What To Do In Shimokitazawa – A Guide To Tokyo’s Vintage Thrifting Capital

by Jacob Harris
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Looking to score one of a kind vintage pieces tastefully curated in the Japanese aesthetic? Then look no further because Shimokitazawa is the place for you.

Shimokitazawa (下北沢) is a burgeoning hub of fashion, art, and cuisine among the young and in the know of Japan. Shop to your heart’s content or just revel in the sheer nostalgia of the countless vintage shops that sell everything from staples like LEVI’s denim, band tees, and Coogi sweaters, to rare vinyl records and toys. Turn any day into Throwback Thursday and be transported back to your favorite era!

Visiting the area for the first time can be quite a daunting task because it is jam-packed with countless little stores jam-packed with countless little treasures. Read on to find out more about some of the most popular places to shop, browse, and be inspired by.

A Shimmy Away From Shibuya

It’s hard to believe that there’s a place so close to a major commercial district where with a little patience, you can cop quality items at a fraction of Shibuya’s prices. Get to the Shimokitazawa Station from the Shibuya Station in less than 5 minutes by taking the Keio-Inokashira Line Express towards Kichijoji (130 yen). If you’re coming from Shinjuku, take the Odakyu Odawara Line to Shimokitazawa for 160 yen and get there in around 8 minutes. It’s,going to take you around 35 minutes if you’re coming from Tokyo Station, but it’s well worth the effort! Just take the JR Chuo Line Rapid to Shinjuku Station, then follow the steps from Shinjuku Station mentioned above. Once you reach the Shimokitazawa Station, look for the North Exit because that’s where most of the best shops are.

Farmhouse To Arthouse

Shimokitazawa, or ‘Shimokita’ (or even ‘Shimo’) to the locals, actually takes its roots as a farming community. After the catastrophic 1921 Great Kanto Earthquake, fear spread among those in the city center regarding the risks of living in such a densely populated area, and this led to an exodus towards the outskirts. During the WWII US occupation, soldiers designated this farming community-turned-residential district as a marketplace of sorts to sell second-hand and surplus goods. The 70’s hippie culture soon followed and saw an influx of creative bohemian youth, as they saw Shimokita as, both literally and figuratively, an avenue for freedom from the serious, uptight, and ‘white collar’-centricity of urban living. It is, perhaps, in this rather colorful history that it obtained its equally colorful character.

The Past And The Curious: Tokyo Thrift

Have you visited IKEA looking to buy some closet organizers only to get lost inside the store and come out with 3 packs of Linen-scented tea light candles, 2 throw pillows, and a 10-piece set of finger puppets? Well, Shimokita sort of does the same thing to you. Although its unplanned layout is part of its charm, it’s good to have an idea about some of the must-see shops, especially if it is your first time in the area. Here is a list of my top recommended stores to visit.

The Toyo Department Store (Shimokita Garage Department, North Exit )

This place is a must-visit for shoppers and window shoppers alike because it pays homage to the ‘traditional’ Shimokita-style shops. You’re immediately greeted by a pop of color, care of the rainbow-colored vintage clothing shop right by the entrance, which beautifully sets the tone for the entire place. It has a 500-yen vintage clothing store, among many reasonably-priced stores, a hat shop, independent retail shops, shops for accessories, and even a watch shop that sells artisanal handmade watches! It’s Shimokita in a (former beer garage of a) nutshell and if you’re pressed for time or if thrifting is not really your cup of tea, then this would be a great place to visit just to get a feel for what Shimokitazawa really is.

New York Joe Exchange (South Exit)

Judging by its name, you can probably tell that this store sells clothing that’s thrifted mainly from the US. What’s not so clear, and maybe a bit confusing though, would be its tiled interior, which is because it was a re-purposed public bathhouse. Prices are relatively affordable, so you’re bound to leave with something. No more luggage space? No problem. You can trade in some of your own clothing to make room for all the stuff you’ve bought. Joe’s thought of everything!

Chicago (South Exit)

With a mix of vintage Americana and traditional Japanese fashion, Chicago is a nod to this laid back town’s humble beginnings. Pick through their wide selection of Hawaiian shirts, denim overalls, army jackets, and LEVI’s jeans that could rival their local American counterparts. But one of the things that makes Chicago special is their selection of vintage kimonos, haoris, yukatas, and accompanying accessories. Their Shimokita branch is one of their largest, so don’t sleep on it.

Flamingo (North Exit)

With its cheeky neon sign that jumps out at you amidst the mishmash of stores that line the streets, you can expect to find pieces, mostly from the US, that are equally as flashy. Flamingo has two stores in close proximity to each other (Flamingo Shimokitazawa Mabataki and Flamingo Shimokitazawa 2 nd ), and each one is worth a visit. Don’t miss a chance to get even better deals if you’re lucky enough to catch them during one of their irregular sales!

Haight & Ashbury (West Exit)

Haight & Ashbury offers a more curated collection of high-end vintage clothing from Europe and America. With it being frequented by models and stylists alike, you just know that they operate on another level… actually, they literally operate on another level because they’re on the second floor. If you’re having trouble locating them, they have a giant red heel by the entrance that you can’t miss, so don’t forget to look up! Be prepared for higher price points, though, but everything’s still relatively affordable compared to similar items sold in places like Shibuya.

Pêche (North Exit)

A little slice of Paris in the middle of Shimokita, Pêche’s got you covered on all your girly, Parisian needs. After 20 minutes of browsing through its European antiques and knick-knacks, you might forget that you need to pay in yen!

Big Time (North Exit)

If you just want to go on a spontaneous thrifting spree without a shopping list, Big Time is the all-around vintage and import lifestyle shop for you. It’s two whole floors of everything from prairie dresses to mariachi hats and bicycles.

ANTIQUE LIFE JIN and ANTIQUE LIFE JIN II (North Exit)

Contrary to its name, they also carry a number of unused items like tote bags, cups, and hats—along with Japanese trinkets and those cute trendy novelties that you just can’t pass up. If you’re looking for antique home goods, on the other hand, then ANTIQUE LIFE JIN II is the place to be.

Soundsgood, Swing Toys, and Natsukashiya (North Exit)

Although we get a lot of entertainment out of the internet, gaming consoles, and apps on our mobile devices, visiting an old fashioned toy store will never lose its appeal. A look into these toy museums filled with antique toys from the yesteryears will certainly bring back memories and bring out the inner child in you! The best part is knowing you can purchase any toy that speaks to you (not literally, I hope!)

Flash Disc Ranch

Flip through records in this Shimokitazawa institution that’s almost 40 years old. A destination for music lovers since 1982, this independent record shop is owned by an equally interesting fellow, Masao Tsubaki. He grew up in the area and knows everything there is to know about it.

Shimokitazawa Cage

Initially intended to be a pop-up under the tracks, this popular modern space is a perfect place to relax, shop, grab a bite and have a drink (or three). They also screen movies, host live musical performances, and have a night market on Wednesdays to name a few, so they’re always cooking up something interesting here.

Thrifting Tips

  • Shimokitazawa’s laid back atmosphere extends to its operating hours. It’s best to start your day here at lunchtime because some of the shops you plan on visiting may not be open in the morning. 
  • Do note that more of the older, more established shops are located in the North side while the newer developments are mostly in the South side.
  • Be patient and keep your eyes peeled. Sometimes, it’s the story behind the hunt that makes the purchase all the more worth it. 
  • Try everything on whenever you can. The clothes come from different countries and different eras, so the sizes indicated on the tags aren’t the best guides.
  • Check if they have tax exemptions for tourists. Some bigger stores like Chicago deduct 8% off your bill if you spend a certain amount.
  • There’s a difference between items that are vintage and those that are secondhand. The former often fetch higher prices, as they’re at least 20 years old while the latter is a more general term that essentially refers to used clothing.
  • If you come across the word zakka, it comes from the phrase 閣下 雑貨 (kak-ka in dezak-ka), which means miscellaneous things’. Not to be reduced to mere kitsch, zakka refers to items with substance and stories attached to them that improve the overall aesthetics of your home.
  • If thrifting is not your thing, don’t feel pressured to buy anything. People watching and window shopping is an equally fun thing to do.
  • Speaking of people watching, recharge and enjoy the view with a handcrafted beverage from one of the many cafés in the area.

What’s Next For Shimokita?

Plans for the expansion and development of the area have been met with mixed reactions. Those in favor of it believe that an upgrade would create a more organized commercial space in line with the necessities of modern times. Those against it, on the other hand, believe that it would take away from the rustic, laid back nature of the place that made it the charming destination that it is in the first place. For now, major redevelopment has been focused on their transportation system. The Shimokitazawa Station Keiyō Line tracks are being expanded to accommodate heavy commuter traffic in the area, so expect it to be a little messy and watch your step!

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