It’s a brisk February day, with a neoprene blue and cloudless sky. I alight at Harajuku Station and head northeast, threading narrow alleyways filled with cute guys and kawaii gals browsing boutiques.
Full disclosure: I’m in search of the creative marketing agency UltraSuperNew. Its upcoming gallery exhibition, “Blossom Blast” (March 1-18) celebrates International Women’s Day and, although I’m contributing to it, I’ve never seen the space.
I pause at the crossroads of Meiji-dori and an artery that feeds into the Meiji-Jingu Gaien park area, future site of Kengo Kuma’s National Stadium, which is now under construction for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. From here, fortunately, the gallery is conspicuous, largely due to a multicolored exterior mural by street artist Jay Shogo that depicts stylized eyes.
Inside, I find the staff of UltraSuperNew — a team that works with high-profile multinational corporate clients — gathered in the gallery and glued to a presentation on tactile-visual computer interaction.
“Every few weeks,” Senior Digital Producer Shimpei Kimura whispers to me, “we hold in-house mini lunchtime symposiums on digital, social or emerging technology.” It’s an interesting concept, I think, a creative agency with a gallery and event space driven by a young, international team that learns together. Just the kind of place I’d want to work, I suspect, but my die is cast and the day is simply too beautiful to spend indoors.
Outside again, I cross the street to gaze — briefly, because this is dangerous territory — at the puppies and kittens of pet shop Mon Tou Tou. Putting aside a keen desire to abscond with every tiny caged critter (the price tag would be ruinous), I tear myself away from all that fluff and stroll toward Meiji Shrine.
The sudden, distinctive scent of coriander pulls me by the nose into Pho 321, a noodle shop. Clearly a pun on a common mispronunciation (as in five, pho, three, two, one), the shop nonetheless serves up nonfaux pho. I order up a bowl and delight in the flat Vietnamese noodles, organic veggies and coriander in a clean, slightly minty broth. It’s a brilliant light lunch. By the time I’ve paid, a line has formed and I retrace my steps to the busy intersection at Meiji-dori.
A curious thing happens when you cross a street and look back at the other side: You often note things you missed when they were right in front of you. This is how I catch sight of Papier Labo, an understated yet chic paper goods store featuring the tactile beauty of letterpress products. Handcrafted pen cans, subtle ceramic containers, elegant stacked shelves and quirky cards reflect the rarefied design sense of owner Kimiaki Eto, 39, but his artisanal letterpress name cards are the heart of the business. While not cheap — 200 single-sided, single-color cards run ¥21,000 — Papier Labo has kept its printers busy for 10 years and running.
Eto explains that until 2010, Papier Labo was a subsidiary of Landscape Products, a conglomerate of small shops headed by conceptual developer Shinichiro Nakahara. Chatting with Eto, I learn that Nakahara is the brains behind a virtual village of local endeavors, including the restaurant I’ve just enjoyed, Pho 321.
Eto sends me off to check out Playmountain, a select shop of minimal, Danish-influenced wooden furniture and sublime tabletop objects, another of Nakahara’s ventures. Willowy shop manager Yoshitaka Imanaka, 27, points out the silky wood sculptures and furniture of Hideki Takayama, who is based out of Mashiko, Tochigi-Prefecture, as well as ceramic artworks by Brendon Monroe, and their best-seller, a deceptively simple steel-legged and wood-topped table produced in Hokkaido (¥180,000). When I learn that Nakahara works from the offices above Playmountain, I beg to grab a minute with him, but I’m out of luck. He has just flown to San Francisco to extend this empire abroad, Imanaka informs me.
With an outline now of the various Landscape Products shops in the area, thanks to Imanaka, I strike out in a westerly direction. At the first corner, I peer into Meubles du Monde, a shop choc-a-bloc with large home decor pieces in stark contrast to the aesthetic at Playmountain. Beanbag loungers in candy colors line the exterior of the store, and inside I spy a mirror-encrusted Ganesh in the company of several larger-than-life golden Buddhas. My favorite item, though, is a standing lamp made of transparent capiz shells molded to look like a pair of lady’s legs. It’s crazy kitsch, which sometimes really works in Tokyo.
Turning right at the corner, I saunter down a street with a gray and vaguely industrial gloom about it. I nearly walk right past Post Detail, an inconspicuous basement shop. Peering into the dark, I’m surprised to make out what appears to be traditional Japanese kitchen utensils and table settings. Clearly customers know where Post Detail is, because owner Goda Katsuhisa, 68, has done business here for two decades, and some of his wares, such as handmade Japanese cedar champagne buckets, sell out before he can display them.
Goda admits that you can find most of what he sells in other places in the city, but his choices are appealing and there’s a cozy, slow-paced atmosphere at Post Detail.
“The things I offer are not really designed for convenience,” Goda says, picking up a delicate maggewappa (bent cryptomeria wood) box, “but they’ve been around for a long time, and if you bring them into your modern life, you will find you end up treasuring them and they will make your life better.”
He hands me the feather-light box, made by Akita Prefecture artisan Yoshinobu Shibata, and I turn it to admire the sleek grain and decorative cherry bark at the joint (which these days is reinforced with glue to help the box last longer). When I glance up at Goda, he is pretending to bite a tawashi (handmade palm bristle brush), which is shaped like a donut. “I’m basically still a child,” he says, laughing, and it occurs to me that being surrounded by his simple but elegant goods has indeed made his life better.
Continuing on, I pop into a tiny corner coffee shop with an excellently suggestive name: Be a Good Neighbor. It’s another Nakahara place, of course, and the coffee is rich and fragrant enough to make good neighbors for blocks around. It’s packed, so I snag a double latte to go, and continue down the street.
Standing out from the drab architecture of this back street like a pearl among oyster husks, the Sunwell Muse building — designed by Takato Tamagami and Tsutomu Hasegawa — sports an exciting sliced and curvy exterior wall that’s supposedly meant to evoke feminine undulations. Inside, Sunwell Co. displays over 3,000 fabric samples, mostly domestic, to entice wholesale buyers and clothing designers. The entire outfit is well worth seeing, if only for the curvaceous building itself.
Just when I sense the street has run out of interesting spots, I find Tas Garden, a lovely organic cafe and lunch spot — yet another Nakahara offering.
Peeking in, I see customers hunkered over generous salads of organic greens and I jot a reminder to return. A small market stall outside the restaurant offers an eclectic passel of nut butters, raw veggies, organic ice pops and bottles of 100 percent organic, hand-squeezed yuzu juice. I can’t resist buying the latter, and anticipate the splash of the tart citrus in sparkling water or a cocktail.
The day is still light at 4 p.m., a sure sign of spring, and back on the busy main street corner, I catch sight of a Kawazu cherry tree putting on an early “blossom blast” show of its own. I cross the street to snap a photo of the nearly surreal pink petals against the endless gallery of sky, feeling rather glad to be alive.
The International Women’s Day Reception Party for “Blossom Blast,” takes place on March 8 from 7-10 p.m. at UltraSuperNew Gallery.