Where do you live and why do you live there?
For the last 15 years, I’ve been living in Nakameguro in central Tokyo. It’s outside the Yamanote Line belt, yet amazingly convenient. When the weather allows, I walk to my office near Aoyama Gakuin University (in Shibuya) in about 40 minutes. The Hibiya Line gives easy access to Ginza and the business district. The Toyoko Line express takes you in two stops to Shinjuku 3-chome and entertainment districts, which would take several lifetimes to explore fully.
The Meguro River has become one of Tokyo’s “go-to” spots for cherry blossom viewing, which means pandemonium and blaring loud-hailers for a few days. But in the early morning sunshine, you have the place to yourself, more or less. That’s a truly uplifting experience.
“Nakame,” as Nakameguro is affectionately called, has changed over the past decade, becoming more high-rise and bourgeois. It’s dog heaven these days. You see them peering out of shopping baskets and wearing fancy collars and “jackets.” There’s even a place around the corner where you and your pooch can enjoy a spa bath together. You have to envy them.
Meanwhile, you see fewer bleary-eyed revelers spilling out onto the street at 9 am. The redevelopment of the area around the station has made it a lot less funky. But that’s OK – I’m a lot less funky these days too.
Do you have a local haunt?
The kind of food that I can cook is not the kind of food I want to eat, so the restaurant/izakaya/café scene is important to me. Nakameguro is a small neighborhood, but has too many excellent places to eat to mention them all. Hiro, on the third floor of the thin building next to Coco Ichiban (a fast-food curry joint), came to my attention because it was one of the three places recommended in Mark Robinson’s book “Izakaya.” A friendly atmosphere, great food and sake – what more could you want? Not far away is Ozaki, a tiny place offering top quality Kyoto-style cuisine. When I’m hungry and in a hurry, my standby is the Gyoza-no-Fukuho (gyoza are dumplings stuffed with ground meat and vegetables) restaurant on Yamate Dori.
I can’t function without at least two cups of proper coffee in the morning. I get my beans from Grano, a coffee shop and roastery off the Meguro Ginza. Protracted inhaling of the dense aroma of roasting beans is probably equivalent to drinking half a cup. The master has been at his work for 60 years. He knows his stuff.
What’s your favourite pastime?
British poet Philip Larkin said “I can do without poetry for months, but I can’t do without jazz for a single day.” I know what he means and was able to listen to live music through most of the pandemic. Tokyo has a vast number of live houses. Shimo Kitazawa, a 40-minute walk from Nakameguro, has several jazz joints, such as No Room For Squares and the legendary Lady Jane, a hangover from the turbulent 1960s. Both stage interesting acts on weekends. In the other direction, the Toyoko Line takes you to the Noge area of Yokohama, where I once saw country bluesman Koji Ouchi deliver a moving set of original songs in a Kyushu accent thicker than miso paste.
On a nice day?
Walking, eating, talking, thinking, listening, trying to figure out forgotten kanji. Back home – writing, reading, drinking.
Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum in Meguro, (artist) Taro Okamoto’s house and studio in Minami Aoyama, (artist) Tsune Nakamura’s house in Shinjuku. I like the atmospherics of places that have been lived and worked in.
It changes from day to day, but nothing beats fresh sashimi. I enjoy Indian food, and there is a fine South Indian restaurant, Sri Balaji, on the other side of Komaba Road. I’ve never seen the point of pasta.
All over the world, fancy and highly touted restaurants are generally disappointing. Extortionate prices are rare in Tokyo, but nonetheless there are some over-inflated reputations. A great place for a special meal is A-Un, where a two-person team serves Kyoto cuisine and excellent Japanese Koshu wine. It’s in Kamiyama, facing Yamate Dori. Modest and friendly, no pretension.
Onsen or resort?
No regular place, but I recently went to Yakushima, an island off Kyushu, and sampled the “onsen in the sea” (“kaichu onsen”) which disappears beneath the waves as the tide comes in. But for a couple of hours a day, it’s a bona fide onsen with several steaming pools. It’s mixed bathing, with most people not wearing swimsuits. A hidden gem, of which there are many all over Japan.
What is a favorite thing you bought recently in Japan (if possible, something related to Japan)?
I like to grind my own coffee by hand, so many moons ago I bought a German hand-grinder off Amazon. It broke the very first time I tried it. Then I bought a Hario grinder, and since then I have been a devoted fan of the company. Their grinders have the clean, elegant lines of Japan’s best industrial design. They are astonishingly cheap and as reliable as a Toyota car.
How long have you lived in Japan and what brought you here?
Frankly, I’ve stopped counting. It’s over 60% of my time on the planet. I remember landing at Narita for the first time, being told that radical activists were battling the police and firing rockets onto the runways on a regular basis. On the long slow bus ride, I was amazed by the look and feel of the city. There was no Western-style town planning at all, but there was a kind of unconscious self-organized pattern that clearly worked. Even the futons hanging like tongues from the balconies of high-rise buildings were part of it.
I thought “this is fascinating – I’ve got to figure this place out.” I’m still trying.
What book/film about Japan would you recommend?
Films: Princess Mononoke (directed by Hayao Miyazaki), Stray Dog (directed by Akira Kurosawa)
Books: Ryoma! by Ryotaro Shiba, Dororo by Osamu Tezuka
What would you take to a friend overseas as a gift?
A bottle of Dassai Daiginjo sake.
What do you like about living in (visiting) Japan
The air, the light, children’s voices, the rattle of trains, the yells of welcome when you enter a shop, Hokkaido, white gloves on taxi drivers, spongy vivid green mosses, the Meiji Restoration, Beat Takeshi, wasabi in your nose, kimonos on Coming-of-Age day, the Emperor, bunraku, the Liberal Democratic Party, the rainy season, Shibuya, Akira Kurosawa, strings of natto hanging from your chopsticks, the Japan Communist Party, carp streamers on boys’ day, blue skies in winter, the Edo Period, Shohei Ohtani, Yukio Mishima, Shuji Terayama, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Ryu Murakami, Setsuko Hara…I’d better stop now or I’ll be writing all night…