Head north of Shinjuku and you’ll find yourself smack-bang in Shin-Okubo, better known as Koreatown. It’s the latest hotspot for teenage girls who have taken to the Korean pop culture craze, with more Hangul (Korean alphabet) signs than you can shake a stick at. Trying to walk down the main road on a weekend is not for the faint of heart. Yet it’s not only an enclave for the K-obsessed – quite a few different ethnic minorities have taken to the area for its cheap rents, ease of transportation and hodgepodge of cultures. If you don’t live in the area, the best way to get to know it is through its cafés and restaurants. There’s food here, and lots of it. Come hungry, leave delightedly full.
Start your day with some kimbap rolls at Myeongdong Norimaki, open 24/7, or have a simple morning set at coffee shops Shubelu or Tsune. Further towards Higashi-Shinjuku you’ll also find Tonsuke, a great bakery.
Shin-Okubo is where a lot of Tokyo’s minorities come to do their food shopping: stock up on South and Southeast Asian cooking staples (including halal options) at Asia Super Store, Kakyo Fukumusha and Green Nasco (pictured above) before the crowds get there.
Staples of Korean life such as metal crockery, tubs of gochujang chili paste and fluorescent green scrub gloves, plus – of course – stacks of kimchi can all be found at Seoul Ichiba, Kankoku Hiroba and Chongane (inside the Skin Garden building). Whether you’re homesick or looking for new snack inspiration, you’re bound to find something here.
Most Korean restaurants along the main drag offer lunch sets ranging from chilled noodles to kimchi jjigae stew. We particularly like Delica Ondoru (pictured above) and Kurumu Sanpa. If you want something different, try BW Café, where everything is made with buckwheat, or go straight to the halal Nasco Food Court, a Middle Eastern and South Asian eatery popular for its kebabs and biryanis.
Snacking and shopping your way down the main thoroughfare is the way to go, with the offerings always changing depending on what’s hot with the young crowd. Some staples are always in fashion, though: have a hotteok (pancake filled with anything from nuts to cheese and honey) at Popo Hotteok, treat yourself to bingsu (Korean-style shaved ice) at Homibing or Cafe de Bingsu (pictured above), or check out tteokbokki (hot and spicy Korean rice cakes) at the foodcourt inside Seoul Ichiba.
In between mouthfuls, marvel at the latest cosmetics at the ginormous Skin Garden, The Beauty Shop or Re:Make, just a handful of the skincare and cosmetics shops in the area. Take a peek at the latest Korean idol heartthrob at Hanryu Plaza. For a coffee break, stop by Egg Coffee for a Vietnamese hot drink of the same name.
Tonchang and Macchan are perennial favourites for Korean BBQ, with both having multiple locations in the area, while Samsoon (pictured above) offers a twist on the classic BBQ formula by using salted duck rather than pork. KFC (Korean Fried Chicken) and beer or soju are to be had at Hosigi 2 Chicken – they’re also famed for their cheese dakgalbi (grilled chicken with cheese). There’s plenty of other cuisines hidden between all the Hangul though: indulge in Nepali cuisine at Aangan (have a newar or thakali set); go for banh xeo and summer rolls at Vietnam-chan; have some Thai food at Baan Tum; or try the knife-cut wheat noodles at Chinese joint Sanseitei.
Spend some time soaking up at jimjilbang (Korean bathhouse) Ruby Palace (sorry men, it’s for women only), or the public baths of Mannenyu (pictured above). If you want a crash course in K-pop and J-pop, up-and-coming idols perform at Showbox, while Earthdom is possibly the key venue for Tokyo’s punk and hardcore fans. Some comedy shows and other live performances are held at the nearby Globe Theatre. For booze, you’re probably best off at some of the many restaurants, but drinks without food are to be had at Vivo Daily Stand and Maccoli Bar. Art Space Bar Buena has regular artsy events, or otherwise just head over to Shinjuku to see where the night takes you...
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