TOKYO — The Japanese capital arguably has some of the best vintage shopping in the world, with stores across the city offering a huge variety of used pieces in excellent condition. Many visitors flock to areas such as Harajuku, Daikanyama and Shimokitazawa to get their fix. But to the west of the city center is an area that is often overlooked: Koenji.
With a location that is just removed enough from the packed streets of Tokyo’s business districts and yet still easily accessible, Koenji has a unique atmosphere that draws people young and old to its web of tiny streets. Old-school bars, Japanese-style pubs and “live houses” (small establishments with live music) mix with cool art galleries, great restaurants, eclectic cafes and, of course, some of the city’s best vintage shopping. It’s one of the few areas — if not the only one — in the city where great deals can still be found, and since many of the stores specialize in very specific eras or aesthetics, the clientele varies widely.
“This is one of the few places where you can live in a fashion style. You can wear the style and then go to a cafe that reflects that style, and go to a bar that fits in with that style,” said Samuel Thomas, a fashion consultant and lecturer at Bunka Gakuen University, who has lived in Koenji for over seven years. “You still have that connectivity between culture and fashion. You’ve got a place to buy the clothes, and you still have a place to wear the clothes. And you can do it any night of the week.”
But while Koenji may have a bohemian vibe to it, parts of it also retain a kind of standoffishness reminiscent of Japanese neighborhoods that have yet to become mainstream. Some longstanding stores are completely content with their core group of diehard customers, and may not always feel particularly welcoming to newcomers.
“It does have a degree of snobbery,” Thomas said. “It’s got subcultural snobbery — you’ve got to prove yourself. You’ve got to prove you’re a part of the scene.”
It’s difficult to say exactly how many vintage stores are peppered along Koenji’s streets, but one could easily spend several days wandering through them and still not see them all. And it’s not just fashion, either; there are used record stores, antique shops, bookstores, shops selling vintage toys and games, and so much more. Go for the fashion, and you may end up finding something you weren’t even looking for. From punk to preppy, there is quite literally something for everyone, as long as you have the time and patience to unearth it.
Here are just a few examples of what can be found in the vintage shopping haven of Koenji:
Albatross: Leaving from the south side of Kenji station and turning right will take visitors to the beginning of the Pal covered shopping arcade. Toward the end of the covered section is this men’s store selling Nineties dad jeans, colorful polo shirts, windbreakers, chinos, and printed T-shirts. It’s an influential shop that has helped to launch various trends, and yet doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Slut: Located more or less across the street from Albatross, this curiously named store focuses mainly on men’s wear, but also attracts female customers and even sells some children’s merchandise. It stocks an irreverent mix of Americana including military wear, Hawaiian shirts, light-wash jeans, Mickey Mouse sweatshirts and Western bandanas.
Oshare no Gaijin: With a name that translates to “stylish foreigner,” it’s not surprising to enter this small women’s shop and find delicate, feminine dresses, dainty blouses, flowy pants, and costume jewelry that looks like it would be perfectly at home at an English garden party but still translates equally well to the city. There’s a focus on European heritage styles, and prices tend to be fairly reasonable.
Fizz: Step into this comfortably spacious store and shoppers will immediately feel a relaxed, bohemian vibe. The racks are stocked with gauzy, ethnic print tops, long floral skirts, embroidered caftans, and pretty, loose cotton dresses that are perfect for hot summer days. In the middle of the store are all the accessories one would need to complete a laid-back yet put together look.
Hikari: A Koenji institution packed full of pastels and sparkles, this shop attracts young women in their teens to early twenties with its girly, sometimes even childlike aesthetic. Those who enter can expect to find items such as teddy bear print T-shirts, lace-trimmed dresses, tiered mini skirts, sequined tops, embroidered satin jackets, and even soft flannel pajamas in cartoon-like prints.
Rugged: As its name implies, this store focuses on outdoorsy styles for men who enjoy communing with nature — or at least looking like they do. Puffer vests and rain jackets in all the colors of the rainbow are paired with chunky patterned sweaters reminiscent of ski slopes, checked flannel shirts, and rustic tweed jackets.
Peep Cheep: Up a steep, narrow staircase on the corner opposite Rugged is this small but densely packed space specializing in Sixties retro fashion for women. It has a huge variety of colorful, all-over print dresses, and a few accessories, such as scarves and costume jewelry, are thrown in for good measure.
Hayatochiri: While not technically a vintage store, no shopping tour of Koenji is complete without a visit to this local landmark. Easily spotted by its yellow facade and an awning depicting two giant, angry cartoon eyes, the interior is a riot of color and texture. It sells original “remade” items pieced together from just about anything you can imagine: faux fur, kimono silk, leather, mesh, LED lights, studs, stuffed toys, patches, lace, and cartoon prints.
Gasoline: This men’s store is an homage to all things rock ‘n’ roll, with sturdy leather boots and Chuck Taylors on the shelves, and worn-in leather jackets and band T-shirts filling the racks. There are also some odd curios, studded jewelry, and military paraphernalia in glass display cases.
Whistler and Chart: These two stores occupy dual-level, neighboring units in a corner building and offer an impressive selection of men’s wear with an overall vibe that falls somewhere between hipster and preppy. Scores of leather shoes and bags fill the ground level of Chart, while upstairs has every color imaginable of pants, shorts, vests, polo T-shirts and neckties. Interior decorators can also find vintage quilts dating from the 1880s to 1950s, and Whistler has more polished suits, jackets, bow ties and hats.
Lover Soul: This neatly arranged women’s shop focuses on pieces from the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties including A-line dresses, low-waisted mini skirts, pussy bow blouses and even retro handbags. Psychedelic prints are mixed in with polka dots, plaids, checks and stripes.
Sokkyou: Calling itself an “inspirational” vintage shop, this store is located inside a residential building and always seems to stock a selection of styles that are perfectly on trend, as much of an oxymoron as that may be. Pieces by Marimekko, Comme des Garçons and Dries Van Noten mingle with beautiful caftans, tropical print shirts and lace blouses, as well as more minimalist items.
Mocha: This small shop inside the Pal arcade attracts young women who like to follow trends without dropping a large chunk of cash. While most of its selection is from unrecognizable brands, its mix makes it possible to create outfits like a lace camisole over a baby tee, paired with a track skirt and statement sunglasses or earrings — the kind of thing that is almost a uniform for young Tokyo fashionistas. Prices are even lower than many of the other stores in the neighborhood.
Little Trip to Heaven: Also located in the Pal arcade, this shop is all about femininity, with Fifties belted dresses in bold prints, silk print scarves, beaded tops, full skirts, lace tops and costume jewelry. It’s a popular stop for local women looking for something a bit different without experimenting too much. It’s also a great place to look for the perfect outfit for a costume party.
Watch: An Expert’s Guide to Vintage Shopping in Tokyo