In Setagaya, a district in southwest Tokyo, the city’s endless urban sprawl finally gives way to a calmer residential area. Aside from the sounds of the rain and an occasional car, it’s totally quiet. Meanwhile, the grayness of the day combined with the Earth tones of the buildings makes everything here look kind of dull. Everything, that is, besides a small psychedelic eclipse:
In actual terms, it’s an ocean blue 1967 VW bus covered in hand-painted Grateful Dead iconography and bumper stickers that sits outside of a tiny vintage shop called Chi Chi’s. (The best example of the custom Dead body work: The VW emblem on the front of the bus has been incorporated into the band’s Steal Your Face symbol, surrounded by pink and red roses, pot leaves and words like “miracle,” “love” and “smile.”)
The bus is the primary form of transportation for Chi Chi’s proprietor Takashi Sakamoto. Both it and the shop are his shrine to hippie culture. His instagram is an earnest presentation of a man obsessed. Most of the pictures are of Takashi himself, a small, somewhat balding Japanese hippie in his late 50s with long, graying brown hair that cascades over his shoulders. He’s usually posing by his bus and holding one of the many articles of clothing he sells at his store — such as supple Navajo leather jackets and vintage Grateful Dead tees and shirts that read “Support your local Chi Chi’s.” His day-to-day IG uniform typically consists of bell bottoms covered in decorative patches of mushrooms and peace signs, a Chi Chi’s shirt, a fringed suede vest, denim jacket and host of accessories (rings, turquoise jewelry and/or a beaded necklace).
He’s no different IRL. When I arrive at Chi Chi’s, he looks exactly like one of his Instagram posts: Decked out in denim bell-bottom jeans, boots and a white, long-sleeved Chi Chi’s T-shirt featuring one of his handpainted designs — a red and green bear that sits in the middle of a Steal Your Face symbol, puffing on a joint.
Other than Takashi, hippie culture is practically nonexistent in Japan, largely due to the country’s incredibly strict drug policies. Japanese authorities view drug use as a serious crime, punishable by one to ten years in prison and a fine of up to $45,000. Not to mention, having a reputation as a convicted drug user has the potential to ruin your life. For example, in June, 30-year-old Japanese actor Ryo Hashizume was arrested for possession of “stimulant drugs” — in Japan, there aren’t distinctions between amphetamines and narcotics — and his latest movie, Tatara Samurai, was immediately pulled from theaters and recut in order to edit him out. (These strict drug laws are part of the reason why the Grateful Dead has never actually played in Asia; the closest they came was when Bob Weir performed at the Fukuodoka Dome in 1994.)
So to self-identify as a hippie is essentially putting a giant target on your back. “If you dress like this, you’re an easy target for cops,” Takashi says. “It’s an underground style that hasn’t been widely accepted.” Nonetheless: “There are people who like this style and try not to show that, but deep down they love it. There are actually a lot of people who want to take the risk and dress like this.”
In realtor-speak, Chi Chi’s would be considered cozy, standing no larger than 250 square feet. It smells like suede, and the walls are covered in tie-dyed tapestries and old family photos — many of them taken at Dead concerts.
A live recording of “Fire on the Mountain” provides the ambient noise. The display cabinets are packed with row after row of silver skeleton rings and Native American jewelry sourced from Florida, New Mexico, South Dakota and Arizona. Two skeletons (one male, one female) sit in the center of the store and flash chill, friendly peace signs to passersby.
Denim jackets embroidered with Chi Chi’s signature logo — a double lightning bolt that bears a striking similarity to the symbol of Hitler’s SS, but which Takashi assures me actually stands for his biker gang, Son of Sons — hang next to custom leather jackets made by an infamous American biker known as “Dirty Bill.” Vintage Grateful Dead tees are neatly piled next to Chi Chi’s branded T-shirts.
All the Chi Chi’s tees made by Takashi begin as hand-painted designs. The shirts feature a mixture of classic Grateful Dead imagery (skulls, roses, dancing bears) and mythological Japanese symbols (mainly tigers, which represent strength, courage and protection against bad luck).
Surprisingly, Takashi didn’t see the Grateful Dead perform until 1994, when they played the Oakland Coliseum on Chinese New Year. “I wanted to go in the 1970s and 1980s, but I couldn’t get a ticket,” he explains. After breaking the seal, Takashi managed to see a total of 30 shows before Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995. His favorite venue is the Shoreline Amphitheater in the Bay Area, but the best show he’s ever seen was in Las Vegas. “It was outdoors, and it started raining in the middle of the show. The Dead were playing to the sound of the thunder.”
He can’t remember what song they were playing, but he assures me it was very cool.
“People have to go to the shows, then they’ll finally get how amazing they are,” Takashi declares. “I want everyone to go to their shows. I want this world to be a Deadhead world — peaceful and happy. That’s my dream.”
In his younger years, Takashi was a biker. He still meets up with the guys from Son of Sons from time to time, but not as much as he used to because he’s “kind of old.” His obsession with American counterculture is equally old. “[After] World War II, everything was about how amazing America is,” he explains. “Western movies — cowboy movies especially — inspired me the most.” One in particular stood out, a perfect amalgam of the Dead and Westerns: Easy Rider. “I was always dreaming of going to the states — a place where people enjoyed this kind of music and smoked pot,” he smiles. “I wanted to visit those places in the film and experience the music.”
All the while, he worked in vintage stores that specialized in importing American fashions. Setsuko, his wife, was a frequent visitor at one of these stores. They began dating and were married in 1981, right after she graduated from high school. Immediately after their nuptials, Takashi went to the U.S. for a year by himself. “I was thinking if I had a job [in the U.S], I could bring her there. But it didn’t happen,” he says.
“I knew he loved everything from the States and had this dream so I wanted to support him,” she explains, batting away my cynicism about a wedding that leads to the groom bailing for another country almost the moment the ceremony ends.
“I wanted to stay forever. But she was here so I knew I had to come back,” Takashi jokes.
When he did, he and Setsuko opened Chi Chi’s on Takeshita Dori, one of the busiest shopping areas in Tokyo, in 1985. In 2007, they moved the store to Setagaya. “The people who used to hang around [Takeshita Dori] changed,” Takashi explains. “There are so many tourists now. People who didn’t understand the value of the shop started coming to the street.”
Despite having to downsize, they both seem happy.
“Are you using the store to spread awareness about your own passion?” I ask.
“A little bit,” he smiles.
Takashi’s zeal is what makes Chi Chi’s special. Many of the hippie-ish vintage stores I’ve visited on Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco and Melrose Avenue in L.A. tend to have a very specific, musty stink to them — not to mention a cheesy, try-hard vibe. Yet despite Chi Chi’s relentless obsession with 1960s and 1970s counterculture, it never comes across as uncool. In fact, the decor sensibilities are so over-the-top that the shop itself (as well as Takashi) transcends the image of nag-champa-burning-old-hippie-hawking-his-tie-dyed-wares and transforms into its own lifestyle. It’s not trying to be anything. It just is.
“I learned a lot from the Grateful Dead,” Takashi says. “When I listened to their music, I had to clear my mind; otherwise, the music didn’t come into my body. When my mind was clear, Jerry’s voice came into my body. I used to do anything to clear my mind.”
“Like acid?” I ask.
“Clear your mind and feel something as much as you can, that’s my philosophy. To relax and shut off your brain. To smile and laugh. The ideal life is to be able to do that without any drugs.”