There are many facades to a country, even a city, at that. Areas are designated for fulfilling roles and offering services. The business district, for example, is dedicated as space for people to perform their jobs, while there are other strips and spots that are prioritized for those who are looking to shop or have a drink.
Nestled within Tokyo, the capital of Japan, is a place called “Koenji”, which is known for its hip music scene, alternative youth culture, and so much more.
Exploring Tokyo in Japan: What Exactly Is Koenji?
Written as “高円寺” in Japanese, Koenji is a district that is found to the left of Shinjuku, particularly in the Suginami ward in the Tokyo area. It was named “Koenji” because it was named after a temple that was built in that area. Whenever you see a place that ends with the kanji that is “寺”, or “tera/ji”, it usually connotes a temple – so any area that has this as its last syllable is named after a temple.
Why Is It Named Koenji?
Tokyo wasn’t always the capital of Japan, so it wasn’t always the center of attention. During the Edo period, parts of Tokyo were considered rural, especially Koenji. Back in the mid-16th century, Shukuhozan Koenji (宿鳳山高円寺) was constructed around this once-rustic district, among other temples and farming settlements.
Initially, it is rumored that present-day Koenji was once known as “Ozawa” (小沢), which means little creek. However, the 3rd Tokugawa shogun, who was Tokugawa Iemitsu was practicing falconry around this area and often visited the temple, labeling it as an important landmark (and thus, the general name of the area), overshadowing the name Ozawa with its own. Ever since then, the district has been known as Koenji.
A Quick History of Koenji
Koenji’s rise to popularity and development can be traced to the year 1923 when the Great Kanto Earthquake occurred. Because of the destruction that it caused so much of downtown Tokyo, traders took their businesses to Koenji, especially with its newly opened train station that had started the year before the earthquake.
Koenji also grew bigger, absorbing a town in its name. Near Koenji existed “Mabashi”, which was a town beside Asagaya. It eventually became a part of Koenji, which is why you may still see remnants of the name around the area.
Quick and Prosperous Development
Farmers that lived in Koenji saw this as an opportunity to make money themselves by subdividing their land and leasing it to new settlers. The influx continued this way for many years, with more traders and businesses-people setting up shop in this easily accessible area of Tokyo. Koenji was starting to get recognized in the 1950’s as a place where you could sit down with a nice cup of tea or coffee at one of their “kissaten” (tea-drinking shop or coffee shop).
It was also around this time that the Awa Odori Festival started, which was an imitation (though not as grandiose) of the same festival that happens in Takamatsu in Shikoku, which is also called Awa Odori Festival. People who relocated from Takamatsu because of the earthquake or for business reasons continued to practice their culture here, despite living in a different area.
The Evolution Towards Modern-day Koenji
During the 70’s onwards, more stations opened around the district leading to other parts of Tokyo. Because of this, along with its inclination to serve eclectic tastes, Koenji also became home to the early stages of Japan’s punk scene.
Because Koenji wasn’t as affected as much as the rest of Tokyo when it came to Japan’s “building boom” that occurred in the 80’s, it has an old-school charm that lets you experience Japan’s simpler life before its immense progress in technology and architecture.
Today, Koenji is known as a trendy area that you visit to consume the latest in terms of popular culture; be it fashion, atmosphere, music, or food.
What Sets Koenji Apart from the Rest of Tokyo?
If a large chunk of inner-city Tokyo is made up of serious buildings filled with salarymen getting by the day, Koenji is where the underground music scene is at, with a more laid-back atmosphere that exalts vintage trends and buzzing izakaya. There are many shops here that sell old equipment (so much so that it was used as a place where people protested the Japan’s law, called “Product Safety Electrical Appliance & Material”, or PSE in 2001.
You may call it the more mature and cultured side of Japan, where much of the youth go to meet up with the like-minded company when it comes to taste in music and other areas of culture. Here, you will get to see a much more intimate and private side of Japan, with establishments (be it live houses – where artist groups come to jam – restaurants, clothing shops, record shops) that are much quainter and curated compared to big-time companies that you’ll find around other busier districts.
Not Too Different
Just like many parts of Tokyo, though, Koenji is also popular for the retail stores that are situated here. Most of these stores are located around the JR station’s southern premises. Despite having mostly independent stores being managed by its owner, there are also famous Japanese department stores here, one of them being Queen’s Isetan, located in proximity to the Shin-Koenji station.
Like many other areas in Japan, Koenji also has several parks you may visit; Mabashi Koen (written as “馬橋公園”) Wadabori Koen or “和田堀公園”, and Sanshi-no-mori, or “蚕糸の森”. If you happen to visit Koenji during the early spring, then you best head to Wadabori Koen for a chance to view the falling cherry blossoms.
A Guide to Visiting Koenji
Looking to get away from the city bustle to somewhere a little cozier? A trip to Koenji may just be the thing for you. Around Koenji, you’ll find many interesting places to visit and activities to enjoy, including shopping in special thrift shops for one-of-a-kind apparel, music, and other novelty items. There are also quite a few unique places to grab a bite in as well – but first, how do you get to Koenji?
Transportation in Koenji
Travelling around Japan is simply a matter of getting on the correct lines on the map that lead you to the station nearest your destination. There are two lines that offer access to Koenji, these are the Tokyo Metro Marunouchi Line, where you get off at the Higashi-Koenji Station or Shin-Koenji Station. Next, there’s the JR Chuo-Sobu Line, which connects to the Koenji Station.
Three notable roads cross Koenji, these roads are Kanana Dori “環七通り” Waseda Dori “早稲田通り”, and Ome Kaido “青梅街道”.
Places to Go to In Koenji
As earlier mentioned, this area is known for having had many shrines in the past, some of them still standing. One of them, the picturesque Mabashi Inari Shrine, which isn’t as flocked by tourists as other temples are. For those who wish for luck this year, the temple’s torii gates are lucky dragon sculptures that may grant you your wish if you touch the dragon that is descending – not the one that’s descending. Be careful which you touch.
For something a little more eclectic, (or for the person who just loves cats), there’s Nekonohitai, which is a store that has a funky cat theme. Here, you can buy all sorts of items that have a cat motif, from mugs to plushies, to framed art and woodblock prints that you won’t find anywhere else in the world.
Even more, in-theme with the quirky retro vibe of Koenji is Laputa Asagaya. It’s a tiny building that holds screenings of old, independent, and/or experimental Japanese movies. The movies that they show may not have subtitles, so you may have to be familiar with some Japanese to fully enjoy the experience.
Koenji is all about appreciating the little details that are missed when you buy from generic department stores. While you may easily buy a souvenir from a big-name retail chain, it add a bit more charm when you get it from an independent thrift store, knowing there are likely lesser replicas of the item. You can find fish out fashion steals at “Look Shopping Street”, some of them second hand and at quite a bargain.
The shops offer a variety of different clothes, and which look you want to go for dictates which shop you should go to. Shops like “Kirakuya” sell older (yet timeless) kimonos, while Lover Soul sells favorite, retro fashion pieces from 70’s.
Trendy clothes aside, Koenji’s music scene is also another facet to this district that is unique. Scrounge through thousands of records in shops like Rare Records for some hard-to-find gems of rock n’ roll – both Japanese and western. EAD Records is the place to go to if you wanna spot records that have been picked out by funk, jazz, and dance lovers. Lastly, there’s also Eu-Ban Records for those who dare to dip into tunes that are more experimental, and less well-known.
Concerts in Koenji
A live performance is something you must experience while at Koenji, and you can kick it off at the Muryoku Muzenji (無力無善寺), which can literally be translated to “no strength, no good temple”. This live venue is offbeat with its psychedelic interiors, and measures to be at the size of about a living room. The quirkiest part yet? The location is tucked away under the rail tracks right by Koenji Station.
The Higashi-Koenji 20000V hails from older concert grounds, set in a building that tragically burned down. It has since been relocated, and continues to hold great gigs, and can be found at B1 L-Grazia Higashi-Koenji, 1-7-23 Koenji-Minami, Suginami-ku, Tokyo.
Great Food and Drinks at Koenji
A couple of those coffee shops or kissaten that were open all those years ago have stuck through (Monozuki is one of them), and if not – there are many other kissaten that are themed to embody that retro feel. The ambiance is very casual and relaxed. Monozuki is a kissaten that was founded in 1975 and is known for its wooden interiors and decorations, and a simple menu with great coffee.
Craft beers are some of the most popular drinks in the bar scene these days, and that’s exactly what you’ll find in the incredibly popular brewpub called Koenji Bakushu Kobo (Beer Workshop). Here, beer is made in the brewpub itself, and is served fresh – a glass would cost you around 400 yen. Their beer selections continuously change, but you are usually given four options to choose from.
As for food, you can take a bite off a cute donut in Nature Donuts Floresta (be quick to get one because they run out fast) or go for delicious kiddie comfort food at the famous Baby King Kitchen. Streets are also lined up with rows upon rows of street food choices, so your options are immense.
Awa Odori: The Festival of Koenji
“Awa Odori”, also known as the Awa Dance Festival, happens annually, during August 12 to August 15, in both Koenji and Tokushima. It is called the “Awa Odori” because “Awa” was once what Tokushima Prefecture was referred to when Japan was still a feudal state. “Odori”, on the other hand, simply means “dance”. The Awa Odori has had a rich history, with its roots of dancing and celebrating going all the way back to drunken locals celebrating Tokushima Castle’s opening.
The earliest documentation of this festival is noted to be during the Kamakura Period, which was from 1185 until 1333, and the festival lives on. Every year, a little under 1.5 million tourists come to see this festival take place, as it is the country’s most-celebrated dance festival. In this festival, “ren”, or dancers who follow well-practiced choreography, wear “Obon” (dance costumes) and perform in the streets. Traditional Japanese music instruments accompany these dancers, examples being taiko drums, the Kane bell, and the shamisen lute.
Drop by Koenji
The next time you’re in Japan, swing by Koenji with a friend (or just by yourself) and have a fun night out at a quirky bar you can’t find anywhere else in Japan. Book a hotel here to really get a feel, and attend a concert, exhibition, or event.