As a creature of habit, I rarely stray from my Sunday routine including my early morning run along the Tennessee River. I turn on my perfectly curated Sunday morning playlist and let my feet hit the pavement toward the pedestrian bridge.
Sunday mornings in the spring are special around North Shore. Bikers, runners and dog-walkers wake up early so they don’t miss the sun rising over the mountains. People slow down to enjoy a cup of coffee or book from a park bench. Shopowners and bakers open up their doors to a leisurely crowd of weekenders. Spring has arrived with the promise of long warm days.
Growing up, I was always eager to return home from spring break because I knew the cherry blossom tree would have replaced what was once brown and bare in my front yard. Running along the Tennessee River, I am reminded of this memory as I see one beginning to bud off of its frail winter branches.
The Cherry Blossom, or Sakura, is a beloved Japanese plant that traditionally symbolizes feelings of rejuvenation, hope and renewal. As winter turns to spring, the Japanese wait for these blushing beauties to make their appearance, signaling a new season.
In NorthShore’s Signal Mill, Margaret Armour, owner of I Go Tokyo, works with her business partner, Etsuko Lammon, to educate others about Japanese culture. Next to her desk, a cherry blossom sits all year decorating the store with traditional Japanese details that make the I Go Tokyo shopping experience original.
“As Westerners, there are many aspects of the Japanese culture we are unfamiliar with,” Armour says. “So, for me, the store is not only about selling Japanese items but also about having fun and teaching people who may want to learn more about it.”
I Go Tokyo, a unique boutique, is a local retail store offering handmade Japanese products that Armour has personally brought back from Japan herself. In the United States, many of those items are exclusively available at I Go Tokyo.
Mixing Japanese minimalism with Southern flair, Armour has tailored her Japanese-inspired store to the Chattanooga area.
“I basically fly to Japan, go into stores either like my own or some larger stores and look for a product that I’ll either take a photo of or buy,” Armour says. “I try to pride myself on visiting many different cities in Japan that are famous for a certain crafted item.”
Talking to Armour would ignite anyone's wanderlust. An avid traveler, she has visited over 50 different countries around the world meeting people from places as far as Ethiopia. When asked why she chose to open a Japanese-inspired store, Armour says she loves being a part of the business culture.
”It’s just a wonderful business culture to be a part of because I completely trust them and the product that's coming,” Armour says. “In Japan, people don’t want to disappoint or go back on their promise of a high-quality product.”
Scattered across the shop are pictures of craftspeople she has met over the years. As she shows me around, she points to the photos and refers to each person by name. They are a scrapbook testimony of all the relationships she has built throughout her professional journey.
“When doing business, it's important for Japanese people to get to know you. They want to know they can trust you to honor their products,” Armour says.
Whether she is flying to the next island or taking a bus to the next city, Armour never turns down an adventure that could lead to a new product. Though, she admits she could not navigate the business market without the help of her Japanese friend, Lammon.
Using their experiences, the partners aim to teach others what they have learned about Japan’s history and heritage through a variety of classes and workshops.
”Education is the whole reason why I travel. I think you learn so much just by going into a grocery store in another place,” Armour says. ”I think seeing how people experience day-to-day makes you more understanding. And I feel like right now we need a lot of understanding of other cultures.”
Through its merchandise, educational opportunities and events, I Go Tokyo succeeds in creating a friendly environment for people to tangibly experience Japan.