Cities are usually defined by neighborhoods in inner wards or located near transit stations. Tokyo is no different. However, in this project, photographer Nik van der Giesen and THYNK founder Leo Kominz rediscover Tokyo through its intersections. Here, where shops and people are located far from any station, local names have been changed or forgotten, and yet there is a vibrant social and cultural scene. Here we find the true blood that runs through the veins of the city.
It was a cold January night when I was taking a taxi back from Omotesando to my apartment and was talking with the driver about the old names for different areas in Tokyo. I referred to the intersection near my apartment, to which he replied with, “Oh, Kasumicho. I still get that sometimes from older passengers.” He added, “It’s because I’m not from around here, and still don’t have a grasp on Tokyo. I think they’re testing me.”
One doesn’t have to be a newcomer in Tokyo to be unfamiliar with the name Kasumicho. Many young Tokyoites have no clue as to where it is, and a search on Google Maps won’t reveal it’s definite location.
In his brilliant book of short stories “Kasumicho Monogatari” (Kasumicho Stories), novelist Jiro Asada refers to Kasumicho in his first paragraph: “Stuck in a valley between Shibuya and Roppongi, Tengenji and Aoyama, as the night grows deeper, a fresh fog begins to appear. This is where we learned everything; school, play, and love.”
Asada’s imagery is beautiful and spot on, but there is a stark contrast in the image of Kasumicho, as opposed to its current name, Nishiazabu. Nishiazabu is members only clubs, hideout restaurants, expensive suits, jewelry, and cars; an area that boomed during the bubble era with the construction of looney shaped buildings housing trendy VIP rooms filled with celebrities and self-made millionaires. The image was strengthened with the hit song sung by the popular comedian duo Tunnels, “Ame no Nishiazabu.” (Nishiazabu in the Rain) released in 1985, and only fortified by Kabuki star Ichikawa Ebizo’s beaten-over-the-head-with-a-crystal-ashtray members-only bar fight incident in 2010. “Wait, there are actually places to live in Nishi-Azabu?” is the reaction I get from peers when they ask where I live in Tokyo. When Nik answered a friend’s text with “We’re shooting in Nishiazabu,” he was replied with “So I’m assuming you’re at some cabaret girls bar?”
That is the connection between the area with two names. Its inconvenience–a ten-minute walk from all three stations, Roppongi, Hiroo, and Nogizaka–is what makes it special. You don’t just stumble upon Kasumicho or Nishiazabu, you need a reason to go there. And having a reason is what qualified you a true resident of Tokyo, a part of its staggering nightlife, as the older passengers in the taxi, if not in the kindest of ways, tried to imply.
“What’s ironic is, all the people who opposed the building of a subway station here are now gone” mentioned the Mama-san of Reino, as Nik and I sipped some of her fine Brazilian roast. “They didn’t want a station because they wanted to keep Kasumicho quiet. No cheap chain restaurants or retail shops. The idea of making a McDonalds on the intersection was opposed strongly and shot down instantly. But now all those residents have moved out. All the big name companies are gone too. Moved off to the landfills with cheaper rent. Things have changed.”
Reino is a kissaten (Japanese style old coffee shop) along Roppongi-Dori, currently in its 42nd year. As one would assume, being in such location for so long, Mama-san has seen it all. The men and women who would frequent her shop as salarymen or creatives in their late twenties, fighting over which seats were for “regulars only,” are now executives in the biggest companies of Japan, internationally famous artists, or advisers to the current prime minister.
Kumasan, as he is often called due to the hat he wears with the lone Chinese character 熊 (kuma, bear) printed, is the owner and bartender of the hippie era reminiscing, very un-Nishiazabu like soul and jazz bar Banana Fish, and he insists that there are cultural changes along with the evident physical changes.
“Frankly put, over the years, Nishiazabu has been Roppongi-fied.”
Kumasan, who used to be the manager of the legendary Indonesian Bali restaurant / live bar Blue Lagoon, was one of the frontrunners in creating the “ethnic food” boom in Tokyo, and also one of the culture curators of Nishiazabu in the bubble era. He still plays mixtapes (yes, actual tapes which he mixes himself, with the occasional appearance of his own band between Beck and a tune from Austin Powers) in his bar, and the paintings on the wall are all his own work.
“I don’t want to be that old guy always glorifying the past, but there has been a cultural change, for sure. The main intersection now has that club (referring to Muse) and that Tarantino restaurant (referring to Gonpachi), and they’ve brought in a much different crowd. Much more Roppongi.
Nishiazabu used to be, and I guess still is to an extent, about the locally owned businesses. Mom and Pop shops. A lot of those have been pushed out because the rent is so expensive. Or the owners passed away. Or they can’t pay inheritance tax, etc. What replaces them are shops or restaurants with companies behind them, so yeah, of course, you’re going to see a change. Many of the shops I would eat lunch or dinner at in the 90’s are now gone.”
A good example would be RUELLE DE DERRIER, the cake shop which invented the “milcrepe” (a cake that is made by stacking many thin layers of crepe with cream in between), which was open until midnight. RUELLE DE DERRIER closed its shop in 2015, after nearly 40 years of business, much to the disappointment of Nishiazabu foodies who preferred satisfying their late night sweet tooth rather than heading off to a bar or club. (Editors note: Their website indicates they still have one shop in–wait for it–Tokyo Sky Tree. Ironically maybe the polar opposite location compared to Nishiazabu.)
“In the end, Nishiazabu is an area which is still about the connections between people. People come to Nishiazabu because they know someone, and want to be with that someone”
Formerly in the professional wrestling business, Koga started Azito after the owner of the building asked if he was interested in doing something with the real estate. Koga who also runs another shop in the suburbs of Tokyo decided that he would make a shop that provided ramen using “Tamari” style sweet soy sauce from his hometown in Aichi prefecture. He also has teishoku (rice + miso soup + main dish) set on the menu going for less than 1000 yen, but serves alcohol too because “you’re not paying the rent here without people having a few drinks.“ All in all, it is a very friendly shop for local salarymen and young residents who want to have a beer or a meal but don’t want to pay the Nishiazabu price tag.
“Being part of Nishiazabu Taiyosai (Nishiazabu Sun Festival), that is the whole goal. Taiyosai is a loose association of restaurants in Nishiazabu that create a quarterly publication and a summer festival. We give out information on the restaurants, what the owners and employees are like. We serve food on the streets during the festival. It’s all about creating a chance to meet the people here. If you do that, you can come back again.”
Being the king of scrap-and-build, “change” is always a key factor when discussing Tokyo. Change being a factor in rethinking Nishiazabu, which itself “changed” from Kasumicho, is not surprising either. The importance of hiddenness, fragility, and inconvenience in Japanese culture are coincidentally also the essence of the neighborhood. In part 2, we will encounter this directly, by talking with some of the oldest and newest members of this intersection.