A traditionally working-class neighborhood in Tokyo that rose from the ashes to become one of the city’s favorite retreats lies a stone’s throw east of the Sumida River across from Nihombashi.
In the Kiyosumi-Shirakawa district, where cafes and boutiques have cropped up like wild flowers over the years and coexist with the purveyors of traditional fare such as rice crackers and simmered clams, people come from near and far coaxed by the savory aroma of freshly roasted coffee.
As joggers ply the shaded paths of huge Kiba Park, which bounds the area to the east and houses the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, New Zealanders and Japanese work together to pour the morning’s first cups of coffee in a former timber warehouse a block away.
Allpress supplies coffee roasted here on a wholesale basis to cafes around Japan. The New Zealand company opened the roastery and cafe in August last year following successful expansions to Sydney, Melbourne and London.
Allpress Espresso Japan Co. Managing Director Russell Tearle says he was struck by the sun streaming through the old warehouse — subsequently renovated to maintain many of its old features — and by the vitality of the surrounding neighborhood crisscrossed by canals.
“Being in an area where art and lifestyle and exercise are just seemed like a perfect match for us,” Tearle says.
What makes this neighborhood now in Koto Ward unique is the way it maintains its folksy charms in the tradition of the downtown shitamachi area that was once the center of Edo during the Tokugawa Shogunate and became the focus of an urban culture based on the notion of a “floating world.”
Shitamachi, meaning “low town,” covers most of the low-lying areas of modern-day eastern Tokyo.
Part of a wider area traditionally called Fukagawa, it boasts the picturesque Kiyosumi Gardens, created in the 19th century and rebuilt by Yataro Iwasaki, the founder of Mitsubishi, who used it as a place of leisure for his employees and important guests.
Between the gardens and the park lie galleries, Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, and the Fukagawa Edo Museum featuring a full-scale walkable reconstruction of the area’s surroundings from old Tokyo.
Tearle, 35, says the area has long been home to artisans, and that legacy remains in a culture of mutually supportive small businesses and a balance of residential and light industrial buildings ripe for renovation.
The location also gives Allpress and other specialized businesses a mix of local regulars and customers from further afield.
On weekends the promise of a coffee-fuelled stroll around parks and boutiques now draws people from all over Tokyo, who might not have previously ventured so far east except perhaps to watch sumo farther north up the Sumida River.
“On weekdays I’d say we’re almost 90 percent local, and on weekends we’d flip to the opposite,” Tearle says.
Tearle credits the attention to the area’s coffee boom to Oakland California’s Blue Bottle Coffee Inc., which moved here in February last year and still has lines going out the door on weekdays. Homegrown business Arise Coffee Roasters lies just down the road.
“Although there are four coffee shops just in this area, we’re not in direct competition with each other at all, because I believe we all have a unique position in the market in our own respects,” Tearle says.
The Allpress team spent six months in 2013 looking for their new home in Tokyo, considering but ultimately turning down some of the city’s more established trendy areas.
“Every interaction we have and every cup of coffee we prepare is what our business is based on,” Tearle says.
“So for us to be part of a community and an area where people appreciate quality but have time to shop and look around is just as important, if not more important, than being somewhere where we’re recognized purely for being visible,” he says.
Those who prefer tea to coffee can get their fix at Teapond, a boutique near Kiyosumi Gardens. Teapond President Yas Fujimoto picked Kiyosumi-Shirakawa to open an actual store in March 2014 after success online.
Fujimoto, 50, said Japan’s prolonged economic stagnation may have helped make exploring Tokyo on foot a popular alternative to embarking on long daytrips by car.
“Wandering around the old town is cheap, and in a sense it’s new to younger generations after a long period when older generations only followed and imitated Western culture,” Fujimoto says.
Born and raised in the neighborhood, Kota Kubo, 31, attributes its transformation to the establishment of the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo in 1995.
“Nowadays there’s so much to see and do here that people will work a visit to the museum into a whole day spent wandering around,” says Kubo, who now works at Cafe and Bar Medium, a colorful Latin American restaurant close to the Fukagawa Edo Museum.
With the front door flung open, the alluring scents of mole sauce simmering in the kitchen waft out onto the street, combining with a faint whiff of incense from one of the area’s many temples.
“Having grown up here, my strongest impression of the place is that you can walk around without feeling a sense of pressure — I think that’s very attractive to people living elsewhere in Tokyo,” Kubo says. “For better or for worse, living and doing business in shitamachi is all about deep personal connections and working together to keep things running smoothly.”
Many business owners live in or near the area, including Toru Konno, who opened Cheese no Koe (The Voice of Cheese), a Hokkaido natural cheese shop, in November last year.
The store’s front window forms a giant outline of the country’s northernmost island. Some of the cheeses on display take their names from the languages of Hokkaido’s indigenous Ainu people.
Konno, 40, said about half of his customers are regular visitors from within Koto Ward. A narrow majority have sought out the shop because of a special interest in domestic cheeses, while the rest are just strolling past.
“This area offers a lifestyle where people and businesses have symbiotic, rather than competitive, relationships with each other,” Konno says.
That culture of close bonds may be a product of the area’s history. It suffered catastrophic damage in the inferno following the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, while areas farther west were largely spared.
Just as townspeople had started to rebuild, the area was razed again by U.S. Air Force bombing raids in World War II.
“These things are not in my personal memory, but I think they’re in shitamachi people’s DNA,” says Kubo.
“This place was completely flattened but it rebuilt itself. Japanese people’s ability to regenerate like this is something we should show the world,” Kubo says.
Cheesemonger Konno agrees, saying Tokyo should accentuate the flavor of shitamachi and its values as it welcomes the world for the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
“Omotenashi means a lot more than just putting up more street signs,” he says, referring to the Japanese term for hospitality that Tokyo pushed in its successful bid to host the Games.
Peeking into a rice store opposite Kiyosumi Gardens, it seems clear that adaptability is now just as much a part of the shitamachi character as warmth and resilience.
Over the roar of a rice polisher turning brown rice white, the rice seller explained how the shop has stayed running in the same spot for about 50 years.
“Four years ago we added quinoa to our lineup,” he says, adding with a slight grin, “that was before it started to be trendy on TV.”