A friend back in the States recommended the neighborhood of Shimokitazawa to me as an indie/hipster haven in Tokyo. So Alonna and I decided to spend most of the day yesterday exploring the neighborhood. I couldn’t find any specific guidance on the Internet, so we had no agenda whatsoever!
It was the first time we had to take a non-Japan Rail train anywhere (way exciting! buying tickets at different-looking machines!) and even as we were pulling into the station, I was already enchanted. We followed the trickle of fashionable young people walking around at 2:30pm on a Sunday, and sure enough, we started to find interesting things. Places you’d expect to find in Seattle or Boulder were hiding out in this southeastern pocket of Tokyo. Like a biker cafe…
and some sweet hippie stores that reeked of incense
Because it was such a small, walkable neighborhood, we could return to things that caught our eye, like the bunnies on a second-story window:
I guess if either of us had any expectations as we climbed the narrow stairs to the bunny window, they were something along the lines of bunny decor. But it turned out to be way more amazing than we could have imagined…
TEA SERVICE AND REAL LIVE PETTABLE BUNNIES COMBINED
They were asleep when we came into the cafe, but once we went into their pen (yes, you read that right, we got to go IN THE PEN WITH THE BUNNIES) they became so active I couldn’t get a non-blurry picture. But this is THREE BUNNIES AT ONCE ON MY LAP
and really cute tea service too!
I immediately understood: this was the secret behind Japan’s low crime rate. Who would steal or hurt other people when there was the option to pet bunnies and drink tea at the same time?
After we left the bunny cafe, reeling with joy, we wandered up a side street because I’d caught a glimpse of what looked like a little shrine. It turned out to be an Inari shrine (dedicated to the Shinto god who sometimes takes the form of a fox), which Alonna had just figured out when a man approached us and told us as much.
You have to understand, this has almost never happened to me in Japan. Strangers don’t just strike up a conversation with you, especially when you clearly look foreign (a clue that your Japanese language ability is probably not perfect. And indeed, mine isn’t). But this man was incredibly friendly and wanted to tell us more about the accompanying Tengu shrine a few steps away. (I can’t find a satisfactory Tengu explanation in English and didn’t take a picture… but it was a huge bright red face mask, probably about as tall as a person, with a long Pinocchio nose.)
The space around the two shrines had a mini farmer’s market of sorts set up, with a few booths selling produce and packaged food. Everyone there welcomed us and one guy proudly introduced himself to us in English — which is a little less rare: some people take our foreign faces as an excuse to practice English. which is fine with me. 🙂 Alonna and I got the vibe that we were a pretty rare sight there; maybe Shimokitazawa is one of the places that tourists haven’t discovered yet.
As we wandered into early evening and started to feel like dinner, this place caught our eye: traditional-style seating, outdoors!
We were welcomed in (I love that this happens at restaurants and bars. Once you’ve paused outside the doorway, you almost have to go inside. You’re showered with “irasshaimase” and “douzo” from the entire staff once you do enter) and quickly realized that we’d stumbled on a pretty trendy — but not prohibitively expensive — place.
The handwritten menu was in elaborate calligraphy, so between our limited reading skills and the unfamiliar look of the characters, we had a pretty difficult time with it.
But the wait staff were so helpful and patient! One strategy in particular seemed to work. Anyone living or traveling abroad should remember this little gem: when in doubt, apologetically emphasize how dumb you are. So when I said to the waiter, “We’d like sashimi, but… I can’t read very well,” he immediately and graciously explained the sashimi menu and recommended certain dishes. (My theory is that by putting yourself down, you elevate the other person — and who doesn’t want to help you once you’ve made them feel good?)