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Thursday, May 13, 1999

Nishi-Ogikubo -- waist-high in green


Tokyoites complain about Tokyo: its chaotic haphazardness, its sprawling largeness, its adamant refusal to be beautiful. Like the room of a teenage boy, it keeps accumulating things, things, things. Then everything is kicked under the bed and the boy goes out for a cheeseburger. Tokyoites can only shrug like his ticked-off, middle-aged parents: "Kids. What are you gonna do?"

But it's exactly this size and clutter that makes the city an ideal place to hide, chill out and reinvent oneself. Yesterday you were "Betty Blue" in some Shibuya nightclub, today you're the perfectly groomed O.L. in Marunouchi. And tomorrow, should you decide to be the cultured, enlightened housewife who has her own garbage recycling kit, then you burn your microminis and go to Nishiogikubo.

Tucked discreetly in the small niche between her more gardier sisters, Ogikubo and Kichijoji, "Nishiogi" is the Tokyo jutakugai (residential district) at its best. Conveniently close to urban Shinjuku but far enough to ensure the lack of tall buildings and an abundance of greenery. The prosperous racket around the station that fades out to an utter quiet beyond a 50-meter radius. The nostalgic coffee shops, secondhand boutiques, an array of family-owned enterprises. These all speak of the kind of money that flows here: nothing splashy or big-time, but (like the inhabitants) dependable and dignified.

All this is perhaps a bit unexpected, considering that 30 years ago Nishiogi was hippie territory and a haven for ex-university students defeated in campus riots. Full of bitterness toward politics, the system and central Tokyo, they came here to calm down and think about alternative lifestyles which turned out to be organic farming.

Nishiogi welcomed such converted farmers, having been a converted farming district itself during World War II. This was when all of Tokyo was hungry and turning every available chunk of land into vegetable patches. Even after the war, though, Nishiogi never really gave up farming and continued to cultivate the soil in its quiet, inconspicuous way. As the economy soared and her neighbors went all out for corporate, Nishiogi was often referred to with a mixture of contempt and affection: "Nishiogi? My god, those people are waist-high in dirt!"

Today, large lots are sectioned off into minifarms and rented out by the Suginami Ward office. Housewives, retirees and even local college kids work on the soil, coaxing flowers into bloom or training tomato vines around thin strips of wood. Huge elm trees tower over the lots and birdsong is in the air. An old gentleman with a straw hat pulls on a daikon. Strains of jazz flow from someone's open window. This is it: Tokyo's version of a hippie commune. What the place needs now is an open stage, so the Indigo Girls can come and sing.

Further attesting to Nishiogi's hipness is a building called Hobittomura (Hobbit Village) located close to the station and launched 25 years ago when some locals got together "to do something interesting."

A narrow, four-story affair with a worn-out staircase, Hobbitomura is a shrine to Nishiogi aesthetics. Home to an organic grocery store, workshop, bookshop and a health food restaurant called Mangetsudo, the building has become a landmark where locals hang out and bring their kids for lunch. There's also the Otoyakintoki, a Nepalese restaurant-cum-concert hall, specializing in indigenous folk music only. Folklore, Asian, organic: These are the operative words in Nishiogi, and you bump into one or another every 10 meters.

Still, Nishiogi's claim to fame is not just the vegetarian cooking. Scattered all over town are some 60 antique and secondhand shops, selling everything from old Ultraman novelties to British furniture. At a place called Jiwe it's all albums (classical and jazz), enshrouded in layers of plastic and displayed like fine jewelry. At Baby Doll, the wares are antique toys, dolls and fabrics cut down from old kimonos. Doks Dora is the nation's first, and only, Italian secondhand bookshop. The wittily named Better Days is where the entire floor space is dedicated to '60s clothes and memorabilia.

Indeed, Nishiogi itself still breathes the '60s and listens to, say, George Harrison. One can imagine, 50 years down the line, when elsewhere Tokyoites move in hovercrafts and wear headsets that jack into their brains and spew out images from MTV, that Nishiogi will remain unchanged. The inhabitants will still go around on bicycles, in sandals and dungarees. They will still have bandannas wrapped around their foreheads and swear by brown rice. Even if all traces of fresh produce are gone from the city, this town will have held on to its public farms, on which daikon sprout like smiling children.

Before the age of 25, Tokyo singles prefer to live as close to Shibuya and Shinjuku as possible. After that they gradually migrate further away, longing to change their lifestyles and diets, or just to rest their eyes on real trees. They start being concerned about the environment, about where to raise their children. Then they purchase their own garbage recycling kits.

It's small wonder Nishiogi is one of the five most popular towns among thirtysomething single people and married couples -- the whole place is designed to heal and soothe.

Personally, I am ready to burn my microminis any time.



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