Anybody experienced in Tokyo’s nightlife scene is all-too aware that the city’s best spots are not easily seen on the surface. Indeed, this place often makes would-be bar hoppers feel a strong need for a sturdy pair of x-ray goggles – ones featuring excellent department store- and pachinko parlor-piercing abilities.
The problem is, the hottest clubs are usually buried underground, the coziest izakayas (Japanese-style pubs) are often unmarked and perched atop rough and rickety stairways, and the artisanal liquor purveyors rarely advertise with more than a dusty, half-illuminated plastic sign, usually bearing nothing more than an enigmatic kanji (Japanese character). Unless you speak fluent Japanese and can plan your night on the internet, downloading applicable maps and coupons directly to your keitai (cell phone), like the natives do, chances are good that you’re going to end up being frustrated by the feeling that everybody else knows something you don’t.
Enter Kichijoji: Tokyo’s laid-back and bustling hangout for in-the-know twenty-somethings, hidden from the main tourist drag by its unattractive zip code. Kichijoji is not actually a part of Tokyo proper, but rather the larger metropolitan area. In local parlance, it’s a “shi” (city), not a “ku” (special ward), meaning that it gets left off of many people’s lists when considering a tour of Tokyo. However, anybody visiting Kichijoji will be presented with an authentic, hip town with its doors refreshingly wide open to the casual passer-by.
Get past the mediocre shopping arcade that looks like any of its other, ubiquitous cousins around town, and you’ll come across a network of tiny alleys hosting an array of smoky izakayas, tiny alternative bars, and a surprising variety of wine bars. The best time to come here is when the weather’s hot, and many of the establishments open up their walls to the alleys, creating the closest Tokyo comes to open-air eating and drinking opportunities.
If you’re hungry, sidle up to the counter of one of the many izakayas, serving up just about anything that can be skewered and slapped on an open-flame grill. Accompanying your yakitori (grilled skewers of pretty much anything edible that can be taken off a chicken) with a tall, cool glass of sake or shochu is practically a requirement. For some late-night relaxing, head to the nearly microscopic hookah bar just down the street, or enjoy a glass of wine at the open-air standing bar, paired with some excellent cheeses or charcuterie.
No matter where your night takes you, it should end at adjacent Inokashira Park – one of Tokyo’s most beautiful – for philosophical conversations under the cherry trees, illuminated by the moonlight off the pond.