Large numbers of small bars, live houses, and ethnic restaurants
Full of second-hand clothing shops, as well as music stores, book stores, head shops, and tattoo parlors.
Has a red-light area very near the station
Home to many serene temples - and some shrines
Venue of the massive summer Koenji Awaodori Dance Festival, one of Tokyo's Big Three Festivals
Koenji is in Tokyo's Suginami ward in the area around Koenji Station on the JR Chuo line.
Koenji is famous firstly as a center of alternative youth culture, in particular for its second-hand clothing stores: the most of anywhere in Tokyo.
There are 18 shopping promenades in Koenji within its approximately 2 square kilometer area.
Present-day Koenji's roots are in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. In the two decades before then it was remarkable only for its numerous temples relocated from central Tokyo. Otherwise it was a sleepy farming settlement on the Ome-kaido Highway.
The immediate aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 saw an influx into Koenji of small merchants and laborers displaced from downtown Tokyo by the destruction. Koenji Station had just opened in July 1922, making it convenient to Tokyo, as well as an Ogikubo-to-Shinjuku tram that stopped at several places in Koenji.
The local farmers subdivided their land and put up cheap housing for the new entrants. Businesses catering to them sprung up along the transportation routes: open air markets, stores for household wares, and cheap eateries-cum-bars.
In the 1950s, Koenji was well known for its tea and coffee houses (kissaten) and for the start of the Awa Odori Festival - a smaller-scale copy of the famous Awa Odori Festival in Takamatsu, Shikoku, started by Takamatsu natives who had moved to Tokyo, and in the 1970s - along with Nakano a couple of stations east on the Sobu/Chuo line - for its youth music scene, most notably, Japanese punk.
These roots are still alive in today's Koenji. It is a young, energetic, free neighborhood with a 24-hour vibe, where fun and adventure can be had without breaking the wallet. And, if you're wondering about safety: of course, care must be taken wherever you are, but we have never seen any trouble to speak of in Koenji.
Koenji by day
Clothing Koenji is - along with Harajuku and Shimokitazawa - famous for its second hand clothing stores. Turn right out of the south exit of Koenji Station, walk through the covered PAL Arcade, and you are in the second hand clothing store area, centered around Look Street.
Look Street is where the young come to look for cool, usually second-hand, clothing. The street escaped damage during WWII, and stores from that era give the street a retro feel. Far from hawking just grunge, most of the merchandise is in very good condition, and many very well priced, cutting edge, good looking items are to be found.
Music, books, old toys
Koenji is also renowned for its music scene. It has a reputation as the birthplace of the punk movement in Japan, and is packed with "live houses" (i.e. tiny clubs for live bands).
Koenji's many second hand music stores are a music collector's paradise stocking a lot of rare items. Even for those with a more casual interest, such stores - not to mention the bookstores and old toy stores also in the area - offer some fascinating finds.
Koenji YouTube Video
Koenji is one of the best places in Tokyo for cheap and varied nighttime entertainment. The entrance to Koenji's main nightlife center is Nakadori Shotengai, or Central Road, just west of the station and running parallel to the northern side of the JR Chuo/Sobu railway line. Enjoy the glorious mixture of yakitori shops, izakaya, strip clubs, live houses, theme bars, ethnic bars and restaurants (check out Persian belly dance bar BolBol), karaoke bars, head shops, and more. For cheap, cozy drinking check out Bar Secret Base Zero, where everything is 500 yen.
Koenji is home to 12 temples and a shrine, nearly all of them south of the station.
Chosenji (長仙寺）(full name, Nichi-Osan-Ajari-In-Chosenji) was established in 1704, belongs to the Buzan branch of Shingi Shingon Buddhism, and its focus of worship is a 55cm image of The Immovable, a manifestation of the Mahavairocana Buddha. Google Map
Saijoji（西照寺), founded in 1574, belongs to the Soto school of Buddhism, and its focus of worship is Sakyamuni ("Sage of the Sakyas"). It was built to venerate an image of the Amitabha Buddha that fishermen of Hibiya Village (now in Uchisaiwaicho, Chiyoda ward) found in their nets. Google Map
Sho-oji（松應寺）founded in 1656, belongs to the Soto school of Buddhism, and its focus of worship is the Aryavalokitesvara. Sho-oji was originally built in what is now Taito ward, but was moved here in 1918. Buried here is the prolific and multifarious political thinker, Nobuhiro Sato (1769-1850), born in Akita prefecture. Google Map
Sotai-in（宗泰院）dates from 1584, belongs to the Soto school of Buddhism, and its focus of worship is Sakyamuni ("Sage of the Sakyas"). It is home to a unique jizo (guardian deity of children) statue depicting the goddess suckling an infant. Google Map
Choryuji（長龍寺） was founded in 1593, belongs to the Soto school of Buddhism, and its focus of worship is Sakyamuni ("Sage of the Sakyas"). After its erection in present-day Chiyoda ward, it was moved twice: first, to Ichigaya-sanaizaka in present-day Shinjuku ward, then to its present location in 1909 as part of the expansion project of the local Imperial Japanese Army Academy. Google Map
Jo-unji （浄雲寺）was founded as a place for sermons on the Amitabha Buddha. It became a proper temple only in 1951. Google Map
Fukujuin (福寿院）was founded in 1627, belongs to the Soto school of Buddhism, and Fukujuin's focus of worship is a rare 48 cm-high gilt bronze image of the Sakyamuni ("Sage of the Sakyas"). Fukujuin was built for the repose of the souls of samurai warriors of Iga province (present-day Iga City in Mie Prefecture) who had been key players in the establishment of the Tokugawa Bakufu regime. Google Map
Chozenji (長善寺）was founded in 1590 and belongs to the Nichiren school of Buddhism. Chozenji's focus of worship is the Ten Spiritual Realms and an image of the saint Nichiren. Built originally in present-day Taito ward, it was moved to its present location in the mid-1920s. Google Map
Horinji（鳳林寺）was established in 1558 and belongs to the Soto school of Buddhism. The temple's focus of worship is the Sakyamuni ("Sage of the Sakyas"). Originally built in present-day Bunkyo ward, it was moved here in 1914. Enshrined here is an image of Ragaraja, a deity of love - for domestic harmony - and of the Samantabhadra of long life. Google Map
Saikoji（西光寺）began as a venue for sermons and got temple status in 1952. Saikoji belongs to the Jodo Shinshu school of Buddhism, and its focus of worship is the Amitabha Buddha. Google Map
Koenji（高円寺）founded in 1555, it belongs to the Soto school of Buddhism, and its foci of worship are the Kannon (deity of mercy) and an image of the Amitabha cast in about the fifteenth century. Koenji is famous for having enjoyed the patronage of the third Tokugawa Shogun, Iemitsu. This is why the temple now lends its name to the whole district. Google Map
Hikawa Jinja（永川社）is a Shinto shrine said to date from the early sixteenth century. Hikawa Jinja is only a minute's walk from the South Exit of JR Koenji Station. Google Map
Three recommended parks in the Koenji vicinity are:
Sanshi-no-mori (蚕糸の森) A large pond with a rocky waterfall, full of carp and tortoises. South-east of JR Koenji Station. Sanshi-no-mori is best accessed from Exit 1, Higashi-koenji Station, Marunouchi Subway Line.
Mabashi Kōen (馬橋公園) A large pond, numerous trees, including cherry blossoms, and children's playground. Mabashi Kōen is about 600m north-west of JR Koenji Station.
Wadabori Kōen (和田堀公園) Quite a distance from Koenji, actually - about 3km SSW - but good for really getting away from it all and strolling. Wadabori Kōen is centered around a river, and especially good for its cherry blossom in spring.
Za-Koenji Public Theater is a theater that strives to be avant garde - but retains a very barn-like appearance - opened in 2009.
Za-Koenji is for contemporary performing arts, including drama, dance, music and storytelling. It comprises a 230-seat main auditorium, a large civic hall, an Awadori Hall (especially for the Awadori Festival - see below), an archive of contemporary Japanese theater, and the Cafe Henri Fabre.
Za-Koenji is just a short walk east from the North Exit of JR Koenji Station.