Shin Okubo: Adventures in Tokyo’s “Korea Town”

Tokyo is a huge city, and with a lot of character. Each district has its own “feel” to it, and one district that’s increasingly popular for the locals is Shin Ōkubo (新大久保): Tokyo’s huge Korean district. Ethnic Koreans in Japan or zainichi have a long history there and comprise the largest ethnic minority in Japan (roughly 1%). As Korea had been annexed by the Empire of Japan in the early 20th century, some came as immigrants looking for work, others were forcibly brought over for labor. In the long-run, these Koreans settled down into communities in Tokyo and Osaka and thanks to the recent popular of Korean pop-culture (kanryū 韓流 in Japanese), the Korean districts have had a surge in popularity. My wife commented that Shin Ōkubo is much more crowded and busy than it was the last time she visited, and the area definitely had a energetic vibe to it.

We visited there a few days ago, just after I came to Japan, and were fortunate because my wife’s friends all wanted to come along, being KPop fans themselves. They knew the area well, so we had a “guided tour” for all kinds of good places to shop and eat (S-ちゃん、ありがとう!!).

Getting to Shin Ōkubo is easy enough in Tokyo: it’s right off the main Yamanote Line, so if you can get on this train, you can find Shin Ōkubo station:

Shin Okubo Station

From the station entrance, we took a right and followed along the main road:

Shin Okubo District

Right away you start to notice everything is bilingual Japanese and Korean (or tri-lingual if you add English). Also, KPop stuff is everywhere. It’s really in-your-face sometimes. :p We found one good place near the station called Grand Park which had a nice KPop hall of fame at the entrance:

KPop store in Tokyo

KARA, SNSD, 2PM and After School are especially popular in Japan. In Japanese TV you see KARA quite a bit, and I know some friends whose teenage sons are KARA fans, but I have no idea how popular they are in Korea itself. Anyhow, I was happy to also see 2NE1 right there at the entrance. 🙂

Anyway, the stores were really packed with people. We did some shopping and then went to a great restaurant further up the road called Macchan (or Macchang in Korean, 맛짱):

Korean restaurant

Like many restaurants in Shin Okubo, this was unabashedly a Korean BBQ place (apologies to vegetarian readers). This was the grill before:

Korean barbecue, before

and after:

Korean barbecue, after

The staff kindly cut things up extra thin so my daughter could eat. The grill was also tilted to allow oil and grease to run out to a small tray below. But we also received bibs to keep grease off of our clothes:

Me, with a bib

This really helped because the oil splattered everywhere within minutes. We also enjoyed other classics such as Japchae and Kimchi:

Korean food 2

…and Chijimi (チヂミ), which is a Korean dish similar to a pancake, pizza or Japanese okonomiyaki. This particular Chijimi we ordered was filled with cheese:

Cheese Chijimi

Also, like any true Korean restaurant, they provided metal chopsticks, not Japanese-style wooden (or plastic) ones:

Metal Chopsticks

Once you get used to idea, metal chopsticks are really nice because they’re sturdy and more sanitary.

Anyhow, once we had our fill our friends guided us into a back-alley off the main road:

Shin Okubo alley

Right away, we noticed the Japanese signs decreased and the Korean ones increased a lot here. There were a lot of shops and markets, but also more Pachinko parlors and Makgeoli (Korean liquor) places. Ethnic Koreans in Japan were traditionally discriminated against, so to make a living they often ended up running pachinko parlors. A considerable number of organized crime groups in Japan also have ethnic Korean members too, though as mentioned in a previous post Koreans in Japan have gained wider acceptance and moving more into mainstream society than before.

As a first impression, Shin Ōkubo is definitely a bit shadier than other parts of Tokyo, but this is relative to Japan. Compared to everywhere else in the world it’s pretty safe, but I still get the feeling that after dark it gets interesting.3

Anyhow, we passed through the long alley to another major street, and found another big KPop store nearby named Korea Plaza. The selection here was just awesome. Every album and group covered by the good folks at Eat Your Kimchi was right there in front of me without the hassle of import shipping fees or ordering online. It was great. I picked up a few CDs (about ¥2000-2300 each) which was expensive but, as stated, I believe still cheaper than trying to purchase imports in the US, and you could actually look at them before buying.2

From there, we visited a couple Korean supermarkets. I couldn’t believe how crowded these places where. It was standing room only. I think that the coming New Year is part of this, but still, I couldn’t believe how popular the markets were. My wife and her friends picked up some Korean cosmetics, Korean toasted seaweed, or gim (김) and gimpap. Speaking from experience, Korean gim tastes more salty than Japanese nori, but is lighter.

While the ladies were shopping, I had to take my daughter to the bathroom at the local convenience stores (Lawson, Family Mart) because she drank too much juice and water at the restaurant. 🙂 I used it as an excuse to get myself some canned coffee anyway. 🙂

At this point it was getting dark in Shin Ōkubo:

Shin Okubo at night

…so tired and satisfied, we headed home.

Shin Ōkubo is an interesting place because it represents the fusion of two cultures: Japanese and Korean, and seems to have had a major revival lately owing to the popularity of Korean culture. It’s not the first place most foreign tourists would think to visit, but I think it is well worth it. It shows another side to Tokyo and how one historical ethnic group has taken root there and thrived.

P.S. This post was dedicated to Simon and Martina at Eat Your Kimchi who got me interested in this stuff. I was surprised to learn recently that other friends are EYK fans, including some Korean ones. 🙂

1 The fact that Shin Ōkubo is near Shinjuku, another district known for it’s late-night “business”, probably doesn’t help either.

2 One site, YesAsia.com does offer free shipping though if you order above a certain amount, so I might have saved some money doing that instead. Still, I wanted the experience of seeing the CDs upfront first, but maybe I’ll use them next time.

3 Anywhere in the world, if you are looking for trouble, you will find it.

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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