TOKYO: On a recent weeknight at Ahiru Store, a gastro/wine bar in the Tomigaya neighbourhood of Tokyo, the seven guests lucky enough to grab a spot at the counter noshed on dishes like freshly made pâté, French-style onion pie, avocado and octopus salad, and what might be best described as a pan-fried take on shrimp tempura. Behind these diners, Japanese salarymen and expats in business attire crowded over two oak barrels serving as standing tables.
Wakako Saito, half of the brother-and-sister team behind this boîte specialising in modestly priced organic wines, had to politely turn away a steady stream of walk-in guests, all the while delivering the dishes that her brother, Teruhiko, and another cook were whipping up in the open kitchenette. Above the shelves of wineglasses were chalkboards scribbled with the day’s menu in Japanese.
Tomigaya, which has retained its low-rise silhouette, is one of Tokyo’s latest “it” neighbourhoods. While enclaves like boho-chic Nakameguro and hipster Shimokitazawa have been cool for some time, Tomigaya feels markedly less touristy and more of a work in progress.
The unassuming neighbourhood takes up prime real estate southwest of central Tokyo, between Shibuya’s Jumbotron-lined thoroughfares and the expansive greenery of Yoyogi Park, whose National Gymnasium, designed by Kenzo Tange, one of the fathers of post-World War II Japanese modernism, will be an Olympics venue in the summer of 2020.
Ahiru Store, just a brisk 10-minute walk from Shibuya Crossing, where hundreds of people scramble across the intersection at each green light, opened nine years ago. Back then, the buildings nearby “were only houses,” Saito said while slicing a loaf of sourdough she had baked earlier that day. “It was not exciting. But these days, the number of fancy restaurants goes up year by year.”
Tucked behind office towers and department stores, Tomigaya has slowly become chockablock with matcha-meets-macaron cafes, Instagram-ready shops and internationally-inspired yet unmistakably Japanese gastropubs squeezed between two-story homes.
“I don’t want too many customers,” Tomoyuki Kamiya said inside Archivando, his boutique that is steps away from Ahiru Store. In this three-year-old home furnishings shop with concrete-and-wood interiors, Kamiya rotates eclectic rosters of products by designers unfamiliar to many outsiders, like one-of-a-kind shawls by Tamaki Niime, who uses the ancient dyeing and weaving technique called “banshu-ori,” and handmade jewellery by Wataru Yamazaki, who creates metalware that straddles the nebulous zone between organic and geometric shapes. While half of Archivando’s inventory are overseas finds like 30-year-old German skillets, only about 5 per cent of the foot traffic seems to be foreigners, he said.
Kamiya, an interior architect by training, discovered Tomigaya while designing a hair salon nearby. “It’s so quiet here,” he said. “I always wanted a place where I can tell customers stories about all the things in the store.”
Those days of calm may be numbered, however. Tomigaya received its seal of approval from the international lifestyle magazine Monocle, which opened an office and shop here in October 2014, hawking everything from sweatshirts to brass candleholders emblazoned with the publication’s logo. Other standouts include Pivoine, a florist-cum-cafe attracting the Pinterest set with its ceramics and easy-going knitwear; 365 Jours, an organic bakery whose fans line up for crunchy chocolate-chip-filled buns, and PATH, a brunch hot spot with unapologetically global fare like kale-and-quinoa salad and savoury Dutch-style pancakes topped with burrata.
There is also Camelback, where a former sushi chef turns out creations like a wasabi-accented egg sandwich and monkfish liver banh mi, and Minimal, a bean-to-bar chocolate maker. Just like its Oslo sibling, Fuglen metamorphoses from a caffeine-fuelled hangout into a cocktail bar, attracting a beautiful and self-conscious crowd. From the clean-lined chairs to the 1960s table lamp, many of the furnishings in the cafe-bar are for sale.
Not every local is thrilled with the ascendancy of Tomigaya. Naosuke Hayakawa, who has run the vintage décor shop Provenance in its current location for a decade, fears the popularity has made the neighbourhood less interesting.
“Why do we need another cafe?” he asked rhetorically on a recent visit. “Why another wine bar?”
His semi basement shop, bringing together flea market curiosities like an East German passport and beautifully restored early 20th-century European furniture, would not feel out of place in Berlin’s trendy Neukölln neighbourhood. But when Hayakawa moved here, Tomigaya was anything but hip.
“It was a wonderful mixture of new and old,” he said, reminiscing about a century-old tofu shop, now gone, where the owner lived upstairs.
“Now may be the peak,” he said. “Maybe it will go out of fashion by the Olympics. Maybe the cheap ramen restaurants and tofu shops will return.”
By Chaney Kwak © 2017 The New York Times