Love letter to Shimokitazawa
In 2007, Flamingo made its home in Shimokitazawa; a bustling, trendy, little neighbourhood in west Tokyo. Today, nine years later, Shimokitazawa has continued to develop and blossom and has become one of the most popular neighbourhoods to live in amongst Tokyo-ites. The neighbourhood showcases an eclectic and ever-changing mix of food, retail and entertainment. Word of its charms have seemingly spread globally; most recently, Vogue magazine selected Shimokitazawa as the world’s coolest neighbourhood.
Like the many other trendy hotspots around the world, Shimokitazawa wasn’t born this way. Shimokitazawa used to be home to bamboo groves, rice paddies and farms. With the growing surplus of crops and livestock, it was inevitable that the local population would grow and, with it, development in infrastructure. In 1933, the Keio train line opened, driving population growth to about 30,000. This was the first wave of urbanisation in the area.
In the 1950s and 60s, Shimokitazawa proved to be particularly popular amongst university students due to its convenient location and student-friendly property prices. However, the neighbourhood remained fairly undeveloped, especially in terms of entertainment, and student continued to flock to Shibuya or Shinjuku for fun.
The 1980’s were really the most integral part of Shimokitazawa’s development – it’s adolescent years - that helped to carve out the neighbourhood we have come to know and love today. Shimokitazwa solidified itself as a cultural hub for Japanese youth, developing a strong and distinguished feel compared with other more mainstream neighborhoods. Just like any other adolescent, music and the arts would play a major role in the development of its self-identity.
During this period, local bohemian creative youths realised the importance of taking more control over how their culture was expressed and represented. They came together and decided they wanted to represent their own culture on a more local level. This led to the start of more locally-curated and organised movements such as Shimokitazawa Ongakusai (Music festival) in 1979, and the opening of local theatre, Honda Gekijo, in 1982 – events that truly marked out what Shimokitazawa stood for within Tokyo youth culture. Establishments such as these were instrumental in the development of the identity and atmosphere of the area.
In the late 1970s to the 1980s, youth magazines such as Takarajima and Olive that played a significant role in the development of Shimokitazawa‘s ‘hip’ image. Portraying Shimokitazawa as a small community-driven hub with its own local charm, popularity and visitors surged. Media emphasised the local business and humble roots of Shimokitazawa as part of its charm and thus served to, ultimately, maintain and protect Shimokitazawa’s distinction.
Shotengai (local shopping streets) played a key role in Shimokitazawa’s development. Shotengai offered an eclectic array of services, packed into tight, cordoned-off streets and offering everything from supermarkets to barbers. In an attempt to protect what the Shimokitazawa shotengai had created, and protect the way of life of local residents, rules were put into place that gave new businesses obligations to coincide harmoniously with the pre-existing suburban culture. Shimokitazawa’s brand as a cultural hub was cemented.
By 2000, many businesses had come to be owned and run by ‘non-locals’ – those who saw opportunity in the growing population of trendy youths. They tailored their businesses to suit this demographic. As mass retailers entered the scene as well, the retail scene became a unique blend of quirky long-time businesses and mass retailers. Even though the local atmosphere was but a relic of the 80s, Shimokitazawa residents embraced the changes around them and welcomed new visitors who showed so much love for the area. In order to welcome as well as maintain the neighbourhood, shotengai began to organise community-driven events such as Rakugaki Keshitai -- a drive to remove graffiti -- that united locals and non-locals alike. Once again, the ever-evolving shotengai were a catalyst in uniting the community.
As we look into what the future holds for our beloved neighbourhood -- the Tokyo Olympics, plans for re-vamp of the station and surrounding area, growing international interest and recognition as a must-visit neighbourhood -- change is most definitely in the air. This has inspired us to start the ‘Love letters to Shimokitazawa’ project. This is our way of crystalizing some of the thoughts and voices of the community that have helped make what Shimokitazawa the place it is today.
We’ll be speaking to some long-time business owners, actors and artists as well as some new faces to the Shimokitazawa community, to share a local perspective on what makes this former rural bamboo forest a place where people choose to gather, lay roots and live. Watch this space!
- Article by Ikumi Taneya