Thursday, July 10, 2008

Welcome to the Neighborhood! (Part 2)

Spiral Hall (Aoyama)

Our second venue, the Spiral Hall, is located in Aoyama, which straddles two of Tokyo’s 23 wards, Shibuya-ku (‘ku’ means ward) and Minato-ku (both just south of the Shinjuku ward). While Shinjuku, along with Ginza and Shibuya, offer the stereotypical neon-saturated cityscape people have come to expect of Tokyo (from slickly-produced movies and a million picture postcards), Aoyama is a quieter, more elegant, less relentlessly vertical (!) neighbourhood, but no less exciting for all that. It is home to the sprawling Yoyogi Park, in the centre of which sits the Meiji-jingu temple – perhaps the most beautiful temple you can visit (and for free!) in the heart of the city. At the south end of the park, aspiring rock stars busk at 10 meter intervals on the sidewalk, and Japanese greasers dance (often shirtless!) to the tunes of the ‘50s, providing some of the best free entertainment in Tokyo.

Harajuku, recently made internationally famous by the rather forelorn-looking group of Harajuku Girls that are paid to follow Gwen Stefani wherever she goes, has long been a centre of Tokyo youth- and fashion culture. On weekends, tourists flock by the hundreds to have their pictures taken with – and/or get free hugs from – the Harajuku kids, who (ironically) have almost nothing in common with Stefani’s basically anonymous and homogeneous Harajuku Girls. The whole point, after all, of Harajuku fashion is to cultivate an extremely individualistic style, within a basically conventional set of characters and types (Goth and Lolita being the most popular). You can catch them Saturdays and Sundays at the south-eastern end of the park, on the bridge that leads from Harajuku station into the park.

Omote-Sando literally means ‘the big road that leads to the temple.’ It is both the name of the street that leads up from the entrance to Yoyogi Park and the name of the neighbourhood at the top of the hill. It’s one of the few streets in Tokyo that is lined with huge mature shade trees, making it an attractive spot for a stroll even in the most intense heat of summer. It also boasts some of the quirkiest and most credit-limit stretching clothes shopping in Tokyo. Running parallel to Omote-Sando, one longish block north, is Takeshita-dori. This pedestrian-only street has a somewhat hippie-ish feel, and is where the Lolitas and Goths buy the basics of their wardrobes. But Omote-Sando proper is dominated by the flagship stores of Gucci, Prada, Ralph Lauren, as well as an array of Japanese luxury brands, and some of Tokyo’s more charming independent cafés.

If you had any doubts about the international calibre of what’s on offer here, they would have been settled this past spring when opposing David and Mrs. Victoria Beckham billboards towered over the intersection of Aoyama-dori and Omote-Sando. On the northeast corner, he was lounging in his undies for Armani, a perfect image of Narcissus in cool black and white. While on the southeast corner, she – in full color (all the better to show off the contrast between her bottle-blonde hair and her perhaps also bottle-bronze skin) – was pimping for Samantha Thavasa, and appeared to be glaring across the street at David, as if to say, “Don’t get any funny ideas, David. We’re married!”

It’s here, at the top of the hill, and a short block south in the direction of Shibuya that you’ll find the Spiral Hall – an elegantly minimalistic multi-purpose hall located on Aoyama-dori, it is equally well-suited to hosting sophisticated live performances as well as other cultural events like the film fest. After three days at the Wald 9, and endless partying in Nichome, our visitors may be ready for the more relaxed atmosphere of Aoyama. The budget-conscious visitor will be happy to know that amid the riot of luxury there are some very good cheap eats (including some of Tokyo’s best vegetarian and vegan restaurants) to be found just around the corner. The trick is finding them, tucked away in this side-street or that alley.

A two-minute walk from the Spiral Hall is Japanese contemporary painter Nara Yoshitomo’s A-to-Z Café, on the fifth floor of the Equbo building. ( It’s a personal favourite not just for the great food and desserts, the relaxed café atmosphere, and the gorgeous view east toward Roppongi and Nogizaka, but also because it is a kind of mini-museum of Nara’s work, including a cottage-like studio right in the middle of the café. If you’re in the neighbourhood during the afternoon, and have a little time to kill, why not wander east through Aoyama cemetery (check out the special section for foreigners who made a significant contribution to Japan’s modernization in the 19th century), or visit the incredible new National Art Centre, Tokyo ( at Nogizaka (on the Chiyoda metro line) – an architectural wonder of undulating glass and steel that always has multiple ongoing exhibitions of international and Japanese work.

One of Tokyo’s best cheap izakaya’s is also just down the street from both the Spiral Hall and the A-to-Z Café, but you might have to find me at the festival and get directions in person, because street names and addresses are just not how people find their way around here! It’s more of a “…walk about two blocks past a shrine and a ‘Family Mart’ on your right, turn left when you see the wooden tanuki [a Japanese racoon-dog], and follow that to the bottom of the hill…” kind of a town!
My favourite izakaya in Omote-Sando: it's literally a hole in the wall! But you might have to come find me at the festival for directions...

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