The Eternal Metropolis: Five reasons Tokyo is still the best place for getting lost

by Horizn-Studios.

More than 35 million people in its metropolitan area, and it can easily take two hours to travel across the city — yes, Tokyo is vast. But the way this vastness manifests itself is very particular. Don’t think grand boulevards or huge open squares — each neighborhood spirals off into spidery streets and bustling alleyways. With an unorthodox address system too, you’re bound to get lost at some point, so you might as well enjoy it.


Dotted around the city are alleyway networks called “yokocho” — pockets of warmth, color and flavor. In Kichijoji, home territory of Studio Ghibli, one such is Harmonica Yokocho. It’s set in a former postwar black market, and despite surrounding gentrification, remains a snapshot of old Tokyo. Traffic noise fades as you enter; replaced by a pleasant, alcoholised hubbub. Pass by miniature restaurants — some with counters right on the passageway, some tucked away behind curtains or inside huts. Rickety staircases lead up to mezzanines and wherever you look, people are clinking frothing beer mugs or snacking on yakitori, tapas, sushi and more. If you find Ko Panda, order a grapefruit sour (shochu with fresh juice) — and, well, every dish on the menu.

(Photo: James Bingham)



A wise person once said, Tokyo is like the internet made real — meaning anything can be found there, in physical form. Nakano Broadway, a 1980s shopping mall reborn as a magnet for “otaku” geeks, is a case in point. Along endless corridors, you can find every subcultural obsession imaginable — and unimaginable too. Racing cars and trains, 1950s figurines, gigantic manga bookshops, and — most creepily — build-your-own-doll shops with a selection of eyes and breasts in the window. Back outside in the fresh air, you’ll feel as if you’ve returned from another planet.

(Photo: James Bingham)



A former prostitution enclave near Shinjuku station is now famous for that other vice: drinking. With 200 waterholes crammed in a tiny zone, a complete bar crawl would likely result in death! Staircases, tiny doors and curtains make for enigmatic entry points; some bars shuttered, some overflowing, and others feeling like exclusive private clubs. Still, most places will be welcoming, with more than their fair share of charismatic barmen, chatty drinkers and, amusingly, little Godzilla models to play with. There’s usually a cover charge, so get inside to check the feel first.

(Photo: Fearghal Mac Pháidín)



You’ll see great shows at Tokyo’s big galleries, like those of the Mori Art Museum, but if you’re persistent enough with your map reading skills, you can go less mainstream. In Nakameguro, a few blocks from the charming Chichi canalside, is a hair salon named Bross. And within it, something much more surprising than a drastic haircut: a small but perfectly formed shipping container art gallery. You’ll be amazed how much can be made of such a small space — in fact, this should be Tokyo’s motto.

(Photo: The Container)



Pretty much every Tokyo train station has a cluster, or several clusters, of restaurants and bars around it. These can be piled several stories high, several down below, or flung along pedestrianised shopping streets. In the Koenji neighborhood, there are several such hubs — not least, a cluster of yakitori stores under the railway tracks. Warmer months see crates distributed on the street to be used as seats. The yakitori and cold beer ain’t glamorous, but you’ll be hard pushed to find a more satisfying dining experience. Wander in under the bowels of the tracks and peruse the tiny eateries till you find the one serving baked avocado with cheese. That’s worth getting lost for.

(Photo: James Bingham)

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