and Shimokitazawa offer visitors a unique shopping experience that can’t really be found anywhere else in Tokyo. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of Tokyo is giant malls or big shops.
Even when you do stumble upon little shops, there charm often gets completely dwarfed by their surroundings. Both Koenji and Shimokitazawa seem so far removed from those big skyscrapers that a lot of that charm remains.
In my opinion, that makes for a far more chilled shopping experience!
Koenji is mainly known for its vintage and second-hand stores, which offer a range of clothing, accessories, and other items from different eras and styles. Many of these stores are small and independently owned, giving us the chance to discover one-of-a-kind items.
In addition to vintage stores, Koenji also has a range of specialty and independently run shops. For example, there are shops that specialize in streetwear, punk fashion (probably because of its history), and even Japanese traditional clothing such as kimono and yukata.
We arrived at around 6 in the evening and everywhere was starting to pack up. I found that a little strange to see in Tokyo (where things stay open until like 10), but perhaps it’s also nice to see an area stepping away from the mold. …Or it could have just been a sunday…
One of the most popular shopping areas in Koenji is the Nakadori Shopping Street, a pedestrian-only street lined with shops and restaurants. I was able to walk around this area for a while, and managed to stumble across a variety of stores selling everything from vintage clothing to books, records, and even a small amount of anime-related merchandise.
However, let’s be honest, the best thing about Koenji was the fact it had these bad boys below.
I joke of course, but as we already know about the magic of Japanese ‘Off’ stores, it wasnt that hard to get excited. Plus you rarely find Mode Off stores, so that was nice!
Shimokitazawa felt bigger to me. I spent more time here than I did in Koenji which could be the reason why, but there seemed to be a lot of shops here. I won’t bore you will all the photos I took, but I will show you a selection!
Just like Koenji, there were a lot of vintage clothing shops here. However, it all seemed a little more boutique than thrift shop which meant my wallet stayed firmly in my trousers. I loved the clothes, but damn were they expensive!
These kind of streets really remind me of Shoreditch, albeit much cleaner!
Japan has incredible demin, and there was a lot of it on sale.
If you’ve got the time, you could easily spend hours in the amount of stores that are around here. Then you could pop into one of the many cafes that line the streets as well.
Koenji vs Shimokitazawa: Which should you visit?
Koenji and Shimokitazawa both offer a unique shopping and entertainment experience that you should defintely check out if you have a bit of free time. They’re that different, it makes you feel like you’re in a bubble within the bubble of Japan.
In terms of which one you should visit, that’s annoyingly really hard to pin down.
I’ll sound like a broken record, but if you want something a little more exposed, less gentrified, and a bit more rough around the edges, Koenji is probably your better choice. If you’re looking for somewhere that feels bigger, is a little more popular, and is full of boutique shops and cafes, Shimo might be more your style.
Let me know in the comments if you’re still struggling to make your decision, and I’ll do my best to direct you to one or the other. In reality, you should probably go to both if you’re in the area for a while!
Whether you’re interested in vintage shopping, live music, or experiencing Japan’s quirky culture, both neighborhoods have something to offer. So go out, explore, and make sure to have a great time in these two amazing neighborhoods! You won’t regret it! Happy exploring!