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Digital Subscriptions > National Geographic Traveller (UK) > October 2018 > TOKYO


Delving into the suburbs on a mission to eat with the locals reveals a way of life a world away from the neon-splashed chaos at the hypermodern heart of the metropolis

“You always bump into someone you know here,” Daniela Baggio Morano exclaims, waving to a passer-by. She’s walking me from Kōenji train station into a kaleidoscopic flurry of vintage clothes shops, secret vinyl stores and lantern-lit laneways wafting with smells from early evening izakayas (pubs).

It’s Saturday afternoon, daylight is dipping and neon signs are sparking to life, cooking up a weird, electro-sunset that makes everyone look like the cocktail party version of themselves. Passing beneath a bridge, we pause to watch a young band of buskers bash out their take on W B Yeats’ poem Down by the Salley Gardens. A JR Line train thunders overhead. And Daniela keeps spotting people she knows. It’s the last thing I expected in Tokyo — a sprawling super-city that’s home to 37 million souls.

“Kōenji is really alive,” Daniela chirps, whisking me from the candy-coloured rails of a kawaii clothing (cutesy, Lolitaesque) store to a shoebox-sized Okinawan restaurant for snacks. A guide with personalised tour company CityUnscripted, she’s half-Japanese, half-Italian and 100% Kōenji — a natural ambassador besotted with this hip suburban hood since moving here several years ago.

High-rise Roppongi (the entertainment district), it ain’t. Right up until the 1920s, Kōenji was a quilt of rice paddies.

Communities began to sprout here after the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923, but it avoided the Second World War bombings that levelled much of Tokyo, and so retains its low-rise, lived-in, shitamachi (old town) feel. Kōenji has a bit of grit, too — it was the birthplace of Japanese punk in the 1970s, and even today, you’ll struggle to find a single Starbucks. Wearing black jeans, T-shirt and Docs, Daniela fits right in.

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About National Geographic Traveller (UK)

We grab our binoculars and set out to discover the awe-inspiring wildlife of India, scouting out the likes of Bengal tigers, one-horned rhinos and snow leopards in some of the subcontinent’s most dramatic national parks. Elsewhere, we explore the winelands of southern Australia; cross the frozen frontier of the Antarctic Circle; and spend a long weekend in the city of Leeuwarden. Other highlights this issue include the Faroe Islands, Tel Aviv, Manhattan, Tokyo and Santiago, while our photo story takes in the fresh air and Alpine beauty of Switzerland.