Sarugakucho — which loosely translates as “monkey fun town” — is a hot spot near Daikanyama Station in Shibuya, Tokyo. As a place to hang out, this area sets the bar pretty high: Its backstreets are a zoo of uber-cute boutiques offering exclusive jeans, aromatic drip coffee made with gourmet beans, wee French restaurants and a smattering of traditional goods such as indigo-dyed clothing and souvenir tenugui (cotton towels). It’s all great fun, but please note: the area has been so over-blogged (without permission, or precision, apparently) that many shop owners have posted “No photos” notices in their windows — so ask before you shoot, and don’t make a monkey of yourself.
One place that invites monkeyshines, however, is a store called Motovelo, a wheeler dealer in battery-powered bikes located in building 2 of Tsutaya’s Daikanyama T-Site. Outside the shop, a candy-red colored cross between a stair-climber machine and a scooter has a sign reading “Try Me!” placed on it. Mechanic and shop coordinator Yuichi Kawada, 30, pops in a battery and leaps onboard the contraption to demonstrate. Three quick steps and he’s down the block. When he returns, Kawada reassures me that all of Motovelo’s bikes come with five-year guarantees, plus one year of personal insurance. Their line of child seats — easily detachable and in bright colors — look like they offer good coverage, too.
I move on, and after resisting several insanely tempting pastry shops and dodging double-wide baby strollers in the crowded backstreets, I reach Kyu Yamate-dori, the main avenue through southwest Sarugakucho. Located here is the Tokyo campus of world-famous cooking school, Le Cordon Bleu, which has a cafe, and which puts fin to la resistance. Over a mocha at Cordon Bleu’s La Boutique, I page through the application materials for the school’s various diplomas. Clearly not your average monkey see, monkey do outfit, the school has offered diplomas in cuisine, pastry and bakery, as well as the all-inclusive “Le Grande Diplome,” since 1895.
Back in the brisk winter air, and just off Daikanyama Crossing, I stumble upon the Kyu Asakura-Ke Jutaku (the former home of the Asakura family). Peeking in the front gate, I can instantly tell the ¥100 entrance fee is going to be coin well spent. Chatting with the attendant, I learn that Sarugakucho was once the location of two burial mounds from sixth or seventh century, and that throughout the Edo Period (1603-1868) the Kamakura Kaido (highway from Edo —modern-day Tokyo — to Kamakura) ran between the two mounds. The Asakura family leveled one of the mounds to build their estate.
The residence of Torajiro Asakura (1871-1944), the former chairman of the Tokyo Prefectural Assembly and Shibuya Ward Office, is perched majestically on the area’s natural hillside. Designated an Important Cultural Property overseen by the Shibuya Ward Office, the estate’s impressive roof tiles are topped by the Asakura family mon (crest) of a flowering quince. A nod to foreign influences — often the hallmark of Taisho Era (1912-26) design — is evident in the delicate glass windows on one side.
Doffing shoes, I enter. The Western-style room to the right has an aggressively green carpet and no furniture, so I veer left instead, intrigued by a corridor of elegantly carved ranma (transom) and golden fusuma (sliding doors). The fusuma paper is kindebiki, created by brushing layer after layer of powdered gold, suspended in glue, onto Japanese paper, and is widely considered the most difficult and costly of all fusuma to make — it’s a treat to see it up close. Facility caretaker Hiroaki Obayashi, 41, detecting my interest, informs me that the artworks in the Asakura home — the paintings and carved transoms — are believed to be the work of a single artist, Setsudo Koen (1888 — unknown).
From the formal osetsuma (drawing room), done in the shoin-zukuri style modeled after sutra study rooms found in Buddhist temples, I follow Obayashi upstairs to the large meeting rooms. The artistry of Koen appears at every turn: autumn grasses secret a tiny bell cricket on cabinets in the mizuya (tea ceremony preparation room), a mesmerizing field of chrysanthemums decorate a wooden hallway door, exquisitely subtle flowers bloom on the fusuma of the meeting rooms.
The sophisticated charm of the Taisho Era is underlined when Obayashi casually points out that the building’s mukkuri-yane, a plump convex layering of roof tiles meant to repel rain, and the balcony’s rankan (guardrail) and yukidome (snow-guards) are all shaped like Mount Fuji, to honor the mountain that was once visible from the residence.
Obayashi and I descend to the Cedar Rooms, which, according to Obayashi, reflect both the formality of the shoin-zukuri style, and the simplicity of the sukiya teahouse style. When Obayashi throws open all the sliding doors, the Front Cedar Room becomes one with the property’s expansive garden.
Studded with 14 massive lanterns, the garden is in the classic teahouse tradition, with no showy flowering trees.
“A flower distracts your eye from the whole,” Obayashi explains. I ask him about the plethora of stones in the garden. Obayashi’s eyebrows pop up.
“You noticed that? Well,” he says, “Asakura’s garden designer was creating large gardens for two clients. When one cancelled, he acquired the extra stones.”
Obayashi says visitors prefer spring and autumn seasons in the garden, when the moss is vibrant, but acknowledges that winter reveals the stark shape of tree trunks and is quiet. In the Corner Cedar Room, I sit on the tatami for a little while, mesmerized by shadows on the shoji. Obayashi nods approval. “That was Asakura’s favorite room,” he says, leaving me to it.
My head is full of the art of shadows when I leave, and meander through architect Fumihiko Maki’s horizontal Hillside Terrace Complex. Commissioned by the Asakura family in 1967, Maki’s early structures look fresher than most built in Tokyo within the past decade. Lettered A to G, the complex epitomizes sensitivity to landscape, timeless materials, and a respect for human scale. The almost half-century-old buildings look better than most of Tokyo’s other buildings, many of which are only a decade old.
Tucked in building A, I meet gallery program manager of Art Front Gallery, Midori Tsuboi. A native of Sarugakucho, Tsuboi hasn’t always welcomed its transformations.
“When the area first started organizing art installations, it grew crowded and was annoying,” she recounts, “but then, somehow, I got involved and now, here I am.” As we talk, she suddenly points out a guy on the street.
“You’re lucky. Here comes the artist we’re showing now,” she says. I quickly scan the exhibition of paper birds and sketches and perplexing metal tables, at a loss for what to say as Takahito Kimura, 40, enters the gallery.
Kimura, visiting from one of Japan’s least populated towns — Hayakawa in Yamanashi Prefecture (as of 2012, it only had about 1,100 residents) — is happy to explain that his work plays with the physics of nature.
“Why does sunlight shining though leaves show on the forest floor as round spots?” he asks. “It’s only because the sun is round. How about if the sun were star-shaped?” One of his installations features a star-shaped “sun” shining through plastic leaves and, sure enough, the light falls in stars. He’s not trying to prove Aristotle’s similar discovery, but initiate a reconsideration of what you think know about nature.
Gratefully accepting a homemade business card Kimura has scrawled on a giant bird sticker for me, I bid the gallery farewell.
I search out a nearby tiny shine built on a knoll to honor the ancient Sarugakuzuka burial mound that was once here. I am about to end my simian sojourn, when I catch sight of Tom’s Sandwich shop, which gallery manager Tsuboi mentioned as a “must see” establishment. I pop in to meet Tom himself: 73-year-old Tomoki Sato. The spry restaurateur traveled to the U.S. as a product photographer in 1954 and fell in love with robust New York-style sandwiches.
“I never cared for little tea-time finger things,” he says with disdain. “I came back to Japan, opened shop in 1973, and then sandwiches just took over my life,” he says.
Sato recalls a Sarugakucho without taxis, when parking was free all day and sandwiches were an alluring rarity. Even today, Tom feeds famous clientele, including kabuki actors and descendants of the Asakura clan. I order the BLT. It’s thick white toast, crispy bacon, slabs of tomato and iceberg lettuce, and it tastes like the innocence of a bygone era. Gazing at a virtual jungle of trees beyond the giant picture windows in the shop’s rear, I ask Tom and his family the origin of the name Sarugakucho. I get those intakes of breath that suggest consternation. Some say the name comes from sarugaku shows, referring to rustic precursors to noh and kyogen performances. But Tom shakes his head. “I think it was named for the real monkeys that came to play here,” he laughs, tilting his head at me.
Getting there: The Sarugakucho district is a short walk from Tokyo’s Daikanyama Station, which is a two-minute ride from Shibuya Station on the Tokyu Toyoko Line.