Beyond the Guidebook - 5 Expats Share Their Favorite Secret Spots in Tokyo!
Last updated: 15 February 2019
Tokyo endlessly remains a mysterious city even for those who have lived here their entire lives. Every crevice seems to hold a hidden treasure, some that aren’t marked by a sign or even show up on Google Maps. From timeless local bars to hip new hangout spots, eateries, and nightlife, we asked five Tokyo expats to share their favorite places around Tokyo that are often missed in guidebooks and visitor recommendations!
1. Get on your groove in the Harajuku's back streets
Digital Asset Consultant / 4.5 years in Japan
Lazy Sundays wouldn’t be complete without a few friends & Deus Ex Machina café in Harajuku. Part surf shop, motorcycle repair shop, clothing store, art installation, and café/bar, this place has everything you need to chill out post a night out. Yoshi, the barista, makes a mean Cortado and the chefs in the kitchen create some of the best sandwiches in town (also have vegan/veggie options too). With an open terrance and groovy music playing, Deus is a place to catch up on work and/or chat the day away with friends both new and old.
2. Around the cozy neighborhood of Minami Shinjuku
Art Director and Photographer / 12 years in Japan
At BarFlat, you’ll get a truly local neighborhood bar experience. Golden Gai and Omoide Yokocho in the Shinjuku station area are inherently known as the go-to-places for late night drinks in small establishments that sometimes can only seat four customers at a time.
But what if I was to tell you that only about a 10 minute walk Southwest of JR Shinjuku station, you can find a tiny street nested under Minami Shinjuku station where there are a few quaint bars that are just like the Golden Gai’s of Golden Gai, but without all the noise, crowds, and rats running between your feet?
Well, it should be because one bar in particular is such a diamond in the rough there that once you visit it, you will probably want to move next door. In fact, I just live down the street!
The bar in question is called BarFlat and it is run but a humble, well-mannered, and knowledgeable bartender named Satoshi. He has an extensive selection of spirits, liquors, and various other obscure things that I can’t really describe - you would need to try it for yourself to understand.
Besides the locals that frequent BarFlat, there is also a fair share of international customers who visit after hearing about it by word-of-mouth. Traveling artists, musicians, bands, executives, and even CEOs of companies pay this place a visit. But the experience this place offers is in its charm of being a truly local neighborhood bar. If you do visit often enough, people will know your name, and the intimate seating will immediately remove all labels from people to simply unite everyone under one common purpose - that is to enjoy a good drink, with good company.
3. Enjoy poking around Ebisu, Daikanyama and Shimokitazawa
Blogger, The Tokyo Chapter / 12 years in Japan
I really really think too many miss all the cool stuff that is in Ebisu and Daikanyama when they visit Tokyo. It’s really easy to walk between these two suburbs but they have such different feels. Daikanyama is trendy and fresh. It’s where you’ll find all the cool spots (and people) while Ebisu is gritty and more authentically Japan. The restaurants are small and spill out onto the street. You walk under the train tracks and wander down alleyways with floors and floors of eateries. I also love Shimokitazawa. Nothing opens until midday but keeps going into the night. It’s totally hippy but in a friendly and unpretentious way.
4. Picking up comedy in Shimokitazawa, Otsuka, and Kinshicho
Comedian and Teacher / 3 years in Japan
Shimokitazawa has gone from tucked-away hipsters' paradise to bespectacled couples’ top Airbnb destination in just a few years. Yet while everyone knows about the vintage shopping, curry spots and quirky bars, only a few in-the-know folks are hip to the emerging English-language comedy scene. I’m a comedian and I run shows, so I know a fair bit about it. I’m also a preschool teacher, so I know Twinkle Twinkle in five different languages. That’s all I’ve got.
Good Heavens’ wide, open-plan layout and 60s movie posters accidentally form a perfect comedy club, and in addition to Japanese and expat comics, they’ve featured household names like Hannibal Buress and Jim Gaffigan. Stand Up Tokyo runs the weekly Wednesday show there, but if you want to try it yourself - or you just like the unpredictability of open mic comedy - head north to Otsuka.
A small station on the Yamanote line just past Ikebukuro, this area packs a nice little nightlife into about 200 meters squared. Titans Craft Beer is already on the map of any craft beer enthusiast, but every Monday there’s open mic comedy on the top deck. Anyone can sign up on the night, and you might even get to see a pro polishing up their best washlet material. The gyoza is sensational and occasionally there’s open mic in Japanese too.
It’s not all on a school-night; you weekend warriors can head east to Kinshicho. Some expats will know this area from their daily grind, but if you live and work over in the west side, like myself, you may have gone three years in Japan without visiting this charmingly seedy part of Sumida Ward. Moxy is an ultra-modern hotel, unapologetically made for Instagram, and breathing new life into the area with constant events. Comedy shows are on Fridays monthly with nomihoudai (drink responsibly!) and international comics like Aiko Tanaka.
Comedy in English may not seem like the obvious choice for Japanese culture, but if you want to break up the working week, meet international people and maybe laugh at some of the ridiculousness of Tokyo life, then I highly recommend checking out a comedy night.
Good Heavens Comedy Club
5-32-5 Daizawa, Setagaya-ku
Every Wednesday 8pm ¥1500 w/drink
Get On The Mic!
Titans Craft Beer
3-53-7 Minamiotsuka, Toshima-ku Every Monday 7:45pm FREE
Stand Up Tokyo at Moxy
3-4-2 Kotobashi, Sumida-ku
Friday 9/21 7:45pm ¥2500 nomihoudai drinks
5. Relax with cafes and vegan-friendly cuisine in Ebisu, Omotesando and Shimokitazawa
Science Teacher / 2 years in Japan
When people inevitably ask for my favorite Japanese food recommendations in Tokyo, they really can't believe it when I say I'm a vegan here. But in reality, I have also had some of the most spectacular vegan food I've ever had here in Japan. Japan loves health food and macrobiotic cooking and I can't wait to help spread the vegan love! Here are my recommendations for vegan eats, some most certainly too underrated for their greatness.
Olu Olu Cafe is a must, with Hawaiian inspired vegan cuisine ranging from taco rice (an Okinawan cuisine) to some of the best vegan burgers I've ever had the pleasure of eating. Bar Mother in Shimokitazawa, great for their killer cocktails and dimly lit atmosphere, has a menu with vegan options such as Pad Thai and wasabi salad. Hemp Cafe in Ebisu offers raw hemp tacos Lastly, check out Commune 2nd in Omotesando, an outdoor eatery village filled with food trucks. Within the variety of craft beer and international cuisine, there is a vegan food truck with incredible falafels.
My other go-to's include Nagi Shokudo for fried karaage and T's Tan Tan for the infamous vegan ramen. I hope you enjoy these tips and see that there is no limit to traveling Japan and even the world while being a vegan!
In a word
Local bars, cafes, and stand up comedy? Sure, those are things you can probably find back home, but no two cities are the same.
The regulars you meet at BarFlat, the DJs playing tunes at Deus Ex Machina, and the Japanese vegan chefs all bring unique qualities to the counter or table. The conversations that are shared and the music that’s played will be special memories created with the people of Tokyo or other visitors alike. And who has really thought to look up English-speaking comedy shows while abroad -- and to find it exists? Get a few laughs in after a day of wandering and perhaps, some struggle with the language barrier. You’ll be sure to nod your head at the relatable Japan happenings the comedians share while learning in-depth about the hilarious hardships expats go through living in Japan.
These recommendations are often overlooked and missed in guidebooks and recommendations from friends. So check them out for yourself and see what treasures you uncover in Tokyo!
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by guest writers do not necessarily reflect the views or position of Live Japan.)
Photo credit (main image): Wiennat M / Shutterstock.com
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*This information is from the time of this article's publication.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.