Hop on a Tokyu Denentoshi Line train at Shibuya Station and you’ll find the first five stations are all underground. Then, when you emerge from tunnels and pull into Futakotamagawa Station, from the platform you’re treated to views of the Tamagawa River separating Tokyo and Kanagawa Prefecture, with apartment buildings in Kawasaki City rising on the far bank.
However, though it is right on Tokyo’s southern boundary, there’s nothing suburban about the Futakotamagawa area, which is renowned for its sophisticated atmosphere.
Indeed, as popular columnist Asato Izumi put it: “Although its sounds like a typical ‘dead end’ area of Tokyo, it isn’t anything like a deserted-looking district in the eastern part of the city. Situated in high-class Setagaya Ward, this town eventually came to embrace an image like that of the rich neighborhoods in the suburbs of Los Angeles. During the holidays, you even see visitors coming all the way out here based on what they’ve read in trend magazines.”
But it wasn’t always so. Back before World War II, Futakotamagawa was a quiet suburb blessed with greenery and a calm environment that was home to many upper-class families and business leaders, as well as writers and artists.
Some parts of the district, often referred to as “Nikotama” (a nickname derived from another way of reading the kanji for “futako” and a short form of “Tamagawa”), are still among Tokyo’s most well-off residential areas — as a stroll around streets lined with lovely houses soon makes clear. Here, you will come across establishments including the prestigious Tama Art University, which dates from 1934 and is the country’s oldest private art-education institution. Then there’s St. Mary’s International School, a boy’s school for students of different nationalities that will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year.
First of a kind
These days, though, there’s much more to Futakotamagawa. The area’s best known feature is the Tamagawa Takashimaya Shopping Center. Occupying two full blocks right in front of the station, and with adjoining parking space and annex buildings, this huge retail hub with a Takayshimaya department store at its core is actually Japan’s first shopping center, having been built in 1969 when the nation’s economic miracle saw millions of people collecting the keys to a car of their own.
According to a book titled “Urbanism in Futakotamagawa,” in the early 1960s, Toshin Development Co., the developer of Tamagawa Takashimaya SC, began working on a plan to build a shopping center in the suburbs. It then sent researchers to the United States and Europe to scout out model developments.
Yoshio Kurahashi, a former top executive at the firm who is interviewed in the book, says that while Toshin planners considered that Japan was not then ready for the U.S. model, which relied on customers getting in their cars to go shopping, they thought that something similar to Sweden’s shopping centers would succeed. These, he explains, were equally accessible by public transportation and cars. Among many potential candidates, Futakotamagawa was finally selected as the best location for the nation’s first shopping center, since it not only had good rail links but was also just a kilometer from the intersection of Route 246 going into the city and Loop 8 going around it. (Ironically, though, the roads leading to the area now tend to be gridlocked at peak times on weekends, despite the shopping center’s efforts to increase parking space.)
Since then, although more than 2,600 shopping centers have sprung up in suburbs around Japan, Tamagawa Takashimaya SC still reigns as the most successful, says Yasuyuki Sasaki, an analyst with Credit Suisse First Boston Securities who specializes in the distribution industry. This is due to the purchasing power of the well-heeled locals, he explains, as well as to the deep wallets of those who travel there from elsewhere. As a result, he adds, “There are always hundreds of potential tenants waiting in line to open up there.”
A recent major renovation drew so much media coverage that the shopping center has again become the spot to visit. With its carefully selected tenants, it boasts not only classy domestic and international brand clothing stores but also stylish top-floor restaurants and an upgraded basement food section. In fact, every day of the week Tamagawa Takashimaya SC is thronged with ladies eager to check out what is being offered and flex their famed spending power.
Though the shopping center was the driving force behind the area’s urbanization, Futakotamagawa remains the family-friendly town it always was — unlike many other business districts. “I used to go to Shibuya a lot, but it’s too crowded to take my child,” said a young mother walking around with her baby in a stroller, who said she is a frequent visitor from nearby Komazawa Daigaku Station on the Denentoshi Line. “I also feel comfortable seeing other moms like me shopping, and I can get my shopping done easily because everything is here.”
Not that chic cafes, restaurants, shops and hair salons are restricted to the shopping center — they spill out into the town’s small side streets and alleyways. And if shopping isn’t your cup of tea, there are other entertainment and leisure facilities here, too.
Get hot together
For those who want to try a hot-spring experience without heading for the hills, there is the Seta Onsen Sanga-no-Yu whose baths steam with geothermally heated water drawn from some 1,700 meters below ground. There, in addition to separate facilities for men and women, couples can enjoy an open-air hot-spring bath together — provided everyone wears a bathing suit. Not only that, but as they perspire together these coed bathers may also be able to see Mount Fuji as well as enjoying a view of the entire Futakotamagawa district. Suitably invigorated, in the restaurant they can then try the local Setagaya beer as well as a yogurt drink fresh from a farm in Setagaya’s sister city of Kawaba Village in Gunma Prefecture.
Meanwhile, the visitor will soon notice that among the families with children walking around Futakotamagawa are many people with dogs, too. For dog-lovers devoid of a pet, however, all is not lost in this area full of surprises. This is because just a minute from the station on the other side from the shopping center is Inutama Dog’s Town, where the dogless can temporarily live out their dog-owning dreams. After taking their pick from 100 hounds of 40 different kinds, visitors can not only fuss and pet them but also take them for a walk in the theme park’s grounds. In addition, adjoining Inutama is a “dog run,” where real owners can take their animals and let them run around freely as much as they want while they themselves use the area as a meeting place, too.
If it’s cats you prefer — don’t despair, because right next door is Nekotama, the feline version of Inutama.
Despite the area’s many and varied attractions, though, there is nothing like a walk by the Tama River, or a picnic on its banks, for shaking off the city blues in a lovely, peaceful open space. Truly, this little district has it all.