Did Nakameguro Really Ever Boom?

Style Map: Hip Nippon

Here’s how most style and trend journalism works. Writer or editor hears that “(place) is up-and-coming, cool” or “(person) is hot” or “everyone is in (fashion item).” In the case of an urban neighborhood, the writer then backs up this rumor-based narrative by profiling all the neat stores located in the area. Voila: check out the hippest neighborhood in all of Nippon, Nakameguro.

But think about this New York Times Magazine piece in reverse: are you impressed with the neighborhood by judging it solely on this store listing? (Forget for a minute that Claska has as much to do with Nakameguro as Carrot Tower does.) Although lackluster, these stores are probably the best examples of hipster-chic retail locations still standing since Organic Cafe closed down, super-secret Club New Bach disappeared, Dyezu Gallery closed, the Groovisions store shuttered, the Gas Gallery/Store evaporated, that good Thai place was demolished, and APC Surplus moved up to Daikanyama.

I think everyone likes the laid-back, river feel of Nakameguro, and there is nowhere better to view the cherry blossoms in the peak of sakura season. Cow Books is worth a trip, and sure, I bought my Peugot at that bike shop. And there’s that good Mexican place that foreigners like to go to. And maybe the John Lawrence Sullivan store will be a good addition. However, the bigger question is: after at least eight or nine years of Nakameguro being on the brink of becoming the “Next Big Thing,” when can we admit that it never really reached any sort of peak? And although I don’t dare to use the word “decline,” the stores that forged the neighborhood’s reputation no longer exist. We tend to judge Ginza, Aoyama, and Harajuku by the strength of the retail/gallery environment, and yet, Nakameguro gets by just on its own myth. Rather than new stores, Nakame tends to attract foreigner residents and tourist-reporters.

Apparently, the most important thing for Western conceptions of Tokyo is that someone comes up with a narrative and everyone sticks to it. Don’t worry about the fact that almost none of the major retailers in Japan have decided to put a store there, nor that most indie brands can’t exist there for any extended period of time. (General Research and its literary wing Cow Books moved into Nakameguro so much earlier than anyone else that I think they have some special deal on the rent.) So maybe “Nakame” will now blow us all away by turning into the next Daikanayama (which is also less energetic lately), but at what point do we say, okay, they tried that and it didn’t work. Is the consumer sluggishness making us rehash the old trend narratives until the economy can finally concoct new ones?

W. David MARX
March 10, 2008

35 Responses

  1. Gen Kanai Says:

    Instead of paying US-based writers who don’t know the first thing about foreign country neighborhoods, the NYT should be looking for good writers in country to write about the trends of that country. That’s not always possible, but for those countries where it is possible, that should be the default. Then you don’t end up with these “trendy in Tokyo” pieces where the reality is made up by the writer for his/her own purposes.

  2. W. David MARX Says:

    I don’t think this guy “made up the reality.” I think he is just regurgitating the conventional wisdom that even people living here seem to regurgitate.

  3. jg Says:

    What type of stores have replaced all those trend signifiers that closed down?

    The turnaround in most “happening” areas of Tokyo is pretty high, but the type of shops remain the same. Is Nakame feeling the effects of an aging society or something?

  4. W. David MARX Says:

    There are some moderately “cool” shops replacing what closed down, I guess. But nothing worth mentioning.

  5. Aceface Says:

    “Instead of paying US-based writers who don’t know the first thing about foreign country neighborhoods, the NYT should be looking for good writers in country to write about the trends of that country.”

    I remember buying a copy of “index”magazine with Helmut Newton photo on the cover,couple of years ago.There was a piece on NM written by a writer named Momus.

    Add the name “ORANGE TREE”in extinction list of must visits,Marxy.
    The best curry stand in Tokyo closed down for about four years,and I’m desperatly seeking where that chef had gone…..

  6. Curtis Says:

    The hazy boom/peak/era of Nakame was entirely fueled by the ghost of Daikanyama, passing through on it’s way to hipster hood heaven. Once the heart of Daikanyama had been torn out (the Dojunkai destroyed), the next best thing for the crowd up on the hill was to follow the ghost down to the river and pout — quirky residents, cheap rent, and plenty of sidestreets (a good sitestreet network is the lifeblood to any hipster hood) gave them just what they were missing.

    The Daikan ghost was chased out of Nakame for good with the announced removal of the Tokyu Toyoko train line (to be relocated underground) and redevelopment of much of the Tokyu-owned real estate in the area (both Organic spaces casualties of that). Gas, APC, Groov, they all left for different reasons (Gas bought a bus, APC’s building flattened, Groov always seemed to be giri-giri on making rent), and the replacements are disappointing but not surprising (hair salons, dog clothing, etc).

    In the same way that Daikanyama is still alive and kicking without the Dojunkai, Nakame will still be fun to visit without it’s scene-defining personalities, but the energy is indeed not what it used to be.

  7. Daniel Says:

    Nice post. If you were to rewrite the article, what neighborhood would you write about? Maybe this could be a segment over on neojaponisme…I’d definitely be curious to read it.

  8. W. David MARX Says:

    Are you asking me to put my money where my mouth is??

    I don’t know. The biggest “booms” for neighborhoods all seem to be driven by huge real estate projects, which we forget about 2 years later. Remember Roppongi Hills? Midtown already feels like it was built in the ’80s.

    When it’s hard to make rent on indie shops, that doesn’t do much for hipster neighborhood development.

  9. Aceface Says:

    ”In the same way that Daikanyama is still alive and kicking without the Dojunkai, Nakame will still be fun to visit without it’s scene-defining personalities”

    Think so? I think Daikanyama turned pretty awful with that looming Daikanyama ADRESS tower in the center.
    I do admit the apartment was almost crumbled down and didn’t add so much flavor to the town compared to Dojunkai apartment in Omotesando,but still..

    I wasn’t really a big fan of Nakame anyway,however my beloved Shimo-Kitazawa is facing same sort of problem and I’m worried.

    http://www.stsk.net/

  10. Brad Says:

    Am I the only one that lives in Nakameguro? You used to live in this area, didn’t you Marxy?

    I was walking down Meguro Ginza a couple of years ago when a foreign tourist stopped me and asked, “Excuse me, where are all the cool shops?” I had no good answer because there weren’t any left.

    Still a lot of good restaurants though. Though the current construction for the extension to the station has closed a lot of them.

    When that huge building they’re working on in front of the station gets finished, I assume that will be the end (if there can be one) for the area.

  11. Matt Says:

    Nakameguro always struck me as the post-80s Sting of Tokyo neighborhoods. Non-threatening, family-friendly, polished and professional, not really hip but a close enough substitute for those too old to tell the difference any more. Hint of wildness in its past that turns out to have been nothing really. Stripey sweaters.

  12. Curtis Says:

    “Think so? I think Daikanyama turned pretty awful with that looming Daikanyama ADRESS tower in the center.
    I do admit the apartment was almost crumbled down and didn’t add so much flavor to the town compared to Dojunkai apartment in Omotesando,but still..”

    I indeed wrote that Daikanyama is alive and kicking — but also wrote that the heart is gone. ADDRESS is no replacement for the Dojunkai, which while crumbling and decrepit in 1990, surely was not in 1930, 1950, 1970.. The Dojunkai made Daikanyama unique, with both Hachiman and Castle streets functioning not as lineups of select shops and weekend wedding centers but daily goods vendors for the Dojunkai residents and surrounding neighbourhoods. Nakame will also undergo a big change from upcoming transportation development — the refitting of the Toyoko train line to exist underground (from Shibuya to Gakugei) — all real estate above ground will be redeveloped by landowner Tokyu). And once Toyoko line is connected to the upcoming Tokyo Metro line #13 in 2012, Ikebukuro will be only five/six stops away from Daikanyama/Nakameguro.

  13. Aceface Says:

    “Ikebukuro will be only five/six stops away from Daikanyama/Nakameguro.”

    OK.But I love Ikebukuro(and do I miss Saison Museum and WAVE),perhaps more so than Nakameguro/Daikanyama.

    Forget Cow Books,Junk-Do/LIBRO is way more superior in both the quality and quantity.Better movie theaters(Shin-Bungei-za).I even like SUNSHINE CITY.I used to cruise around malls back in highschool days thinking about where could possibly be General Tojo was hunged…

  14. Jack Says:

    Once again those Japanese people have destroyed a part of Tokyo us Gaijin deemed cool! And what’s more, some mainstream American publication has come late to the party! Ha! Unbelievable. We knew it was righteous before anyone else did! Plus, we declared it “over” a year ago! And they never asked us?! I’m shocked.
    For seven years I’ve got off the train at Komaba and cycled down the hill and along the canal to Meguro, loving the blossoms in spring, loving the shade trees in summer and scooping dead leaves with a free foot in autumn; and wobbling back drunk all too regularly to stop for beer or gyoza on the way home at night. My apologies for not appreciating the subtle shifts in the (gaijin-perceived) zeitgeist:
    yup, it ain’t what it used to be, and it will never be what it was – that’s life in the big city! My heart bleeds. And “cool”, now that is a very shifting thing and I’ll leave it to the young folk . . .

  15. I'm Lost Says:

    Nakameguro was never the hip spot. Nakameguro was the place where people set up shops when they could not afford to get a spot in Daikanyama, which was the hip spot quite a few years ago. I think that people tried to hype it up to be the hip spot of Tokyo but no one actually cared about it too much.

    It is a nice area and could easily be transformed into a place that people want to go to, but with the decline of the retail market here in Japan it will be a long time coming.

  16. Daniel Says:

    “Are you asking me to put my money where my mouth is??”

    Well, only kind of, I guess. As only an occasional visitor of le miyako, I know it somewhat well (did study there for a year), but it’s a case of only knowing what you know – I usually stay in Kamata (lots of cheap hotels, relatively convenient in terms of transport, a surprising amount of decent restaurants and cool bars), and shop/drink/eat in Kichijoji, Ryogoku, Omotesando, Ikebukuro.

    I guess my main question is, where would you recommend to hang out? And as a meta-side-question, where do you think people should tell others to hang out? (i.e. Is there somewhere where you would hang out yourself and maybe tell friends about but wouldn’t want to publish in something like the New York Times or Lonely Planet?)

  17. W. David MARX Says:

    Am I the only one that lives in Nakameguro? You used to live in this area, didn’t you Marxy?

    I know at least four or five non-native Japanese friends who live in Nakameguro.

    I lived in Shimouma, which is like having one foot in Sangenjaya and one foot in Yutenji and having to walk 12 minutes to either station.

  18. Rory P. Wavekrest Says:

    SUGAMO!

  19. W. David MARX Says:

    I am always trying to figure out which is cooler these days: Nishi-Nippori or Tabata.

  20. Bomis Says:

    I remember thinking that Nakameguro was overrated by foreigners when I watched Jean’s Tokyo Eye piece.

    I too agree that Nakameguro has been wishfully exaggerated by foreigners who are new, and then dissed by the same neophyte elitists when it gets “discovered” by others.

    Ever notice its almost always hipster foreigners who
    are first to eagerly call something unhip?

    I still enjoy Nakameguro. I live in Koenji and love it here, but am looking forward to cherry blossom season in nakame.

    But on second thought……

    Maybe nakame is as passe as Jean’s Faux hawk, and Marxy’s hipster beard/ skinny jean combo.

    -B

  21. Skunk Says:

    Ouch! I think the Tokyo eye video was only 1 year ago or is that like 5 years in Tokyo time? I’ve never been to Naka-meguro, because I’ve never been to Tokyo but it looks relaxing.

    But you’re out of date on Marxy. His beard is long gone he’s a salaryman!

  22. Bomis Says:

    Alas, Marxy pulled a Nakameguro!
    -B

  23. W. David MARX Says:

    I sometimes have a beard (depending on the day of the week), but do not own, nor have ever owned, a single pair of skinny jeans. If you are going to go out of your way to “diss” me on my “turff,” you should probably get the facts straight. This is what you sound like: “Marxy, lose the blue hair and saddle shoes! You are so lame”

    Also if I had been the “first” to call Nakameguro unhip, I would have done it a long time ago. I just think it was time that someone finally raised the question.

  24. Racoon Says:

    Aah yes, what is it about the place that gives each his own inner eye for Nakame?
    I remember back in the heyday post-payday when I used to hike up my skirts and ride my mummmy’s chari thru the Gin for some Gin. On the Hib line show my hip line out to Nakame, but why shorten just the second half? Let’s give the name a fully cool dressing down, all the way to Na-me, that way we can infuse the non-boom with a little bit of She-bangs. The little Na-me that couldn’t. Couldn’t what? Boom?
    Seriously, what qualifies as a boom? Some Yankee doodle being able to find ‘cool’ shops? So easy to talk of failure when you can’t define success.

  25. Curtis Says:

    The Tokyo Eye piece was indeed five years late.. Or, OK, call me crazy, five years EARLY!

    Yeah, me crazy.

    Regarding the “five stops from Ikebukuro” comment, nothing against Ikebukuro itself, it’s just a measure of how the transportation adjustments in the area will make it a much more connected location.

    Marxy a hipster? Decide for yourself:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/capsul/1866640988/

  26. jg Says:

    For development trainspotters, what area do you think will become the next Marunouchi, Shinagawa or Shiodome? All three of those districts have completely transformed in less than a decade.

    Do zoning laws keep areas like Koenji basically towerless? One day will great patches be bulldozed to make way for condos and shopping complexes? Shimo-Kitazawa has held on, but for how much longer?

  27. 15 Peter Twenty Says:

    Great to read of the escapades of a
    skinny-jeaned self-fellating media node

  28. W. David MARX Says:

    For those readers who don’t have IP number access, this 15 Peter Twenty guy has been constantly hounding me on my multiple blogs for the last two weeks. Keep up the good work!

    He/she also tag-teams with the person named Raccoon. Or could Racoon be a sock puppet for 15 Peter Twenty????

  29. Mulboyne Says:

    When the bubble burst, development projects ground to a halt for over a decade. Japanese in their twenties and foreign residents who first arrived in the early nineties got used to a period unlike any other in Tokyo’s postwar history in that the layout and structures remained basically the same.

    One knock-on effect of the recession is that landlords, with older building stock and fewer potential customers, began to rent out sites to people who they had previously regarded as “less desirable” tenants. This trend increased when limited-contracts for commercial tenants became possible. At the same time, there were fewer jobs available for school-leavers and new graduates but lower rents meant they could try their hand at bars, cafes, restaurants and boutiques. Some succeeded and a lot didn’t.

    The economic recovery which brought development back to the city has not been accompanied by a pick-up in consumption so many of these small businesses are facing higher rents – whether in the same location or a different location – while their sales haven’t increased to compensate.

    Oddly, The number of consumers in Tokyo has actually risen because the same low rents brought in residents who could cut down on their commuting time. Developers have also been throwing up residential tower blocks so there are more central places to live. Some of these people might go to “hip” boutiques but more are serviced by the chain stores and restaurants who can afford the higher commercial rents.

    For “hip” to make a comeback, arguably rents need to come down or consumption has to pick-up.

  30. Max Says:

    Kind of related: Here’s an article about kind of mass exodus from Roppongi Hills now that people’s 5 year lease is up. Don’t know how accurate it is because it reported came from some tabloid press.

    http://www.japantoday.com/jp/kuchikomi/505

  31. Max Says:

    addendum to Roppongi Hills post: I personally avoid it because of the anti-human ‘post-modern’ design of the place. I have bad memories of being lost in there a few times, trying to find a shop or trying to get to my train-line, and just wandering back-and-forth, up-and-down stairs in total frustration, guided by signs that only led me in circles.

  32. W. David MARX Says:

    RopHills did renplace 50 stores which is never a good sign.

  33. Nathan Barley Says:

    Where’s nathan ?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nathan_Barley

    In Tokyo somewhere ?

  34. Mulboyne Says:

    Roppongi Hills is an example of a landlord unwilling to reduce rents while still trying to be selective about tenants. Almost without exception, the tenants who did not renew their contracts either have sites in nearby Midtown; have opened other sites in Tokyo which are more profitable and no longer see any economic sense in maintaining Roppongi Hills; or else are moving to lower rent locations.

  35. Aceface Says:

    It’s a bit surprised that no one has yet mention the death of RELAX magazine has some implication to the closing of these cool Nakame shops.To me they are heavily related.