Jane Lawson is a Japanophile, chef, cookbook author and travel writer – all of which make her a very valuable travel resource for Tokyo. Lawson shares her wisdom with walking tours through her company Zenbu Tours and now she’s put all that insider knowledge down on paper. In a new book, Tokyo Style Guide, Lawson takes readers on a guided tour through 21 of the city’s most interesting and stylish neighbourhoods. We’re sharing an extract from the book in two parts – first, Lawson takes us for a wander through Kuramae and Okachimachi before she continues on to Akihabara and Kanda-Ochanomizu.
This jumble of sharp-sounding suburbs might seem like more than a mouthful for one day, but the key points of these connecting areas are easily traversed. They provide many, but not an overwhelming amount, of extremely enjoyable and quirky shopping experiences, and wonderful photographic opportunities. Kuramae, just one stop south of Asakusa Station on the Asakusa line, is a charming pocket of Tokyo. It blossoms by day, with creative spaces housing up-and-coming designers and local craftspeople who are confidently and respectfully adding a young and fashionable edge on tradition.
Within strolling distance to the west is Okachimachi, and the peaceful streets between the two promise an earthy, surprising and delightful wander. The old-school architecture and local village food-shopping street of Okazu Yokocho are reason enough for the aesthetician in you to visit. However, you won’t get away from this part of town without several carry bags of “I can’t live without this” kinda gear. Fresh concepts combined with considered, superior craftsmanship make it all extremely desirable. In the vein of New York’s SoHo and Tribeca, the affectionate collective name for the area is Kachikura (Okachimachi/Kuramae).
Near Shin Okachimachi Station, in the northern part of the precinct, is the Taito Designers Village—no doubt heavily responsible for the growth of captivating shops in this area. An expanding café scene and youth-savvy accommodation seem to be encouraging the movement.
Leave via the east exit of Kuramae Station and cross Edo Dori in the direction of the Sumida River. You’ll see the Kuramae outlet of Koncent —a contemporary design store of innovative stationery items. Some border on ‘just plain silly but a whole lotta fun’—and all promise to spruce up your office space, home or life in one way his route covers a bit of terrain, so feel free to jump on a train or hail a taxi to give you a break. Still, it’s all doable in a day and sets you up for dinner at either end, should you reverse the route.
Turn right out of the store and head up Edo Dori, taking the third street on your right. Head towards the river for a few minutes, but turn left at the third street—if you hit the water you’ve gone too far. Almost straight away you’ll see Nui —a popular backpackers’ hostel and bar on your left. The vibe is bohemian and laid back.
Diagonally across the way is a colourful riverside café –Cielo y Rio – a relaxed place for a mid-morning fuel stop of caffeine and cake or an early lunch. Stop and plan your attack on this area, which is more sparsely set out than others. (If you do this walk in reverse, it’s not a bad spot for dinner after you’ve had a drink at Nui.)
Continue along to the doorway of New Old Stock by Otogi by Otogi Designs—a tiny antique, design and accessory store where you need to breathe in just to squeeze between the closely packed displays. There are trinkets and treasures to be found if you are patient—check out their very own colourful casual-soft-shoe range.
Further up a rickety stairwell is a creative space that hosts regular workshops for handmade decorative items for the house and garden. If you make it down the stairs alive, keep walking until you reach In-Kyo —a small, traditionally inspired homewares/lifestyle shop with predominantly kitchenware, pots and some books. It is a little austere service-wise, but they have a few elegant items worth peeking at, and the store itself has a lovely feel.
From In-Kyo, walk in a westerly direction about 350 metres to wide Kokusai Dori. Turn left and follow the road south. After about seven streets, turn left if you are in the market for beautiful handcrafted wallets, totes, satchels, cases and other miscellaneous items dyed with natural products in earthy tones. At M+ , most of the range has a slightly masculine feel but is ultimately unisex.
Return to Kokusai Dori and cross the road to find Maito a few steps south—a business centred on organic dyed yarn and gorgeous knitwear. They also run workshops on natural plant dyeing. Two streets south of Maito, turn right and almost immediately on your right is REN —for the most spectacularly soft yet durable handmade leather bags, wallets, card cases and tablet covers. These are predominantly made from pig, cow or goat skins and tinted with a wide variety of natural hues. Divine. The indigo canvas and soft
wool bags are also fabulous. I want one of everything. Between M+ and Ren I could kit myself out for the next few decades.
Continue on this street, passing CC4441 on your left—a small gallery space constructed of shipping containers—then turn left at the next set of traffic lights. After a couple of short blocks you will find my favourite store in this area, SYU-RO , on the right. It’s stocked with a wonderland’s worth of ‘monozukuri’—handmade creativity from all over Japan. Paper-thin copper, brass and tinplate tea canisters—use them for any small items—indigo sacks, Okinawan throws, soap and cloth, onion-skin paper notebooks, smooth-as-silk wooden boxes. Note that it doesn’t open till 12 pm.
When you exit the shop—inevitably laden with presents to self—continue to the next corner and turn right, walking under the sign-posted entranceway to Okazu Yokocho (side-dish alley).It was established in the 1950s and was once lined with, as the name suggests, shops selling side dishes such as tsukudani (seaweed, fish and dried vegetables preserved in sweetened soy), grilled fish, and vegetables—simmered or pickled. Locals could also find daily groceries, such as miso or soba noodles. This made light work for busy homemakers back in the Meiji period (1868–1912), when industry was taking off and often both husband and wife were working and could afford a little help in the kitchen. You could think of it as an old-time version of a convenience store—only offering much healthier, higher-quality foodstuffs.
Today, there are still many rustic stalls mixed with more contemporary vendors selling an eclectic collection of goods, from fresh vegetables and sushi to folksy ceramics, Japanese tea and wagashi (traditional tea sweets), grilled chicken and eel, cashmere scarves and intricately hand-woven jewellery. The atmosphere is terrific, particularly on a Saturday, when there are often pop-up handicraft stores, too. Most shops are closed on a Sunday. Explore the whole strip and the richly atmospheric and utterly photogenic streets that run perpendicular and parallel to the Yokocho. To get you started, here are a couple of places of note.
Firstly, Tsubamekobo is a surprise sweetie bag of a shop run by a friendly wife and husband team. Kyoko Takahashi is a textile artist who makes the most beautifully delicate hand-woven scarves and the like from natural fibres such as cashmere and linen. Be sure to cast your eyes over her brilliant sea-anemone-like brooches and unique earrings covered in thread.
If there is a market on at the Taito Designers Village it is worth taking a sidestep towards the low-rent studio space set up inside an old, unused primary school. The space was established to support young, aspiring designers of fashion and related products. When the potentially famous tenants host a market to display and move on their wares, it’s a top spot for bargains on one-off clothing, jewellery and accessories. To get there—walk a few metres past Tsubamekobo just under another metal archway.
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Tokyo Style Guide by Jane Lawson is available now through Murdoch Books.