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Higashiya

Among Tokyoites, the down- to-earth, slightly funky, yet fashionably upscale neighborhood of Nakameguro is currently all the rage. In a city full of sleek high rises designed not only by Japanese – but increasingly, foreign architects – it certainly stands out. The area has long been known as a hub for cutting-edge fashion, as the relatively low rents and prevalence of large spaces made it possible for young designers to nurture their careers away from the mainstream design centers.

On the northwest side of Nakameguro, along the two streets that rim the Meguro River, there is a peaceful oasis for hipsters. The river, lined with sakura (cherry trees), and the relative lack of traffic make it a perfect place to stroll, shop and gallery hop among the hip, often tiny, storefronts in this otherwise residential neighborhood. Not surprisingly, it is now known as the perfect place for a date. Tourists are beginning to discover its charms, so if you’d like to see a slice of real Tokyo life, head here quickly.

My friends, long-time residents of Tokyo, took me to their favorite hideaway on the northern edge of this stretch. If I were alone, I never would have known about Higashiya, the most perfect shop in Tokyo.

Higashiya produces artisinal wagashi (Japanese traditional sweets) in a unique small size (about half the size of regular wagashi) that can be eaten in one bite. In fact, their delicate, diminutive size recalls artisanal chocolate, and their concept runs parallel to chocolate shops in London and Belgium; a modern interpretation of traditional, old-world culture.

Higashiya means “Eastern house” (or shop), and the interior of this branch (there are three in Tokyo) successfully represents all that the name suggests. The entrance is accessed through a narrow hallway and a glass door with the name emblazoned discretely (in cool typeface, of course) on the door. Immediately, you face a black concrete basin with a single tiny flower vase hovering above; a preview of what is to come.

Inside, the shop widens into a light-filled, minimal space with a dramatic, soaring ceiling. And here is where the traditional part comes in: One wall of the shop is covered in an artful arrangement of beautiful antique wagashi molds. In front of this, the seasonal selection of wagashi are displayed like artwork – each lit perfectly and presented on its own wooden base – for consideration. During my visit in spring, the selection included classics such as sakura mochi, a pink-tinged glutinous rice cake filled with sweet bean paste that is sandwiched between not one, but two preserved cherry leaves.

The diminutive size of the wagashi, as well as their delicate color and translucent quality, appear jewel-like, and the minimally elegant packaging is displayed on shelves that resemble modern sculpture. The word ‘shop’ fails to describe the space; ‘gallery’ would be more fitting, for everything is laid out just so. Despite the prevalence of steel and concrete used here, William Morris comes to mind, as everything is beautiful as well as useful. The physical components needed for use in daily business are used as design elements, and just as the wagashi are inherently beautiful without fussy adornment, there is nothing extraneous for the sake of decoration. Louis Sullivan also comes to mind, for here the concept of “form follows function” is taken to such a degree that it strikes the visitor as ingenious, as well as “green.”

The second level, accessed by a stunning steel stairway, houses a charming café that serves lunch and tea. This has a warmer feel, with woodwork throughout that echoes the lines of traditional Japanese architecture, with vintage Japanese cabinetry that adds a sense of history.

Seating includes a large communal table that runs perpendicular to a tiny and immaculate open-air “kitchen.” Here, tea and wagashi are served, and during lunchtime, a delicious and traditional seasonal Japanese bento. On our visit, this included an appetizer of nanohana with tofu dressing; a bento box that was wrapped as beautifully as a gift, the contents of which included bite-sized pieces of grilled salmon, simmered vegetables and chicken; rice, soup and a huge communal plate of excellent tsukemono (traditional pickles). As with everything else at Higashiya, the ceramics and tableware were also traditionally modern, and I concluded that it was a place where both my mother – AND my graphic designer sister – would have felt right at home.

Higashiya is a special place, and if you would like to have lunch there, reservations are a must. English is not spoken, so you might want to go with a Japanese friend. Prices are reasonable, considering the quality of the food, and above all, the ambience. For a unique gift, you can hardly do better but unfortunately, the wagashi cannot travel far, as they must be consumed the same day.

Antique wagashi molds on display at Higashiya, possibly the most perfect shop in Tokyo. Their jewel-like, artisinal wagashi, diminutive in size, make the perfect gift.

UPDATE: This branch of Higashiya closed its doors on May 31, 2009. A new location has opened in nearby Meguro. A review of the new location will be posted.

 
 
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