|

Exploring Omotesando’s cool cultural playground

by Jason Jenkins

Over the course of my adult life, I’ve made — and forsaken — countless New Year’s resolutions. So many that by my mid-30s I had stopped making them altogether. Then a few years ago, I began using Jan. 1 to commit myself to small parental self-improvements that were feasible enough that even I could pull them off.

My first successful resolution was this: to provide my kids with at least one “cultural experience” a month, a vow just vague and ambitious enough to work. Tokyo is brimming with cultural experiences, and by making such an open-ended resolution, I began to see opportunities everywhere. Temples, festivals and museums were easy, but I also wanted my brood interacting with the arts, and since Yoyogi Park is one of our main stomping grounds, the Omotesando area near the park’s Harajuku entrance became one of our first places to explore. Known best for high-end shopping and the pulsing youth culture of Takeshita-dori next door, Omotesando is not usually considered a place for child-centered fun, but look beyond the boutiques and you’ll find a handful of interesting places for kids and adults alike. And if the kids don’t respond, then the park is just a 10-minute stroll away. Here are just a few places within walking distance.

Let’s start with some books and food. On a side street near Exit A1 of Omotesando Station you’ll find family-centered shopping at Crayon House (www.crayonhouse.co.jp). The first floor has a good selection of kids’ books in both English and Japanese, while the third floor has an impressive array of imported and domestic toys. Much of what’s here is pricey and packaged to sell, but there are several sample play centers, usually showcasing the creative wooden sets that the Scandinavians craft so well.

Crayon House offers much more — including nutritional resources and breast-feeding facilities — but it’s the restaurant that I’m really recommending. Nutritious, delicious and very kid-friendly, its all-you-can-eat organic buffet lunch makes it one of my favorite restaurants in the city. My kids love it too, and they’re not alone, so arrive before 11:30 a.m. to avoid a line. Or do like we do and arrive early for toys and books, then be the first to tuck into the buffet.

With full bellies, it’s time for some art. Follow Omotesando’s main drag west two blocks to the Louis Vuitton storefront. That’s right: We’re walking into a luxury-goods flagship store with children, but we’re not here to shop. On the seventh floor is Espace Louis Vuitton (www.espacelouisvuittontokyo.com/en), the brand’s own gallery space, where you’ll frequently find installation pieces that all ages can appreciate. Large 8.5-meter-high windows offer a great view of the area, and the curator makes use of the ample daylight, frequently choosing art that emphasizes the bright and shiny. Exhibits are free and sometimes even come with a nicely bound book (also complimentary).

Words such as “fashion” and “gallery” don’t exactly scream “bring the kids,” but the seventh-floor staff have always been warm and welcoming to us. So much so that in 2012, my daughter and I spent half an afternoon there, lounging inside one of Ernesto Neto’s large woven sculptures that hung from the gallery ceiling (don’t worry — we had permission). I don’t know much about the next exhibit starting Jan. 18, but this space should be on your radar.

Head to the Meiji-dori intersection and cross to the other side of Omotesando, where you’ll gaze up at the mirrored facade of the Omohara Tokyu Plaza building (omohara.tokyu-plaza.com). If you’re keen for a caffeine boost, the Starbucks on the roof here is a great place to sit down and sip a drink. The deck is even better in the warmer months, but the view from this vantage point is nice year round, especially at sunset.

Once you’ve finished your cup, walk north on Meiji-dori. In about 200 meters, you can cross the street and head into the psychedelic fashion hub of Takeshita-dori, but if you’re still in the mood for art, take a right and wander the back alleys of Harajuku until you arrive at the Design Festa Galleries (www.designfestagallery.com/index_en.html)

Like the massive biannual art fair of the same name, the Design Festa Galleries serves as a springboard for young and aspiring art students. The sprawling complex (two buildings, over 50 spaces) is home to work of varying quality, but it is frequently full of color and sloppy energy — just the kind that kids often respond to.

I’ve never consulted the galleries’ schedule, but have twice stumbled into free weekend workshops for kids while visiting.

Attached to the galleries is a bar selling snacks and juices, as well as Sakuratei (www.sakuratei.co.jp), an okonomiyaki (cabbage-based savory pancakes) restaurant covered in garishly awesome murals, often painted by gallery alumni. The place gets loud and smoky after 9 p.m., but an early dinner here might be the best way to cap off a day of culture in this part of the city.