It’s Always Sunny in Jiyugaoka

A dash of luxury on a Sunday afternoon? Why not! Jiyugaoka is known for its chill but cool vibe – every day of the week – and is often referred to as one of Tokyo’s most desirable neighbourhoods to live.

As I explored the streets around the train station, I couldn’t help but kick myself for not visiting this area sooner. It had taken me 3 years to get around to making the half hour journey from my house, and just a couple of hours to fall in love with it. I finally understood why Jiyugaoka was so popular.

Every corner was full of surprises. Brick-paved streets, dog friendly shops, fancy boutiques, a Peter Rabbit cafe, an 800-year-old Shinto shrine, super cool murals, leafy green walkways, and a mini replica of Venice. With a mini canal, florists, outdoor seating and French flags flying high, I felt like Jiyugaoka was more of a ‘Little Europe’ than Kagurazaka. Everyone – kids, teenagers, adults – looked happy and relaxed. The mood, in one word, was ‘sunny’!

I love that Jiyugaoka is only an 8-minute train ride from hectic Shibuya, yet the pace is completely different. It’s the perfect getaway without having to leave the city, and I’d have to agree, would be a great place to live.

 

Tokyo’s 438 year old market

It all started way back in the year 1578 when Tokyo was nothing more than agricultural land dotted with a few castles. Odawara Castle, close to Mt Fuji, was under control by the prominent Late Hojo clan. They had an alliance with many smaller warlords and ruled the entire region including present-day Tokyo.

Wanting a place where they could buy and sell agricultural equipment and products, the farmers in the area gained permission from the Late Hojo clan to start up a tax-free market. The market was positioned along a main highway that linked 2 or 3 different warlords’ territories. When it opened, “Rakuichi” was held 6 times a month and was immensely popular. At its peak, there were around 2,000 stalls.

Over the years, many battles took place and each time some of the farmers would lose their land or even their lives, and the market, too, would be forced to close. But it never completely died. So long as there were farmers, the market would reopen and trading would continue.

By the late 1800s, however, the market had become not much more than a nostalgic event. It was decided that the market would be held over just 4 days each year – December 15, 16 and January 15, 16 – and it has been that way ever since.

Today, Setagaya Boroichi flea market is made up of about 600~700 stalls. A lot of the vendors have been coming here for years, and actually this is the only time some of them set up shop. Thousands of people pack the narrow streets, hunting for bargains and one-off antiques. The agricultural equipment have been replaced by everything from old kimonos to traditional ceramics to samurai swords! The crowds are a little intense, even for Tokyo standards, and you will probably lose your friends within 5 minutes of arriving, but a trip to the Boroichi is treasure hunting at its finest!

Karuizawa: Luxury meets Tranquility

I asked a few Japanese friends what came to mind when they thought of Karuizawa. Everyone had the same reaction:

“Summer resort!”

I only found out about Karuizawa recently, actually. After the summer holidays, a colleague told me about his great trip there with his ‘well-off’ friends! Curious to see this resort for myself, I made it the destination for the second day of my two-day trip. After a day exploring the town of Matsumoto, I jumped on the train and made my way around the mountain range to Karuizawa.

The town lies about an hour’s train ride from Tokyo (via bullet train). It’s roughly divided into five different areas, with plenty to do in each – camping, swimming, fishing, birdwatching, playing golf or tennis, horseback riding, hiking and lots more. It’s all about being able to relax and enjoy being surrounded by nature! And at 1,000m above sea level, this cool mountain town makes for the perfect getaway during hot July and August.

For those less ‘outdoors’ inclined, Karuizawa is also home to lots of boutique stores, gourmet restaurants and one of the biggest brand outlet shopping malls in Japan, the Prince Shopping Plaza. This massive, and very beautiful I might add, mall sits on a 26-hectare lot complete with a lake and gardens. With about 240 shops, I was hoping to snag a bargain, but alas even outlet items are still far beyond my reach. It was nice to dream though!

Karuizawa is not just any old summer resort. It is also known as a playground for the rich and famous. Since the late 1800s, the town has been frequented by the Imperial family, prime ministers, sportspeople, actors, musicians, writers and poets. Many wealthy Tokyoites have second houses here (like my colleague’s friend). Over half of the homes in the area are used only as holiday houses! In the summer, so many people migrate here that the population of the town increases tenfold!

Despite the allure of shopping malls and mansions, it was a walk through the woods that really captivated me. The air was so pure, so cool, so fresh! I just wanted to stand there and breathe it all in. From the bus stop, the walk up to Shiraito Falls is a short 5 minute one. But once you get there, it’s hard to leave! The waterfall naturally comes out from the rocks, although I did read that the rocks have been altered in some way to help the whole ‘curtain’ look. Still, it is impressive.

I can definitely understand why thousands of people flock here in the summer. Luxury meets tranquility. It’s a beautiful place and has made me see Japan in a new light. I had no idea such a resort existed! So Japan is not all about ‘work work work’, but they do enjoy a dash of ‘play’!