Kuramae, Taitō — the heart of Tokyo’s Shitamachi (“downtown”) area — is home to Almost Perfect, Yuka and Luis Mendo’s residence for creatives. The name Kuramae literally means “in front of the storehouses,” which refers to the area’s past as the home of many rice granaries in the Edo Period (1603–1868).
Worlds apart from the clamour of modern Tokyo, the former warehouse district is an unusual location for a creative residency. The area is filled with small manufacturers, cafés, artists, and creators from all walks of life — some compare it to Brooklyn in New York City.
Looking out from the historical rice shop that the Mendos renovated into Almost Perfect, the couple tell me why they settled in Tokyo, and how this neighbourhood won their hearts as a place to live and work.
Part of this interview has been translated from Japanese. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Luis, coming from Spain, what is it about Tokyo that made you want to settle here?
Luis: I find Tokyo a city of endless possibilities — big and limitless, yet it still offers a small, cozy, village-like life. I know my neighbours, they know us. We can find everything we need around the house and it’s all nearby. I’ve always liked that.
Once you get to know Tokyo a little, you understand the potential of transformation that the city offers. You can go back to any neighbourhood after a month and discover a new building or shop — it’s like the city never stays still. And in my experience, that dynamic in turn keeps you transforming and evolving.
Why do you think that is? What’s so different about the particular community you’re a part of here?
Luis: Well, I’m from Spain, but I lived in Amsterdam for twenty years. When I arrived in Tokyo, I was blown away by how generous, gentle, and embracing the creative community was here.
In Amsterdam, I would only talk to other designers. Occasionally, maybe photographers and illustrators because I was an art director — but generally, one would stick to their “world.” Here though, we have friends who are programmers, architects, poets, and even someone who works in a convenience store but is actually an amazing painter. I know a guy who is a cleaner at Shin-Okachimachi station, but he also makes amazing surrealist drawings. It’s that mix that makes it an exciting community to be part of.
Yuka: Maybe it’s because the international creative community in Tokyo is also quite small?
Luis: Maybe, maybe — but it also feels very much like you're with family. You get this amazing mix of people. Guests at Almost Perfect say things like, “Oh I met so-and-so! I was sitting here working and they knocked on the door and started talking to me …” I don't think this would happen so quickly in other cities.
So you find Tokyo is extra neighbourly, despite being a large metropolis?
Yuka: Well, it’s also the local nature of the Shitamachi area we are in. There’s a down-to-earth and humble community atmosphere with many people living and working here. The older generation of residents who have lived here for many years are very open to sharing their experiences with you.
Everyone here loves children, and you can see a lot of young couples moving here. Since last summer, there’s been a wave of new shops opening too. There are places where you can do interesting things like: make your own sketchbook, learn to make furniture, or try your hand at welding. It really is a place of possibilities, where you can experiment with creative ideas.
Luis: Historically, the Tokyo ward of Taitō housed leatherwork businesses, which made the streets stink and was incredibly hard manual work, so many considered this area as cheap and lower class.
During the war, most of the district was destroyed and had to be rebuilt, but it never evolved into something like Shibuya or Minato, where land prices grew dramatically. This means entrepreneurs and people who want to do something experimental find themselves here because it’s an affordable place to start.
So here in the Shitamachi area, there’s both tradition and young blood. On top of that, there are all kinds of small makers. We are surrounded by manufacturing, history, and culture: there’s an old toy maker and wholesalers in Kuramae, jewellery ateliers and gem shops to the west in Okachimachi, the rakugo [traditional comedy–storytelling performance] theatre and woodblock printing to the north in Asakusa, and leather shops and workshops to the south in Asakusabashi.
Also, Akihabara is only a little walk away, where you can find 3D printing businesses, camera shops, and to my knowledge, the only specialized keyboard shop in Tokyo. It’s very interesting to see new crafts and traditions come together. To be honest, I think this is the most interesting part of Tokyo right now. I hope it doesn’t change, and it stays small and affordable.
It sounds like younger generations are helping boost culture in the area. Was the local government involved in the revitalization as well?
Luis: You know, the same day we told the Taitō Ward Office that we were open, an official came to see us. Like just one or two hours after we told them! This guy came and said, “So, tell us about your plans — how can we help you?”
Yuka: Yeah, he was from the Chamber of Commerce — he was here for an hour! There's also the Taitō Designers Village here, which is an incubation program for small brands and designers housed in a renovated old elementary school. It offers three-year programs where creators are matched with mentors to help develop sales channels and other ideas to help them grow their businesses. It's amazing — a lot of good brands and artists have graduated from there.
You mention historical businesses and this area’s tradition of manufacturing. What role does this play in your lives?
Yuka: I like the idea of seeing things at ground level. Being on the street and connected to the neighbourhood, seeing people making things all around you. It’s very inspiring.
Because you see a lot of hands-on businesses, it encourages you to do something yourself. You also have almost everything you need to be creative. I was working on a shirt for Luis and wanted specific buttonholes in the collar — so I just went out and quickly found a guy that does buttonholes. Just buttonholes, he’s right over there [pointing].
Luis: See, how specialized is that! When I had an old shirt and I wanted to dye it a different colour …
Yuka: … We found a dyer, right there [pointing]. There are kiribako [paulownia wood boxes] makers, paper package makers, washi paper makers, leather embossers, engravers, foil stamping shops — they are all here. And you can watch them make things right in front of you.
Luis: We recently moved into a new apartment, and it had the ugliest cabinet handles. So I searched on Pinterest and I saw a simple handle made from one screw and a strip of leather. Yuka said, “I’m gonna make that right now.” She went out, bought a bag of leather cutoffs for almost nothing and some screws — now we have beautiful handles in our cabinets.
Yuka: I think life here feels a little like how it must have been during the Edo Period. If you need something, like a knife sharpened, you just go out and there is someone who can do it. I really love that. The scale of this area is important too, where everything is just around the corner.
I walk my child to kindergarten every day and all I see is people making things. It’s great to know that when she's older and she wanders around, she’ll know there’s a shoemaker there, a hat maker over there … I think that you truly understand the value of something when you know the person who made it. ▲
Part 1 focuses on the creative residency Almost Perfect itself, going deep into its history, the building itself, and future plans.