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A Balance of Time in Maruyama

By Rebecca Gross

Every night when the sun sets I can see mountains on the horizon glowing various shades of pink and red from my apartment balcony. The clouds swirl and the mountains break away into a small enclave called Maruyama, where I live. Maruyama, round mountain, is an offbeat answer to downtown Sapporo, the largest city located on Japan’s rural north island, Hokkaido. The streets of Sapporo are filled with an energy typical of any city in Japan, but walk through these streets long enough and there is a clear sense of deja vu. The repetition of identical shops, office buildings, and pachinko parlors is cause for respite. It is in the small neighborhood of Maruyama that peaceful serenity and original enterprise have seamlessly merged together.

In this neighborhood, a thirty minute walk west from Sapporo, traditional wooden houses are still commonplace, leisure is extolled, and independent business rules. Hidden in a maze of narrow streets lined with cherry blossom trees, are antique shops, fresh vegetable stands, and most refreshingly, an endless mix of eclectic restaurants and cafes. One chilly night, while strolling through this maze, I came across an unusual restaurant called, Denki Shokudo, electric restaurant.
Located on an easily overlooked street, Denki Shokudo’s old ramshackle wooden facade is strewn with white Christmas lights. Stepping into the tiny restaurant is like stepping into prewar Japan. The chipped concrete walls are covered in memorabilia from the 1930s. Chef/owner, Takashi Fujii, a shy man, half hidden in the makeshift kitchen, wore a 20s-era Japanese navy costume. A lone waitress, clad in an ancient blue kimono, welcomed me with manic enthusiasm. Random notes, scattered along the walls, describe banana smoothies and cheap vegetable and hamburger rice dishes.

Red, green, and blue ceiling lights cast a colorful glow over the restaurant’s nine mismatched tables, and two-seat bar, creating a fantastical atmosphere.
Fujii, a gentle, unassuming man in his early 40s, opened Shokudo 5 years ago, while working as an art director at Sapporo TV. The restaurant’s haphazard decoration is more a reflection of Fujii’s interests and style than any organized theme, which is why I spent half the time gazing curiously at old Japanese posters and artifacts, such as the old manual cash register Fujii still uses.

“ I am interested about Japan in the 20s and 30s, so all of these things you see I have collected over the years. I just wanted this restaurant to be nostalgic and comfortable, like being at home,” Fujii said.

As I sat lost in a plate of delicious balsamic chicken salad, I thought I could very well be at home, well, not my home, but definitely the home of someone who cooks well.

Two hours later I bid the ‘30s goodbye, and stepped back into the night as the sting of chilly air snapped me back to reality.
As Hokkaido is known for fresh sushi, Maruyama should be known for fresh ideas. The neighborhood is full of talented artisans, painters, and photographers. A young Japanese couple, Hirofumi and Mina Nakagawa, recently opened Café Esquisse, featuring the work of local artists. Renovated from an old soup place into a strikingly hip café, Esquisse was planned and designed solely by the Nakagawas. Together they quit their jobs, Hirofumi as an environmental engineer, and Mina as a graphic designer, and now work deftly together six days a week.

The first artist to be featured was Hirofumi’s old art-school classmate, Taishin Kawamura. Each of his paintings, which were hung along Esquisse’s electric blue stucco walls, are filled with vibrant primary colors, ranging in subject, and are now featured in various art magazines.
Esquisse’s walls of art create a colorful oasis, where soft jazz plays in the background, and the coffee, which is made by hand, produces stimulating aromas.
Not all art must be serious of course, as the owner of silver boxed shaped, Café Festina Lente, recognizes. Kawahara, a former housewife, opened Festina last year, on the edge of Maruyama Park’s vast expanse of virgin forest. Festina’s white walls bear six portraits of Snoopy. Yes, Snoopy. However, the paintings are so colorfully abstract; it may take a few moments to recognize the familiar “Peanuts” character.

Festina’s crisp, modern architecture belies deeper significance. The cafe’s only window, an enormous two-story frame, cuts a perfect picture of the tranquil park, where life halts to quiet stillness. It’s easy to melt away in a plush armchair as time becomes elusive. That’s the thing about Maruyama; in contrast to Japan’s usual hectic pace, every moment in this neighborhood is easily savored, and time, almost forgotten.



Copyright © Rebecca Gross 2004