Where do you live and why do you choose to live there?
We no longer live in Japan but over the course of our multi-year stay, we lived in different parts of Tokyo: Shimouma, Nanpeidai, Moto Azabu, Minami Azabu and, finally, Minami Aoyama. After bedding down in low-scale apartment buildings, we opted for a high-rise for our last hurrah. As an architect, I probably would have protested the construction of our building. But our views of Tokyo Tower and, especially, Mt Fuji were breathtaking. The image of that mountain and its bold profile is etched in my memory.
Do you have a local haunt? A café or bar?
When we lived in Moto Azabu, we often walked by Bar La Hulotte. But it never seemed to be open. Eventually we figured out that this mini establishment only came to life after 8 pm. A tiny oasis tucked behind Azabu Juban, the bar only seats 5 or 6 people. The bow-tied bartender is a real master who elevates the mixing of a gin & tonic to performance art. Every aspect of every drink is carefully considered – from stemware selection to citrus garnish.
Do you have a favorite store (for food, clothes etc.)? What do you like to shop for?
I am constantly on the lookout for good design. For clothing, NUNO in Roppongi is my go-to. This textile design consortium produces some of the most remarkable cloth. Stainless steel fibers, feathers and fine strips of washi paper are among their unusual raw materials. While the shop features an array of garments designed in house, they will also create custom garb.
For houseware, I favor the Sori Yanagi Store. This tiny outpost is in Yotsuya, adjacent to the building which still houses the designer’s studio as well as the office of the mid-20TH century architect, Kunio Maekawa – both still in operation. Though Yanagi and Maekawa are both long gone, it is easy to imagine them in this setting. Yanagi’s flatware, drinking glasses and stainless steel kitchen implements are as elegant and functional today as when they first went into production.
What is your favorite pastime and where do you like to pursue it?
Urban hiking is my favorite thing to do in Tokyo. I like taking very, very long walks. It is not unusual for me to clock 10 miles. To me, this is one of the best ways to see and get to know a city. Especially Tokyo with its winding roji (sidestreet) footpaths and quaint shopping streets. How I love to happen upon a covered shotengai (shopping street) with piped-in enka music! Or a sento （public）bathouse where least expected. I particularly like to explore the city’s eastern side where the scale of buildings remains small and the sense of history deeply ingrained. It is also interesting to see how one neighborhood segues into the next – something you can really only grasp on foot.
On a grand scale, Tokyo is not a beautiful city. But if you look really closely, it is the most magical place on earth. Maybe it is a single window that catches your eye. Or a solo flowerpot. Or an early Showa-era (1926-1989) storefront. In its smallness, this city delights. Many of my observations are chronicled in my Instagram feed @sweathesmallstuff.
What do you like to do on a nice day?
Anything outside. Maybe take a walk along the Sumida River. Or stroll through Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden.
On a perfect day where would you choose to go for a walk and why?
Among my favorite neighborhoods for strolling with friends are Kiyosumi-Shirakawa, Kuramae and Yanaka Ginza.
What is your favorite Japanese food?
I really love wagashi, or traditional sweets. Once one accepts that anko red-bean paste is not chocolate (despite their resemblance), a whole new world appears. Toraya remains my favorite place, especially the main shop in Akasaka, which occupies a beautiful building designed by the architect Hiroshi Naito. The cafe even has outdoor seating overlooking Aoyama Street – the perfect spot on a spring day. I also appreciate the lower-level gallery where exhibits about Toraya’s rich history are often on display. On Meiji Dori, between Hiroo and Ebisu, there is a small wagashiya which specializes in dorayaki with dried apricot or chestnuts. A personal favorite.
Where do you go for a special meal?
For special meals, Tenoshima in Aoyama is one of my top picks. Though I do not eat meat, the proprietor is willing to accommodate my diet if given advance notice. The menu could be classified as kaiseki with a twist. There are always some surprising combinations which delight the eye as well as the palette. Great place for a leisurely meal with good friends.
Do you have a favorite onsen or ryokan?
We often go back to Asaba in Shizuoka Prefecture. In addition to the pristine baths, the food is superb. Served course by course, you will want to eat it all. Every room faces a river running alongside the building. I love to open the windows and hear the flowing water. The public spaces are appointed with the best combination of traditional Japanese elements and modern design classics. One year, when we went for a winter weekend away, the baths were dotted with yuzu (a kind of citrus fruit). So picturesque, aromatic and relaxing.
What is a favorite thing you bought recently in Japan?
My bread knife. Occupying a new building by the Tokyo design firm KAMITOPEN, the Kama-Asa knife shop in Kappabashi can do no wrong where kitchen tools are concerned. After years of struggling with serrated blades that lose their edge, I sprang for their bread knife which the shop will sharpen for me in the future. In the meantime, I am enjoying the ease of slicing through even the hardest of sour dough crusts.
How long have you lived in Japan and what brought you here?
The impetus for coming to Japan in the late 1980s was my husband’s job. But it was easy for me, then a budding architect, to make the place my own. Backed by a Ministry of Education scholarship, I started out as a student at Tokyo University. Returning to school proved to be a perfect time to launch my writing career as I had many invitations to visit new buildings. In the early 1990s I became the Tokyo correspondent for the US publication, Architectural Record, for which I continue to cover Japan. Over the years I have written freelance for a variety of publications as well as authored books on both Japanese design and architecture. My latest, Japanese Houses since 1945, will be published by the UK press, Thames & Hudson, in autumn 2023.
What film or book about Japan do you recommend?
For first timers, I often suggest Peter Carrey’s Wrong about Japan which is a short book chronicling the author’s trip to Japan with his teenaged son. But for more intrepid types, I suggest a classic like The Makioka Sisters or In Praise of Shadows, both by Junichiro Tanizaki.
What would you take to a friend overseas as a gift?
I often bring a NUNO scarf or bag. But gift boxes of senbei rice crackers from Mamegen in Azabu Juban land well too. And then there are dishes from Hakusan. A tableware company located in Kyushu, the brand’s Omotesando shop stocks their full line. Their iconic soy sauce pot is easy to pack and is always well-received.
What do you like about living in Japan?
What I liked best was learning something new every day. Maybe it was hearing a new word. Or catching sight of a new vending machine drink. Or discovering a tiny playground tucked beneath an overhead expressway. The novelty of living in a foreign land, even one where one feels very much at home, never grows old.
Naomi Pollock, FAIA, is an architect and author.