TOPCommunityTW CreativesBon Voyage Tokyo: Episode 1 – Shotengai and Ramen Shops

Bon Voyage Tokyo: Episode 1 – Shotengai and Ramen Shops

“Follow the electric wires”

By Jean Freund

TW is collaborating with Tokyo-based illustrator Jean Freund for a limited series, ‘Bon Voyage Tokyo’. Every Monday from April 5, Freund will write about his experience as he develops and draws for his new book Bon Voyage Tokyo, a sister publication to Bon Voyage Japan focusing on the uniqueness of the Japanese capital. Expect weekly giveaways, including chances to contribute to the book yourself. Readers can also back the project over on Kickstarter until May 16.

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I have always drawn. My dreams, my life, my travels. Drawing posters of Japan’s famous locations was actually kind of my thing and I even published a book about it. But in 2020, Covid-19 happened and like everybody else, I was confined to my apartment. Or as I like to call it, the monotonous journey between my bedroom and my living room. No so much to draw anymore. 

Then, I had a bit of an epiphany.

I realized I was embarking on a new kind of journey in the shape of regular trips to the konbini, post office and other shops in my neighborhood. I soon grew to love the small things and  I decided that’s what my new book would be about: the everyday Tokyo. With my gaijin card, two brush pens, a sketchbook and ¥1,000 in my pocket, I embarked on this new adventure. On my face, a large smile covered by a white mask.

Mainichi Ramen

It began with the typical Tokyo shopping street or “shotengai”. It was the ideal starting point because you could find anything – and anyone. The bus leaves me at the entrance of a colorful street full of signboards, electric lines and so-called socially distancing people. Over me, a gate, like a torii of modern times, reading “Nantoka Shotengai”. I take a deep breath and go through, ready to draw this fascinating environment.

It is hard to tell what year it is. I see old storefronts, new buildings, ramen shops and pachinko parlors. “This architecture doesn’t really make sense,” I thought. There is a stylish Chinese restaurant with red bricks neighboring a washed-out hair salon straight from the mid-’70s. Behind me, a shoeshine shop with a storefront decorated with three unmatching colors and a restaurant with a blinking signboard reading “cheap & big!”

Who’s in charge of the urban landscape here? I had never paid this much attention but it really looks like the wild west. That is what I want to draw.

I take out my pen and start sketching away, starting with “Mainichi Ramen”. After I’ve been there for a while, a guy comes out, curious to see what I was working on. I explain to him my project and we start chatting. His name is Noriki. He used to be a rapper but had a change of heart and became a “ramen guy” (ramenya-san in Japanese). He’s learned the tricks of the trade now and owns his very own shop. He tells that one day, he will go to Italy if he can because he’d love to try spaghetti.

Noriki knows everybody, absolutely every face you can cross in the shotengai. He recommends meeting Ikeda-san, an 80-year-old woman who spends her days making tofu. She’s got a great personality, I am told, and could be an interesting fit for my book. She lives on the other end of the shotengai.

“Follow the electric wires”, he said pointing to the left. “The store is right next to the 54th vending machine of the street.”

As I stroll down, I take in all the details of this shotengai. The matching light posts, colored flags, vending machines. So many kinds of shops and people. Old folks, young hipsters, funny-looking ojisan, salarymen in suits. I am inspired.

I finally get to the tofu senmonten (specialty shop) but unfortunately, it’s closed. A neighbor tells me Ikeda-san is currently socially distancing and won’t be back to work any time soon but her twin sister, who is also her biggest competitor, is very active. To meet her I have to venture out of the shotengai and to the shitamachi or “burrows”, where she lives. If tofu-making borrowed karate’s colorful belt system to showcase skill, she would certainly be tying the black one around her waist.

I am told her store is absolutely charming, but I also realize that I don’t know anything about tofu. But I do remember that there are some beautiful buildings in shitamachi and decide it is a good place to continue my journey, get some interesting drawings done and meet locals.

Let’s start with walking back this never-ending shotengai. Man, this street is so long, I can’t even see the end of it.

Weekly Giveaway: 1 A6-size Handprinted Notebook + 1 Original Postcard

This week, TW and Freund are giving away one handprinted notebook featuring an original ramen illustration as well as a postcard-sized poster from the Bon Voyage Japan series.

To enter, send us your full name and postal address to [email protected]

Eligible for Japan residents only. Winners will be chosen at random and contacted by a member of TW staff. Giveaway ends on April 12, 2021.


Follow Jean Freund on Instagram for more updates about his new book. Support his new project on Kickstarter here