Kōenji (高円寺) is a neat little community in Suginami Ward that punches well above its weight in terms of both high-quality human scale development and cultural assets. Chiefly, it is known as the birthplace of punk music in Japan, a tradition which continues on through independent music of many types in its intimate live performance venues. It is also the site of Tokyo’s annual Awa Odori festival, second in size only to the original celebration in Tokushima, from where it was imported. Kōenji is the place to go when you are in the market for used clothing, books and music. It has a reputation for attracting artistic and political sub-cultures, and has been the scene of several notable protests, but it’s also a diverse community with a broader demographic than Shimokitazawa, with which it is often compared. All of this activity takes place among the many narrow streets, alleys and shōtengai that create a nest of walking routes and high-interaction public space circling Kōenji Station and fanning out into the residential neighborhoods surrounding.
Kōenji, which fans of novelist Murakami Haruki will recognize as the primary setting of 1Q84, was added to my itinerary by way of special request from reader Chris. I have to offer a preemptive apology, as in hindsight a few hours to walk around the area was clearly not enough time to discover and absorb everything! Moreover, Kōenji is definitely a night and weekend scene, as many of its residents commute into central Tokyo during the daytime. Adding it between my stops in the late morning meant that I could observe the hardware, but not so much the software. I’ll have to schedule a return visit in the late afternoon and evening to catch the street life in full swing, and maybe head to a show in one of the live houses.
Chūō Line rapid and local services stop at Kōenji Station, making the neighborhood a popular bedroom community for those that work in either Shinjuku or the Marunouchi district around Tokyo Station.
The outbound platform looks over the bus and taxi rotary outside the south exit.
Immediately outside the south entrance you have several options. You can make a sharp right and head under the tracks to the north side. You can follow the narrow shopping street up against the viaduct, the Kōenji Ai Shōtengai (高円寺アイ商店街). Right in the center, the large canopy is the entrance to the Pal Shōtengai (高円寺パル商店街).
Even before you reach Pal, there is an additional small street with shops running south, parallel to the arcade.
Kōenji Street (高円寺ストリート) is a shōtengai that manages the small spaces directly under the viaduct.
I decided to first head south through the covered arcade, then come back up to check out the north side later.
As I mentioned, it’s tough to get a read on a place with few people in it. In this case, I think it’s mostly due to having come at the “wrong” time of day. A big learning for me throughout these exploratory walks in Tokyo and elsewhere, is that every place has a distinct rhythm, the product of factors like demographics of the neighborhood, whether it is a business node or if one is nearby, what public goods or markets it serves, etc. In some cases, it may be desirable to find ways to attract more people during non-peak times, while elsewhere the ebb and flow of foot traffic follows a natural rhythm that businesses match accordingly.
Turn down any side street any you can find either more businesses or residential areas right up against the arcade.
This west heading street is the Etoāru-dōri Shōtengai (エトアール通り商店街).
The second and sometimes higher floors above the shopfronts are generally residential apartments, though some may be offices as well. The beauty of the lack of US style zoning rules in most places in Japan is that there are fewer barriers to market driven creation of mixed use neighborhoods.
At the end of the Pal Shōtengai, a shrub-lined walking path leads out into the neighborhood.
Continuing directly on from Pal is the Look Shōtengai (高円寺ルック商店街). Though there are second hand and vintage clothing stores all over Kōenji, the highest concentration is on and adjacent to this open air shopping arcade.
Though, most of the folks I encountered just before lunch did not appear to be the Kōenji hipsters I keep hearing about.
Like earlier, the residential apartments are just off the shōtengai, either around a corner or up one floor above the ground.
Hand-drawn advertising on dry-erase board
A florist’s display chews on the roadside
Brightly colored fruits and vegetables get front placement outside the shop, while the greens stay mostly hidden in the back.
Mamachari are parked outside shops as people run errands.
Quite a planter going on from that second floor balcony.
Hand-drawn advertising on chalkboard
Look Shōtengai empties onto Ōme Kaidō, just next to Shin-kōenji Station on the Tokyo Metro Marunouchi Line. From here we can walk a little east and head back up the main street into the center of the neighborhood.
Each of the short, parallel side streets between the main road and Pal Shōtengai has a mix of ground floor businesses and upper level apartments.
As we head through Kōenji Street, the portal to the north side of the tracks, some of the more recognizable fixtures of the neighborhood come into view. The green and yellow arch is the entrace to Kōenji Junjō Shōtengai (高円寺純情商店街), which we’ll circle around to in a little bit. I got the feeling this was probably the Kōenji in Chris’ mind when he suggested it.
Headed northwest from the station is Kōenji Naka-dōri Shōtengai (高円寺中通り商店街), though it also uses the English equivalent Central Road and katakana (セントラルロード) on banners and signage. Shōtengai are business collectives that pool the resources of the members to manage common goods like the street and advertising. For some the branding, if it exists at all, is subtle, limited to things like making sure all of the street lamps have the same hardware. Others, especially covered arcades, tend to beat you over the head with banners and signage.
Naka-central-dōri-road has some kind of signage about every two meters.
The look of the lamp hardware and the general feel of the street are already very distinctive. I think they could streamline a bit a no one would bat an eye!
The alleys crossing Naka-dōri go right up to the Chūō Line.
Right around here I believe the street officially changes to Kōenji Kita Naka-dōri Shōtengai (高円寺北中通り商店街), though it continues the use of the Central Road signage, so it appears as one continuous arcade.
These signs mark walking routes to schools. What I’m still not clear on is whether they are primarily wayfinding aids for younger students or warnings for drivers and residents to be cautious and look out for safety issues, or both.
There was much more to this part of Kōenji, but I needed to keep my time within the schedule and so headed back in the direction of the station.
I wound my way through a few residential blocks and ended up coming through the back way to this produce stand opposite the north entrance of Kōenji Station.
Bus and taxi rotary at the north exit of the station
Kōenji has interesting spaces going off in all directions, but if I had to pick a visual focal point it would probably be Kōenji Junjō Shōtengai (高円寺純情商店街). The gate is hard to miss, and it seemed that most of the people who hadn’t left the neighborhood for work in other parts of the city were here or on adjacent streets and shōtengai.
There are actually two passengers on this bicycle. Can you spot the second?
So that’s Kōenji. While I didn’t quite get the images I was looking for, on account of both the time and overcast weather, it was a good chance to get familiar with the layout and understand where to focus my attention on a subsequent visit. It definitely has all of the right components for a chill nighttime hangout or raging anti-establishment crucible, whichever you happen to be in the mood for.
This post is part of The Tokyo Project, Volume 2. Click here to go to the introduction and table of contents.