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22 September 2017Last updated
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Tokyo’s coolest suburb Kōenji

Stay in an art hotel, see great bands, shop for vintage clothes – this left-field community in the Tokyo suburbs is home to an expanding creative scene

Guardian News & Media Ltd
10 Mar 2017 | 12:00 am
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It’s a Thursday night and the concrete bar counter at the BnA art hotel is scattered with glasses of golden, spice-infused drinks. Young creatives in skate brands and neat vintage cardigans perch on stools as they sip to the sounds of ambient techno, knees bumping against the bright cartoonish stickers that dot the reclaimed wood. ‘We didn’t want just another hotel lobby that is empty most of the time, we wanted cool people to be hanging out, and that to be the draw,’ says Keigo Fukugaki, an architect, one of the co-founders of BnA, and a perfect example of the type of people who buzz around this establishment.

At the weekend the bar opens up to the basement, hosting everything from a house music set to an exhibition of cast-concrete sculptures. The atmosphere is part skate shop, part family get-together, and attracts as much attention from the older neighbours, who pop their heads around the door to see what the hotel is doing next. ‘Whenever we do something new, we never meet opposition, they’re more curious and supportive,’ says Keigo.

This contemporary vibe is a welcome addition to the long-standing artistic community in Kōenji. The last stop before the suburbs on Tokyo’s Chūō line, the district is on the fringes – both physically and in the communities it houses. ‘In most of Tokyo, people are conservative. Here, it’s different. Anything goes, as long as you’re not harming anybody,’ says Keigo, who opened the two-room lodging with three other creatives in March 2016. With its unpretentious but sharp design, combining recycled materials and eye-catching, graphic wall art, it’s a chilled-out space for conversation and artistic exchange, much like Ampcafe Koenji (just the other side of the station, and run by BnA’s artistic director, Kenji Daikoku). The minimal and affordable hotel drops guests into the middle of Tokyo’s art scene.

‘A lot of the guests who stay here are artists themselves, or music or TV producers, looking for their peers,’ says Keigo. When they’re not in the bar of BnA, the artists and musicians who call Kōenji home can be found in Tico (3-68-1 Koenjiminami Suginami), a buzzy bar in the style of an apothecary, that is – along with many other watering holes – in the passage adjoining Kōenji station. If your feet can bear it (Tico’s tagline is ‘stand up please’), the infusions are artistic creations in their own right. Around the corner from Tico is Tensuke, where tempura becomes performance art. Order an egg tempura (over easy, medium, or hard) and watch it being tossed, with some batter splatters, into the cast-iron pot of sizzling oil.

A few streets over, the basement izakaya Mamma Jima (27-18 Koenjiminami Suginami) also puts on a show for customers sitting at the bar, courtesy of the smoking straw that flavours its unmissable bonito dish, seasoned with lemon and salt.

Kōenji is also a hub for vintage clothing shops: from Yakusoku ‘s baby-pink frills to the pricier selection of high-end menswear in Kissmet and its brother store Laugh, where Dries van Noten trenchcoats share the racks with rare knits from Yves Saint Laurent and Comme des Garçons. Classic, bargain Americana at Marco Polo, slick luxurious sportswear at Mouse, and edgy unisex staples at Sokkyou and JuRian will all tempt your wallet. Secondhand record shops are plentiful, too. Start crate digging at EAD Record, before moving south to 57 Chome’s Be in Sound and Universound. For vintage material in paper format, Hachimakura sells exquisitely designed antique stamps and mid-century postcards, labels and other ephemera, as well as beautiful contemporary calendars and notebooks from local artists.

People all over Tokyo know Kōenji by its left-field reputation for cultural resistance, especially the anti-nuclear community, which organised a march of 15,000 here in 2011. This ‘alternative’ reputation applies to music, too: you can’t walk far in Kōenji without seeing a grungy punk musician, guitar strapped to their back. At night, those guitars get amped up in one of the many live music venues, such as the cramped Muryoku Muzenji and punk staple Higashi-Koenji 20000v.

Like musicians, artists have taken advantage of the area’s cheaper rents for decades, but opportunities for them to exhibit their work are scarce: space in Tokyo is hard to come by. The bedrooms of BnA are a chance for guests to get close to the selected artists’ artwork – up to 25 per cent of BnA room profits go directly to the artist. BnA is hoping its approach will be able to support more artists in the area and entice more visitors to experience the local culture. It recently began a public mural project with city funding. ‘Kōenji is known for music, it’s known for artists, but it doesn’t have public art that represents the culture, and that’s what we’re trying to do,’ says Kiego. ‘Slowly but surely we’re turning Kōenji into an art city.’

Tokyo eats: Anago

Unagi, or freshwater eel, is so popular a dish in Japan that stocks are in serious decline. On the other hand anago – the more subtly flavoured saltwater eel – is rarely seen on Tokyo menus. The rich flavour of unagi comes from its oily skin and flesh, but anago (conger eels) are leaner, and have a softer, lighter taste.

There is, according to chef Yuji Sato, only one restaurant specialising in anago left in the capital, and it’s his. Tamai opened 10 years ago in the Nihonbashi business district, and its timber-framed building is itself a taste of times gone by. Sitting in simple wooden booths, customers can order anything they like – so long as it’s eel. The signature dish is hako-meshi (about Dh63): anago grilled or poached and served on a bed of rice in a lacquer box, with condiments and miso. It comes with a little grater and brush for spreading yuzu juice and zest over the fish.

When you’ve finished eating the eel, a waiter arrives with a kettle of eel stock – the very water your fish was cooked in – to pour over the rice and create a rich broth. Try the starter of fried eel bones, crispy (and high-calcium) snacks that look like they’re made of Lego. The anago tempura is also excellent, so it’s no wonder this place has long lunchtime queues. An evening reservation is the best bet, although the staff often want to close up around 9pm. 0081 3 6228 3103, anago-tamai.com.

Guardian News & Media Ltd

Guardian News & Media Ltd