The Tokyo sky is a bright blue today, and there are no clouds. We’re standing outside in Design Festa Art Village’s cafe bar, sipping a cool drink, beads of water on the sides of our cups. “How would you describe this place?” I ask my two hosts, Allison Cottrell of the Design Festa Gallery and Mengchun Chou of its attached restaurant, Sakura Tei.
“A place where people can come together. Eat together. Make art together,” replies Chou.
There are trees and murals surrounding us. The branches bend to give us shade, the leaves are silhouetted shadows on the ground or on the sides of buildings.
“It’s a space for everyone. All genders, nationalities and kinds of artists,” says Cottrell. “Look there, that’s a new mural.” She points to a wolf surrounded by rainbow colors painted on the white wall behind me.
“I work here and I hadn’t seen it until now,” she explains. “This place is always evolving. There’s always something new going on.”
Design Festa Art Village: Where three become one
The village is made up of three main components: Design Festa Gallery, Sakura Tei and Design Festa Cafe & Bar. Design Festa Gallery is a collection of open gallery spaces located in the east and west buildings, dedicated to exhibiting artists’ work to the public. Sakura Tei is a make-it-yourself okonomiyaki (a kind of Japanese savory pancake) restaurant with an impressively wide-ranging menu that allows for all kinds of palates.
Design Festa Cafe & Bar is a chill outdoor café area with another creative menu and a special array of international beer and food. It’s also a viewing area for the various rotating murals, a popular photogenic spot for shoots and a great place to meet and chat with friends and fellow artists.
The coexistent functionality of the three locations into one is a conscious choice — this is a codependent community space that thrives on art, food, participation and the passion of the public and the staff. A space built by collaboration, for collaboration.
Design Festa: A gallery for everyone
In 1998, the founders of Design Festa, led by Kunie Usuki, bought the three-floor apartment complexes, remodeled them and opened up their doors to art without labels. They believed the rules surrounding art and galleries in Tokyo were too strict and limiting, especially so at that time. It was their desire to create and open a space that provided an environment for unlimited growth. Take a short walk through the galleries and you can imagine the old apartment layout, except the walls have been made removable so the artist presenting can shape the space to their liking.
Anybody can show their work in the Design Festa Gallery. Salarymen, students or you. Design Festa does not screen artists’ work before it is displayed. There are absolutely no rules or guidelines to follow in order to show works or installations of any kind, except that it is original. Artists can rent any of the several different kinds of available spaces — from 75-centimeter by 75-centimeter areas to entire rooms (or a movie theater) — via the Design Festa website.
You can also contact them by phone or email with any questions in English, Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, and Korean. Visitors are encouraged to come by and take in the art, converse with the artists or become one. Entry is completely free. Some artists do sell some of their work or provide keychains and postcards that you can purchase. In addition to showing art to the public on a daily basis, the staff organize ongoing themed yearly exhibitions in which anybody can participate.
Sakura Tei: Make your own food, paint your own walls
The restaurant offers an array of almost any kind of okonomiyaki that you desire. Not only does Sakura Tei offer delicious, internationally inspired and unique monthly rotating okonomiyaki offerings, it provides halal and vegetarian options, as well.
For our meal we indulged in okonomiyaki, yakisoba (stir-fried noodles) and a spicy kimchi monjayaki (a runnier version of okonomiyaki). We made each meal by ourselves with some guidance from the easy-to-read “how to” menus on our table; staff are happy to help you make your meal too. We also ordered some of the new summer soda drinks with natural lemonade and elderflower.
The international staff are not only skilled in guiding or assisting you in making your meal, but they are also rather knowledgeable about art themselves. One of the murals on the walls surrounding you might have been painted or drawn by your server. The scale of the restaurant is large — each room has a different mural, a different scene. Some of the larger rooms even had trees growing up through their floors and out the ceiling.
Design Festa Cafe & Bar: Where art meets food
Design Festa Cafe & Bar is the location that connects Design Festa Gallery to Sakura Tei and Sakura Tei to Design Festa Gallery by way of its location between the two and its figurative concept of joining the idea of art and food together. It also lies in the center, between the east and west galleries. This is where we stand, in its center, discussing the art village’s goals and concepts.
To our right, we can see inside Gallery West, where two artists have set up their exhibitions. One artist has headphones on. He is armed with something equivalent to a Sharpie pen as he draws a large, expansive mural. There’s a tree nearby that offers shade, next to it a cooler filled with beers from all over the world.
Cottrell and Chou invite me to sit down for lunch. The international menu allows for any kind of craving: sweet, spicy, savory. My hosts inform me that all of the restaurant’s food and drinks are organic; they import vegetables from their company-owned organic farm up in Aomori, Tohoku Bokujo. Everything is as delicious as it looks.
Students, kids, parents, businessmen and women, amateur and professional artists alike have all found a home here in presenting and viewing art. Any genre and no censorship has allowed for diversity to grow since its beginnings in the late ’90s. Plan your next exhibition. Take someone on a date. Go for a drink and some contemplation. Design Festa’s doors are open — and some even removable.
How to get there
The Design Festa Gallery, Design Festa Cafe & Bar, & Sakura Tei complex is located in the quieter streets of Urahara in Harajuku. About a 5-minute walk from JR Harajuku station, its unique appearance — a white building with a black pipe installment covering its first and second floors — can’t be missed.
Opening hours: Design Festa Gallery: 11 a.m. – 8 p.m., daily. Sakura Tei and Design Festa Cafe and Bar: 11 a.m. – 11 p.m., daily
Address: 3-20-18 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Contact: 03-3479-1442 or get in touch via the form: https://designfestagallery.com/contact