Koenji, located just west of Shinjuku, is known for being the centre of Tokyo’s alternative culture. The area was ground zero for the city’s punk scene in the 1980s, and still retains a slightly retro vibe. It is also famous for its range of second-hand clothes stores, said to be the highest concentration in the metropolis.
Having lived in the area for the past year and a half or so, I felt it would be a shame not to reflect on my firsthand impressions of Koenji, and highlight some of the interesting things about it, now that my exodus is complete. (Please note that portions of this guide are based on my personal experiences and therefore unabashedly highly biased. YMMV.)
The name Koenji (高円寺) derives from the plethora of old temples in the area. And there are a lot. I happened to live across the street from one, so close it was within viewing range from my balcony. I have to say, the taiko drums on weekend mornings, and the blaring summer events were not my cup of tea. Definitely would not choose to live near a large temple (or shrine for that matter) again.
But I digress. Koenji was originally a sleepy farming settlement on the Ome-kaido Highway, but its population grew following the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. From the 1950s, Koenji started its own Awa Odori Festival – a homage to the famous Awa Odori Festival in Takamatsu, Shikoku Prefecture – which to this day remains one of Tokyo’s largest summer street festivals.
The area was largely unaffected by the modernisation of Tokyo in the 1980s, as such retains a retro vibe with many characteristically small shops. Nowadays, it is the home of underground subculture for youth, with many live houses and used record stores.
According to government data, the population of Suginami Ward, in which Koenji sits, is 569,344 (as of 1st Dec 2018). Foreign residents make up roughly 2.87% of that. Of course, the figures also include the neighbouring Asagaya and Ogikubo areas, which have their own respective charm. The population of Koenji in particular is reputed for being quite young – perhaps they are drawn to the appeal of being walking distance to the subculture hub and 10 minutes by train to Shinjuku.
Koenji Awa Odori Festival
On the second last weekend of every August, the shopping street between Koenji Station and Shin-Koenji become packed with dancers and crowds which flock to witness the parade. It is the area’s largest event, so you can expect trains heading in that direction to be rather full over that weekend.
The dates for the festival in 2020 are August 22nd – 23rd.
Temples & Graveyards
Koenji is said to have a plethora of temples, and I also noticed there was no shortage of graveyards either. They were usually located near a temple, which makes sense as the vast majority of Japanese funerals are conducted as Buddhist ceremonies.
Not being Buddhist, the only temple that I ever really paid attention to was Horinouchi Myohoji (妙法寺). And that was not by choice, but rather because it was right across from the closest supermarket and could be seen from my balcony. But it does seem to one of the more famous and bigger ones in Koenji.
Myohoji is a temple for yakuyoke (除厄け), which essentially means it’s a place Japanese people come to ward off evil or get rid of bad luck. There is a Japanese superstition known as yakudoshi (厄年) — certain years in one’s life where misfortune can easily occur. In these years in particular, which are different for men and women, people go to temples or shrine to get the bad luck removed in a religious service for a fee. Myohoji professes to specialise in this ritual.
The temple gate looks very mystical and impressive at night when lit up. And the atmosphere is excellent during events, when food stalls are set up in the front garden. But I was not a fan of living so close to it. As mentioned before, visitors rang the bell frequently everyday, and taiko drumming also seemed to a regular weekend ritual. Plus the summer events were LOUD. Thankfully, they generally ended by 10pm, but still. The apartment was a poor choice on my part, for more reasons I will outline later.
As mentioned, Koenji is well known for its vintage clothing stores. Including this one: SLUT.
The shopping street which runs between Shin-Koenji Station and JR Koenji Station is lined with second hand clothes stores. So take a stroll down it and you’re sure to find something to your tastes.
Cafes and Cheap Eats
There are many cafes, restaurants and fast food chains around the shopping street that links Shin-Koenji and Koenji stations and beyond. McDonald’s, KFC, Sukiya, Matsuya, Saizeriya, you name it. Prices tend to be quite affordable and cheaper than the main Tokyo spots. Besides the franchises, of particular note in Koenji is Tensuke, a counter seat-only specialty tempura restaurant that is famed for its tempura soft-boiled egg over rice, and the chef’s frying performance.
I actually learnt of this place when it was featured on the popular TV show 「Youは何しに日本へ？」 (Why Did You Come to Japan?), in which a Scandinavian Airlines air hostess made it a point to eat here every time she had a layover in Tokyo.
The Tamago Set for 1,500 yen is good value as you get the famed tempura egg over rice, miso soup, pickles and a selection of tempura seafood and vegetables. The staff are all very friendly, and can speak some English given the number of tourists that dine here. The chef does impromptu performances; during the time I was there, he cracked two eggs, threw the shells behind him and made a cross-eyed face.
The restaurant is open from 12pm – 3pm and 6pm – 10pm. Since only around 12 people can fit in here at once, expect lines. Address: 〒166-0002 東京都杉並区高円寺北3-22-−7
Getting to Koenji
Koenji can be accessed either by Koenji Station on the JR Chuo Line, or by Shin-Koenji Station on the Tokyo Metro Marunouchi Line.
My Impressions of Koenji
This street, shimmering in the August summer heat, stayed in my memories long after I inspected the apartment building I would choose to live in for a year and a half. It was so calming and picturesque that I thought it would be my kind of neighbourhood.
Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of the biggest mistakes of my life. The neighbourhood was fine (bar the proximity to the temple), but the apartment I chose ended up being next to a batshit crazy Japanese guy, who would bang on the floor at all times of the day. The experience sadly tarnished my entire impression of living in the Koenji area. I couldn’t wait to be rid of the place. The day I handed back the key I felt as if a weight had lifted off my shoulders.
But I know many others with more normal neighbours who love living in the area. And Koenji generally enjoys a good reputation for safety and quietness. Those coming to check out the festivals, temples and shops won’t have any problems, of course. Those considering living in the area, it’s not a bad choice. Just be careful of the crazies.