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4 reasons to put Suginami Ward on your Tokyo travel itinerary

By Rebecca Quin
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Tokyo has got be one of the most daunting and exhilarating destinations to take on as a traveler. Running through a list of top things to do will only leave you with the realization that, in this city, that list is pretty much endless. For many of us, we’ll go home having barely scratched the surface — and itching to come back for more.

So where should you go to get the best version of Tokyo: Abridged? Most travel articles will spout the same big seven: Shibuya, Harajuku, Shinjuku, Asakusa, Akihabara, Ginza, Roppongi (or something similar) for a reliable overview of the city’s best sights, sounds and tastes.

But there are some areas that offer a completely different kind of Tokyo travel experience; one that often reveals a deeper insight into what makes the city, and its residents, tick.

Suginami Ward, quietly nestled on the western outskirts of Shinjuku is just this kind of place. In Suginami, you can discover the humble day-to-day life that lies beyond the bright neon and noise of one of the world’s largest cities. Intrigued? Here are four reasons to include Suginami in your Tokyo explorations.

1. It’s easy to experience a lot in just one day

Suginami Ward is just the right side of compact to be able to visit in 24 hours but curious enough that you’ll want to return for a second exploration. A neat row of four distinct neighborhoods one after the other along the JR Chuo line make up Suginami, just a few stops from Shinjuku. Hop on and off the train wherever your fancy takes you, though it’s possible to walk from Nishi-Ogikubo, the area furthest west, to Koenji, next to Shinjuku, in a couple of hours.

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Nishi-Ogikubo antiques store

Go rummaging in the antiques haven of Nishi-Ogikubo or sip tea lattes in cafe-lined Ogikubo. Then, head for a spot of traditional shopping with Tokyo’s most discerning grandmas at Asagaya, an area that’s also an incubator for the anime industry (many of the city’s anime production companies are based here). The hours after dark are best spent in Koenji, the punk-rock rebel town that’s clad head to toe in vintage stores. For a comprehensive rundown of each area and what to do there, Experience Suginami — a multilingual travel website run by the local government — is a great resource.

2. You’ll discover Tokyo; past, present and future

Keen to know more about the history of Tokyo? Time travel via anime at the Suginami Animation Museum in Nishi-Ogikubo where there are plenty of interesting exhibits showcasing the journey of anime from hand-drawn children’s stories to a world-conquering phenomenon. In the dubbing afureko booth you can even record your own voice, in different languages, over scenes from the popular 1950 - 60s comic Astro Boy. Nishi-Ogikubo is also a little-known hoarder’s paradise, filled with independent antique shops hiding in the neighborhood backstreets.

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Suginami Animation Museum

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Asagaya Anime Street

Meanwhile, Asagaya is home to the futuristic Asagaya Anime Street, a tunnel beneath the railway track of boutiques, cosplay cafes and gachapon (capsule toys) all related to Japan’s most popular modern export.

The Suginami Historical Museum, a short bus ride from JR Koenji station, gives an interactive insight into the area’s past all the way back to prehistoric times. Koenji is also unrivaled in Tokyo for its wealth of vintage stores like 2000 Collectable Toys and Kiarry’s. It’s here, too, that live houses abound where you can watch future music stars hone their performances — Penguin House, a basement rockhouse, is a good place to start.

Foodies will enjoy Ogikubo’s mishmash of quirky contemporary cafes including Inazuma Cafe where the walls are decorated with original signed anime and manga drawings. Ramen, though, is what this neighborhood is secretly famed for, with Ogikubo serving up its own unique soy sauce-style ramen since the 1950s.

3. You can shop for unique food, clothing and gifts to take back home  

Suginami Ward’s history as a largely residential area has blessed it with many a charming shotengai. These old-school shopping streets provide an endearing dose of nostalgia, even if you’ve never been to Japan before. Asagaya Pearl Center offers a picture-perfect introduction; browse traditional sweets shops, curious bric-a-bracs and old-school grocers with local grandmas along the 650-meter-long covered street. This is the place to pick up artisanal food or handmade crafts with a story behind them.

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A Koenji shop front

Koenji has a meandering maze of shotengai with a slightly grungier vibe. Wander along the covered shopping arcade of PAL Shopping Street, the starting point of the famous Koenji Awa-Odori, before browsing the vintage stores of LOOK Shopping Street. Keep walking and you’ll end up at ETOILE Shopping Street where the options for vintage shopping are just as eclectic. And if you’re in the market for old records, this is the street to search.

In Ogikubo and Nishi-Ogikubo, it’s a classier affair; with department stores, boutique food markets and the aforementioned antiques sellers. Just make sure you have enough room in your luggage.

4. Events a-plenty means there’s always a chance to meet locals 

Suginami Ward hosts a fantastic range of unique events throughout the year, bringing locals from all over the city to take part in the celebrations. Aside from the legendary Tokyo Koenji Awa-Odori festival in summer, events in each of the neighborhoods fill up the Suginami calendar from autumn to spring.

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Asagaya JAZZ STREETS crowd

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A sax player at Asagaya JAZZ STREETS

In October, the renowned Asagaya JAZZ STREETS festival gathers talents of the jazz scene for performances in various locations throughout Asagaya. Over two days, you can catch indoor and open-air concerts, including inside Asagaya Pearl Center and the main concert at the stunning Asagaya Shinmeigu shrine, in the company of Tokyo’s most avid jazz-lovers. This year’s festival will take place on the 27th and 28th of October.

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A jazz band plays near a food stall.

Over the same weekend, Koenji will also host its annual KOENJI FES 2017, promoting all things Koenji through shows, music, trade stalls, and food and drink. In November, it’s time for the “Ogikubo Ongakusai” or Ogikubo Music Festival when the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra sets up base in Suginami Public Hall for four days of concerts and related events. Winter sees various light up or “Illuminations” events — a classic Japanese experience during the colder months.

Experience Suginami has an events page where you can check out what’s going in the area while you’re there — there’s sure to be something on.

Still flying under most tourists’ radar, Suginami Ward offers a genuine opportunity to discover Tokyo at its most authentic. Though it’s practically impossible to wrap your head around Tokyo in just one or five, or even ten, visits, Suginami is a wonderful place to begin trying.

For more information on things to see, do and eat plus events in Suginami, check out http://experience-suginami.tokyo/.

© Japan Today

©2018 GPlusMedia Inc.

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