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Nishi-Ogikubo Balthazar

Fading photos of Japanese hippies and American beat poets, vegetables sourced from a network of organic farmers, the story of how a hippie greengrocer became the bohemian face of a bourgeois Tokyo community.

For a long time there have been two opposing faces of Nishiogi, one face is a well-manicured suburban “bed town” with a bourgeois pedigree. The other is an unseemly warren of commercial venues where artists and intellectuals were known to gather, worn spaces with a bohemian vibe. No place represents this second aspect of Nishiogi better than Hobbit Village, a vine-covered three story building, whose first floor is an organic greengrocers selling produce sourced through networks developed by the owner during his days as a hippie in the 1960s. On the second floor a restaurant called Balthazar serves tasty dishes made from this organic produce. Its walls feature fading photos of figures from Japan's hippie subculture and prints of America's beat poets by Allen Ginsberg, who the owner met when he was visiting Japan on his way from India back to the USA. There are also paintings by the owner himself. This is a place for sipping a coffee and slipping back into the 1960s.

Operating the shop since 1976, the owner Nagamoto Akira, usually called “Namo-san,” is 76 years old. His conversation with us was less an introduction to a business model than a nostalgic requiem for Japanese postwar hippie era.

A native of Kumamoto, Namo came to Tokyo for high school, living in Shinjuku. There was a cool café on the way home from school that he would often stop off at. One of the many intellectuals he met there was the iconoclastic writer and theater producer Terayama Shoji, whose most famous works was titled Throw Away Your Books, Run Into the Streets. Namo more or less took this advice. “I felt I needed to do something different with my life,” Namo said. While he was in college, he met the poet and founder of Japan’s hippie movement Nanao Sakaki, and the American beat poets Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg. “I realized, the rule that you have to graduate from university is a lie," he said. "So I dropped out.” At the time the Anpo struggle was heating up in Shinjuku, but he decided to travel. He headed to the homeland of the hippie movement, living in Berkeley California from 1973 to 1974. Through his friend Snyder, he already had connections in the hippie community and lived off selling jewelry he made. 

When he came back to Japan he helped set up a commune in Kokubunji on the western edge of Tokyo. For a while he moved to Suwanosejima off the coast of Kagoshima, where Nanao Sakaki had set up the famed Japanese anti-materialist agricultural commune known as “The Tribe.” He also lived for a time in Nagano.

“People all over the world learned that they could come stay and eat, and they came from all over," Namo recalled. "It was fun, but it was crazy! Still, a human only has a few chances in life to be that crazy. It was different from anything I have experienced in life up to now. It was a feeling of new friends, new family. Even now I feel that connection. Even though we are living apart, we are still family. We don’t hide anything, and can talk openly.”

However, while he was living that life he started feeling that he wanted to find some kind of work in which he could have “communication with ordinary people, with ordinary old men.”

So this is when he decided to start selling vegetables grown free from chemicals. “The impetus for that was Minamata disease [a decades-long mercury poisoning disaster in Kyushu]. I am from Kumamoto, and Japanese people have all experienced this Minamata disaster.”

“At the time I went all over looking for organic vegetables. I asked at the JA [Japanese Agricultural Cooperative Association] and they didn’t even know what organic meant. So I asked them if among the farmers there weren’t some weird old guys, and they said, ‘Sure there are.’ I mean those guys who hated the JA and hated using pesticides, and were quietly doing this already.”

He found them in Ibaraki, Saitama and Chiba prefectures, and began purchasing vegetables from these farmers. At first he didn’t have a shop so he would just go in a truck and sell at the housing estates. “But I began to think that this style of suddenly appearing in a truck and suddenly disappearing would make the customers feel uneasy, so I thought it would be much better to have a shop in a fixed place. A friend of mine told me that this location was open and called me over. At that time Nishiogi was a quiet place and there weren’t so many young people. So they thought I could get some young people to come. Actually a whole bunch of hippies began showing up. The landlord, who hadn’t minded at first, seemed pretty shocked.”

The name “Hobbit Village” comes from Tolkien, whose hobbits are portrayed as peace loving little people, Namo said. Among his friends who wanted to work in the shop with him, some were members of Beiheiren (The Citizens League for Peace in Vietnam), and they used the hobbit as a symbol. They suggested the name, and Namo agreed. The restaurant Balthazar is named after the protagonist of “Balthazar” the second novel in British novelist Lawrence Durrell’s postmodern novel “Alexandria Quartet” (1958).

Over the forty years the customers at the shop and restaurant have changed. “At first it was 'long haired hippies,' then it became the 'aunties from the neighborhood.' Now my first customers have become the old ladies. Some have passed away. Even though it was a shop run by hippies it became a shop for old ladies to shop in.”

Namo remains a loyalist to the hippie ethos. When asked if there has not been an increase in people interested in agriculture and alternative lifestyles in the neighborhood, he replies dismissively, “What’s going on with organic culture in Nishi-Ogikubo is a bit different. I think it feels a bit too high class. We weren’t high class. We were dirty,” he said with a laugh.

Still Namo feels that he has made a contribution to the natural agriculture movement. “People going out to live in the countryside, young people coming together to live autonomously, I’m not talking about their political direction, I think there has been an increase in people wanting to live autonomously … people who want to grow their own things, and eat their own things. I think by creating this greengrocer downstairs, we have given those people a chance to live that way. I want to teach what I know.”

Though his shop could be said to represent one important face of Nishiogi, Namo doesn’t identify with the neighborhood very strongly. “I have been running a shop here for 40 years, but I can’t say that I have really come to feel really close to this place. I think the outlook of Nishiogi residents is different from mine. That is not to say that one is good and one is bad.”

“From a long time back this was a place where people with money lived…. I don’t really like that,” Namo said. For him, Shinjuku in the 1960s was a truly “cosmopolitan” community, with no equivalent in Japan today. “At that time the Kinokuniya on the East side of Shinjuku Station, was still not big. I could go in their and ask ‘Could I borrow this book for a day?’ and the book store would lend it to me. When there was a really good book I wanted to read but I didn’t have any money, I could just borrow it. Shinjuku in those days was a place where people with money and people with no money lived together. But in the 1970s it all changed. Shinjuku in the 1960s was a subculture.”

After creating Hobbit Village, Namo participated in demonstrations for more than ten years, including demonstrations against nuclear power after the Chernobyl accident in the 1980s. “We did a lot of things before their time,” he said.

Namo has four children and they all have worked at Hobbit Village, but they don’t have much interest in the old hippie culture he said. “I don’t think we are really understood," he laments. "Our idea of freedom and ordinary people’s idea of freedom is different.”

Even the regular customers would say, “I will buy Namo’s vegetables, but don’t bring my son or daughter into Namo’s group.” There is a sense of stigma associated with the hippie culture. “People would say that if someone became good friends with me, then they would not be able to get a good job elsewhere.”

Freedom is a moral lodestar for Namo. “Freedom means doing what you want, but you have to take responsibility for it. If you can’t stand on your own, you will cause trouble for the people around you. Freedom is freedom. It is harsh, but it is good. Being restricted is easy. Being told what to do is easy. But when you are free you have to decide things for yourself. If more people had the experience of freedom, then more good things would happen in the world.”

The spirit of freedom has also gone out of the organic food movement. “I don’t like this new idea of the ‘vegetable sommelier’,” he said. “I also don’t like the Japanese organic standards. It is only about making some promises and it is over. There is not the 'free' feeling that I want. Some people say that you need a certification or else no business, but the Japanese government and the American government are both doing strange things. When we use pesticides we simply say, ‘we used pesticides.' I’ve had arguments about this with the customers in the past.”

A cosmopolitan from another age, Namo is still running Balthazar after 40 years, showing another face of Nishiogi. (James Farrer, May 17, 2016, edited Sept. 10, 2017)

From Ginsberg to Organic: Becoming the Bohemian Face of a Bourgeois Neighborhood

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