Little Tokyo

About one-fifth of all Japanese people in Germany live in and around Düsseldorf. No wonder, then, that this metropolitan region is also being shaped by Japanese culture.

The table looks like a chaotic setting from an anime: countless small plates and cups, hardly larger than a doll’s, cover almost every millimeter. Squeezing on equally small stools around the table, there are a handful of full-grown adults — and they don’t play with puppets. Here at ANMO Art/Cha, in a quiet cross street of the bustling Immermannstraße in Düsseldorf’s center, a Japanese tea tasting is taking place. The interested guests sip happily through the assortment of mild and bitter green teas, as well as through specialties of sweet and tart tea, matcha and earthy tasting pu-er.

The atmosphere is casual and cheerful, which is not always the case in the context of tea tasting. “Tea originally came to Japan through China and now has a tradition going back over a thousand years,” says Motoko Dobashi. In classical Japanese tea ceremonies, there are strict rules and hierarchies. “We take a more relaxed view and want our customers to be able to enjoy their tea at home,” says Motoko. “Here they get to know the variety and special features of tea. And customers are very interested in tea culture. For many, this is a completely new field. We notice that the appreciation of tea is increasing.” 

In addition to the tea selection from Japan and China, ANMO, founded by Motoko and Anna Friedel in 2017, also offers a large selection of old and new handmade ceramics, a small assortment of modern kimonos and fashion accessories, and “art,” says Anna with a smile. “When we opened the shop, we knew we also wanted to be a gallery with changing exhibitions. But being Japanese is not a must for the artists,” says Anna, laughing.

She and Motoko are both artists, so the idea of integrating a gallery was an obvious one. The friends got to know each other during their studies in Munich. Soon they traveled together to Japan and Hong Kong. Anna was fascinated by Japanese culture from an early age. She has been doing Asian martial arts as a competitive sport for years. “The philosophy and culture behind it cannot be excluded,” she says.

Anna had moved to Düsseldorf a few years earlier “for love’s sake.” Her friend Motoko, who was living in Berlin, first had to be convinced to come to the Rhineland with her family. “For the children, it’s also nice to get to know Japanese culture,” Anna says. And nowhere else in Germany can they do this better than in Düsseldorf — Nippon on the Rhine. Intensive trade relations between Germany and Japan existed as early as the 19th century. After World War II, Japan’s connections to the Rhine and Ruhr regions became particularly strong, as it was there that the war-ravaged nation found urgently needed steel and chemical products for reconstruction. Centrally located, Düsseldorf was suited as a commercial center, and starting in the 1950s, Japanese companies settled in the area. There are about 200 of these companies in Düsseldorf — and nearly 500 in the greater metropolitan area — making them a significant economic factor for the region.

No wonder the Japanese community here is so big. Approximately 6,500 people from Japan live in Düsseldorf. Compared to other minorities in the city, they’re nowhere near as numerous. Nevertheless, Japanese culture has a strong influence on city life. The quarter between the main station and the old town around Immermannstraße is known as “Little Tokyo” even beyond the city limits — and even on Google Maps the quarter is promoted as such. Between karaoke bars, ceramic shops, galleries, Japanese sport clubs, and medical centers, the right culinary offerings for locals and tourists has established itself here. Apart from the many Asian supermarkets, which are quite popular with all Düsseldorfers, the density of excellent restaurants has often received praise.

While in the rest of Germany Japanese cuisine is still equated with sushi, in Düsseldorf they know that the country consisting of over 7,000 islands has much more to offer. In addition to Japanese bakeries and shops, where snacks such as the stuffed onigiri rice balls are served, the quarter also offers elegant omakase restaurants such as Nagaya. Similar to a tea ceremony, an omakase menu consists of a set of several courses. The guest does not choose, but rather leaves the decision in the hands of the sushi master — and by doing so also expresses respect for the cook. This is eating according to the principle of politeness, so to speak.

Ramen, a hearty and comparatively cheap noodle soup, is particularly popular on Immermannstraße. Long queues often form in front of the countless soup kitchens of “Little Tokyo.” A small eatery, with cozy wooden furniture, menus with Japanese characters on the walls, and an open kitchen, seems to steam at any time of day. The smells of strong broths infuse the air as guests in the chock-full space eat enthusiastically from their bowls, which are varyingly topped with chicken, beef, pork belly, seaweed, Chinese cabbage, mushrooms, and half an egg. For dessert, there’s ice cream with sesame or matcha.

However, Japanese life in the city is not limited to the drag down Immermannstraße. EKŌ House is an important cultural hotspot in Niederkassel, a residential area where many Japanese people live and where the Japanese school is also located. The community house offers Buddhist-based events and introduces the traditional Japanese way of life. In addition to language classes, courses in calligraphy, Japanese dance, and ikebana — the art of flower arranging — are also available. A visit is worthwhile even just to browse the library, or to have a look at the golden interior of the adjacent temple. It’s the only temple of Jōdo Shinshū, one of the largest Japanese schools of Buddhism, in Europe. The tiny Japanese-style temple garden attached to it attracts countless visitors, especially during the spring and summer months.

But as a Japanese person in Düsseldorf, you don’t necessarily have too much to do with traditional teachings or temple life. “Our Japan can mostly be found at home,” says Yuta Maruyama as he whisks past Anna and Motoko’s tea salon. Yuta came to Düsseldorf as an infant and grew up here. “At home, we eat and speak Japanese. As a child, I read Japanese children’s books and watched series,” he says. But Yuta only came into contact with the community as a teenager. “That’s not necessarily because the community is particularly closed. However, many Japanese only stay in Düsseldorf for three to four years, mostly because of their father’s work,” says Yuta. “They know the exact date of departure when they arrive. The children attend the Japanese school so that they don’t miss the connection when they return. That makes it hard to make contacts there.”

Yuta first met a few Japanese friends through his older sister and began to get interested in Japanese pop culture with them. “It’s nice to be able to share cultural roots with friends,” he says today. Yuta also pursues a particularly exciting profession. He’s a magician! He always has a deck of cards with him and is able to demonstrate his skills on the spot. It’s a real pleasure to watch him swirl his cards through the air, skillfully making them disappear and reappear. “It’s not a typical Japanese job,” says Yuta, laughing. “But in fact, people play a lot of cards in Japan. While friends had the TV on, we played cards for family evenings.”

Michiko Shida hasn’t had much contact with the Japanese community for a long time, too. “A lot has changed in the meantime, but it’s much easier with social media today,” she says. Michiko came to Düsseldorf over 20 years ago at the age of 18 — quite by chance, after an acquaintance had recommended the city to her — and ended up staying. She started out working in gastronomy and formed an international and art-loving circle of friends. Then she completed an apprenticeship as a ceramist. “I’ve always been interested in that,” says Michiko. “Pottery is quite common in Japan and you practically grow up with it.” Nevertheless, she learned pottery from a German master potter. “And he was also inspired by the Greek style,” says Michiko, laughing, as she spins a cup on the potter’s wheel in her brightly lit studio.

But her bowls, cups, and plates, which she has been selling under her own name since 2009, and which are stacked up to the ceiling in a light-colored wooden shelf, are “in heart and soul Japanese.” This is perhaps because the forms are reduced to the essentials and the designs show no wild patterns, but are rather fired in modest colors. Michiko’s ceramics can also be bought in Anna and Motoko’s shop. Because somehow, everyone in Düsseldorf’s Japanese world ends up knowing one another.

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