At first glance, it appears reports of Shimokitazawa's death have been greatly exaggerated. The central Tokyo neighbourhood, a bastion of bohemia, is alive and well on this sweaty summer night. Look around, though, and you'll see the signs – literally. “Shimokita is Dead?" read the posters, advertising an end-of-August weekend event complete with music, comedy acts and lectures. The “save Shimokitazawa” movement sprang up several years ago after local officials approved a plan to dig a subway tunnel and rework a couple of main roads.
Many argue this urban facelift, expected to start in 2013, will erase some of the wrinkles that give this neighbourhood character. The narrow, covered streets and alleyways which twist and turn beneath raised railway tracks near the stations will go, and with them the part of “Shimokita” that feels distinctly Japanese: the little discount shops, the hole-in-the-wall restaurants, the tiny bars and that pair of open-air urinals tucked away into a corner, draining to who-knows-where.
Most people who have strolled through this district would agree the impending change is lamentable (although few will miss the urinals). The neighbourhood's down-tempo vibe has made it a favourite with Japanese students, hippies and twentysomethings. It's a music lover's dream, chock full of live venues and shops shilling new, used and rare CDs and records. Theatre adds to Shimokita's allure, with stages both big and small hosting plays on any given night. Then there's the shopping: an eclectic mix of stores selling everything from clothes to sex toys to big plastic Buddhas. The slap-dash layout makes it infinitely charming and it's easy to see every inch of this place on foot.
You'll usually find yourself wandering small, car-free streets. Shimokita is only a 10-minute train ride from two of Tokyo's main train stations, Shibuya and Shinjuku, yet surprisinglyit's a place few tourists tread. They'd be wise to check it out, though, before construction begins. Shimokitazawa might not be dead, but it could possibly lose its distinctive style.
HOW HUNGRY, how hot?
Usaya occupies a corner spot in the winding back streets, just a short walk from Shimokitazawa station. The young chef likes to design distinctive, inexpensive meals, so on some nights all he wants to know from you is how hungry you are, and whether you like spicy food. Patrons sit at a long, wooden table or small outdoor tables and feast on seared tuna medallions, hearty shrimp-vegetable dishes, udon noodles and edamame. 2-24-14 Kitazawa; 080-3158-4613.
FAST FOOD, TOKYO-STYLE
If you're in the mood for a quick bite, head to Yakitori Techan, where older Japanese men rub shoulders with young expats, sitting or standing as they sip cold beer or sake and order all sorts of skewered veggies and meat for a few hundred yen each.
A cook in the centre of the bar sweats over a small, red-hot grill. Take a risk and try the bitter grilled goya, an Okinawa vegetable that resembles a zucchini with polyps. Or check out Gindaco, which serves up searing hot balls made of octopus and vegetables for a good price. Yakotori Techan: 2-24-4 Kitazawa; 03-3465-1917.
Gindaco: Kitazawa 2-11-18, 1F; 03-5779-6900.
Shimokitazawa has big brands (such as French chain Petit Bateau), but it's known more for its local boutiques which offer something for everyone. The Shimokitazawa Garage Department is a good first stop. The trendy indoor bazaar has 20 or so small stores selling hats, used and new clothing, jewellery, bags, bikes and T-shirts making fun of everything from a Japanese delivery company to North Korea. Village Vanguard is a national chain in Japan, and some say its coolest outlet is in Shimokita. It's billed as an “Exciting Book Store,” but it offers much more: a dizzying array of stuffed toys, watches, cards and Japanese manga, plus joke items (poo-shaped hats, plastic purses that look like black fin tuna) and light sex-toy fare. Soma is a small shop that sells used clothing and vintage shoes (a sumo wrestler recently traded in size 15 high-tops). Feith carries second-hand clothing by Japanese designers.
Garage Department: 2-2-8 Kitazawa Village Vanguard: Kitazawa 2-10-15, Marche Bld.; village-v.co.jp
Soma: 102, 2-12-2 Kitazawa; 03-5430-0307 Feith: 2-5-7 2F Kitazawa; 03-5432-0588
DROP THE NEEDLE
Shimokitazawa boasts more than two-dozen stores selling used and new music, among them the best vinyl shops in Tokyo. Flash Disc Ranch has a wide selection of albums, ranging from $7 to $30 apiece. Serious music lovers will likely make their way to Vinyl Story. It has a narrow niche – British rock and folk vinyl from the 1960s and 1970s. Its most expensive album? A 300,000 yen ($3,621) copy of Songs of David Lewis (only 50 copies were ever made in 1971). Vashti Bunyan's Just Another Diamond Day is a close second at 280,000 yen ($3,380).
Flash Disc Ranch: 2-12-16 Kitazawa; 03-3414-0421.
Vinyl Story: Wakaba Heights #103, 2-12-2 Kitazawa; 03-3412-0178
If live music is your thing, you've come to the right place. Club Que is hidden away in a soundproof basement. Soul Gumbo was playing the night I dropped by, its lead singer shaking his afro as he belted out lyrics in Japanese. At nearby Daisy Bar, another subterranean spot, fans of the ska-punk-rock fusion band the Chainsaws exposed their ears to dangerously high decibel levels on a recent Saturday night.
Club Que: Big-Ben Building, B2F, 2-5-2 Kitazawa; 03-3412-9979
Daisy Bar: 2-2-3 B1F Kitazawa, 03-3412-0847, daisybar.jp
Special to The Globe and Mail
Editor's Note: The original version of this story incorrectly identified Alexander Wang as a Japanese designer. This version has been corrected.