The Tokyo Village
Part 2: My Tokyo
Back in 2016 when my husband and I were planning to move back to Tokyo, despite the fact that we had three primary-aged children, I didn’t want to live in an outer ‘family’ suburb. I wanted to live in a ‘fashionable’ area where I could indulge my love of art and design, and Japanese-style urbanity.
So we ended up in ‘Shirogane’ – literally ‘white gold’ – and it ticked the fashionable box. They even have a name for the people who live there — stereotypically wealthy, idle and fashion-conscious women — ‘Shiroganeeze’, inspired by ‘Milanese’ for residents of Milan.
But when we arrived, we discovered that not every street looked like the glossy brochures. I dubbed it ‘Mosman meets Marrickville’. Our new suburb was a clash of high-rise luxury apartments and downtown semi-industrial alleyways.
This was the result of gentrification that, as with most of Tokyo, still follows the historical topography. The ‘daimyo’ or feudal lords built their residences and grand landscaped gardens on higher land, now occupied by public buildings or in this case, exclusive apartments. The townsfolk lived down in the valleys in dense tenements of houses and ‘machi koba’ or town factories.
We lived, by a whisker, on the ‘Marrickville’ side. Our three-storey terrace was just down the hill from ‘Platinum Street’ – with its cafes and design stores – but actually right in the middle of a maze of tiny houses, traditional food stores and family-run restaurants in 100-year old timber buildings.
I loved our tiny house and local neighbourhood. I took particular pleasure in jumping on my electric bike, dressed in my Issey Miyake pleats, to ride to meetings with my client Spiral, a design gallery in fashionable Aoyama. I’d whizz past Herzog & Meuron’s Prada Building and Kengo Kuma’s Nezu Museum before arriving at the iconic Spiral building by architectural great Fumihiko Maki.
I remember one day in particular I rode home past Comme des Garcons, Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto, and popped into my local chemist. I explained my symptoms to my pharmacist – an elegant older man in a pristine white uniform. He looked at me calmly and paused before saying:
“Okusama … (“wife”) … your eyes look greyer than usual. You need to go home, drink plenty of water, and rest”.
I nearly threw myself into his arms. He wouldn’t sell me anything, but sent me off buoyed by the kindness in his voice and gentleness of his demeanour.
My local fruit shop, on the other hand, was manned by quite a different character – a young guy who looked like a low-level gangster. Although I was a regular, we’d never really spoken. One day I asked which tofu I should use for ‘tonjiru’ a Japanese soup that I’d never made before. He dryly pointed to the best one, and I carried on filling my basket with all the other ingredients.
But as he finished running it all through the register, he stopped and asked me:
“Gobo wa iindesuka?” / “Are you right for burdock?”
My local gangster fruiterer, tucked under the freeway down a tiny back alley, had taken the trouble to check that I had everything I needed to succeed in my latest cooking challenge.
And it wasn’t just for me that people took such care. One afternoon I popped into the local family-run toy shop – another dilapidated post-war building with the shop at the front and home at the back. I was on a mission to buy the coolest Pokemon cards for my nieces and nephews back in Sydney. Squeezed in the shop next to me was a gaggle of primary school boys passionately discussing which Pokemon cards they were going to buy. I eavesdropped hoping to get some intel, and watched them decide and approach the register. They handed over the packs of cards and in unison emptied their pockets of change onto the counter.
But instead of picking out the right amount and sending them on their way, the long-faced middle-aged man asked them quietly:
“OK boys, so you have four packets of cards, costing 470 yen each. How much is that in total? … Let’s start with 4 times seven, equals …”
He continued in this way for what felt like ten minutes. Patiently and kindly helping this posse of little boys do their mental arithmetic.
This atmosphere was everywhere on the streets, with kids hanging outdoors in parks, roaming the neighbourhood in groups, clowning around. There was even a bell that rang out throughout the suburb at 5pm telling them it’s time to head home. All of this felt like the ideal we so often aspire to – that it takes a village to raise a child.
I learned that even here, in my ‘fashionable village’ of Shirokane, children were nurtured and celebrated. My daily reminder of this was a beautiful calligraphy sign outside the local temple that read:
‘Children become not as their parents say, but as their parents do’
I moved to Shirogane for a stylish, urbane existence, but ended up with so much more.
The sheer number of people in Tokyo can overwhelm you, but they can also give you these beautiful, poignant moments of reflection. They not only shape the city – they leave an imprint on your soul.
The Tokyo Village
Part 3: Nihonbashi