Tokyo: A Walk on the Quiet Side

After walking less than a mile from the famous “scramble-crossing” of Shibuya and its hordes of shoppers, I enter the adjacent neighborhood of Daikanyama.

Some of the familiar ugliness of Tokyo remains — the overhead wires, stumpy ferro-concrete buildings, and rumbling elevated trains — but there’s a very apparent air of relaxed poshness, too. It’s a feeling I’ve encountered several other times in this sprawing metropolis, but nonetheless I’m instantly taken by casual-but-chic Daikanyama.

This charming neighborhood in Shibuya ward became hot with Tokyoites about a decade ago, shortly after those adjacent to it — Aoyama, Ebisu — took off. Gradually, a few high-end chains set up shop.

But they’re along the lines of Paul Smith and Vivienne Tam, too expensive for my blood, yet without the roll-your-eyes familiarity of other uber brands such as Chanel or Dior.

Naturally, though, it’s the little retailers that count. Like Kamawanu, located in an old wood building fronted by a traditional nori curtain and crammed from top to bottom with tenugui.

The shop offers more than 200 classic, contemporary, and seasonal designs — at Christmastime, I picked up one sporting a gift-laden Santa making his way down a Kyoto street. The Japanese use these bold, graphic cotton towels for wall-hanging, gift-wrapping, head-covering, and, of course,  hand-drying,

Moving through the neighborhood, I seek out other well-known retailers, like Loveless and Okura, the one selling fashion-forward clothes in a modern setting, the other leaning toward indigo linens and organic cottons set just-so amidst a rustic building.

Passing the music shop, Bonjour, a CD of Big Band classics remixed, Euro-style, grabs my attention — so I wander in and buy it.  Nearby — who knew? — I discover a branch of Mario Battali’s Eataly, the grocery store-cum-food mall of all things Italian. Located in two buildings wrapped around one of the courtyards that mark the area, the oils and noodles here seem exotic, given the context of sesame and udon so common elsewhere.

Still, of course, they’re not that exotic to me, so I push on. It’s those courtyards and passages that interest me the most, after all. Much of them come courtesy of architect Fumihiko Maki, whose Hillside Terrace complex dates from the late 1960s. Rising from both sides of the train station, these buildings are ripe for exploring, offering an eclectic mix of cafes and galleries, with the occasional surprise like a tony flower shop.

Photos by JoAnn Greco

Back at grade level, Daikanyama offers its own array of curving lanes and a plethora of places to take a break. I settle into Queen’s Collection Chocolate, and examine its exhaustive menu of hot chocolate. About $7 buys an entire experience.

Pick your chocolate, and add flavorings (such as caramel), then wait a bit for the ensuing masterpiece. I sit at a window counter, watching moms-and-strollers glide by and a pair of frolicking golden retriever puppies.

Soon, a white-aproned waitress offers me a tidy assemblage that includes a small porcelain pitcher of milk, an egg-shaped vessel that holds a votive candle burning under a bit of foamed milk, and another small porcelain bowl of chocolate chips. I mix everything up and indulge.

When I rouse myself, I hear train after train gorging itself of returning commuters. The once-calm streets fill with denizens walking into the controlled frenzy so typical of the rest of Tokyo. The sky is darkening — the bright lights of  Ueno? Ginza? Shinjuku? beckon, and I leave Daikanyama.

 

 

 

 

  • Paul Neuwirth

    Lovely piece. Your words describe the mood of the street and its shops. Glad you added the links for more explanation. Nicely done.