Exploring Tokyo's Koto neighbourhood

By Linda Lombardi

Head away from the hustle and bustle to find a different side to Tokyo, suggests Linda Lombardi.

Japan with the Tokyo Tower. Photo / 123RF
Japan with the Tokyo Tower. Photo / 123RF

Explore Tokyo beyond the crowded tourist highlights and you'll find many older parts of the city with a different look and slower pace.

Koto, the area around the Metro station Kiyosumi-Shirakawa, is a convenient side trip if you're visiting the Tokyo Skytree, which is four stops away.

The neighbourhood may not be picturesque in the conventional sense but there's a lot to see if you have an eye for detail and an appreciation for the charm of the urban and slightly shabby.


From the Metro station, head south and turn right on to an old shopping street marked by two small decorative towers. On your right you'll see an old-fashioned candy shop where the proprietor dresses in garb from the Edo period (including an entirely unconvincing wig of a topknot hairstyle). Farther along on the left is the Fukagawa Edo museum.

Most tourists with any interest in history end up at the Edo Tokyo Museum with its indoor re-creations of historic buildings from the Edo era, which began in the 1600s. The Fukagawa museum, which predates the Edo Tokyo museum, is much smaller and more charming, with a life-size Edo-period town re-created on its lower level. Be prepared to take your shoes off to go inside the little shops and homes, and a guide with adequate or better English will show you how the old-fashioned locks work and how ropes pull a skylight open over a stove. You can even try a rice-pounding device.

The guide will also explain how to tell the difference between a nice but tiny house for someone well off (note the tatami-covered floor) versus a poor person's home with a mostly bare wood floor and just a couple of rice straw mats. Lighting sets the mood through 15-minute day-and-night cycles with recordings of birds, and merchants calling.


Walk the small streets and alleys around the museum and you'll find a mix of residences, shops, small businesses and light industrial spaces. You'll find much that is rather old-time Japanese, like restaurants selling the local specialty of rice with clams. But the neighbourhood is also a hotspot for coffee shops.

Don't think in terms of grabbing a morning flat white. Some of these don't even open till later in the day, and they're more about relaxing and making a ritual of it. Some are quite small and the menus may be limited. The one I visited, aside from coffee and tea, had just two cakes and two flavours of small cookies, chocolate and sesame, but the cookies were exquisite.

There is also an outpost of a US chain, Blue Bottle, which caused something of a stir when it opened, with lines reported to be two hours long. Its conspicuous modern building with an industrial vibe and huge coffee-roasting machinery was far calmer on my visit.


Kiyosumi Gardens is easy to find on your way to or from the Metro, visible across the main street opposite the entrance to the shopping street near the Fukagawa Edo Museum. It's a beautiful garden laid out around a large pond, first opened for staff use by the founder of Mitsubishi in 1880 (it was a shipping company at the time), then donated to the city and opened as a public park in 1932. The garden is nice to stroll around or find a bench from which to gaze at the pond.


Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Tokyo.


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