With the Gumball Rally finishing in Tokyo for the first time in its 20-year history – culminating in a lavish celebration at our Ginza store – we asked our favourite food, fun and fashion writer to give the low-down on his local neighbourhood
All images provided by Yu Masui
The year 2020 is an important one for Tokyo. As you may already know, we are hosting the Olympic Games. In the run-up to this momentous year, the city is pretty much under constant construction so why don’t we leave the noise behind and explore a more tranquil, local neighbourhood that you won’t find in the guide books? Yoyogi Hachiman is a good walk from Shibuya. Once getting out of Hachiko-guchi entrance (named after the famous story of Hachikō, the loyal dog who waited in the same spot at Shibuya train station for his master for more than nine years) you'll see ‘Shibuya Crossing’ – the most iconic sight in Tokyo.
After you finish taking a selfie, continue towards the west, passing 109 department store and tourist favourite shopping spot ‘Mega Donki’ (AKA Don Quijote), where you can buy everything from cosmetics and food to gadgets and souvenirs. And during Halloween, Shibuya is the place to be: the streets are always packed with people in crazy costumes.
Continue past another iconic Shibuya store, Tokyu Honten, and you will find that more local, independent businesses start to appear. This area of inner Shibuya is really up and coming, and some people are even trying to rename it ‘Oku-Shibu’. ‘Oku’ means ‘deep’ and ‘shibu’ is an abbreviation of Shibuya. For some reason the Japanese love shortening names and words to usually just three or four syllables. I don’t know whether this catchier name works or not but the area is definitely getting more and more popular! The Monocle store, which opened in 2014, was definitely one of the first new arrivals that helped elevate the neighbourhood to new stylish status. The same goes for Fuglen, a Nordic coffee shop built in a renovated old Japanese house on Udagawa-Yuhodo pedestrian way, parallel to Honten-dori.
Speaking of the Tokyo Olympics, there is a Sushi restaurant called Aizawa on the corner of Udagawacho, which appeared in a short film for the Olympic bid campaign. Committees might have been persuaded to choose Tokyo as they wanted to eat this young chef’s sushi! Sushi is booming right now, and authentic places are usually ones with counters that can only accommodate around 10 or 15 people. If you want to get a seat at the best ones, reservation is essential – sometimes you'll need to book up to six months in advance. Monja-yaki is an unusual local dish that resembles an uncooked pancake. It’s entertaining to order one as it’s cooked on a sizzling hot metal table in front of you, before you eat it with tiny spoons. Downtown Tokyo is famous for this. Last year, chef Koji Sato, who runs popular Portuguese restaurant and wine bar Cristiano’s in Tomigaya, opened a modern monja restaurant called Osozai to Senbei-Monja Sato. Finally, if you’re a bread lover, 365days is the place to go. This artisan bakery uses high-quality ingredients from all over Japan and has a cafe where you can enjoy an eat-in menu throughout the day.
One of the most talked about names in Japanese fashion right now is Tsukikageya. This unique Yukata house (a traditional summer kimono) has a cult following, appealing to everyone from celebrities and fashionistas to Geisha and mama-san in Ginza. I would say that the designer behind the brand, Natsuki Shigeta, is the best representation of traditional and modern Japanese culture. Her prints are inspired not only from ‘Kabuki’ stories, but also 1980s subculture and kawaii elements. The brand uses traditional ise katagami patterns (paper stencils for dying textiles) and chusen dye, all done by craftsmen, and the obi belt is decorated with Swarovski crystals in a way that’s fun but not tacky. Shigeta is also a pioneer of digital print images. Everything is printed on a silk base, so her products aren’t cheap, however, there are entry level items such as Japanese workman shirts and she recently launched a collection of T-shirts featuring signature prints.
Landmarks and traditions
A trip to Japan wouldn't be complete without freshening up in a traditional public bathhouse before visiting a shrine. I go to Hachiman-Yu public baths; you don’t need to bring anything as they provide rental towels and communal wash. Don’t forget to clean your body before going into the tub – that’s a rule – also then enjoy milk or milky coffee as a refreshment afterwards. Then it’s on to Yoyogi Hachiman Shrine, a five-minute walk from Yoyogi-Hachiman station. This Inari shrine is a spiritual place often called the ‘power spot’. Once you walk through the gate, the air feels different. Trees protect the shrine from the craziness (and pollution) of the world’s busiest city. Make sure you walk on the side of shrine entrance when you are visiting as the centre is supposed to be for gods. After you pay your respects to the main building, don’t forget to take a bow to small ones on the right-hand side. Inari shrines are famous for their iconic red gates and flags. You’ll also often see small statues of foxes, which are said to be Inari’s messengers and are supposed to be good for business!
Yoyogi Hachiman is next to Harajuku, the epicentre of Tokyo’s young fashion scene. But I would recommend you visit Tokyo’s other landmark, the Meiji Jingu Shrine before walking to another ‘it’ neighbourhood, Tomigaya, by walking along Yoyogi Park and Yoyogi Kyogijo – the gymnasium and swimming pool designed by Kenzō Tange for Tokyo’s last Olympic games in 1964.