Where should I live in Tokyo?

So you are moving to Tokyo? You want a cool place to live or at least a low down on what your options might be?

First let’s start off with the geography of Tokyo. The #1 distinguishing “landmark” is the Yamanote (山手線 – drop the の) line. Either you live inside the Yamanote line or outside of it. The area is oval shaped about 6km wide and 10km tall – roughly Wall Street to the Upper West Side and 1st Avenue to Union City.

Living inside the Yamanote line will immediately increase your rent, but you’ll have full access to the Tokyo metro system as well as the Yamanote line itself. If you go on business frequently either out of the country or within Japan, then being close to Tokyo or Shinagawa station will make your life easier because both are terminals for the Shinkansen (bullet train).

Tokyo’s upper and east sides tend to be know as Shitamachi 下町 (sounds a lot better in Japanese then it may look in English) and are an older, poorer district of town. One of Tokyo’s few remaining street cars can still be found there and you’ll find the pace of life is slower. The prices for apartments and houses will also be cheaper, but older. Shitamachi definitely gets major props in the nostalgia category.

Moving to the west side of Tokyo you’ll find Ikebukuro up to the north, Shinjuku in the center and Shibuya / Ebisu down towards the south. Ikebukuro heavily services much of the traffic coming in Saitama, a neighboring prefecture to Tokyo. Ikebukuro is a place that I visit for ramen on occasion, but otherwise don’t find myself frequenting it’s streets, for whatever that’s worth. Shinjuku is the goverment headquarters for Japan and contains one of the largest shopping districts right next to one of the largest red light districts – Kabukicho. Shinjuku is generally a place to shop and work. Down the tracks a bit is Shibuya which is a Silicon valley of Japan with many up and coming tech companies and living there you’ll never be far away from a club, shopping, or, potentially, your work place. For those looking to be in the heart of throbbing Tokyo, Shibuya is an expensive and recommended locale.

To me, much of the center of the Yamanote line is a bit of mystery. Certainly plenty of people live within the Yamanote line itself rather than on the fringes, especially around the Roppongi area, but areas such as Waseda and Bunkyo-ku are filled with universities, although you’ll find them relatively enclosed communities so you won’t feel like you are living in a college town if you live close to them. The area near Roppongi and the imperial palace is filled with embassies, expats, and Mori buildings. Many financial companies and foreign companies reside in this area to create a impenetrable foreign bubble.

On the south side of the circle you’ll find Shinagawa and it’s neighbors such as Gotanada and Meguro. Once again, the areas are filled with big shinny buildings and Shinagawa is particularly bright and shinny. The Tokyo government continues to reclaim land and placing new towering condominiums on the land made out of trash. The streets are wider here (relatively speaking) and you’ll find a nice organized city spreading out before you.

If you are ready to venture beyond the safety of the cities hugging the Yamanote line, then you’ll discover many of the charms that the surrounding suburbs have to offer. To the east of Ueno you will find the true heart of Shitamachi. Further east of this area and to the south a bit you’ll come to a newly developed area in and around Kameido. The streets here are parallel and broad. Relatively cheap housing with good access to downtown Tokyo. Additionally, if you feel like moseying on down to Disney Land for the day or checking out what’s going on in Odaiba it’s a short commute. Friend’s coming in from Narita may also find it a relief not to have to head all the way into Shinjuku to see you.

To the west of Shibuya you’ll find a rapidly expanding area of Tokyo as the Keio and Toyoko lines attempt to service the ever expanding cities of Shimokitazawa, Meidaimae and Daikanyama. Shimokitazawa is a young, vibrant community with plenty of musicians and eateries. The commute into Shinjuku from these areas in the mornings is usually extremely crowded and will test your patience. The cheaper pricing in these areas and many other cultural benefits has driven hundreds of thousands to the area.

Similarily to the north one finds the Chuo line which services the Nakano and Kichijoji area. Nakano, located close to the Yamanote line is at times the city that time forgot, with it’s hipper neighbors, but has certainly made a name for itself within the manga crowds. 20 minutes from Shinjuku is Kichijoji which is another young and upcoming town. Despite the distance from the Yamanote line, property here is in hot demand and rent prices have soared, but you’ll find all the conveniences of the big city without as many high rises and more trendy cafes / restaurants. The Chuo line continues to be extremely crowded in the mornings as it reaches far out into the western suburbs of Tokyo bringing commuters in from 1 to 1.5 hours out. Within these suburbs you’ll find much more afforable housing and even a bit of green on occasion.

I was hoping that when I began writing this post that it would be helpful to those looking to get a glimpse of the housing seen in Tokyo, but I’m afraid I may have just confused things even more. In general:

  • North and North East: older, cheaper, and rich in culture
  • West and South West: newer, reclaimed land, but somewhat sterile feel
  • South Central: expat and expensive
  • East: business and shopping
  • South East: young, fast paced and loud
  • East Suburbs: moderately priced, music scene, and small community feel
  • Far East Suburbs: cheaper, open spaces and long commutes