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As the calendar year turns over, we’ve grown accustomed to the barrage of lists telling us where to travel during the next 12 months. Often these places are a country or even a whole region – you could spend an entire year exploring just one of the locations listed and still barely make a dent.

We like to travel on a smaller scale. Forget countries and cities, for us the neighborhood is the ideal unit of exploration. Celebrating neighborhood life and businesses is, of course, essential to what we do as Culinary Backstreets. Since our founding in 2012, we’ve been dedicated to publishing the stories of unsung local culinary heroes and visiting them on our food walks, particularly in neighborhoods that are off the beaten path.

Plus, we recognize that tourism, while a justifiably important economic force in many cities, can devastate the urban ecosystem if not distributed responsibly into neighborhoods otherwise neglected by the travel industry. To help that process along, two years ago we launched an annual “Neighborhoods to Visit” guide, featuring areas off the main tourist trail from all the cities that we cover.

Yet as various other annual “must-visit” guides have made clear, following the same formula year after year can lead to selecting destinations solely for the purpose of a complete list. So we’re changing it up in 2020, focusing on a smaller selection of neighborhoods (as well as the people and places that keep them going) that truly deserve the extra attention. Below is a compilation of six less-visited areas that our correspondents are eager to explore this year:

kiyosumi shirakawa

Tokyo: Kiyosumi Shirakawa

Tourists and Tokyoites alike may think they have little reason to cross the Sumida River, which marks the city’s eastern flank. The most famous site is Tokyo Skytree, a 630-meter structure that has become a symbol of the city’s skyline. Yet look closer to the ground, and you’ll find a far better reason to make the journey to this side of Tokyo: the neighborhood of Kiyosumi Shirakawa.

A casual stroll through the streets of Kiyosumi Shirakawa can produce a puzzling contrast. For the most part, slightly dilapidated houses and shuttered shops give it a sleepy feel, like a place that is still well loved but slowly fading from memory. Then, all of a sudden, a sleek gallery, trendy coffee shop or brightly lit store might slide into view, marked by a gaggle of customers arriving, leaving or even queuing.

Kiyosumi Shirakawa has earned itself a reputation as an art and coffee town, harboring several galleries in addition to the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art and at least a dozen coffee shops scattered around its streets. With countless hidden independent stores, cafés and bakeries, and with very few chains, it exudes a cozy neighborhood feeling combined with a laid-back trendiness.

There is no direct translation in Japanese for “gentrification,” but it’s nevertheless a concept that Kiyosumi locals and more recent residents appreciate well. The general consensus is that the area began its most rapid transformation after the California-based Blue Bottle Coffee marked its entry to Japan by opening a flagship café and roastery there in 2015.

However, the coffee boom was already brewing. Cream of the Crop, which opened in 2012, spawned Arise, when a former employee struck out with his own venture. Decked out with skateboards and other quirky decorations, its popularity saw an equally trendy sister store open the following year. Hip caffeine-seekers also bow to the southern hemisphere, stopping by the New Zealand-born Allpress Espresso or the New Zealand-inspired Iki Espresso, both of which serve highly respectable flat whites.

Despite riding the third wave, the area still retains many signs of the old ways of life. Narrow stores sell traditional food items, such as tsukudani, simmered small fish or seaweed used as salty-sweet rice topping, grilled eel, or chicken on sticks. Yet these are a stone’s throw from places like Ramvic, a cake shop seemingly located in an old garage, popular for its choux crème and distinctive for its graffiti-style exterior.

Many of these new ventures focus on high-quality Japanese food products. Bee Friendship offers a selection of honey, especially from Ehime Prefecture, where the owner is originally from. Cheese no Koe (literally “The Voice of Cheese”) specializes in artisan cheese from Hokkaido in the north along with highly popular cheese soft cream. Fujimaru Winery serves Japanese wines as well as an international selection, and Folkways Brewing takes German and English malt and American hops and uses them to brew beer with water from Koto Ward, where Kiyosumi is located.

Perhaps most charming of all is the evident camaraderie between the stores that has sparked countless collaborations. Artichoke Chocolate, in addition to selling high-quality sweet temptations that they temper in store in front of customers’ eager eyes, uses white wine from Fujimaru in some of its chocolates. The winter special flavor is yuzu, sourced from Yasai no Chikara (literally “the power of vegetables”), the sister store of Cheese no Koe. Nois, a bicycle store that even sells specialist dog carry baskets, also has a lineup of French cakes baked by a French teacher who lives behind the shop. Once a month, another local turns the store into a café with his own coffee pop-up, all beans roasted in his kitchen at home. Kiyosumi Shirakawa is a neighborhood in the truest sense of the word – it feels, well, neighborly. – Phoebe Amoroso

Published on January 14, 2020

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