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The Sharing Economy in Nishi-Ogikubo

The sharing and subletting of restaurant spaces has emerged as a viable pattern for start-up and part-time entrepreneurs in Tokyo, including Nishi-Ogikubo, a type of sharing economy at the community level.

Recently all along the Chuo-line, including Nishi-Ogikubo, we can find examples of shared-economy businesses, in which two or more entrepreneurs share the same space in various patterns. One can find bar spaces in which different people operate their own bar every evening, each bringing their own supplies. Or we can find an established restaurant letting a new chef take over during lunchtimes, using his or her own menu. Or, quite often, we see two people doing a different but compatible type of business out of the same space. Although all are prompted by high rents in urban Tokyo, their motives differ, from those who want to start their own business but lack capital, to those who want to work part time, to those who simply want to try out a new idea as a hobby. These all can be considered examples of the sharing economy, at the community level rather than mediated by internet corporations.

An interesting case can be found in a hip, design-forward cafe space on the third floor of a building only two minutes from Nishi Ogikubo Station. Here in the afternoon and evening the owner of +Café (Tasu café) serves coffee and snacks sourced in Nishi Ogikubo. At lunchtime the owner of Hulot Cafe serves her beautifully presented dishes, included a tasty borscht and other (literally) homemade delicacies. Iwama, the owner and creative designer of +Cafe, is the primary renter of the space, and Kaneda, the owner of Hulot Cafe is a sublessee, paying a fee to Iwama.

After growing up all over Japan, Kaneda, the charming young “master” of Hulot cafe, spent 13 years in Kobe where she studied pastry making at a technical school. She got a job at a famous patisserie cafe in Kobe in order to perfect her pastry making, but ended up taking over the lunch making duties from the retired chef. She realized that she actually preferred cooking. Most of her recipes for her Hulot goodies come from these five years in Kobe, including her rosy light borscht and a luscious rosemary crème brûlée.

When her husband was transferred to Tokyo, the former shop master in Kobe suggested that she would fit in to the trendy but homey neighborhood of Asagaya. But like many other people, when she and her husband went looking for an apartment in that popular area, they couldn’t find anything open, ending up in Nishiogi instead (Yes, we must admit it, sandwiched between two of Tokyo’s most popular residential neighborhoods — Kichijoji and Asagaya — Nishiogi is often a second choice….)

“I definitely wanted to work in a cafe,” Kaneda said, “so when we arrived, I visited cafes in the nearby areas. I came here as a customer, and when I found out that the owner was letting other people do this on the weekend, I thought, perhaps he can let me have a try. So I pleaded with him, and he finally agreed to let me do it.”

The name Hulot is taken from Jacques Tati’s 1953 comic film “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday.” This is the cafe’s third year. She started out only doing the cafe on Saturdays but then in the second year was able to step up to operating the cafe on weekdays.

Looking at the case of Kaneda, it becomes apparent the sharing economy is not an easy way to make a living. To prepare for opening at 11 a.m., she arrives at the cafe at 10 a.m., operating until 3 p.m. At home she works late into the evening preparing her dishes for the next day. Rain or shine, she schleps a big cooler of prepared food to the cafe on a shopping trolley. On every second Saturday in the month she operates the cafe on evenings also.

“I don’t really earn all that much,” she said. “A bit more than costs. I am in the black, but I couldn’t really earn enough to live off. Because I am married, my husband helps keep me up. But I definitely want to be making my own living….”

In the future she would like to run her own independent cafe, and is looking for a place. But in this popular area it is not easy. “I don’t have a lot of capital and rents are high. It is hard to find a place.”

Just entering the cafe, you immediately feel, “this cafe was created by a designer.” In fact, +Cafe was created by the architect Iwama as a combination of studio and cafe. He and a partner designed the open space and themselves made by hand many of the peculiarly shaped tables, stools and other fixtures. The inner space is lined with shelves of design and architectural books that patrons can browse. That initial partner moved on, and another graphic designer moved in. Upstairs, Iwama runs a one-room boutique hotel

Iwama is a native of Nishi Ogikubo. At first he worked from home, but after he got married he decided he needed a place outside. He didn’t like commuting so he looked for a place nearby. When he was studying architecture he lived in Holland, and when he was a child he lived in the USA. So his English is excellent. The cafe and the hotel have quite a few foreign customers.

The name of +Cafe referred to the idea that the cafe would be an addition to the studio business, a place to hang out and meet with customers, and to have an open area in which people could interact with the world while working instead of being closed up in an office space. After an initial run, the partners realized that operating a cafe was busier than expected, particularly on weekends, so they started letting someone else run it on Saturday. For a while they had four different people running the cafe on the weekends rotating during the month. But this was too complicated. Then they met Kaneda-san. Now they let her manage the lunch period most days, and things are more steady. It was a pattern that developed out of interactions with customers rather than a model they saw elsewhere.

For +cafe’s own offerings Iwama focuses on products from famous outlets in Nishi Ogikubo that lack their own dining areas, including coldcuts from Mogu Mogu, bagels from Pomme du Terre, and coffee from Mame no Ki. This gives +cafe a distinct Nishi-Ogi flavor.

For now Iwama’s time is divided fairly evenly between his design studio, the cafe and the hotel upstairs. Like the cafe the one-room boutique hotel features a simple but elegant design. It also is convenient to the station. For the past two years he has been renting it out both independently and on Airbnb. The latter has brought in many international customers as well as Japanese, and he has many repeaters, including many people with old ties to Nishi Ogikubo or Kichijoji who stay here when they are in town.

The sharing economy may not be a magical escape from the economic difficulties of young Japanese, but it clearly is a way to connect people to people as well as make connections among different types of social spaces in ways that enrich the community.
(Farrer, Jan. 17, 2016, edited March 15, 2017)

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