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Koenji is the pair of colourful socks hiding underneath Tokyo’s standard-issue black suit. It’s a clustered suburb of subculture with an atmosphere that feels a million miles from the occasionally suffocating city centre yet, despite being only 6 minutes west of Shinjuku on the Chuo line, is inexplicably one of the cheapest places to live in Tokyo.
On my first weekend living in Koenji I caught the last train home from Shibuya (at 12.51am – late trains are another reason to live there), to be greeted by the muffled sound of Joy Division playing nearby. Underneath the bridge were three guys passionately belting out “Love Will Tear Us Apart” on a guitar, a harmonica and a cello. Within twenty minutes the crowd watching had grown from a few bystanders to an audience of dozens, the majority singing and dancing along to the tunes in the middle of the street, stopping only to let the occasional bewildered driver past. The party went on until 2.30am when the police politely moved everybody on.
You can find those same guys there most weekend, usually plus a few other random local musicians who are welcomed warmly when they come and join in. Throughout the times I’ve stumbled over to clap and shout the wrong words along to their jubilant playing I’ve seen a foreigner and an elderly man playing violins, a young guy drawing sounds from a wooden box that I would have previously deemed impossible, and casual passers-by stop to suddenly unleash the kind of extraordinarily adept vocals that would warrant a five minute segment overlaid with tear-jerking piano solos on The X Factor.
The daytime is also a good time to catch buskers from a variety of musical genres as they vie for playing time in the main square, politely taking it in turns to serenade the people of all ages who’ve come to drink outdoors, skateboard, or simply take a break from their office.
The Koenji Awa Odori is one of the best events on the Tokyo calendar, with 12,000 brightly-garbed dancers and musicians parading through streets and alleyways. At another lively summer festival, the Koenji Daidogei, dozens of street performers do everything from 3D chalk drawings to balancing acts. This year there was also a bunch of topless women painted gold for some reason I didn’t comprehend.
It’s not bad for food and drink, either. Big groups are better served elsewhere, but with dozens of venues within a few minutes walking distance of the station (a testament to their quirkily tiny size as much as their abundance), it’s the perfect place to start or end your night. Personal favourites include the two shisha bars, Koenji Bakushu Kobo offering an ever-changing roster of craft beers, the outdoor crate-seated yakitori restaurants scattered around the station in the summer, Sempre for Tokyo’s cheapest pizzas, Fatz Burger, El Pato and Bake Crown’s Cafe when you need a fix of American/Mexican food and, of course, Captain Bacchus, which has the best drinks offer in town – unlimited wine all night in exchange for ￥980 and a hangover potent enough to kill a child.
Best of all, the presence of Nakano and Asagaya on either side mean even if you do somehow get bored of Koenji’s scene there’s still plenty within walking distance.