Actor-turned-entrepreneur finds home away from home in EATS area of Tokyo
The East Area of Tokyo Station (EATS) area is drawing more and more foreigners to its many neighborhoods. Some of them are choosing to live there, others are starting businesses and some just come for the array of dining options.
The EATS area—which encompasses a wide stretch of land east of Tokyo Station, including Yaesu, Kyobashi, Bakurocho and Ningyocho, as well as neighborhoods around the stations of Monzen-nakacho, Sumiyoshi, Ryogoku, and Shin-nihonbashi—has attracted residents from overseas and locals for a number of reasons.
It has a long history as a center for arts and culture, and many galleries and museums can be found there. The area also features natural attractions, such as parks and rivers. And for food lovers, it offers a wide range of choices, from traditional sushi, tofu and soba (buckwheat noodles) restaurants to a variety of international fare.
It’s a place where the traditional blends with the cutting-edge, business intersects with art, global connects with local and long-standing businesses stand side-by-side with energetic newcomers. These contrasts combine to create a uniquely vibrant environment. And like iconic neighborhoods in New York City with distinctive monikers, such as DUMBO (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass) and SoHo (South of Houston Street), EATS is making a name for itself.
This is the second in a series of three articles that looks into the appeal of the EATS area, and features some of the people who live and run businesses there.
Putting Down Roots
When Sasha Tchernihovsky and his family relocated from Tel Aviv to Tokyo more than 15 years ago, they chose Koto Ward, and the area around Kiyosumi-shirakawa Station, as their new home.
For Sasha, Kiyosumi-shirakawa has been an ideal location to pursue his passion for creativity and entrepreneurship. There, he runs Wonderland Language, Art and Drama, an English language school, and Sani’z Language and Art Cafe, a cafe and school. Why did Sasha choose the area? There were many reasons, chief among them being the area’s rich cultural heritage, easy access to nature, and welcoming locals.
Interestingly, Sasha was also attracted to the apartment building he calls home, which reminded him of apartments in Tel Aviv. The multi-storied building in Kiyosumi-shirakawa is built in a style similar to Bauhaus, a 20th-century design movement from Germany that melded aesthetics and practicality. Bauhaus is popular in Israel, he says. “Have you ever been to Tel Aviv?” the actor-turned-entrepreneur asked. “Most of the buildings there are built in the Bauhaus style—round buildings with large windows and balconies. So it kind of reminds me of Israel.”
For Sasha, his apartment in Koto Ward is not just an ideal place to live and pursue his dreams; it is also somewhere he can feel rooted. It is a home away from home.
Local Yet Global
When it comes to the EATS area, one thing is certain: it’s a great place for eating. Foodies inspired by social media have found the EATS area to be a thriving hub of traditional and modern dining. For long-term residents such as Sasha, the area’s food offerings were among the reasons they chose to live there in the first place—and even establish their own businesses in the same sector.
There are quite a few Japanese restaurants in Kiyosumi-shirakawa, Sasha explained, including a soba shop “that’s very strange because you never know when they’re going to open; they don’t have a schedule, but the soba is really good.”
Shiryokan-dori, a small, quaint street with a lot of traditional Japanese shops, is another area in the neighborhood that Sasha visits often, especially “an izakaya there that’s run by a couple. It’s quite nice, actually.”
The area is also becoming known for its fine international fare. Bella Napoli, for instance, is a Michelin-star-awarded Italian restaurant in Kiyosumi-shirakawa. “It has been here for a very long time,” Sasha said. “The pizza is perfect; it’s very delicious.”
Diversity and Creativity
But it’s not just the dining options that draw people to the EATS area. A cosmopolitan culture can be enjoyed there, bringing together art and music, creativity and entrepreneurship. Such socially diverse activities have attracted countless people.
Recalling the early years, Sasha said: “There was a really nice coffee shop, called The Gift Lab, which had an art gallery and live music, and it was right beneath my apartment. A lot of creative people used to hang out there.”
Indeed, the EATS area has gained a reputation as a trendsetter in Tokyo. In addition to contemporary art and music, third wave coffee culture in Japan can trace its origins there—at places such as iki Espresso, a popular cafe in Kiyosumi-shirakawa.
Opened in 2016, iki Espresso, which is run by a Japanese and New Zealand husband-and-wife team, was established at the very start of the specialty coffee culture explosion in Tokyo. “I love their coffee, and the place is really nice; it’s very well designed,” Sasha said about the Oceania dining-inspired cafe.
Sasha has lived in the EATS area since 2006. This leads one to ask: what was his first impression of the area? Looking back, he recalls being impressed; in fact, his first encounter with Kiyosumi-shirakawa may have been one of love at first sight: “I loved the area from the beginning. Our apartment was something like a 20-second walk from the train station. That’s where I live now; the location is perfect.”
More precisely, he was impressed with the area’s nature and history, in addition to its affordable housing. Affordability was especially important for Sasha, who was then an aspiring professional actor. “At that time, apartments around here were very cheap. I think that’s what brought most of the creatives and artists here in the first place.”
Convenience and affordability were only part of the attraction for Sasha and others, however. The area’s natural endowments, such as the Sumida River, added to its attractiveness. “As in many areas of Tokyo, you can see a lot of parks and gardens here: you have Kiba Park, Kiyosumi Park, and Kiyosumi Gardens all nearby, which are all beautiful,” he explained.
In addition to nature, a rich cultural history has been a magnet for visitors to the EATS area. Indeed, Sasha points to the area’s charming, traditional streets, as well as the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, as places that caught his attention in the early days: “The area around Kiyosumi-shirakawa Station was called shitamachi or ‘downtown.’ It was a very old neighborhood with really nice, old, Japanese-style restaurants. And the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo already existed when we moved here.”
An artist, educator and entrepreneur, Sasha worked as an actor in commercials, movies and on stage to make ends meet when he first relocated to Japan. He also worked as an in-house events producer and an educator in elementary and international schools.
When Sasha opened his own school and cafe, he would dress in a clown’s outfit and walk around the Kiyosumi-shirakawa area to raise awareness of the new business.
Wonderland Language, Art and Drama offers English communication courses for learners as young as one years old, school and college students, and adults. Art lessons to complement language learning are also offered. Sani’z Language and Art Cafe, meanwhile, combines English language and art communication in a cafe environment, creating a space where learning and socializing happen in the same, borderless space.
The cafe offers dining inspired by the Mediterranean region, harking back to Sasha’s heritage in Israel—a country whose cuisine borrows richly from the region. It also serves a variety of coffee (mainly arabica and Turkish coffee); original latte flavors, such as sesame, butter pecan and coconut; and homemade desserts.
Wonderland Language, Art and Drama and Sani’z Language and Art Cafe were designed and built by Sasha himself in a manner that recalls the Bauhaus ethos and his own upbringing in Tel Aviv, Sasha said.
“The whole idea was that I didn’t want to build an English school or art school. You have to see the whole space as a single living room,” he explained. “I spent my whole childhood in a living room doing my homework; my parents spent time there, too, drinking coffee with friends in the same space. So that was the idea: to create a living room where everyone is welcome to drink coffee while the kids do their thing. It’s an interactive space.”
Having realized a sanctuary of his own, it begs the question: What does a typical day look like for Sasha? It begins at around 6:00am, when he goes to the cafe to make lunch boxes for delivery or in-person pick-ups.
Before the pandemic, lessons began at 9:00am and ended at 10:00pm. Today, lessons are held in compliance with measures to mitigate against the spread of Covid-19.
That being the case, Sasha is sanguine about the future. He recalls a time when he would sit in his large balcony, which is populated with plants, speaking with friends. “I have a kind of hammock, so I can sit here and catch the sun and drink some coffee,” he said, smiling.