REFINERY 29: A FORMER VOGUE STAFFER'S GUIDE TO TOKYO, 2015
'Ellen Freeman is a freelance writer whose work has been published on The Fashion Spot, the Matador Network, and the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival blog. Ellen's a Portland, Oregon native but is never in one place for long — she's currently exploring Japan, where she writes, teaches, and hoards vintage kimonos.
Ebony Bizys is a Tokyo-based graphic designer who chronicles her clever craft projects and whimsical Japanese life on her much-followed blog, Hello Sandwich. After 11 years working her way up to the position of deputy art director of Vogue Living, she packed up her washi tape, confetti, and homemade stationery collection for the Land of the Rising Sun. There, she has spent the last five years leading sold-out craft workshops, blogging, making paper bentos for Vogue Japan, photographing for Kate Spade’s travel book, collaborating on a fashion collection with Australian brand Romance Was Born, and cute-ifying everything she gets her hands on.
Last month, she toasted the release of Hello Tokyo!, her book of handmade projects and ideas for a Tokyo-inspired lifestyle, including perfect picnic presentation tips, elevated storage solutions, and a lesson or two in gift wrapping.
Bizys’ vision of the Japanese capital is less warp-speed crowds, faceless skyscrapers, andotaku subculture, and more pastel awnings, tidy flower boxes, nostalgic packaging, andkawaii senior citizens. ("Pink poles at train stations," she captions one photo. "Love you, Japan!") The self-published third edition of her Hello Sandwich Tokyo Guide zine — a treasure map to the metropolis’ most charming cafes, boutiques, bike paths, and rooftop bars — has already been snatched up by so many Tokyophiles that she’s nearly out of copies. Luckily, this go-getter is in the early stages of developing an app version. While I wait for that, I asked Bizys for a style-obsessed local’s perspective on Tokyo shopping, eating, staying, and everything else she adores about her city — where, she says, "it’s almost impossible to get bored."
How did you end up living in Tokyo?
"Before moving to Tokyo in 2010, I had been to Tokyo 10 times on holidays: once a year, for one month, for 10 years. After so many holidays to Japan, I noticed that I felt alive here. From the people, food, design, shopping, fashion, craft, music, landscape, culture — I love everything about Japan. Taking baths at the local sento, taking your shoes off before you enter houses, bowing in elevators to your clients until the doors close… Japan’s quirkiness and the fact that it was a completely different way of life made it extremely appealing for me in a kind of fantasyland way."
What’s your favorite neighborhood for shopping in Tokyo?
"If I’m in the market for some new clothes, I’ll either make my own or head to Shinjuku (I love Lumine EST there) or Shibuya. Or if I need some vintage pieces, it’s always Shimokitazawa or Koenji. For stationery, I head to Sekaido or Tokyu Hands in Shinjuku, or — and this is one of my favorites — the tools shop inside Lumine EST right at Shinjuku station.
"Let’s say you’re in the market for some beautiful Japanese souvenirs — in this case, you’ll want to head on over to Claska’s Shop Do, either in its Gakugei-daigaku hotel itself, or in its pop-up store on the B1 floor of Parco 1 in Shibuya. Here, you can pick up beautiful Japanese ceramics, linen, clothes, and accessories. Or pop into D&Department in Shibuya’s Hikarie building; here you’ll find lots of local handcrafted items from all around the country. Nakameguro’s Brick & Mortar is also a brilliant spot to pop in for souvenirs."
What’s the best way to explore the city?
"Tokyo is incredibly easy to explore, whether it be via train, bike, or on foot. I love riding my Tiffany-blue colored Mamachari bike around town — but I also love stopping to take photos, which is slightly harder on bike, so my preferred method is to explore on foot. The great thing about exploring by bike, though, is that you can quickly pop in and out of back streets where most of the goodness is hidden. The trains here are ridiculously reliable, reasonably priced, and very comfortable, which makes day tripping extremely easy."
The Japanese are known for celebrating the seasons; what’s Tokyo’s best season and why?
"Tokyo really is a four-season city. It’s fascinating to watch the city change from one season to the next. My favorite part of summer is the festivals; I might be sitting in my studio and hear the drumming of a passing shrine. Spring brings a week or two of hanami (cherry blossom viewing parties) and picnics. In autumn, it’s time to travel to Hakone to see the changing colors of the leaves, and in winter it’s time to look forward to the snow.
"Tokyo is very well equipped for each season; trains have heated seats in winter, and strong air conditioning in summer. Cafés offer hot wine, blankets, and heated hand warmers in winter, and kakigōri (shaved ice) and frozen beer in summer. No matter the season, it’s wonderful exploring and living in this amazing city."
What’s your favorite Tokyo view?
"I adore the view from Tokyo Sky Tree, just to see the amazing vastness of this metropolis! Shibuya’s Hikarie offers a great view without the trip out to East Toyko. And you’ll often find me at Meguro Sky Garden watching the sunset, or with friends at Omotesando’s A to Z Cafe, which also has a rooftop with a dreamy view."
You must have a lot of visitors from overseas. Where do you advise people to stay?
"I have three suggestions when it comes to Tokyo accommodation:
"1. The Granbell: Just a short stroll from Shibuya station, location-wise, you can’t beat The Granbell hotel. Here, you’ll be able to step out of your hotel door and in minutes be in the center of Shibuya! No need to worry about last trains or nearby shops; everything will be at your fingertips. The rooms are well designed, having just undergone a major renovation, and there’s a bar on the ground floor for any late-night drink cravings. For the stylish-at-heart, the Granbell Shibuya also offers brand-new ‘design rooms,’ each with a different theme, as part of their recent renovation.
"2. Claska: This is a super stylish and well-designed hotel near Gakugei-daigaku. Complete with its own cafe, gallery space, and lifestyle shop, it’s a hotel for the stylish. The rooms here are cleverly designed and are such a gorgeous place to relax after a day out in Tokyo. On the downside, though, Claska is a little far away from the station (about 15 minutes walk). For longer stays, take the weekly residence option.
"3. Book and Bed: If you love falling asleep with a book in your hand, this brand new Tokyo hostel is the one for you. Book and Bed, based in Ikebukuro is designed by Suppose Design Office and the book selection is curated by Shibuya Publishing & Booksellers."
What’s the soundtrack to your Tokyo life?
"Definitely the sweet sounds from Nagoya-based duo Lullatone. Husband-and-wife team Shawn [Seymour] and Yoshimi [Tomida] not only make the most divine music, but they are LOADS of fun to hang out with. Shawn once even made a ‘Hello Sandwich’ sample for me!"
What Japanese foods do you crave?
"My go-to Japanese foods include shiso konbu (shiso-flavored seaweed), ochazuke (rice doused in hot green tea), hiyashi chūka (cold noodle salad), hijiki (another kind of seaweed),nabe (hot pot) filled with lots of daikon (Japanese radish), miso with too much wakame (yet another seaweed), and kinpira gobo (sweet stir-fried burdock root). And I will travel across the country for home-cooked osechi-ryōri (New Year’s delicacies).
"I recently made friends with the 83-year-old Babachan (grandma) who lives in the house opposite my apartment. She invites me to her house for dinner, which is often tempura, sushi, or a rice-based dish. She sends me home to my apartment with pickled vegetables,nashi pears or individually wrapped tomatoes. It’s so homey. I feel so blessed."
Tokyoites are famous for their street style. What aspects of Tokyo fashion inspire you?
"I love the quirkiness of Tokyo street fashion. Five minutes people-watching in Harajuku is like a lifetime of fashion inspiration. The attention to detail, and the way these Tokyo kids put together their looks is just incredible."
How does your background at Vogue influence your projects?
"I started on reception, which, unfortunately, coincided with my ‘gothic phase’ of art school. If I think back to some of the outfits I used to wear on the front desk at Vogue I cringe. My poor boss had to phone me at one stage to ask me to ‘tone down’ my style! At one period, I even had synthetic hair extensions with multi-colored ribbons and bells! After this phase, however, I began to wear vintage clothes from my mother’s vintage clothing store, and ended up being photographed and profiled on the pages of Vogue Australia. Being in the Vogueoffices and seeing all of the models and garments float in was mesmerizing, and the beauty that I experienced can never be removed from my memory. To this day, that high standard plays a big part in my projects."
Can you share a favorite moment from your time in Tokyo?
"Two moments stand out. The first was seeing my Japanese book in the bookstores for the first time — just mind-blowing — and the second was when I got the email from my immigration lawyer that my five-year visa had been approved. I headed straight over to the Conrad Hotel and we toasted with Moët & Chandon. Here’s hoping for another five-year visa approval, so I can continue to live in this incredible city!"'