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.
Walking back home from Nezu Museum in Aoyama through the backstreets of Nishiazabu, I encountered a peculiar looking shop. There was a concrete wall with a small entrance, but behind it was a small garden. Inside the building itself was a stylish looking select-shop, displaying fashionable clothes of all types along with pieces of artwork. The shop itself was far from strange—actually, it was quite tasteful and I fell in love with it the instant I stepped inside. What was strange was the fact that the shop was “here”, in Nishiazabu, in the backstreets among residential homes and apartment buildings. You would be lucky to see a few people walking by the entrance every ten minutes or so, which equates to a ghost town in Tokyo, a city of 30 million people. Doing business here would be suicidal, according to any conventional marketing tactic. I talked to the employee in the corner typing away on his iMac about his shop, wondering how it came to be. He answered that the headquarters for the parent company, completely unrelated to fashion, was nearby, and they wanted a location which was easy access so employees could take turns working. I was surprised, but it made sense. This was another example of the modern day Nishiazabu; “The Young” Nishiazabu if you will.
DINER, not actually a diner but a bicycle shop that sells select and original fixed gear bikes, fits “the young” label almost perfectly. A small hole-in-the-wall shop filled with bright colored frames and funky shaped carbon wheels, DINER is a treasure box full of exciting ideas for both the expert and novice. Jun Shimizu, the owner of DINER who was originally in the snowboarding industry, started the predecessor to DINER in Hakuraku, after seeing the potential in the fixed bike industry.
“Do you even know where Hakuraku is?” Mr. Shimizu laughed as I asked about DINER’s foundation. “It’s a station near Yokohama, also near where I went to university. I started my first business there, and it was successful enough to last a few years. That was really in the middle of nowhere and I thought to myself, if I could do business there, I could do business anywhere.”
As we talked, Tikini–DJ, music mogul, and part-time employee at DINER–showed up on his custom bike. DINER, with its employees attired in a more street and casual style (compared to the rest of the area), adds to the burgeoning “young” aspect growing in a neighborhood with a very strong, stereotyped image (as stated in part.1).
“To be honest, I never had a reason for choosing “Nishiazabu”. I never really had a strong association with the area. I was originally thinking of opening the shop in Ginza, but this location fit our criteria better. The shop’s name is DINER because it used to be a restaurant. We even were told by the real estate agent the shop was half this size until we actually came here, and realized we could open up the back end. Basically with the internet, and the sheer number of people in Tokyo, anything is possible—location, size, product—as long as you do it right.”
The opening of a bike shop in the backstreets of Nishiazabu is certainly a new identity to the intersection, and Mr. Shimizu’s mindset fits well with the growing, less traditional image of the area. This image was only reinforced by a random encounter with a young lady who dubbed herself “The Mother” of Nishiazabu.
“Hey, you guys! Come inside!!”
Those were the first words we heard from Reico Sumita, owner of City Bungalow, a small select shop that imports vibrant, unorthodox, and borderline wacky goods and items mostly from the United States. Ms. Sumita saw Nik taking pictures of the exterior of her shop, opened the door, and invited us in. Curious what the interior of the shop resembling a Mississippi ice cream parlor would look like, we accepted her invitation. The stories we heard from Ms. Sumita were just as crazy as the interior of her shop.
Ms. Sumita has been in Nishiazabu for the last 10 years, while she and her husband ran an Okinawan restaurant. After a rigorous 10 years, they decided to close the shop and move to her husband’s home of Okinawa with their two children, until Ms. Sumida found out that her husband had been cheating on her for quite some time. So they separated, and she stayed in Nishiazabu, as a single mother of two daughters, now running her own shop.
“Those 10 years…I’ll be honest, they were havoc. We did everything in our power to be a successful restaurant, and as you know, that isn’t easy in this neighborhood. We tried every crazy idea we could think of. We brought in sand and lights to make an artificial beach in our restaurant. Our waiters wore bikinis. I even wore a seashell bikini! You know, the one where the cups for the tops are seashells. Let me tell you, those really hurt your boobs.”
“But in the end, we were successful because we went all out. We had all kinds of celebrities, comedians, actors, and musicians come to our place. All kinds of rich people, some who would just hand us their platinum or black card and be like ‘Rei-chan, put whatever amount you want on this card. Just remember to give the receipt to make it a business expense!’ Yeah, those were crazy times. I still have some of these famous past customers come to my shop, and they all say, ‘Rei-chan, I loved your restaurant! When are you doing it again?’”
Ms. Sumita, however, decided not to do it again. She was now a mother of two young daughters, and they are a major part of her life. That’s when she was approached by one of the local real-estate agents about opening up a shop.
“These local, old-time real estate agents that have been here forever, they are really cut throat. They don’t sugar coat anything. A lot of places won’t even rent out property, even if you have the money. They look at you and see if you’ll last. If they don’t think so, they say ‘sorry, you’re not Nishiazabu’. That’s why it meant a lot when one of the agents approached me, a man I had known for a while, and said ‘Rei-chan, I’ve got the perfect place for you. You can do whatever you like there. I’ll make it cheap. I just want you to chase your dreams!’ I love Nishiazabu because there is so much of this. It’s a neighborhood of ‘joh’, where the relationships between people mean everything.”
Ms. Sumita calls herself “The Mother” of Nishiazabu because that’s what she strives to be. Nishiazabu, little known, is one of the few places in Minato-ward (and all of Tokyo for that matter) that has vacant spots in preschools for local children. (The over-crowding of preschools along with parents being unable to send their children to them is a major problem in Tokyo, and is a topic addressed heavily in both municipal and national government) The preschools in Nishiazabu are bilingual since many of the children who attend are the children of employees in the surrounding embassies.
“It’s counterintuitive, but Nishiazabu is actually a great place to raise children. Of course, there will always be the image of nightlife, and it is the heart and soul of the area. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have both, and having both is what I strive for. I want City Bungalow to be a place where children can gather, where they can leave their stuff off after school and go play. A place where parents feel safe to leave their children when they have some emergency or chaotic amount of chores. Children create the future, and that’s no different for Nishiazabu!”
Ms. Sumita has many projects in line to achieve this goal, and through one of them, it seems City Bungalow will soon be serving ice cream. Once that happens, children will gather (the power of ice cream!), and from there, the young of Nishiazabu will evolve, creating a new identity, launching the intersection into the future.
Click here for Part.1!