Asia’s coolest cities

We’re calling it: Tokyo and Seoul are the coolest kids in town. This is the guide to the best neighbourhoods.

TOKYO

Harajuko

When Shakespeare said that all the world’s stage, Harajuku knew exactly what he meant. In this playful neighbourhood, the streets become a stage for Cosplayers dressed as fictional characters from manga or anime. This performance art has trickled down to the street fashion in Harajuku, where polka dot tights or gigantic bows are the norm under the fluorescent lights of the sleepless Takeshita main street.

But when its time for some peace and quiet, Yoyogi Park and Meiji Shrine sit just on the border of the neighbourhood. Admire the iconic cherry blossoms in late March or simply hire a bike for a few hundred and explore the nature retreat yourself.

 

Shimokitazawa 

Imagine tree branches playfully curved around doorways, impossibly narrow alleyways and life-sized murals gracing the textured surface of corrugated iron walls. This is Shimokitazawa.

Tokyo’s Newest “It” neighbourhood is a Pandora’s box of bohemian treasures. One thing just seems to lead to another. Walking down the wiry streets you might come across an outdoor café, a precious commodity in Tokyo, but not in Shimokitazawa.

Don’t be surprised if at night your quaint café transforms into a gallery, studio or even a smoky bar. On your way home, you might pass the alleyway artists and tunnel performers dressed in the vintage coats, jackets, and hats define the neighbourhood’s thrift store style.

 

Nakameguro  

One thing that no one wants to be on a holiday is rushed. And you’d be right to think that in Tokyo, one of the busiest cities in the world, a slice of piece and quiet isn’t normally on the menu. Except for in Nakameguro.

Renowned for its trendy cafés and laid-back attitude, this is a neighbourhood where shoppers can browse without the pressure to buy and you can linger for far too long at a café having only bought a coffee and a biscuit.

But Nakameguro’s relaxed nature does not equate to boredom. This is the place where new clothing designer go to make their mark and boutiques can be confused with high art galleries. Visit during cherry blossom season and the streets with be full to the brim with food stalls galore. You will have a hard time relaxing in a café when the senses are tempted by the myriad of delicacies on offer.

 

Akihabara

If manga, anime or vintage gaming push any of your buttons, then you can probably stop reading, because you will have definitely hear of Akihabara before. That’s because Akihabara, under a starlit sky of arcade lights, is the spiritual home of all things gaming, electronics and pop culture.

If you are visiting Akiba (as it is endearingly known by locals) for the first time, make sure you wander up and down the main strip. You will no doubt be endlessly fascinated by the unique experiences Akiba has to offer. To name a few; Yodobashi Akihabara, a nine story electronics super store, Beard Papa’s cream puffs, and maid cafés, where waitresses dressed in maid uniforms treat customers like masters. Don’t worry, its all PG.

 

SEOUL

Myeongdong

Myeongdong is a popular shopping-district and there are dozens of vendors’ cooking up delicacies as the smoke of the stands rises and bring warmth to the minus ten degree air. Winter can be difficult as the days grow shorter but the aromas of sweets and savories still draw locals and visitors in day in day out, with colourful delicacies that only the brave or the informed reach out and try.

Myeongdong isn’t the only market for food; everything from dried fish, to fruit and vegetable markets are spread across the city. But it’s the stalls on this particular strip that cause salivation at first thought. Food signs ‘fried banana with sprinkles, ‘glutinous egg cake, fairy floss and sugar pancake’  – the names do not do justice the colours, smells, and textures that this country’s sweet street foods have to offer. And it’s not just dessert. Kebabs, kimbap, noodles and tempura style vegetables also satiate the hungry shopper and avid tourist.

 

Hongdae

Hongdae

The streets here are long and wide, filled with the odd bench chair or children’s park every ten or so metres. It was hard to miss the smells of barbeque joints every five metres and that wasn’t including the array of Korean fried chicken and beer, also known as Chimaek, and dessert cafes.

The Hongdae district is a popular spot for backpackers but that gets me thinking why? The neighborhood and its surrounding areas like Hapjeong are renowned for their incredible youth culture. Originally an area for artists and musicians alike, Hongdae’s streets are filled with street art by students from the local university, and the voices of buskers who dance and sing their hearts out on the streets.

It was a rare sight to see such freedom and creativity, particularly in the youth who dedicated most of their time to study. I watched for hours as buskers replicated the dance moves and voices of their favourite K-pop artists’ and their music videos.

 

Samcheong-Dong

After a long day at Gyeongbokgung Palace, the main palace of the Josean Dynasty leads to a suburb along one of its sidewalls and to a coffee shop that offered dozens of western style delicacies. Samcheong-dong was like a hidden secret with boutique clothes, jewelry and galleries amongst the small streets.

It was a heavy contrast from Seoul’s neighborhoods. It was more peaceful, delicate and beautiful; the perfect contrast of traditional and contemporary. Find a set of stairs to Bukchon Hanok Village, one of the Korean traditional villages that stands over Samcheong-dong. The distinct character of the village and the suburb alike will imprint on your mind like stamp to a postcard.

Email the Travel Weekly team at traveldesk@travelweekly.com.au

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