Kicking back with a book and cat in one of Jiyugaoka' many outdoor cafes
Photo by Beezer

Pam Stoikopoulos stumbles off the Toyoko Line in search of life, liberty and sublime shopping in happening Jiyugaoka.

A mere 40 years ago Jiyugaoka was a suburb with nothing more than a few grassy knolls and a handful of mom and pop shops lining the streets. In the last 15 years, it has exploded into one of the most popular upscale neighborhoods to live and be seen in. So appealing is this charming little quarter that several Japanese celebrities, including actors Naoto Takenaka and Tatsuya Fuji, now call the quiet back streets of "Freedom Hill" home. Whether you're searching for great housewares, crisp new clothes or a happening new hairdo, Jiyugaoka has it all.

Interior monologue
Domesticity and the creation of a comfortable nest are central themes to the area: Jiyugaoka is to housewares as Akihabara is to electronics. If your inner Martha Stewart is beckoning you to redecorate your living space, just head to this neighborhood bursting with a plethora of interior shops ranging from kitsch to elegant, economical to extravagant.

Asian import stores are in full force in Jiyugaoka. Import institutions - the dark and atmospheric Ceno Zoic, the eclectic Karako and the granddaddy of them all, Pier 1 Imports - all call the area home and boast a large selection of furniture and housewares, mostly from Asia and Africa. Several smaller, less well-known boutiques also dot the streets including Shala, a bright and airy space that, in addition to the import standards, also offers inspiring incense in yuzu, bamboo, jinko and lotus scents and funky, colorful glassware by Sugahara. Packed with luxurious linens, cool canvas lamps and comfy carpets, Marinetto is another inconspicuous gem.

Jiyugaoka is a hub for hip housewares
Photo by Pam Stoikopoulos

If you're searching for a little je ne sais quoi in your life, then French crockery from the pristinely white quatre saisons may be the answer. Timeless Comfort also exudes European flair by adding Italian goods to the equation. Other highlights of the store are the cushy sofas (not easily found in Japan) available in a variety of colors and fabrics and CafE212 (on the first floor) that features mouth-watering muffins and a great selection of H&H bagels. Shudder at the thought of mismatched tableware? The House of Villeroy & Boch's fine china sets will definitely help restore you to "civility."

For Japanese minimalism at its coolest, bypass the ubiquitous Watashi no Heya and In the Room and head straight for J., the ultimate in sleek, sparse and simple design. Similar in its minimalist approach, Uniq's custom designed furniture will brighten up, without overwhelming, the most Spartan living space. More artistic palates will savor the aesthetic of Wasalaby's tasteful pottery and the exotic exhibition, Les Amours de Paris (from nine French artists), currently on display at doux dimanche, an unusual combination of gallery, shop and hair salon.

Globally concerned consumers should make a visit to The Fair Trade Company a top priority. Selling everything from Zimbabwean kitchenware to Bangladeshi textiles to organic dried fruit from Uganda, the store aims to "develop products to high environmental standards, paying fair prices (and) offering marketing and technical assistance, credit, and a long relationship with partner organizations." Product quality is high, prices reasonable and-knowing that no one was exploited in the making of the merchandise-you can leave with a clear conscience.

Lovers may want to venture out to La Vita, a kind of Venetian mini-mall that unabashedly imitates the City of Romance's architecture and design. You won't get very far in the gondola, perhaps 15 meters or so, but it's worth a stop if kitsch is a priority on your list.

Cards and knickknacks abound on Freedom Hill

In style
While Omotesando and Daikanyama dish out haute couture and Harajuku does trendy threads, Jiyugaoka definitely exudes an air of preppy polish typified in the glistening new Ernest Hemingway lifestyle store. Its clean-lined linen and cool cotton safari wear are designed, brags the brochure, to encourage shoppers to "imagine a Hemingway living in 2001." Ironically, this statement is accompanied by an image of a gleaming silver flask atop a crisp button-down shirt, attesting to the fact that drunk and dashing will never go out of style.

Designer Katou Tsutoma's Italian-inspired chic is understated and elegant. The incorporation of color and unusual fabrics - including a knit blouse made of paper - make Cucina inc. a worthwhile visit for women who can squeeze into Japanese clothing, though many of the cuts seem more generous than usual. Gaijin-sized clothing, on the other hand, can be found at the various chain stores including Gap, Talbot's, Eddie Bauer and British high street favorite Next. Extra support is the order of the day at please arch, a shoe store that'll modify shoes - using a computer to measure the arch and ridges of your tootsies - to perfectly fit the shape of your foot. The service is free when shoes are purchased at the store (JY7800 for other shoes) and takes about an hour to complete.

Enjoying the springtime

Kidding around
Without a doubt the hottest fashion accessories to be seen with in Jiyugaoka are children. Despite the fact that auto congestion is limited and the area reasonably safe, beware: Visitors may encounter stroller jams or chance upon unabashed temper tantrums. Fortunately, these shopping neophytes are generally well dressed and well behaved. Kids apparel shops - including Gap Kids and Next Kids - abound but chic, not to mention thrifty, bebés are often spotted at the surprisingly reasonable Du Pareil au Meme snapping up France's latest styles for petit people. Less bourgeois little dudes, on the other hand, will prefer tripping around in vibrant psychedelic prints from Beach Walk.

Playtime for kids, as well as kids trapped in adult bodies-besieged by bouts of nostalgia for lightsabers, Chuckie dolls and Star Trek-clad Barbie and Ken dolls-should venture into Takaraja for all the toys you should have saved when you were a child.

Hairdresser heaven
Jiyugaoka gives Harajuku a serious run for its clippers when it comes to the number of hair salons per square meter. With a multitude of trained-abroad stylists to choose from, even the most reluctant of foreigners (including this curly-locked writer) have little to fear here. Bumble and Bumble N.Y., Jean-Claude Biguine, maniatis and Of Hair are just a sampling of stylists from the dizzying selection of swanky salons.

After having your tresses freshly snipped and tossed, follow your nose to Lush. Whether you gag at or love to inhale the store's overwhelmingly sweet scent, the broad range of "home-cooked" grooming products, including "vegetarian" soaps, face masks and hair packs, look so ripe and delicious you'll want to eat them up.

freetown06.jpg (15107 bytes)
This fresh neighbourhood is a charming blend of Eastern and Western-style architecture
Pam Stoikopoulos

Gourmet goods
All this traversing can make an explorer hungry. Fortunately, there is no shortage of enchanting cafés, beguiling bistros and chic sushi restaurants. Despite its unassuming, bland décor, Cuisine Francaise is a culinary discovery where gasps of "sugoku oishii" (so good!) can be heard from every table. Italian restaurants abound in Jiyugaoka and one of the tastiest is Pappagallo, where portions are "mamma mia!"-sized. The slightly more upscale Il Nido also comes highly recommended by locals. Though still untested, the ultra-modern interior landscape of the Chinese restaurant Wai Tang is an ideal stop for - in their own words - an "important date." The cool, aesthetically pleasing lines of Kamakuraya are also worth checking out if you crave Japanese haute cuisine. Less sophisticated but a landmark nonetheless is Top Dog, which cooks up stuffed jacket potatoes and, you guessed it, hot dogs.

Those with a sweet tooth will savor Jiyugaoka's delectable desserts that range from the commercial Cinnabon to the historical Japanese teahouse located on the Kosoan gallery grounds. Imperialists can stroll through the lush English-style garden of St Christopher's and stop for a sitting of afternoon tea that, naturally, includes scones, jam and clotted cream. France enthusiasts, conversely, can cross the channel and make a break for the airy Poeme de Mary.

Prefer walking puppies to eating them? Then join the unofficial club of chichi canines and their owners that strut their stuff along the Doggie Dori. The Cha Noko cafEis a local watering hole (literally) that's packed with thirsty, hip pooches. After their best friends have been served a bowl of cool, crisp water, owners are welcome to sip on a cup of green tea.

While the neighborhood sees its fair share of visitors - especially on Sundays - the narrow streets, the quaint shops and village-like atmosphere of Jiyugaoka are a liberating breath of fresh air from the noise, smog and hustle and bustle of Tokyo shopping districts like Shinjuku and Shibuya. "Freedom Hill's" Japanese take on western living is cool, cultured and ultimately liberating.

Getting there
Jiyugaoka is on the Tokyu Toyoko line six stops from Shibuya station. Both express and local trains stop there.

Click on the map for a bigger image



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