Danish-French Impressionist Camille Pissarro once wrote, “Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing.” I often think of this when I meet up with Vaughan Allison at the coffee shop he owns with his wife, Rie, in Higashi-Nagasaki near Ikebukuro .
Higashi-Nagasaki, it could be said, is very much beginning to happen. Once a fairly nondescript suburb of Ikebukuro, it’s now starting to flutter its eyelashes and peacock a little bit more than it probably should. Not particularly far from Nakano , Ekoda and Koenji, it’s always cowered away like an unloved little cousin at a family party from these neighboring and achingly hip locales.
In April of 2020, however, Allison’s coffee shop Mia Mia (meaning ‘shelter’ in Wadawurrung, an indigenous Australian language) opened its doors and quickly began a simmering revolution, bringing a sense of community and shelter to the good folk of Nagasaki as well as becoming a magnet for Tokyo’s legion of coffee aficionados. A few months after Mia Mia opened, 42 Diner & Grocery, a chic but casual restaurant (with a Michelin-starred owner) opened across the road from Mia Mia, and other new spots began to pop up. Considering this was 2020 and Japan (and the rest of the world) was in the midst of a debilitating pandemic, it seemed that Nagasaki was the one of the only places beginning to properly blossom amongst the debris and global ennui of last year.
A native of Melbourne, Vaughan (as he’s known to most), is a man of many talents. A sometime fashion model, fashion lecturer, music promoter, coffee writer and general man about town, he’s in love with Tokyo’s coffee scene and, on his rare days off, traverses the city in search of new spots, new connections and the ultimate cup. Mia Mia, which was designed by his wife and business partner Rie, who heads her own successful, international architecture firm, isn’t just about coffee. It’s a hub, a community tryst, a place where people meet, chat, listen to music and become themselves
Designers, musicians, magicians, creatives from every industry imaginable, office workers, students and pensioners congregate at Mia Mia for the coffee but also because of the massive magnetic charm and enthusiasm that Vaughan brings to the place. He calls himself a ‘coffee shop denizen,’ someone who sits and stays and loves being in coffee shops. He’s carved out a kinetic career in Tokyo’s coffee scene after spending a transformative time as a student at Ritsumeikan University in the early 2000s and learned and studied about the intricacies of coffee and music and how both can be tied together in some kind of inexplicable bond.
Mia Mia has had such a huge impact on the community of Higashi-Nagasaki that Vaughan and Rie have decided to open their next project a few minutes walk from Mia Mia, named I AM (a clever use of the anagram). A space devoted to the promotion of Australian art that doubles as another hub for the local community. Vaughan, in a recent interview with TW , calls I AM a “cultural kiosk,” a place where events, art and community come together with an emphasis that everyone, from anywhere, is always welcome.
After the slow realization that they had such a monumental effect on the people of Higashi-Nagasaki the couple decided to push forward with a plan to really put the town on the Tokyo cultural map as a destination for young and old and to share the town’s possibilities with everyone.
I AM, which opened on April 1, 2021, will initially focus on Australian artists (chosen by Vaughan, Rie and curator Momoko Takahashi formerly of Vacant in Harajuku). The new spot, which will also act as an office space for Rie’s architectural practice and other creative offices, will include an events area, rooftop, a shop which covers merchandise and one-of-a-kind objects which are perfect for gifts and presents. Vaughan stresses that the purpose of both Mia Mia and I AM, “is to make a real human connection and to surround myself with people who are amazing at what they do.”
With the addition of Mia Mia, 42 Diner & Grocery and other emerging restaurants such as La cantine du NAGASAKI 5, Fra (run by the brilliant chef Arai) in the nearby Chihaya district, Higashi-Nagasaki is at the forefront of a new Tokyo, a city ready to embrace and encourage new opportunities and projects in locations once thought of as defunct and culturally arid. So, essentially, forget Shimokitazawa and the tired tropes of Nakame and head to Higashi-Nagasaki, which is blossoming into a new cultural center for creatives and coffee. Vaughan and Rie Allison embody Pissarro’s philosophy that it’s possible to find beauty and opportunity in humble places. The duo, then, are visibly spearheading a new community-focused transformation of a suburb of central Tokyo which is morphing into something acutely dynamic and visionary.
4-10-1 Nagasaki, Toshima-ku
Photos by Satoru Tada