Tokyo with a Countryside Feel: Get Local in Akabane
Among all these fantastic places there is one that I am particularly fond of, one that is not very well known to travelers. A place where people are just themselves, they are lively and love to have some fun. This place is called Akabane.
Located in Tokyo’s northern Kita ward right at the border with Saitama Prefecture, Akabane is very well connected with Tokyo’s central districts. Despite being part of the metropolis Akabane has a countryside feel. Here people are a community, they know each other and are never too busy to stop for a chat.
Akabane Ichibangai is the area where most restaurants and bars are. The nightlife in Akabane starts earlier than the rest of Tokyo and it’s not rare to see people sipping on a cold one as early as noon. In other parts of the city life is more hectic with people getting off work after 6, bouncing around a few izakaya and then running to catch the last train. People here seem to take it easier and take their time to relax and have fun.
Meet the People of AkabaneI have lived in Akabane for several years and to this day I consider it my favorite place in Tokyo. Today let me take you along Akabane’s streets and alleys with my friends, show you some of my favorite spots and introduce you to some of the people that make this place special.
■Grab a Steaming Lunch at Akabane's Iconic Oden PlaceFor our Akabane day we started off with one of the town's staples. Every morning, while kids are in school and busy salarymen are just getting their day started, Maruken Suisan is already serving oden to hungry patrons.
The restaurant consists of a window where you make your order and a few tables where you get to enjoy your steaming oden while standing.
At all times you can see people in the back preparing fresh oden ingredients to constantly refill the big pot. The owner is a legend by himself, he quickly fills plate after plate throwing in quick recommendations to undecided customers. Hearing him calculating your total and doing the math at light speed is something to behold. Everything is in Japanese, but the shop is not new to foreign visitors and they’ll help you out.
The oden is of supreme quality and one piece can be as cheap as 70 yen. I recommend a nice cup of sake to go with it.
Here’s a pro tip: if you order the sake, don't drink it all. Leave a little in the cup, take it to the counter, give them 50 yen and ask for a dashiwari. They will know what you want even if you don’t say anything. They will fill your cup with some hot oden broth and some spices. Trust me, it’s something you need to try.
InformationMaruken Suisan | 丸健水産 （まるけんすいさん）
Address: 1-22-8 Akabane, Kita-ku, Tokyo (MAP)
Hours: 10:30 a.m. - 9:00 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10:30 a.m. - 8:30 p.m. weekends and holidays
Closed on the first and third Wednesday of the month
■A Relaxing Afternoon with Shisha and CoffeeShisha de Tree is a cozy shisha bar where I love to chill in the afternoon before hitting the restaurants.
The young owner opened this place back in 2014 wanting to bring some “different culture” to the neighborhood. It has been very well accepted and is now one of the favorite gathering places for the younger crowd that took an interest in Akabane in the past few years. In 2017 they opened a sister shop called AndU in Ueno.
The cozy interior has a view on the street outside and there is also a nice upstairs space with soft armchairs. The shisha is 1500 yen. The staff is happy to help you choose a flavor and make custom blends for you. They also have an English menu. For drinks, Shisha de Tree puts special attention on coffee, but you can also choose from a variety of drinks.
As a cool addition, one of the staff members is a certified tequila master and each month he chooses a special and rare tequila brand as an addition to the menu.
InformationSHISHA de TREE
Address: 1-22-6 Akabane, Kita-ku, Tokyo (MAP)
Hours: 5:00 p.m. - 2:00 a.m. Monday-Friday, 2:00 p.m. - 2:00 a.m. weekends and holidays
Website (Japanese-only): http://shishadetree.wix.com/shishadetree
*please note that shisha flavors contain nicotine. Smoking age in Japan is 20.
■Taste Some Home Cooking like Your Japanese Mom Would Make ItAfter some relaxing time we head to my personal favorite place in Akabane. Yoriki is a narrow standing bar hidden away in OK Yokocho alley, run by an adorable couple. The bar has been around since the post-war period.
Every day the mama (this is what Japanese people call the female owner of a bar or restaurant) lovingly prepares some amazing meals. If you want to try Japanese food the way your mum would cook it if you were Japanese, this is the place to go. Today’s special was a steaming pot of oden and spare ribs.
Yoriki has a very warm atmosphere. If you’ve been here even just once, the second time you get through the door you’ll be greeted by a cheerful “welcome back!” as if you were the most loyal of regulars. And speaking of regulars, you’re always bound to meet a few here enjoying a chat with the owners or each other.
Everything is in Japanese and communication with foreigners often comes down to hand gestures, but having the food lined up right in front of you makes it really easy to order. Other patrons are also often willing to help out and practice their English!
Today we ran into my sanshin* teacher, Aikawa-san, somewhat of a celebrity in Akabane. He seems to know all the places and all the people. Many restaurants and bars in Akabane always keep a sanshin for him to play and Yoriki is no exception. If you’re lucky you might meet him and he’ll be more than happy to entertain you with some Okinawan songs.
*The sanshin is a traditional stringed instrument from Okinawa.
Aikawa-san offered to accompany us to the next places. As we leave, the mama follows us outside waving us goodbye and telling us to take care. It’s really like having a Japanese mum!
InformationYoriki | 順貴
Address: 1-17-4 Akabane, Kita-ku, Tokyo (MAP)
Hours: 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Closed on Sundays
■Go Back in Time with Japanese Candy and GamesThere is one more place that I want to stop at before the sun goes down, so we make our way to Taneya. This shop mainly sells dagashi or Japanese candy. Dagashi are very cheap and somewhat nostalgic for Japanese people. Aikawa-san didn’t waste time in pointing us to his favorite treats in a multitude of strange and colorful packaging.
Right outside the store are some old Japanese games. These work with a 10 yen coin (about 0.09 USD!) and you can win tokens to exchange for sweets inside.
We tried our luck and with just 20 yen we won a handful of tokens! Each token is worth 10 yen so it looks like we made a profit here.
We sat outside and started going through our loot as Aikawa-san explained some of the sweets to me. There are little salty seaweed strips, thin crackers that come with a sour plum jam to spread on them, lemon candy with an edible wrapping and all kinds of treats. Some of them have a little marking inside the packaging that says “win” or “lose”. If you win, you get another one of the same candy for free.
The family running this shop is very nice. As we were chatting, the owner’s wife casually mentioned that her husband was upstairs in the dojo with his students. Even Aikawa-san was surprised. “There is a dojo upstairs? I didn’t know that!” and so she proceeded to accompany us to the back through piles of boxes and up a staircase to the dojo. Akabane is full of surprises!
In the end they even let us try one of the basic forms! This was completely unexpected but it’s a great example of the warmth of the people of Akabane. In the end we left Taneya with our heart filled with joy and our pockets filled with candy.
InformationOkashi no Taneya | お菓子の種屋
Address: 1-29-10 Akabane, Kita-ku, Tokyo (MAP)
Hours: 8:00 a.m. - 9:00 p.m.
■Here You Come for the Skewers and Stay for the SkewersLiterally a few steps from Taneya is our next destination, an izakaya called Enab. Now, you might have tried or heard of kushiyaki, the classic Japanese grilled skewers. They can be found everywhere in Japan and choosing a favorite place is close to impossible. That said, if you come to Akabane you’ve got to try kushiyaki at Enab. They melt in your mouth like nothing else I’ve ever tasted.
Guided by Aikawa-san we order a selection of the most popular dishes, and the staff gets to work at the grill.
Enab also has a basement club space with nice sofas and a stage, where they hold music and comedy events. I have also played here several times with my sanshin class!
There is no English menu but the staff are very friendly and helpful. Using a good old “osusume” to ask for a recommendation always goes a long way and you can’t go wrong here.
InformationEnab | エナブ
Address: 1-31-1 Akabane, Kita-ku, Tokyo (MAP)
Hours: 6:00 p.m. - 3:00 a.m. Monday-Thursday, 6:00 p.m. - 5:00 a.m. Friday-Saturday, 5:00 p.m. - 00:00 a.m. Sunday
■Let’s End the Night with Some Fusion
With our stomach almost full we head to the last place for the night, Enja. The interior features a small but stylish wooden counter. The owner, Urakawa-san opened this space back in 2009 and since then the people of Akabane gave it a lot of love. I like coming here just before heading home and treating myself to a last drink or night snack.
What I like about Enja is that it mixes Japanese and foreign cuisine to create a unique menu. My favorite combo here and my personal recommendation is their one-coin okonomiyaki, accompanied by a homemade sangria.
Urakawa-san puts a lot of care in his red and white sangria, filling it with lots of seasonal fruit.
Enja’s okonomiyaki are prepared to order by Urakawa-san right in front of you. If you visit before 10 p.m. you can get one of his flavor-packed okonomiyaki for just 500 yen (before tax)! There are many other choices on the menu as well.
Look at this beauty. This one is topped with mentaiko sauce and filled with mochi and cheese. Extra chewy and creamy. Once again, no English menu here but Urakawa-san can speak enough English to help you order.
InformationEnja | えんじゃ
Address: 1-10-5 Akabane, Kita-ku, Tokyo (MAP)
Hours: 5:00 p.m. - 00:00 a.m.
Website (Japanese- only): http://www.enja.jp/
Events in AkabaneA unique district also deserves a unique local festival. If you’re around in late April to early May don’t miss Akabane’s biggest event, the Baka Matsuri (fools festival).
The event has been celebrated since the 1950s and it includes a big parade with a portable shrine and dancing groups of all kinds, from Japanese folk dances to samba. If you’re wondering what the “fool” part refers to, let's just say that people like to dress in an extravagant way for the occasion.
InformationAkabane Baka Matsuri | 赤羽バカ祭り
Dates (2019): May 11-12
Website (Japanese-only): https://www.akabanebakamatsuri.com/
How to get thereYou can very easily get to the JR Akabane Station via the Saikyo Line from Ikebukuro (8 min.), Shinjuku (15 min.) and Shibuya (19 min.). You can also take the Utsunomiya or Takasaki Line from Ueno (10 min.) and Tokyo (15 min). Alternatively, if you’re using the subway you can access Akabane via the Tokyo Metro Akabane-Iwabuchi Station.
Akabane is also a 40-minute direct train ride from Odaiba (via Rinkai Line form Tokyo Teleport Station), and even Yokohama (via JR Tokaido Line).
When friends or family come visit me in Tokyo, I always take them to Akabane. No other place is so homely, friendly, fun and even a little bit crazy. Of course I hardly did the place justice because there are so many more great places and people to encounter here. Therefore I encourage you to explore and find your own Akabane, your home away from home in Japan.
About the Author
Laura is an Italian living and working in Tokyo. She loves exploring hidden and unknown places, taking pictures and listening to Punk Rock music. When she’s not busy doing the above, she might enjoy a craft beer or play the sanshin (an Okinawan instrument similar to a shamisen).
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THIS ARTICLE IS BASED ON INFORMATION FROM 03 19,2019 Author：DiGJAPAN! Editorial Team