The place where East meets West in Tokyo: Azabu
Prestigious upper class residencies and apartments known locally as mansions, surrounded by shaded parks, and dotted with interesting restaurants, shops, and clubs, all upon a base of rolling paths and streets, Azabu and its surroundings in West Central Tokyo beckon the elite and curious with its comfort and museum like qualities by day and its amusement and accommodation by night. It is also one place in Japan, which has long been known as a center for foreign relations. Consequently, foreign residents and their needs have merged into this area to create the blended cross of culture that can be witnessed in all of it’s varying degrees today. Many locals both foreigners and nationals work and school together in this area. Private schools such as Nishimachi International School attract foreigners and natives with their English-Japanese bilingual cirriculum, and Tokyo location. Azabu although close in Tokyo’s center, is only accessible by subway or street: take the Oedo or Nanboku subway lines to Azabu Juban Station. Some of its surrounding areas may also be accessed by subway: Hiroo Station by Hibiya line; Roppongi Station by Hibiya and Oedo lines; and Roppongi-Itchome Station by Nanboku line.
Upon first entering this area its looks will first hit you as that of the scene typical for Tokyo. But it won’t take long to realize that there is something definitely different about this area.
There are plenty of things to do and see here that you could plan a whole day and night around it and do just that. If you are here for quite a while it is one of those places that can tend to grow on you.
Take a walk on the “~zaka”
Azabu is a place full of small rolling streets built upon its ancient hills. Most of these hills or ‘~zaka’ have their own histories- their names having meanings connected with days long gone by. In some of these places there is a sign explaining a bit of the history behind them. Throughout the town of Azabu Juban can be found common residencies, but up around Imo-arai Zaka, the street is lined with upper-class residencies and Embassies. A few blocks East of the Hiroo Station area is the Arisugawa Memorial Park. It is a great place to have a picnic on a bench, underneath the shade while listening to the sounds of the birds playing in the spring flowers. Tall trees, colorful shrubs, a playground for children, a pond, and a small refuge for wild birds around the city, Arisugawa Memorial Park surrounds the Hiroo library. It is a quiet get away for many locals on lunch break and eager dogs escaping there cooped up city dwellings.
Shop around: discover Azabu’s unique shops
Taking a walk in the corner of Azabu Juban’s 415 and 319 (Azabu Juban- 2 is the street address) there are many little side streets. In and around this corner block are a few interesting shops worth stopping by. One is a shop, which specializes in Japanese traditional indigo dying (Ai-zome) usually done on white cloth or chinaware; the shop is appropriately named ‘Blue & White’ (Azabu Juban 2-9-2, Minato-Ku, Tokyo 106). Here you can find just about everything related to this art, including all its fine hand dyed products. Just around the corner from there is an antique shop, ‘Maikeru’ (or ‘Michael’ Azabu Juban 2-8-5), which has the feeling of a small museum featuring highly collectable furniture and ancient tools. Down the street from that is a place selling vintage kimonos. This is a nice place for discovering new things while taking a slow stroll. Some other interesting sites to check out are the Kaleidoscope shop- part shop part museum (Azabu Juban 2-13-8), the Tokyo Tower, which borders the edge of Azabu and is visible in all its awesome height especially when aglow at night (just follow its towering image to its base), and the Zenpuku-ji Temple (Shirokanedai 3-2-19), where stands the oldest tree in Tokyo (a 700 year old gingko).
Excellent restaurants and grocers
Toward the Hiro part of this area are a couple of supermarket style food markets where you can find all of the foods and ingredients quite familiar to you from your homeland. Specializing in foreign foods, Azabu National Supermarket, in the shopping center across from Arisugawa Park is a must for those of us foreigners wishing to take in all those foods we miss from back home. Upstairs from there is a small book and drugstore with a bulletin board listing a variety of things for the English speaking community. Another such market is Meijiya Supermarket adjac ent to Hiroo subway station, located inside the Hiroo Plaza mall.
All throughout Azabu are superb restaurants as well as unique hole-in-the-wall type food vendors. Of notable popularity are the various ethnic foods such as Kirinya (meaning Giraffe Market), one of several ethnic food markets, this one in particular selling Indian curry- they’ll even give you a recipe! Kirinya is take-out only, which makes it perfect for picnics or for those on the run. Around the corner from Hiroo Station is another popular vendor among the locals, Naniwa-ya. Naniwa-ya is a vendor of small traditional azuki bean filled cakes baked (yaki means cooked) into the shapes of sea bream fish (tai fish) with specially shaped and hinged iron skillet molds. These cakes are known as Taiyaki and they are delicious treats of which this area is famous for.
The day turns to night
And when you feel your energy has all worn out, rejuvenate at the Azabu Juban Onsen (open 11 to 9pm, closed on Tuesdays), located at Azabu Juban 1-5-22, further down the street west from the 415 and 319 intersection, on one street south paralleling the 319. This onsen (hot spring spa) is a facility of which water from an authentic subterranean natural hot spring is pumped directly in- something different for Tokyo, where a sento (artificial hot spring spa, traditionally heated by charcoal) is more the norm. Let the earth’s natural water take away all your stress and ease your tense muscles. You’ll be refreshed enough to have a night on the town, and you won’t have to go far. The West Azabu area is a commonplace of dining and drinking in extremely fashionable to typical restaurants. If you are more of a party animal, Roppongi, full of entertainment, pubs, and clubs, is also nearby. Just don’t miss the last train out.