Okay, maybe best neighborhood is a little opinionated, but after staying in Shimokitazawa during our recent Japan trip, I'm not sure why you'd want to stay any other place.
One of the biggest struggles that my girlfriend and I had during our time researching everything about Tokyo and Japan was what neighborhood to stay in during our stretch there. So many fucking options, as I'm sure anyone who's traveled to the area or any massive city for that matter can attest to. Shibuya, Koenji, and a couple others were also on the list, but eventually we decided on Shimokitazawa (Shimokita as it's commonly known.)
Shimokita is about 5-10 minutes West of Shibuya by railway, specifically the ODAKYU line, and while it's still part of the greater Tokyo area, it isn't as lit up, neon and similar to doing psychadelics like some parts feel. We loved that aspect of Tokyo, but also wanted to experience some of the counterculture and other things that gave the city character outside of what's seen by foreigners most.
Shimokita is by no means off the beaten path, though. You'll still see tourists, but they've all came there for a certain reason and are of a certain breed. You won't simply stumble upon Shimokita by proxy of a destination or attraction you may have found online, but if you've got an interest in the more counterculture, bohemian, and vintage side of Tokyo.
Vintage clothing stores are a big part of the Shimokita culture. You find them scattered across the area almost everywhere, on any floor of a building...I bet we stopped in at least 20 different stores. And they're not bullshit, either, you won't find much junk at all — but having said that you do a pay a premium for not having to sort through musty-ass grandma clothes to find something good like you might at a Value World or Goodwill. Chicago and Haight Ashbury were two of our favorites.
While prices might be a little high, I learned that most clothing is just plain fucking expensive in Japan. New t-shirts regularly go for 4000-5000¥, and even the "spring break" type shitty t-shirts in Harajuku barely fell below 2000¥. Not to say you won't find anything for cheap, there were quite a few 1000¥ street sales outside some stores around Shimokita. The popular stores Uniqlo and Muji also have a presence in the neighborhood.
Shimokitazawa is full of plenty of places to eat, including numerous conbinis (convenience stores) including 7/11 and Lawson...which are both clutch for click or very early/late bites to eat (SEE MORE ABOUT MY OBESSION WITH THOSE) when you're hungry, drunk, or a combo of both.
Bear Pond Espresso was definitely one of the more interesting stops we hit in the neighborhood. The shop has been touted as an niche and gritty (the owners are infamously stoic and stern), but at the same time serving up some of Tokyo's best coffee.
They're known for the Angel Stain, an extremely thick and full shot of espresso that's unlike any other coffee I've had before. Strong and full of texture...it had me fucking wired, perfect before heading into Shibuya for the day. Apparently they only serve a very limited amount of these per day before halting, so if you plan on getting one, get there as close to opening time as you can.
Much like most of Tokyo, though, small restaurants and bars are littered every where, and as long as you see people inside, it's a good bet that the food will be fire.
Japan's nightlife rages on very late, with a lot of places staying open util 4 or 5 in the morning, so there's no shortage of shit to do late (if you're not exhausted from walking all day), and Shimokita is no exception.
After accidentally sleeping from 4 to midnight Japan time the day after our flight (jetlag is a true fucking problem) we hit MOTHER, a very odd and avant-garde place for some drinks. Good prices and good cocktails (strong as fuck though). A must go place in the neighborhood for a drink.
We then stopped by a local hookah place, Shisha ONE Shimokitazawa, that we saw was packed the night before walking to our Airbnb to see if we could meet some locals. Hookah is a great relief to being buzzed on a night out and not being able to smoke pot after ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
We met a lot of good people here and had a great time — beers are priced well, too. The owner even hooked us up with a free t-shirt as as souvenir. All around a great place to hangout until 5AM, which after an unintentional 8-hour jet lag nap can be a good relief for inevitability of being wide awake.
The Darwin Room was an interesting place I had heard of online. It was described as an evolution museum, it turned out really just to be a store with some taxidermy and prehistoric skulls. Worth checking out as it's close to other things, but unless you can read Japanese there's not enough in here to take more than 5-10 minutes of your time.
If I didn't already love Shimokitazawa, we were fortunate enough (and lucky) to run into the head of Japan's medical marijuana organization, who we talked to for a bit before heading into his head shop, Taimado (taima [大麻] means cannabis in Japanese), which was the only instance of anything cannabis we saw in the country, thanks to Japan's unfortunately brutal and fucking absurd cannabis laws.
Wanted to grab a t-shirt, but again, clothes are so fucking expensive. Nonetheless, cool to check out one of Tokyo's few stores that has anything to do with my cherished devil's lettuce.
I'm a big sticker/patch/pin collector, so we had to stop inside B-Side Label. It's essentially a giant chain sticker store, featuring all types of proprietary designs and collabs. A little pricey and some of the designs are too cutesy and shit, you know. Some are pretty sick though and grabbed a Shin Godzilla one.
I was very excited to learn the infamous Chi-Chi's, a true icon when it comes to the Grateful Dead and the culture behind the band, was also a short walking distance away on the outskirts of Shimokitazawa.
It is a truly fucking awesome experience, both Chi-Chi and his wife are very nice people, and the shop is absolutely amazing. Some of the coolest custom Chi-Chi's shirts, tie dyes printed on Liquid Blue tees just like the official Grateful Dead shirts have been for decades.
An absolute must stop if you're a deadhead or have any interest in the band or counterculture at all...and get a picture in front of the mythical VW bus that Chi-Chi's is famous for.
Even though I have only experienced Tokyo for about 5 days, I feel like staying somewhere like Shimokitazawa would be the only way i would want to experience the city. A neighborhood with plenty of amazing restaurants and bars open late, it is a short train ride from the larger areas of Shibuya and Shinjuku. The larger parts of Tokyo are incredible, and the experience is no doubt great, but unless you want to rage at clubs with a ton of other tourists until 5am, inner Tokyo may not be for you.↑