Sampling Japanese culture with the locals in Düsseldorf’s Little Tokyo - Friends of Friends / Freunde von Freunden (FvF)

Sampling Japanese culture with the locals in Düsseldorf’s Little Tokyo


About one quarter 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. Over the years, the district around the centrally located Immermannstraße in particular has become a sort of Little Tokyo that attracts locals and tourists with culinary delicacies, ceramics, art, tea, and literature from Japan—reason enough for COMPANION to have look around and meet up with the community.

The table looks like a chaotic setting from a scene in an anime show: countless small plates and cups, hardly larger than a doll’s, cover almost every millimeter. Squeezing onto similarly tiny stools around the table, there are a handful of full-grown adults—ready and waiting for tea time. Here at ANMO Art/Cha, in a quiet cross street off the bustling Immermannstraße in Düsseldorf’s center, Japanese tea tasting is taking place. The interested guests sip happily through the assortment of mild-to-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 it has a tradition going back over a thousand years,” says Motoko Dobashi. In traditional 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 each 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,” Anna says 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 pair got to know each other during their studies in Munich, before traveling to Japan and Hong Kong together. Anna has fostered a fascination with Japanese culture since childhood, and she has been doing Asian martial arts as a competitive sport for years. “The philosophy and culture behind it cannot be ignored,” she says.

Anna moved to Düsseldorf a few years earlier “for love’s sake.” Her friend Motoko, who was living in Berlin, 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.

Trade relations between Germany and Japan have existed from as early as the 19th century. Japan later developed strong trading ties to the Rhine and Ruhr regions after World War II, where they would find the steel and chemical products needed for rebuilding their war-ravaged nation. Centrally located, Düsseldorf was well-suited to be a commercial center, and starting in the ’50s, 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 force in the region.

No wonder the Japanese community here is so big; approximately 6,500 Japanese people live in Düsseldorf. And although compared to other minorities in the city they’re nowhere near as numerous, Japanese culture holds 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 on Google Maps the quarter is promoted as such. Between the karaoke bars, ceramic shops, galleries, Japanese sport clubs, and medical centers, the right culinary offerings for locals and tourists have established themselves here. Apart from the many Asian supermarkets, which are popular with all Düsseldorfers, the density of excellent restaurants often receives 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 stuffed onigiri rice ball snacks 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 do not choose their meal, but rather leave the decision in the hands of the sushi master—and by doing so also express respect for the cook. This is eating according to the principle of politeness, so to speak.

“The philosophy and culture behind it cannot be ignored.”

Ramen, a hearty and relatively 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 packed space eat enthusiastically from their bowls, topped with different mixtures of chicken, beef, pork belly, seaweed, Chinese cabbage, and mushrooms—then topped with half an egg.

However, Japanese life in the city is not limited to the Immermannstraße strip. 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 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. It’s worth a visit, 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.

Yuta Muruyama 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 Japanese series,” he says. He met a few Japanese friends through his older sister and started to become interested in Japanese pop culture with them. “It’s nice to be able to share cultural roots with friends,” he says. 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 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.”

A curated list of locations in Little Tokyo

    • 1 Asian Edibles Supermarkets such as Dae-Yang offer a wide range of Asian groceries and takeaway dishes from the fresh-food counter, as well as a large selection of Japanese rice wine, rice cookers, steamers, and whatever the culinary heart desires.
    • 2 Avant-Garde Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons are Japanese pioneers of contemporary fashion. With the Düsseldorf bag label ESDE, the avant-garde style is making an appearance in the Rhineland, too.
    • 3 Buddhism Those interested can learn more about traditional Japanese life and Buddhist roots at the EKO House in Niederkassel.
    • 4 Karaoke Karaoke is actually very popular not only in Japan, but in many Asian countries. You don’t have to be a good singer either. The Modern Times karaoke bar at Immermannstraße 41 is quite authentic.
    • 5 Manga A real art form in Japan. Takagi offers a large selection of manga comics — and books on Zen and Japanese literature.
    • 6 Ramen The steaming Japanese noodle soup is becoming more and more popular in European regions – Düsseldorf has loved this hearty dish for years. At Takumi, you’ll find some particularly delicious bowls.
    • 7 Tea Ceremony Tea and the related rituals have a long tradition in Japan. At ANMO Art/Cha, you can experience tea in a modern way and admire art at the same time.
    • 8 Pottery One of Japan’s finest crafts is ceramics. No wonder, since for tea or the many small dishes of Japanese cuisine, you need nice tableware made by Michiko Shida, for example.

Michiko Shida came to Düsseldorf over 20 years ago when she was 18, just by chance after an acquaintance had recommended the city to her, and ended up staying. She started out working in gastronomy and formed a creative international circle of friends. Then she undertook 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 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 rather are 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.

Discover more from Düsseldorf’s Little Tokyo by checking out the Japanese cultural center, Eko Haus. With thanks to all the locals who gave us fascinating insight into life in this part of the city. Don’t miss the annual Düsseldorf Japan Day, a diverse German-Japan festival presented by one of the largest Japanese communities in Europe. This year’s festivities to be held on May 26.

This story was originally published in Companion #13, a magazine produced in collaboration with 25Hours hotels. Find more Companion stories here. You can also find more FvF city guides here.

Text: Celina Plag
Photography: Max Brunnert