This article is part of a guide to Tokyo from FT Globetrotter
One step out of Shin-Okubo station and you will find yourself in Koreatown, a bustling Tokyo district exploding with energy. The noise and crowds may be a little overwhelming for first-timers, but the area is a gold mine for fans of Korean street food and barbecue, sweets to die for and beauty products. Upbeat hits by K-pop superstars such as BTS and Blackpink play from street-facing speakers, luring you into stores selling Korean pop-culture merchandise — from tumblers, paper fans and key chains to mouse pads emblazoned with your favourite band member’s face.
As a longtime lover of K-pop, I like to explore Shin-Okubo, either alone or with fellow fans. The recent Hallyu wave, otherwise known as the rise in global popularity of Korean pop culture, has given the neighbourhood a burst of vitality, despite strained Japan-Korea relations. Its streets are often awash with young people and it has become a key sightseeing spot that is just as worthy a visit as more famous destinations like Shibuya or Harajuku.
The area can be a lot to take in at once, so why not make a day of it and shop and eat at leisure? Here are five of my personal picks to help you use your time wisely.
Street food: Jongno Yataimura
NK BUILDING, 1-6-15 HYAKUNINCHO, SHINJUKU-ku, TOKYO 169-0073
Good for: Those looking for a budget midday snack
Not so good for: Taking a relaxing break
FYI: Cash only and no big notes
The streets of Shin-Okubo offer plenty of hole-in-the wall takeaway food. About three minutes on foot from the station you’ll find Jongno Yataimura, a famous vendor that serves up authentic South Korean grub.
The most popular item on its menu is the potato mozzarella corn dog. Instead of sausages, this Korean staple coats a stick of cheese in homemade batter and potato cubes. The concoction is made mainly from rice flour, which yields a chewy yet fluffy texture. Combined with the melted cheese inside, the deep-fried corn dog is a great midday snack. There are bottles of ketchup and mustard as well as sugar for those who like their corn dogs sweet and salty, in true Korean style. Jongno sells about 300 of them at weekends. There will probably be a long queue but it is fast-moving, so the wait time shouldn’t be too bad.
For those who don’t fancy the corn dog, grab a cheese dakgangjeong, South Korean-style fried chicken coated in a sweet-yet-spicy sticky sauce topped with cheese, or hotteok, a pancake filled with honey syrup.
K PLAZA II, 2-1-2 HYAKUNINCHO, SHINJUKU-KU, TOKYO 169-0073
Good for: Trying out different products to find what is best for you
Not so good for: Those looking for cheaper deals. Other stores have less expensive products you can buy in bulk
FYI: Some of the shop assistants can be a little aggressive in their sales talk
K-beauty trends have started to dominate the global skincare industry. Products used by famous Korean actors and stars constantly trend on social media, frequently resulting in items going out of stock online.
Walking along the streets of Shin-Okubo, you will come across various stores selling Korean cosmetics and products for skin and hair. For anyone interested in improving their skincare routine, or those looking for ideas for gifts, I recommend popping into Skingarden.
With possibly the widest range of products out of all the district’s K-beauty stores, it will take some time to browse Skingarden thoroughly. Close to the register are sheet masks — an essential element of the K-beauty regime — ranging from those for the face and lips to the hands and feet. I recommend the green-tea-essence ones, which are great daily skin-soothers. Go up to the second floor for make-up and skin products that are a little more high-end, including products from South Korean brands such as Tirtir, VT Cosmetics and Moonium. You can also find great deals in the “while stocks last” sale corner. And they do sell out.
The sales assistants are knowledgeable and will ask if you need help looking for specific products. Tell them about your skincare needs and they will recommend a product to suit you.
Supermarket: Seoul Ichiba
HOSEIDO BUILDING, 1-16-15 OKUBO, SHINJUKU-ku, TOKYO 169-0072
Good for: Tracking down unusual Korean ingredients
Not so good for: A leisurely shop. It gets crowded and employees are often too busy to answer questions
FYI: They’ll wrap kimchi up with an ice pack to keep it fresh while you take it home
For anyone wishing to stock up on delicious Korean snacks and food, Seoul Ichiba, a small but superb supermarket, boasts a diverse line-up. The section that draws most visitors is the instant ramen aisle, which includes everything from Shin Ramyun, with its spicy beef broth, to the cup-noodle Chapaguri, which became a massive hit after it was featured in the Oscar-winning film Parasite. There’s also a great selection of spices, sauces and other ingredients to recreate your favourite Korean dishes at home, as well as sets of traditional Korean spoons and metal chopsticks.
Aside from the instant food, snacks and spices, Seoul Ichiba has a stand offering freshly made kimbap — Korean seaweed rice rolls with delicious fillings like pickled radish, cucumber and carrots — and tteokbokki, a popular Korean street-vendor snack: chewy rice cakes drenched in hot gochujang chilli paste.
Café: Bam Bi Coffee
1-14-26 OKUBO, SHINJUKU-KU, TOKYO 169-0072
Good for: A girls’ day out or a date
Not so good for: Big groups or those without a sweet tooth
FYI: You’ll probably have to wait in line. The queue does get especially long at the weekend
For a caffeine hit, head to Bam Bi Coffee, tucked away in an alley off a busy main street. Open since March, this small, airy space, with its simple wood and white-paint decor, is a welcome addition to the area. According to the manager, about 80 per cent of customers are female, both young and old. Although constantly packed on each of my visits, the place manages to maintain a calming ambience.
Its menu is a rarity in Tokyo. One of the most popular drinks is the Einspänner, a traditional Viennese coffee topped with a generous amount of whipped cream. The coffee is made from a blend of beans from Brazil and Guatemala, which gives a slight acidity that works well with the rich cream. Bam Bi also offers unusual drinks such as a creamy latte made with the herb yomogi, also known as Korean wormwood, and a black sesame latte.
To go with it, order a siad-injeolmi, a traditional Korean rice cake made from mochigome, or glutinous rice, powdered in a fine yellowish flour grounded from soyabeans. It has a wonderful bouncy consistency that goes well with the crunchy almonds and sunflower seeds sprinkled on top. Top it off with the café’s homemade cinnamon syrup.
VALUE OKUBO BUILDING, 1-14-18 OKUBO, SHINJUKU-KU, TOKYO 169-0072
Good for: A blowout feast
Not so good for: Vegetarians or vegans
FYI: The minimum order is for two people, so visit with a friend
For really authentic Korean cuisine, head to Tomato. Known for its samgyeopsal (grilled pork belly), this barbecue restaurant is popular among Japanese students as well as foreign tourists for its generous portions (and for the fact they use fresh rather than frozen meat, which is unusual).
Order the grilled pork belly by itself or, if you’re really hungry, plump for the all-you-can-eat deal, which includes three types of pork as well as side dishes including kimchi, green onion salad, Korean lettuce and pickled radish. Entrust the grilling to the servers, who will cook everything in front of you on an iron hotplate.
Wrap the tasty pieces of pork in lettuce and enjoy with ssamjang, a Korean dipping sauce — add raw garlic for further punch. If you’re curious about other options, chijimi is another fan favourite. The thin Korean pancake is speckled with spring onions and served with a tangy soy-sauce dip.
Tomato also offers a variety of soju, sometimes called the “Korean vodka”, a subtly sweet alcohol with a range of flavours including blueberry and muscat. Drink it neat as a digestif.
Share your favourite spots in Tokyo’s Koreatown in the comments
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