Tokyo Serenity: Naka-Meguro

Whether surfacing, globetrotting, or merely in transit, it’s best never fully to trust the travel section. Take Tokyo, where over the last few years a number of writers have labored to portray the southwestern neighborhood of Naka-Meguro as tragically hip.

Descending from Naka-Meguro’s elevated subway station into a quotidian landscape of utilitarian shops and services, though, “hipness” wasn’t the first thing I felt washing over me. If anything stuck out, it was the neighborhood’s anomalous politics: I’d arrived on the eve of Japan’s historic 2009 election, when the Liberal Democratic Party lost its majority for only the second time in history — but had clearly retained much of its popularity in Naka-Meguro.

Parked in front of the station was a minivan mounted with speakers, blaring the slogans of an LDP candidate busy shaking hands with voters on the sidewalk below. Further into the neighborhood, posters confirmed that Naka-Meguro’s constituency was either an LDP redoubt or at least one of its targets. It meant a substantial number of people here were clinging with uncommon sympathy to the party most associated with Japan’s elite establishment. “Hip” seemed increasingly far from the right word to describe the place.

If anything, the evidence — detached houses, for example, with driveways sporting expensive German cars and even bits of landscaping, all surprisingly close to the central Yamanote nodes –suggested that Naka-Meguro is a solidly bourgeois, upper middle class enclave. A number of celebrities live here, but their presence merely attests to the neighborhood’s position near the top of the ladder of social success.

Then there are the shops and restaurants that supposedly make the area seem so cool. Many stand along the Meguro River, the sedate trickle that gives the neighborhood its name — and annual claim to fame. In the spring, Naka-Meguro is one of Tokyo’s cherry blossom-watching hotspots, the sakuras arching gracefully along the river raining pink petals into its slowly flowing waters.

Here sits a boutique identified solely by the printed sign “Sold” (it’s unclear if this is its name, a reference to the space it occupies, or a malapropism — rare in Japan — for “sale”). Its interior gleams an improbably bright white. Nearby is Cow Books (motto: “everything for the freedom”) which seems to have devoted more attention to its sleek metal facade than the size of its inventory. Yet after a run of a block or two of such places, whatever pretentious stab at hipness Naka-Meguro has tried to make comes to a close.

The serenity of the riverbank, though, continues. The greenery here doesn’t quite compare to the stately canopies that grace the streets of many other world cities — but by Tokyo standards, it’s practically decadent. This is a space unlike any other in the city, resembling the concentric canals of Amsterdam or Paris’ Canal St-Martin more than the vast, routine sprawl of Tokyo’s concrete cityscape: gaze down at the Japanese capital’s metropolitan mass from a high vantage point and it’s an unremitting blob of unremarkable gray. What green space there is tends to be overpopulated with temple grounds and other cultural facilities (Ueno Park) or else mostly off limits to the public (the Imperial Palace gardens).

Naka-Meguro is different. Unlike temple gardens, which merely substitute a forced solemnity for the subtle social pressures of the city’s streets, the trees that arc over the Meguro and the quiet lanes to its sides seem to infuse the area with a rare calm. The effect seems to carry into residential streets blocks from the river; it creeps up walls. It even takes the edge off the surprisingly limited quantity of vaunted “hipness” that’s supposed to be the neighborhood’s draw.

Of course, what titillates one subculture, socioeconomic class, or generation won’t necessarily appeal to another. But I didn’t get the sense that Naka-Meguro was primarily defined by any idea of cutting-edge “hip”. And I suspect that a mentality bred in cities where Great Hipster Migrations are more common instills authors’ (or editors’) impulse to seek out gentrification’s other avant-garde frontiers — the Bushwicks, Brixtons, and Bellevilles of elsewhere.

There hasn’t been all that much radical change in the Tokyo’s cultural geography, though; the centuries-old dichotomy between relatively wealthy Yamanote and downmarket Shitamachi still, largely, persists. More significantly, Tokyo has always been too large, too diffuse to focus on a single Next Big Thing. In a city that has never been able to coalesce around a single center, it’s natural that “hipness” has migrated in many directions, geographically or otherwise. Tokyo’s very shape proves the polycentricity of cool.

If there’s some of that cool in Naka-Meguro, you might find it while browsing the shelves of Cow Books. But you might choose, instead, to partake of that much rarer of Tokyo moments: a quiet, uninterrupted walk through dappled light, filtered by natural shade.

This entry was written by Christopher Szabla , posted on Tuesday December 07 2010at 02:12 pm , filed under Asia Pacific, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

2 Responses to “Tokyo Serenity: Naka-Meguro”

  • When you become familiar with a place you realize that, with precious few exceptions, travel stories — especially those in newspaper columns like “Surfacing” — share little in common with reality. Kate McDonnell has an amusing habit of posting links to odd and inaccurate travel stories about Montreal on her news blog.

    You can’t always blame the writers, though. Good travel writers capture the essence of a place, but the limits imposed by lifestyle-oriented travel editors don’t always allow that to happen. It’s hard to really do justice to a neighbourhood when you have to describe it in four short blurbs built around a buzzword.

  • donmai says:

    I suspect Nakame’s “hip” reputation can be very much attributed to its proximity to Daikanyama, which is a legitimate node of Tokyo chic. So it’s reasonable that many have flocked to nearby Naka-Meguro who find Daikanyama out of their price range.

    Also, for what it’s worth, I did meet a group of German hipsters who had a place in Nakame…but it’s unclear whether travel writing hype or genuine hip was the cause of their move…