We asked Atsuko Gatling, a native of Tokyo’s trendy Aoyama neighborhood, about her favorite places, pastimes and more.
Where do you live and why did you choose that neighborhood?
I live in Minami-Aoyama where I was born and raised in a single-family home, which is now a condominium. Although my husband and I have moved several times, I have always lived in Minato-ku (where Aoyama is located), so it’s really my home. My mother, when she was alive, lived here as well. I really feel at home here.
The neighborhood has changed so much since I was young. The spacious and iconic Yoku Moku flagship shop and Blue Brick Lounge used to be my friend’s home. These buildings (that line the street leading up to the Nezu Museum) were all single-family homes. I miss having dirt streets; it’s all concrete now.
But I feel safer because the streets at night are brighter with all the cafés and boutiques and it’s fun. I do a lot of window-shopping, I like just walking around here.
Even though there are so many boutiques and restaurants, it’s never noisy and my street is just behind the main street, so it’s really quiet.
The main drawback is that the streets can get very congested and sometimes delivery trucks park right in the private road where our condo is. Also, I would love some supermarket in the neighborhood, where I could buy Japanese products. Kinokuniya is great, especially their fresh produce and international products, but I wish I could get some typical Japanese products.
Do you have a local haunt, say, somewhere you go for comfort food or just a chat with the proprietor?
I like Two Rooms. I like the fact that they have a very nice terrace, which is rare in this area. You get a very nice view and on a clear day the sunset is so beautiful. If you go at dusk to see the sunset, the atmosphere is so seductive and sophisticated and also really relaxing because they always play smooth jazz.
Do you have a favorite store and what do you like to shop for?
I love shopping! I often look in at Gucci, Fendi, Miu Miu, Issey Miyake, Dries Van Noten. I walked in one day and fell in love with his clothes. I also buy custom jewelry.
Apart from these designer brands, I like Cos, which I discovered in London, so I was happy when they came to Tokyo. It’s only 5 minutes from my house. And of course, who doesn’t like Zara?
For food and wine, I almost always only go to Isetan Department Store (in Shinjuku). They have a really good wine selection in their shop called “Cave,” and they have all sorts of different sweets, which are so beautiful to look at.
I love the Toraya Café – the traditional Japanese one on Aoyama-dori. They have the best kakigori (shaved ice topped with a variety of syrups) in the summer.
What is a favorite pastime and where do you like to pursue it?
Before Covid, I used to do a lot of yoga and I used to go to the gym, but I quit because of Covid and nowadays, after two years or so of basically staying at home, I feel comfortable at home. If it’s a nice day I’ll go up to the fourth floor balcony, which has a view. I also like watching movies on Netflix and other streaming services.
What do you like to do on a nice day?
I like to walk around my neigborhood, the main street of Omotesando or the back streets. You never get bored because there are tons of shops and cafés if you get thirsty. Figaro is a café with little chairs outside where you can enjoy people-watching. If it’s a nice day, I might go for brunch at the Two Rooms terrace and then take a walk. There is a farmers’ market at the UN University on Sundays. And pretty soon it will be cherry blossom time and my annual routine is to go to Aoyama Cemetery where there is a street lined with cherry trees, which turns into a cherry blossom tunnel when the flowers are in bloom. In the autumn, I go to the Meiji-jingu Gaien (in Aoyama) which is lined with gingko trees whose leaves turn a blazing yellow. But that street is beautiful any time of the year.
Do you have a favorite museum (or any other cultural spot)?
I have great memories of Nezu Museum, which I went to often when I was growing up. Back then, the gate on the Kotto-dori side was always open so I would go play in the garden with my friends. It used to be my playground. Nezu Museum is also a very special place for me because my father, who passed away when I was 12, also loved the garden and would take me there. So, I have very fond memories of that garden.
What is your favorite Japanese food?
Sushi. There is a word in Japanese – betsu bara, which means separate stomach, and it’s like even if you’re full you have a separate pouch for your favorite food. Definitely for me, I have a betstu bara for sushi. My mother was quite a good cook and she used to make sushi at home because my father also loved sushi. When I was little, my father would ask my mom to make a separate serving for me because I would always ask for everything and he would not be able to eat what he wanted.
Where would you go for a special meal?
For sushi, I go to Fujita, which is right behind the Kabuki-za theatre in Higashi-Ginza. I was introduced to him by my girlfriend 15 or 16 years ago and I have followed him wherever he moved his restaurant.
For Japanese kaiseki (multi-course meal) I go to Kasane. The owner chef, Kojiro Kashiwada, is Miyazaki Ambassador, promoting the cuisine of Miyazaki, on the island of Kyushu, and he uses lots of fresh products from there. Also the course menu includes hiyajiru (cold miso soup) which is a signature dish of Miyazaki. Kashiwada-san is also a Michelin chef as well as one of Japan’s Master chefs.
For Italian food, I often go to Ristorante Honda. The owner chef, Tetsuya Honda, creates fabulous Italian dishes using some Japanese ingredients that are always amazing.
And Red Pepper in Omotesando is very casual and reasonable but very good.
Monnalisa in the Marunouchi Building near Tokyo station, is one of my favorite French restaurants.
For Chinese food, I like Taikan-en in the Hotel New Otani. My godparents used to take me there. For casual Chinese food, there is Jukei Hanten in Nishi-Azabu. It’s a subsidiary of the main one in Yokohama Chinatown and it’s a rather quaint place, but the food is always great and the decor and service are also very nice.
G-1 in Gaienmae, which has HK food stall style food, is run by a friendly, young man who does everything himself and there are many tasty dishes to choose from.
Kawakamian, also in Aoyama, has a comfortable atmosphere, great food and fabulous soba.
And of course, I love Two Rooms for grilled food.
Do you have a favorite onsen ryokan, resort or other getaway destination in Japan?
A recent place I stayed at is Yase Rikyu in Kyoto, which is one of the hotels in the XIV group (an upmarket timeshare). The XIV in nearby Ashiya made me think this is what Dubai must be like. There is a spacious bath on the top floor with a really nice view. There was nobody in the bath when I went, so I had the place to myself.
In Tokyo, my husband and I had the chance to stay at the Peninsula Hotel (in Hibiya). We also attended their anniversary party, which was one of the most impressive parties I have been to, with free-flowing Dom Pérignon and caviar. It was so elegant.
What is a favorite thing you bought recently in Japan?
I recently bought a hat and matching scarf from Fendi and a crystal beaded spring coat from Dries Van Noten designed like fireworks.
What book/film about Japan would you recommend?
I really recommend “Last Samurai” (directed and co-produced by Edward Zwick), which I think really explains the Japanese sense of loyalty to their lord and the Japanese way of thinking. It portrays Japanese culture, the Japanese spirit and dedication to family very well.
Another movie I would recommend is “The Makioka Sisters” (based on the novel by Junichiro Tanizaki and directed by Kon Ichikawa). Again, this movie does a really good job of portraying Japanese culture and relationships.
What site or experience would you recommend to a visitor from overseas?
There is a shop in Aoyama called Sou Sou, which uses Japanese fabrics to make all sort of things. There are eco bags made out of Japanese fabric, handkerchiefs, T-shirts, jackets and coats.
What would you take to a friend overseas as a gift ?
Kyukyodo in Ginza sells writing paper and envelopes made of washi (traditional Japanese paper) and they also have very nice incense. So, it helps to know what kind of fragrance the recipient likes.
What is it like for you to live in Japan?
I love Tokyo, probably because it’s my home. It’s one of the most international cities in the world, it offers culture, it’s very safe for a big international city, public transport runs smoothly on time and you always get great food. There are tons of fantastic restaurants, not just expensive Michelin-starred ones but hole-in-the-wall places, like izakaya (casual drinking establishments that serve food).
Plus, I get to meet many people from around the world.
Another thing I like is seeing little girls and boys with huge backpacks going to school all by themselves even if they are only 6 or 7 years old. I think this is rare in big cities.