Here at Heartland Japan, we strive to introduce rural communities and off-the-beaten-track locations to our customers, but more often than not our tours will actually start and end in Tokyo. While in the Metropolitan area, our customers are eager to visit not only the major highlights and tourist-friendly locations of the city, but also to discover its quieter, hidden spots. As a result, we are often asked for recommendations for places to shoot cool and “unique” pictures.
Luckily, despite Tokyo being famous for its skyscrapers and modern scenery, there are still plenty of places which maintain a post-war-to-the-80s atmosphere (known in Japanese as 昭和感, or “feeling of Shōwa Era”) and we are always happy to share this authentic side of the capital with anyone who may be interested in it.
Today, Heartland’s resident digital content manager, Katsuya (who has an Instagram page specializing mainly in pictures of Tokyo’s backstreets) has selected his top seven shooting locations for capturing Tokyo’s local and nostalgic moo
7) Shinjuku – Omoide Yokochō
Let’s start from the most classic spot: Shinjuku’s Omoide Yokochō (literally “Memory Lane”). This ramshackle alleyway of cramped little bars and eateries lies just outside of the Shinjuku JR Station’s West Exit and is easily reachable from the underpass on the left, outside the Kabukichō Exit.
Don’t let its nickname, “Piss Alley”, scare you: Omoide Yokochō is definitely the most famous back-alley in Tokyo (and perhaps all of Japan) and nothing but warm and welcoming. Here you will find a crowd of tourists as well as many locals, particularly blue-collar workers and businessmen working in the Shinjuku Skyscrapers district.
This Yokochō (meaning “back-alley”) is quite short, but it hosts around sixty tiny bars and restaurants together with a nostalgic Shōwa atmosphere and aa shape which recalls its origins as a post-war black market.
6) Sangenjaya – Sankaku Chitai
Sangenjaya is a neighborhood located just two stations away from Shibuya on the Tokyu Den-en-Toshi Line, and is also reachable via the Setagaya Line tram. Lately, this area has become one of the most popular places to live in Tokyo, and the districts can be described as having a slightly ‘hipster’ atmosphere which attracts a younger crowd, similar to the nearby – and perhaps more famous – area of Shimokitazawa. Both of these neighborhoods are located in the city of Setagaya.
The area known as 三角地帯 Sankaku Chitai (“Sankaku” means triangle) is located a couple of minutes walk from the Den-en-Toshi station and offers narrow back-alleys surrounded by old buildings with small bars and restaurants.
5) Kichijōji – Harmonica Yokochō
Modern-day Kichijoji is commonly considered to be a fashionable district, situated a bit further from the Central Tokyo along the Chūō Line. People come to Kichijoji for its trendy clothing stores and fancy restaurants, but the locals may be more attracted by its old heart; right across the street outside Kichijoji Station North Exit, you may spot a big and yellow old sign marking the entrance to Harmonica Yokochō, Kichijōji’s deepest drinking spot which was originally born as a flea market after the World War II.
While we recommend visiting the back-alleys during the night to get the most of their vibrant atmosphere, Harmonica Yokochō is lively even in the morning, when some of its taverns offer brunch and lunch menus and you can even have the opportunity to enjoy some Japanese sweets. We know that this post promised to introduce new photography spots and not ideal locations for eating, but you can’t take good snaps with an empty belly.
4) Ueno – Ameyoko
Back to our street shot staples, we have Ameyoko in Ueno. Similar to many of the most famous Yokochō, Ameyoko was founded as a black market in the year following World War II and was the location where many American products were sold. While the name “Ame-Yoko” sounds like it may be related to these American goods, the name actually is a contracted form of “Ameya Yokocho”, which means ‘candy store alley’.
Modern Ameyoko can be easily divided into two parts: one is a busy open-air market in which you can find everything including food, clothing, daily-life accessories, cosmetics and even medicines, while the restaurant side provides not only Japanese seafood eateries but also a diverse range of dishes from across Asia and beyond.
Ameyoko is located between Ueno Station and Okachimachi Station along the JR Yamanote Line and Keihin-Tohoku Line. It’s reachable within just a few seconds from both stations, or within a few minutes walk from Ueno-Okachimachi Station along the Oedo Line (Subway).
3) Kamata – Bourbon Road
Kamata is situated close to Tokyo’s border with Kanagawa Prefecture, and access to the Central area is not ideal. On top of that, its reputation for the gangs of youngsters and unfriendly criminals makes it a rather unattractive living location, but don’t mind the negative fame: its convenient prices, together with the renovation of the JR Station in 2008 and its’ easy access to Haneda Airport from the Keikyu Kamata Station, have served to attract large numbers of visitors in recent years.
Kamata Station area is packed with pachinko (gambling) parlors, but going further you can find yourself in its lively shopping streets or, walking along the Tokyu railway, you can enjoy the Shōwa atmosphere of “Bourbon Road”. This alley is mainly surrounded by izakaya (Japanese pubs) and bars, which may make it the ideal spot for enjoying a leisurely drink after your photoshoot.
2) Yūrakuchō – Gādo-shita
By now you may have realized that my best recommendations for street-shots in Tokyo are where the local people gather and drink. The Yūrakuchō area is no exception: this 700 meter-long space under the railways (this is what “Gādo-shita” means) between Yūrakuchō and Shinbashi is packed with izakaya, bars and restaurants.
The area – together with the neighboring Marunouchi area – is an office district, thus during the weekdays, you will discover it to be a bustling hub of businessmen enjoying glasses of highball, often until the last train is set to depart. If you are curious to see how the so-called “salarymen” of Tokyo unwind after a long day in the office, then look no further than Yūrakuchō Gādo-shita. The smoke billowing out from yakitori (chicken skewer) restaurants make for the best atmosphere for some deep and atmospheric street-shots.
Access is easy: just get off at either JR Yūrakuchō or JR Shinbashi station, and walk along the railway heading to the other station.
1) Nakano – Sanbangai
Katsuya has lived in Nakano for five years, and as a result, his number one choice for this list couldn’t possibly be anywhere else. Nakano is located in a fairly central position, but since the 1950s has developed as a subcentral and subcultural location. The entire area between JR Nakano Station North Exit and the Nakano Broadway – a well-know destination for manga and anime lovers – is bursting with diversity, from food and shopping to its variegated scenery and labyrinth of back-streets.
The most scenic spot is surely Sanbangai, with its pyramidal lamps decorated with camellia flowers and birds. The positioning of these illuminations seems to be entirely random and the lit-up signs of the surrounding restaurants add even more to the confusion, but this can only be one of the best examples of beauty in chaos.
To reach it, take the North Exit from JR Nakano Station and walk straight under the roofed shopping street (Nakano Sun Mall). Keep an open eye when it comes to the perpendicular streets and you will for sure recognize Sanbangai when it comes into sight.