mellow brown coffee jiyugaoka tokyo

Tokyo Cafes: Mellow Brown Coffee

A review of Mellow Brown Coffee in Jiyugaoka, which specialises in pancakes and advertises itself as a working-friendly cafe. Notes are by an amateur coffee enthusiast and shoestring digital nomad. Descriptions are equal parts coffee and remote-work suitability. Photos are taken with a second-hand Fujifilm X100.

mellow brown coffee jiyugaoka tokyo

Various single origin beans to choose from — Photo by Athena Lam

Cafe Overview:

I stumbled upon Mellow Brown in Jiyugaoka with a friend while on a coffee mapping hunt a few months back and finally got the time to pop by to work. I was greeted at the door with signs saying that they had Wi-Fi and outlets. Score!

mellow brown coffee jiyugaoka tokyo

Mellow Brown is just at the edge of the Jiyugaoka commercial area — Photo by Athena Lam

There are the coffee-first cafes and there are the lifestyle-first cafes. Mellow Brown, with its attention to varied furniture with complimentary colour tones fell firmly into the latter. I was prepared to just pay a remote work parking fee for the coffee (which starts at ¥550 for an Americano).

mellow brown coffee jiyugaoka tokyo

Various seating options for any type of work — Photo by Athena Lam

However, the flat white that arrived was a pleasant surprise. The foam was a perfectly smooth texture and temperature and neither too thick nor thin. The nuttiness of the espresso still came through. Of course, there are specialty coffee roasters with bolder and more interesting espresso drinks.

mellow brown coffee jiyugaoka tokyo

A flat white at Mellow Brown Coffee is ¥600 — Photo by Athena Lam

Nonetheless, people interested in single-origin coffees can pick the beans and brewing method from their menu.

mellow brown coffee jiyugaoka tokyo

Plugs and Wi-Fi are available at the cafe — Photo by Athena Lam

Their Story / What I like About Them:

mellow brown coffee jiyugaoka tokyo

The spaced out seating ensures that even a full house is never too loud — Photo by Athena Lam

For the seating and work comfort, Mellow Brown has definitely won me over as a great remote work location. The seating options include the standard 2-person wooden tables, cozy corners, sofas, and patio seating. Basically, there is something for everyone and plenty of space between the tables so it never gets too loud.

So it seems Mellow Brown is known for their pancakes, which I didn’t have the appetite to try this time around. However, the menu looks quite interesting! They even have pancakes with fillings. For people with food allergies, the menu marks whether items are made with egg, wheat, and milk (in kanji). I’ll just have to come back and do a second review!

mellow brown coffee jiyugaoka tokyo

Brewing options include syphon, aeropress, pour over, and espresso — Photo by Athena Lam

Good For:

  • Coffee: Single origin (with your choice of brewing method) and espresso-based drinks
  • Food: Pancakes! Various other lunch options available
  • Cafe Space: Seats at least 50, with single-person tables and sofas for groups
  • Friends: Hangouts, catching up, reading
  • Workspace: Plugs in the floor
  • Remote Work: Advertises Wi-Fi available, though I didn’t use it
Address:   〒158-0083 東京都世田谷区奥沢2-12-10
2-12-10 Okusawa, Setagaya, Tokyo 158-0083
Website:  Website
Hours (Daily)

営業日(無し)

Mon – Sun: 8:00-21:00 月〜日

If you liked this post, check out my list of Off-Centre Tokyo Cafes.

Tokyo
近江屋洋菓子店 Omiya Hongo

Tokyo Cafes: Omiya (Hongo)

A review of a Meiji-Era Japanese Western Dessert shop that also serves canteen-style coffee. This amateur coffee enthusiast and shoestring digital nomad has included this shop from an atmospheric perspective. Photos are taken with a second-hand Fujifilm X100.

Omiya Hongo Tokyo cake shop

Sour Cherry tart is one of many seasonal items — Photo by Athena Lam

Cafe Overview:

Perhaps it’s the proximity to Todai (the University of Tokyo) with its famous Red Gate down the block. Perhaps it’s the polished stone entrance with the dated (classic?) font. Perhaps it’s the imposingly open glass wall atypical of Japanese independent shops. Perhaps it’s the perfectly preserved classic Showa wooden panels inside. Perhaps, it’s actually about the cakes.

近江屋洋菓子店 本郷店

Omiya is in a scholarly area surrounding the University of Tokyo — Photo by Athena Lam

Anyhow, a friend I used to stay with brought me to Omiya a few years ago and I was charmed. The ambience and cakes alone are worth coming for. Digital nomad friends, think of this as a place to take a break. Perhaps bring reading materials so the people watching is not so obvious, but the steady flow of patrons, usually silver-haired and well-heeled, is quite intruiging.

Omiya Hongo Tokyo cake shop

Omiya (近江屋洋菓子店) was founded in 1884 — Photo by Athena Lam

I just like how spacious and refined the place feels in a bygone-era way. Even though there has been no effort to upgrade to modern tastes, the counters, walls, and lighting look as if they had been installed yesterday.

This attention to detail sits in stark contrast to another feature: that there isn’t much service. Walk in, order at the counter, pay, and find your seat.

近江屋洋菓子店 Omiya Hongo

Coffee is only available as a cake set — Photo by Athena Lam

Note that coffee is only available as part of a cake set, which comes to about ¥900. You will be presented with an oddity: an unceremonious plastic cup to fill yourself at a machine. I believe refills are now ¥50.

The sour cherry tart, on the other hand, is lovely. Each cherry is well preserved, and not really sour (it’s Japan). It’s more like it’s been soaked with a slightly zesty juice to go ontop of a semi-flakey crust.

For my coffee readers – come only to reminisce on diner coffee while enjoying a great cake.

Omiya Hongo Tokyo cake shop

Items are only in Japanese. Hot water. Milk. Hot chocolate. — Photo by Athena Lam

Omiya Hongo Tokyo cake shop

Self-service system for drinks at Omiya — Photo by Athena Lam

The cold juice drinks and water are complimentary and you help yourself by getting a clear plastic cup on the self-serve counter. Options include cold tea, grapefruit juice, melon juice. and strawberry juice.

近江屋洋菓子店 本郷店

The high classic ceilings let ambient light in. — Photo by Athena Lam

After getting everything, the best spot for people watching is at the back. Use the hidden shelf under the table for your bag. Settle in, and read the paper.

Their Story / What I like About Them:

I have a soft spot for academic areas. Just the thought of used books and and university libraries down the street already make the place seem more appealing.

近江屋洋菓子店 本郷店

Perfectly kept walls and counters — Photo by Athena Lam

Founded in 1884 in the Meiji Era, Omiya began (so official stories have it) with a family ambition to open up a shop. At the time, they had settled on bread and became known for their various types, including advertised American bread. In 1895 (Meiji 28), 18-year old Kikutaro (the founder’s son) set sail to San Francisco. Amongst various things, he worked as a dish washer, moved to Seattle and worked at a “milk bar” (ミルクホール), where he learned about integrating butter into a cake mix to make sponge cakes. He stayed there for 3 years before returning to Japan and introducing the ideas he’d learned in the US.

The Kanda shop dates from Showa 41  and is still where the family lives.  The shop history is on its Japanese site.

Omiya Hongo Tokyo strawberry shortcake

Strawberry shortcake classic — Photo by Athena Lam

One of its most famous items is its strawberry shortcake, which is reasonably priced for take-away. The company website shares where they source all their fruits for both staples and seasonal items.

omiya hongo bunkyo jelly

Grape and watermelon ice cream — Photo by Athena Lam

Dessert options include cheese cake, sponge cake, creme puffs, jellies, puddings and tarts. In the Fall, I suggest trying their chestnut desserts, which are packed with flavour.

omiya hongo 近江屋洋菓子店 本郷店

Love the booth seats — Photo by Athena Lam

Good For:

  • Coffee: Canteen (burner) style
  • Food: Cakes
  • Cafe Space: Preserved nostalgic Showa-Era space with bar tables at the back.
  • Friends: Hangouts, catching up, reading
  • Workspace: Not really, but no harm in trying.
  • Remote Work: Bring your own pocket WiFi. No plugs.
Address:  〒113-0033 東京都文京区本郷4-1-7
4-1-7 Hongo, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo 113-0033
Website:  Website (Japanese)
Hours (Closed Sundays)

営業日
定休日 日曜日

Mon – Sat: 9:00-19:00 月〜土
Holidays: 10:00-17:30

If you liked this post, check out my list of Off-Centre Tokyo Cafes.

Tokyo
Ninety Plus Coffee Arabica Kyoto

SCAJ Tokyo Coffee Convention 2016 Recap

Ninety Plus Coffee Arabica Kyoto

World Brewers Cup Champion 2016 – Kasuya Tetsu brewing Ninety Plus Geisha Coffee — Photo by Athena Lam

Recap of the SCAJ Tokyo Coffee Convention (SCAJ 2016) in October, which had over 200,000 attendees over 3 days at the Tokyo Big Sight in Odaiba. With an entry fee of a mere ¥1000 with a pre-registration, visitors had access to unlimited tastings of Japan’s, and the world’s, best coffee suppliers. Check out the photos below on what to expect. Even though this event seems like a “trade show”, coffee fans will be delighted by the variety of quality beans, drinks, and equipment to try.

tokyo big site SCAJ

Tokyo Big Sight at Odaiba hosts many conventions — Photo by Athena Lam

Over 100 exhibitors.

Even though this classifies as a trade show, the admission fee is a mere ¥1000 if you pre-register and ¥1500 at the door. The ticket is valid for the entire 3 days.

I went with another coffee loving friend, so our mission was to try as many quality samples as possible. We didn’t have an agenda and just wandered around with the map.

SCAJ World Specialty Coffee Conference and Exhibition 2016

Many stalls had pour-yourself samples — Photo by Athena Lam

The vendors come from every part of the coffee industry. One can find growers and co-ops from places in SE Asia or bean distributors. These, along with commercial roasters, will have coffee samples.

SCAJ World Specialty Coffee Conference and Exhibition 2016

Coffee growers and distributors from around the world — Photo by Athena Lam

I went with a fellow foodie and coffee lover, Simone Chen, writer for Curiously Ravenous and Japan Times. Our mission was to try as much coffee as we could within an afternoon. For future visitors, I suggest you go all 3 days for a 1/2 day so that you can enjoy all the sample coffees.

SCAJ World Specialty Coffee Conference and Exhibition 2016

SCAJ 2016 only costed ¥1000 for 3 days entry — Photo by Athena Lam

Trade shows like these are great places to learn about the myriad of ways that coffee can be made, beginning with growing, picking, washing, and drying. As consumers become more educated about quality coffee, roasters have also become increasingly detailed about documenting their processes.

Personally, I always prefer roasters that document the exact farm the beans came from and their process methods (e.g. natural, honey, washed, full-washed).

SCAJ World Specialty Coffee Conference and Exhibition 2016

Natural processed beans — Photo by Athena Lam

Natural or Dried in the Fruit Process have no layers removed.

Honey Process removes the skin and pulp, but some or all of the mucilage (Honey) remains.

SCAJ World Specialty Coffee Conference and Exhibition 2016

Honey-processed beans — Photo by Athena Lam

Washed Process – skin, pulp, and mucilage are removed using water and fermentation. Also called Fully Washed. This is the conventional form of Arabica coffee processing used in most parts of the world. It is possible to skip the fermentation step by using a high-tech pressure washing machine to remove the skin, pulp and some or all of the mucilage. This process is called Pulped Natural.

SCAJ World Specialty Coffee Conference and Exhibition 2016

Distributor from Vietnam — Photo by Athena Lam

SCAJ World Specialty Coffee Conference and Exhibition 2016

Bringing a little bit of culture — Photo by Athena Lam

Vendors included cooperatives and producers from around the world, such as Vietnam. We came across distributors from various African and Latin American countries as well.

Maruyama coffee

Kasuya Tetsu, World Brewers Cup 2016 Champion, was one of several award-winning baristas serving coffee  — Photo by Athena Lam

My best surprise discovery was Ninety Plus Coffee being served by the legendary Arabica Kyoto baristas serving coffee beans they had hand picked at the estates. Words cannot describe how fruity, aromatic, full-bodied and layered the small samples were. Some people might liken it to “tea” because it begins light, but if you let it wash over your tongue, one sip will reveal much more than a flat comparison.

Simone and I so loved the beans we had a small sample batch roasted on location in Kyoto weeks later.

A surprise to some, Arabica is actually headquartered in Hong Kong there and has just opened a new shop in the UAE. They are opening a host of places around the world in 2017, so you can check the cafe list here.

Maruyama coffee

My most savoured discovery at the SCAJ 2016 Ninety Plus — Photo by Athena Lam

maruyama coffee

Maruyama Coffee‘s Nakayama-sensei is a Syphon Champion is in Karuizawa — Photo by Athena Lam

We were also equally delighted to see another Japanese cafe recognised for its consistent quality (and gorgeous cafe concepts): Maruyama CoffeeOriginally from Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, I would recommend any visitor to check out how serenely the cafe integrates into its natural surroundings.

maruyama coffee SCAJ Tokyo

Maruyama Coffee has a long-term view in supporting its baristas — Photo by Athena Lam

Maruyama Coffee came with a full fleet of celebrated baristas, each with their own speciality. Tomoya Egashira represented Adachi Coffee and Miyuki Oguma from Itoya Coffee Factory served their sample piccolo lattes while the syphon masters focused on their single origin brews.

maruyama coffee

In Japan, service and passion are part of the coffee package — Photo by Athena Lam

SCAJ World Specialty Coffee Conference and Exhibition 2016

Coffee, coffee everywhere — Photo by Athena Lam

As we cruised through the convention, we noted how many vendors had unique approaches to how they presented their goods. Some showed displays of brews. Others left samples out, while still others were holding workshops and tours.

SCAJ World Specialty Coffee Conference and Exhibition 2016

DCS also had samples — Photo by Athena Lam

SCAJ World Specialty Coffee Conference and Exhibition 2016

Japan Barista Championship Finals — Photo by Athena Lam

We also stumbled on another treat: the Japan Barista Championships. The presentation was in a corner that attracted a crowd but had plenty of space for latecomers like us to find a comfortable spot to stand. The volume was perfect for us to hear the baristas explaining their drinks, without disrupting the rest of the event.

SCAJ World Specialty Coffee Conference and Exhibition 2016

Miki Suzuki from Maruyama Coffee won 1st place — Photo by Athena Lam

SCAJ World Specialty Coffee Conference and Exhibition 2016

Judges tasting Suzuki-sensei’s drinks — Photo by Athena Lam

SCAJ World Specialty Coffee Conference and Exhibition 2016

Playing with the professional equipment like Simonelli — Photo by Athena Lam

At the back of the hall, we found most of the equipment vendors. Virtually every model of espresso machine from most of the major companies like Simonelli, Vittoria, and La Marzocco were on display and usable. Each brand either had a barista serving or testing machines for visitors to make their own customised drink (with professionals on the side to offer a hand if desired).

SCAJ World Specialty Coffee Conference and Exhibition 2016

One of the machines we could use — Photo by Athena Lam

By then, we had drunken about 4-6 (small sample) cups and were rationing our last cups, so we just watched other people try demos.

SCAJ World Specialty Coffee Conference and Exhibition 2016

Coffee tampers — Photo by Athena Lam

SCAJ World Specialty Coffee Conference and Exhibition 2016

Stock up on your coffee equipment here — Photo by Athena Lam

minimal chocolate tokyo

Fellow foodie & coffee lover Simone Chen (Curiously Ravenous) — Photo by Athena Lam

Simone also introduced me to one of my new favourite chocolate makers, Minimal Chocolate. Minimal Chocolate is handmade in Tokyo and has meticulous documentation of the cocoa beans they source. Each source bean has its own flavour recipe and profile and when sampled together, the distinct characters of the cocoa beans (from fruity and wine-like, to savoury, to spiced, to fragrant and smooth) becomes apparent.

minimal chocolate tokyo

Minimal Chocolate is a local Tokyo small-batch brand — Photo by Athena Lam

SCAJ World Specialty Coffee Conference and Exhibition 2016

Roasters on demo — Photo by Athena Lam

SCAJ World Specialty Coffee Conference and Exhibition 2016

Green bean distributors — Photo by Athena Lam

SCAJ World Specialty Coffee Conference and Exhibition 2016

Where coffee meets sci fi & robotics — Photo by Athena Lam

SCAJ World Specialty Coffee Conference and Exhibition 2016

Hario‘s classic coffee brewing equipment — Photo by Athena Lam

Needless to say, some of Japan’s best known coffee equipment companies were there as well. Hario is known for its V60 drip and syphon glass. If you would like to stock up on coffee equipment, I suggest going to Union Coffee in Kappabashi (Tokyo’s kitchen town), near Asakusa.

SCAJ World Specialty Coffee Conference and Exhibition 2016

Coffee and IoT (Internet of Things) is a sleek kitchen solution — Photo by Athena Lam

The convention also showcased some of the latest gadgets in coffee making. Stationary robots would swing their arms to brew the perfectly standardised cup. Or, if you would like to customise your own in the comfort of your home, you could consider an IoT solution by using your iPad to control an automated coffee brewing counter machine with your own brewing formula.

SCAJ World Specialty Coffee Conference and Exhibition 2016

Coffee ceremony anyone? — Photo by Athena Lam

We also saw the cultural fusion of a tea-turned-coffee-brewing ceremony. You could wait your turn to be served on a traditional tatami mat.

As usual, tradition is usually contrasted with innovation. One of the latest trends in the US is nitro coffee, which is served from a tap like draft beer would be. I would say give Japan a few more years before they manage to catch up in flavour to the US.

UCC nitro coffee

Nitro coffee hits Japan — Photo by Athena Lam

UCC nitro coffee

If possible, try nitro in the US instead — Photo by Athena Lam

To top off our day, we circled back to Ninety Plus Coffee and chatted with the founder, Naoki-san from Arabica, and watched another barista champion, Jeremy Zhang, brew his beans.

ninety plus coffee geisha

Ninety Plus Coffee’s Master baristas pick their own beans — Photo by Athena Lam

ninety plus coffee geisha

Jeremy Zhang is one of Ninety Plus Coffee’s Taste Makers — Photo by Athena Lam

If you want to try some local Tokyo cafes here:

Tokyo
500px red bull tokyo photowalk

500px Tokyo Photo Walk: An Experimental Tricking Essay

 

When one thinks of Tokyo...

When one thinks of Tokyo, endless blocks like these come to mind…

On a whim, I signed up for a 500px x Red Bull photo walk to explore Tokyo’s urban core. This city is a constant spring of inspiration and surprises, whether it’s the familiar urban skyscrapers being lit in an eerie light or a quiet Showa neighbourhood around a corner that catches you unaware.

I’m just one of thousands of fascinated photographers. How do others approach this city? What lenses and frames do they prefer, figuratively and literally? I was curious to find out.

While I took many other subjects throughout the day, this post is just a photo diary to document my first attempt at shooting action with my the Fujifilm X100.

500px-red-bull-tokyo-photowalk

I guess as photographers, we’re quick to get sorted for group photos too!

500px red bull tokyo photowalk

Follow the umbrella. Jason was a well-paced guide who managed to keep us all together.

The theme for the event was “Action and Adventure”, which is second only to night photography for equipment unsuitability. My Fujifilm X100 focuses too slowly and has low-quality continuous shooting renders. That’s not a problem for everything else along the walk: the streets, shops and people I’ll inevitably pass. Technical limitations may preclude me from certain types of shots, but they also challenge me to think through my lense.

imperial palace hotel gardens

First stop: outside the Imperial Palace East Gardens.

For our walk, we had 3 tricking models who obligingly pulled out moves whenever we were at a good spot (thanks to Jason, who arranged the route).

I did sports photography in high school, and I’ve never had the luxury of ideal equipment or conditions. As a result, I’ve learned some strange tricks such as pre-timing shots for slow (or sometimes delayed) shutters. Shooting action with a wide-angle, using single-frame is a fun challenge to really focus on the subject and predict exactly what they’ll do and where they’ll go.

500px red bull tokyo photowalk

Getting off to an early morning start.

500px red bull tokyo photowalk

The muggy heat didn’t deter our 3 models from sticking to long-sleeves.

500px red bull tokyo photowalk

These fountains are at the North-East entrance to the Imperial Palace gardens.

500px red bull tokyo photowalk

It wasn’t long before our crowd was asked to move along.

500px red bull tokyo photowalk 500px red bull tokyo photowalk

Our route took us from Tokyo Station, through to the North-East corner of the Imperial Palace Park, up to Akihabara, and through to Ueno. Our subject options ranged from blue skies and trees, to electronic shops, to quiet back alleys, to crowded markets,  and finally to Ueno Park and Nezu Shrine up at Yanasen.

Walking north to Akihabara

Walking north to Akihabara, one passes through several canal over-passes.

Overpasses in Chuo-ku

Overpasses in Tokyo always have something underneath: canals, parks, parking lots.

By 12:30, we just made it to Ueno Park, but everyone was having a good time. The attendees were a mix of Japanese and foreigners from all backgrounds. The good company quickly became even more distracting than the places we were walking through!

500px red bull tokyo photowalk

BMX bringing a different perspective to Ueno Park

With a wide lense (18mm >> 22mm), I couldn’t get a good close-up of the action without blocking other photographers. As such, I had to do a lot of photo processing to make up, so I had fun playing around. Below is a first go.

500px red bull tokyo photowalk

Tricking in Ueno Park during our mini lunch-break

If anyone has tips and suggestions, please let me know! 
500px red bull tokyo photowalk 500px red bull tokyo photowalk 500px red bull tokyo photowalk 500px red bull tokyo photowalk 500px red bull tokyo photowalk 500px red bull tokyo photowalk

I think of photos like a canvas. As such, my processing might seem inconsistent as I usually run with whatever seems to interest me in that moment. However, I’d appreciate some tips and pointers (bearing in mind I only use wide-angle lenses)!

Also, you can download these photos CC from my Flickr.

Below is the walking route we took, in case you want to try yourself!

500px Red Bull Tokyo Photowalk Facebook

Image courtesy of 500px Red Bull Tokyo Photo Walk Facebook Event

Thanks for checking this out! 

I usually do travel photo essays, so please check out my post on the moss-covered temples in Kunisaki, or the historical mountain town of Gujo Hachiman.

tokyo travel

Tokyo Cafes: February Cafe

フェブラリーカフェ February Cafe Asakusa Tokyo

February Cafe’s storefront on a quiet street.

I entered this small cafe in Asakusa on a rainy Saturday afternoon and found it packed. Only the bar seats were left, and thankfully my friend had saved a spot for us. February Cafe is just across the street from the main shopping areas closer to Senso-ji, which means the small alleys are undisturbed by traffic. The entrance is a demure white, but inside the place is bursting with a corner-cafe-grocer character. The signs are right at the serving counter, which is against a wall crammed with small iconic things. I eats this.

フェブラリーカフェ February Cafe Asakusa Tokyo

Signs balancing on narrow ledges.

For a space so small – just 17 seats – it is uncharacteristically welcoming for remote work. A sign on the wall beside outlets invites patrons to use the plugs. There is no Wi-Fi.

フェブラリーカフェ February Cafe Latte Espresso Black Coffee

Pour over Nicaragua Single Origin & Latte

I’d come here to try the coffee, so my friend ordered a single-origin Nicaragua (¥500) and I ordered a latte (¥430) to check out their art. The latte art was well done, but the beans were a bit underwhelming. I personally would have preferred a smaller latte just to get a higher espresso ratio. The single origin roast was a bit watery and the berry flavours didn’t quite bloom, so it ended up a little acidic.

フェブラリーカフェ February Cafe Asakusa Tokyo

Wall bar that’s meant for remote work.

We didn’t try the food, but the menu items looked quite tasty! There were a group of foreigners who were having a great time catching up. I’d recommend this as a place to get some work done if you’re in the neighbourhood.

フェブラリーカフェ February Cafe Asakusa Tokyo

Back seating for catch ups

Cafe is Good For:

  • Coffee: Espresso and pour-over filter coffee
  • Food: Breakfast, lunch and dessert menus
  • Cafe Space: 3 square tables, 1 booth table, 2 bar seating areas.
  • Friends: Hangouts & catching up
  • Remote work & Reading: 2-3 plugs on the wall table (narrow, so small laptops are better).
Address: 1-7-8 Kaminarimon, Taito-ku, Tokyo
〒111-0034 東京都台東区雷門 1−7−8
Map
Website: http://www016.upp.so-net.ne.jp/February-Cafe/
Hours: 8:00 – 19:00
営業日
定休日: 
不定休
8:00 ~ 19:00

If you liked this post, check out my map of cafes Off-Centre Tokyo Cafes.

Tokyo
Koto-Ku Canals Skytree tokyo

Invisible Tokyo: A Digital Nomad’s Photo Diary

In a few weeks, I’ll have made Tokyo a home for a year. There were a few, predictably nomadic, gaps that included Hong Kong, Canada, and a long-overdue revisit to India. Fifty odd weeks after moving in, I’m preparing to move again. In September, I’ll move to another place around the neighbourhood for an interim month, then across Tokyo to another friend’s place.

The district of Koto-ku didn’t take long to charm me. I have a soft spot for understated places, community efforts, and cottage-industry ingenuity. Before I go, I want to try to capture those little things that make this forgotten corner of Tokyo so special.

Koto-Ku Canals Skytree tokyo

The canals of Koto-ku lined with its recreational paths.

Firstly, Koto-ku is translated as Koto Ward, which is effectively its own city within Tokyo. The area sits at the junction of the Arakawa and Sumida Rivers and much of it used to be marshland. Known in the Edo Period as the Shitamachi, the Low City, the area was comprised of fishing villages. The waterways that were once the highways between these communities still have a modern imprint on Tokyo and they have been transformed into lovely tree-lined recreational routes.

Arakawa River Tokyo

Afternoon napping to this gentleman’s live jazz along the Arakawa.

I live 5-minutes bike ride from the mighty Arakawa and the lengthy recreation grounds that travel 20+ kilometres upstream. At 6am or 6pm, I am joined by other cyclists, runners, students commuting to school, and parents playing with their kids. Emptying into Tokyo Bay, the winds here are strong and moist, sweeping across the high grasses at the river banks. Flower gardens, parks, tennis courts, baseball fields and football fields line the riverside in turn.

横十間川親水公園

Waterpark along the many canals. This one is called 横十間川親水公園

My sister tells her friends she lives in a district with dogs and kids. One cannot avoid the laughter and enthusiastic chatter of young kids in this area. It’s a blessing.

Shio Ramen こうかいぼう

Shio Chashu Ramen at Koukaibo (Monzen-nakacho)

One hasn’t quite settled in until one has a mental map of the best eateries in the area. Armed with my bike, I can venture over to neighbouring Fukagawa to enjoy Koukaibo’s chashu ramen during lunch.

Ramen Toukanya Tokyo

Neighbourhood Ramen Toukanya

Home is defined by the places you can saunter down the block to. There’s nothing like treating yourself to the warmth of a local haunt after a long day’s work. Thank heavens mine close by is a ramen shop. Toukanya serves solid shio (salt) and shoyu (soy sauce) ramen with jazz floating through the half-filled seats that regularly get refilled.

Tomioka Hachimangu Tokyo Sumo Shinto Shrine

Birthplace of professional sumo, the Tomioka Hachimangu

The area may have once been marshland between central Tokyo and Tokyo DisneySea. But, Fukagawa was once the largest grain market from Edo times right until World War II. The Tomioka Hachimangu is the birthplace of professional sumo and hosted 80+ tournaments. It is still a lively place for flea markets on weekends, an active part of community life. Every few years, the shrine’s Water Festival becomes a full-on street water fight and the mikoshi (portable shrine) is paraded through the streets. This mikoshi also happens to be Kanto’s largest, and visitors can see its intricate gold-leaf work near the shrine entrance.

Right beside it, the Fukagawa Fudoson has a regular stream of local visitors, especially since the Buddhist temple hosts free Goma fire rituals. Few temples are so open to the public, and even fewer play the same active roles they once did a century ago as community centres with conversing mothers and frolicking children.

What’s more – Matsuo Basho spent some of his life here! I didn’t know it was possible to be such a fan of my own area.

Goma Daifuku Sessame Daifuku

Goma (sesame) daifuku from Futaba

Speaking of goma, one of my favourite daifuku places is at a place called Futaba just north of the temple. A limited number is made daily in the dim family-run shop run by a friendly oji-san (uncle), who likes to pop his head out and people watch when it’s quiet.

Koto Ku Tokyo Kats

Cat waiting for the daily meal

Since I started commuting to work, I always look out the two street cats waiting to be fed in the evening. It seems like everyone in the neighbourhood has taken to adopting something. My neighbour has taken to liberally pruning our bushes and patrolling the block. The moms rotate watching the kids on the playground. Someone planted mint in stealth in one of the flower beds covered in weeds. I’ve adopted onions, soy bean sprouts and basil from my supermarket from the sale pile; they’re now happily in flower beds on my deck.

Koto Ku Tokyo Flowers

Flours in golden hour.

The concrete grid looks pretty bland and characterless from one block to the next. It doesn’t take much effort to notice the pots and plants balancing precariously above the sidewalks. Suddenly, one notices all the jungle pockets: hanging from the walls in pots, lining the parking lots in rows, on step-displays at an entrance, or circling a corner. The greens come in all shapes and sizes and many have flowers. There are these mini magenta ones in bunches, hydrangeas, and cacti that bloom only in the morning.

Koto Ku Tokyo Eggplant

The eggplants and cherry tomato plants outside a nursery.

There’s a nursery around the corner and in front, there are eggplants and cherry tomatoes that have been left unclaimed (I guess someone was more interested in growing than eating them).

Unakuri 5 Unagi Stall

Sunamachi Ginza’s very own unagi stall.

Unagi used to be street food because the rivers of Edo, old Tokyo, were teaming with freshwater eel. Now, unagi is often served in lacquered boxes. Old-school street-stalls have had to close up shop because of increasingly expensive eel prices since they are over-fished. Unakuri 5 is an ordinary little shop that’s been opened for only a decade, quietly selling out every afternoon before it officially closes at 6pm.

Restaurant Kitchens

Kitchens with back doors left open and nothing to hide.

Even though this residential area doesn’t have many restaurants compared to commercial districts, quiet eateries are still litered everywhere. Best of all, people here leave lots of places open and aren’t afraid to let you see what they have.

Toushomen Noodles Kitasunamachi Tokyo

Toshomen, Chinese knife-cut noodles.

Koto-ku is also an area of immigrants, I quickly learned. Ojima has a great Indian grocery store and neighbouring Kasai also has a large community. On the weekends, an Indian food truck pedals shwarma outside my park and I had a lovely chat with a Tamil man. Chinese joints also dot the area. A second-floor restaurant is at our main intersection, and down the street is another toshomen restaurant. Toshomen is the Japanese reading of the Chinese 刀削麺, which means noodles that have been cut directly into a boiling cauldron of water.

Koto Ku Tokyo Taxi Garage

Neighbourhood taxi garage

When I walk to the park around 7am, the taxi garage is filled with drivers checking in and waiting for their first dispatch. There’s something about seeing those drivers in their neatly tucked white shirts every day having their morning banters that’s put a warm face to the orange cars I see in further-flung places in the city.

Koto Ku Tokyo Bikes Field

The bikes that fill this parking area and empty every day.

Every day, this public bike parking is filled in the morning with commuters hopping into the metro after locking up. Every night, this area in front of the field is emptied out after all the parents have gone home.

Koto Ku Tokyo Bike Field

The quiet evening after a lively weekend of tournaments.

All year round, this field is filled with the shouts of young baseball athletes. Sometimes you hear a little voice leading the chants, bellowing as deep as his little 4-feet person can. In the summers, the cheers of enthusiastic parents can be heard on the other side of the park, drowning that hollow ring of a home-run hit.

Koto Ku Tokyo Park Kids

King of the Hill!

This park is the socialising ground. Junior high school jocks hang out with their bikes here. Students gossip on the swing. Toddlers scale this mountain and sail down at twice the speed. This is where children learn to walk, climb, and sail on a free-hanging rope.

Koto Ku Tokyo

Grocery shopping

In the morning, the gentle sunlight flickers through the green canopies. In the evening, the sun rays sweep past the trunks and bathes everything in a golden glow.

Koto Ku Tokyo Park

Hangouts

It’s a small park. After being gone a week in spring, I returned to find the trees swallowed by the waist-high grasses. In early summer, those got cut down, and the remaining stalks looked sickly for a while. By the time I started visiting every morning, the leafy weeds began sprouting buds. After a recent July rainy week, and I’d been absent for a few days, I returned to find the wild grasses had matured into full-on shrubs that commanded attention.

Luxury is the joy no amount of money can buy. For me, it is the bench with just that patch of weeds that look like soft bak choy atop dark, rich soil. In those quiet morning moments, when the streams of workers and students march quietly by, I sip my home-made coffee and type with bare feet. It is good to be grounded.

Park in Koto-Ku Eastern Tokyo

My free morning office.  

Tokyo Life