A little over a year ago my husband and I swapped the vibrant chaos of East London for the cosmopolitan tranquility of Tokyo, seeking to propel ourselves out of our comfort zone and experience life in entirely unfamiliar surroundings. Keen to have more opportunities to practice our fledgling Japanese, we decided to live slightly outside the usual expat circuit of Aoyama and Hiroo, and settled in an area formally known as Ebisu-Nishi, nestled between Ebisu and Daikanyama stations. The wider area is framed by the Yamanote line on one side, and the Nakameguro canal, a 10-minute walk from Daikanyama on the other, with a warren of small, nameless streets in between inviting us to explore. Once the fog of disorientation cleared, however, we realized we had inadvertently gravitated to as close an equivalent of our former London area as Tokyo could provide — a land of craft breweries, artisanal coffee, vintage English fabric shops and moustachioed men on bicycles. Perhaps, then, it wasn’t as far from our comfort zone as we had imagined.
Even so, the “familiarity-with-difference” of the neighborhood held great appeal for me: foreigner-friendly yet “authentically Japanese,” easily navigable though always full of surprises, and lively while peacefully residential. Alongside local stalwart establishments, new restaurants and cafes regularly pop up, relentlessly adding to my list of ”want to eat there” places while stubbornly maintaining the number of meals it’s acceptable to have in a day at around three. Never really one for buying shoes, I fear I have now become the “Imelda Marcos of lunch aspirations,” gathering far more restaurant meishi (or calling cards) than I’ll ever be able to use before we sadly, but inevitably, return to Blighty.
The following is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is a tried-and-tested collection of some of my favorite spots for a leisurely day or two strolling around the area.
It makes sense that Log Road feels like a central artery of the area, as it was once just that — a train line that ferried passengers along the Toyoko line towards Shibuya. Similar to a (very) scaled-down version of the New York Highline, Log Road now features a selection of cafes and shops. While Spring Valley Brewery is an enduringly popular spot, if you walk to the other end of the trail you will discover Garden House Crafts, a café and bakery, with excellent food and spacious outdoor seating. One particularly pleasing feature is that it opens at 8am in an area which isn’t especially hospitable to early risers.
My favorite time to go to Log Road, however is after dark, when the shops are closed and absolute peace descends. It’s a lovely place to take a stroll and enjoy a warm evening, with benches peppering the walkway, a pleasant aroma from the surrounding plants, and rarely anyone else around.
Roughly translating as ”Sky and Wheat,” Sora to Mugi to is a neighborhood bakery selling delicious organic breads and delicious pastries in a shop hidden in a backstreet about 5 minutes’ walk from Ebisu station. I tend to skip the rather overpriced (even for organic, even for Japan) vegetables and home in on the black-bean bread, or other daily specials.
The “Empty Box” gallery is a small but beautifully formed space showcasing a range of crafts by both established and up-and-coming artists. Exhibitions run for a short time only (usually about a week) and the gallery is closed between shows, so it’s worth checking the schedule on its website before making the trip.
Even if you don’t spend a lot of time in the area, it’s worth signing up for a points card at Marugo Deli as the smoothies here are so good you may well come back for more. The large menu comes with handy illustrations and there’s something to suit every taste. My go-to is the delicious avocado-based Hemp King Mix smoothie which is thick and not overly sweet, and filling enough to serve as a snack at any time of day.
Following a brief hiatus, I’m delighted to be able to announce that Rainbow Raw Food café is back, still serving the same delicious food. The concept behind RRF is, you guessed it, raw vegan cuisine. As someone who, while not vegetarian, is always on the lookout for as much greenery on my plate as possible, RRF stands out for its incredibly creative approach to vegan cuisine. There’s no stodgy tofu or predictable curries, but fresh and interesting takes on vegetable maki rolls, served with a delicious almond-y coleslaw and spiced crackers, a Chinese-inspired salad, and a zesty taco-rice. For those with a sweet tooth there are treats such an genmai (roasted rice flavored tea) icecream and, in the colder months amazake, a thick, fermented rice beverage, which is one of my favorites on an always-changing menu.
In the evening, RRF changes to Hemp Café, run by the same people and with some of the same offerings, all infused with hemp-derived products.
On the Hill
A downside to living where we do is that whatever direction you approach from, getting home always involves walking up a steep hill. Kudos therefore to On the Hill, a wine bar, for embracing this inconvenient geographical feature and creating a cosy and convivial atmosphere in which to enjoy a glass of wine or two.
Should alcohol be your thing, and you’d rather drink at the bottom of a hill, Mirai Nohonshu is an excellent sake shop with extremely knowledgeable staff who will do their best to help you on your quest towards inebriation. They run regular tasting events and have a wide selection, ranging in price from veryreasonable to the more impressively priced, which you can buy by the glass and drink in store, or by the bottle and take home.
For a quick carbohydrate fix to soak up the booze, head to Onigiri Ichigo, a brilliant little onigiri 専門店 (speciality store) tucked around the corner between the oh-so-British combination of Cor Blimey and Minato Tenrankai, a shop selling Liberty print and William Morris fabric (yes, as mentioned, I didn`t manage to move far from home in the end). The onigiri are fresh, super-light and at under 200 yen each, the most reasonably priced snack you’ll find in the area. My favorite is the konbu onigiri, a delicious ball of fluffy rice stuffed full of slightly sweet-salty konbu, or kelp.
An excellent place to buy English-language books for children, as well as more adult-oriented products such as notebooks, cookbooks and sophisticated coloring books, the Daikanyama branch of San Francisco-based Chronicle Books opened in 2016. Somewhat dwarfed by the huge Tsutaya book and designware emporium at nearby Daikanyama T-Site, Chronicle has a more independent feel and is a great place to buy gifts for English-language readers of all ages.
Just next to Chronicle Books lies one of the newest additions to the area, an adorable little café and cooking studio named Uki Uki, which my Japanese dictionary tells me is an onomatopoeia meaning “cheerful” or “lighthearted.” Uki Uki’s owners have certainly managed to create a buoyant feel in this small, third-floor café which doubles as a cooking studio. From the hand-crafted menus to the muffin-laden apple tree, from which customers are invited to “harvest” their muffins using tiny bronze scissors, Uki Uki is clearly a labor of love in the service of creating a fairy-tale ambiance. The cynic in me half-expected Little Red Riding Hood to appear around a corner, but my beautifully light apple muffin and fresh fruit tea quelled any misgivings I had about style over substance. Probably not a place to take your most macho, steak-eating, beer guzzling friends, but if you’re in search of dessert in unusual surroundings, Uki Uki is perfect.
One of several vintage clothes shop in the area, Natica gets my pick, mainly thanks to a little white stole I once saw in there which was so alluring that I regretted not having a winter wedding to give me an excuse to buy it. They also have many items available for purchase on their website, if you prefer to do your vintage shopping online.
For a very special occasion, Ebisu-Nishi’s undoubted front-runner is Tacubo, an Italian-inspired Michelin starred restaurant hidden in a quiet residential street. The Japanese chef trained in Italy (”Tacubo” is an Italianization of his Japanese name), and every dish on the exquisitely-prepared set menu is a wonderful blend of Italian flavors and Japanese precision. Counter seats enable diners to experience the soothing hum of the kitchen as well as a front-row view of Tacubo’s piece de resistance, a perfectly fire-cooked piece of beef, hot and smoky from the grill. Given the restaurant’s intimate size, reservations are essential.