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In era of skyscrapers, group lobbies to keep Tokyo’s traditional buildings

With others, Sumiko Enbutsu pours energy into preserving capital's landmarks, treasures

by Michael Kleindl

Special To The Japan Times

Sitting at a wooden table in the glass-enclosed sun room of the miraculously preserved 95-year-old Yasuda House, Sumiko Enbutsu, a very youthful 78, radiates enthusiasm.

The house, a superb example of Taisho Era architecture and construction techniques, is now owned by the Japan National Trust. But for over 70 years it was the residence of members of the Yasuda family, of the Yasuda financial conglomerate. Enbutsu, together with other concerned citizens, helped save it from the wrecking ball over 15 years ago.

“This house is a great source of inspiration for me,” she says. “Our recent sashimono exhibit here was a tremendous success.”

The craft of sashimono, or traditional wood joinery, dates back to the Edo Period. “This whole house is an example of sashimono,” she says as she spreads her arms in a gesture toward the walls.

Enbutsu is passionate about traditional crafts and the people who make them. She speaks in a musical voice, with lilt and cadence, and with the specialized vocabulary of a writer who has done extensive research.

One particularly beautiful piece, she explains, is a suwarizukue, a writing desk used when you sit on your knees on tatami mats.

“With that desk, you can see the great concern the craftsmen had for the grain of wood,” she says, her voice becoming more animated.

Unlike older Kyoto-style sashimono, which has colored lacquer or embedded inlays, craftsmen during the Edo Period tried to enhance the natural beauty of wood because people who used them, including samurai or kabuki actors, liked simple, clear appearances, she explains.

“When you look,” she says, moving her hands as if running them along smooth wood, “you can see the masame, or straight grain, and also the itame, or wavy grain. You can see how the flow of the grain continues along the sides and up over the top.”

“Craftsmen have shokunin damashii (craftsmen guts,) ” she says, smiling. “They are all wonderful people. They have great respect for their fathers and grandfathers and what their forerunners have been doing.

“I send my cheers to them,” she says, clapping her hands together softly. “And I want to do my bit to keep these traditions alive.”

Enbutsu has been doing her bit for over 30 years. So far, she’s written seven books in English promoting different facets of Tokyo life.

Twenty-eight years ago, she self-published her first guidebook, “Discover Shitamachi.” Established publishers thought it would not sell, but 3,000 copies sold in the first month alone. Last year, she published her latest book, a look at the life and sojourn to America of the early 20th-century master doll-maker Yasujiro Yamakawa. The Yasuda family’s exquisite girl’s day and boy’s day dolls and accoutrements were custom-made by Yamakawa.

Enbutsu has also published guidebooks on the hidden treasures of the Chichibu region in Saitama Prefecture, on walks along Tokyo’s waterways, on walks crisscrossing the Sumida River, on walks following seasonal flowers and gardens, and on walks featuring Edo Period attractions.

She has lectured on cultural and traditional aspects of Tokyo, helped with scores of volunteer projects, and worked on causes to protect Tokyo’s landmarks. Simply put, Enbutsu has with charm, wit and warmth — and with considerable effort, and many pairs of worn-out shoes — taken on the task of presenting and preserving all that she loves about this metropolis.

Enbutsu was born and grew up near Asakusa — a typical shitamachi area that is home to merchants, artisans, tradesmen and laborers. When she was 9, her family evacuated to Saitama to escape the March 1945 air raids on Tokyo. A few days later, she returned with her father, a jewelry artisan, to view the damage. She recalls a vast open stretch of nothing but blackened, burned-out ruins.

Eventually, she graduated in English from Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, joined the Foreign Ministry and was sent as an intern to the United Nations. However, she decided that studying was more important, so she enrolled in Smith College in Massachusetts. After graduating in 1960, she returned to Japan to get married and start a family in Kyushu.

A decade later, she and her family moved to Tokyo. And in her spare time, Enbutsu started to guide foreign friends around her beloved shitamachi areas — an activity that eventually led to her first book.

Doing research for that book, Enbutsu went back after a long absence to Ryogoku, to find that the old Kokugikan — the domed stadium that she had often visited as a child with her father to see sumo matches — had been torn down some years earlier. (It was a few years later that the current Kokugikan was completed, also in Ryogoku.)

“When I saw Kokukigan gone, I was angry,” she recalls. “I felt like someone wiped out part of my personal history without my permission. And with it, all the wonderful memories I had when I was a child.”

Just after that first book was published, Enbutsu, along with other concerned citizens, took part in a movement to stop the construction of a parking lot underneath Shinobazu Pond in Ueno. A few years later, she was involved in efforts to save the red-brick structure of Tokyo Station from being torn down to make way for another skyscraper.

Other members of those early citizen action groups were Hiromi Ogi and Sadako Tani. Ogi was one of the cofounders and the editor of Yanesen, a now sadly defunct magazine that promoted the local, traditional culture of the Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi neighborhoods. Tani was the central liaison for the Tokyo Station preservationists.

For the last dozen years, Tani, Ogi and Enbutsu have been the core of the Yasuda House group in charge of general maintenance, housekeeping, planning and promoting exhibitions, giving regular tours for visitors, and even weeding the garden.

“Yasuda House is a great focal point,” Enbutsu says, looking out at the extensive garden through the panes of the wavy, original glass. “One thing leads to another.”

The rear part of Yasuda House, she explains, is covered with slate roof tiles from Miyagi Prefecture, now the only major area of domestic slate production. After the Tokyo Station building was hit by the World War II bombings, slate from a quarry near Ishinomaki in the prefecture was used to repair the damaged station roof.

“When we took down the slate for the restoration of Yasuda House, we came to know Kumagai Sangyo, a company near Ishinomaki still dealing with domestic slate,” she said.

When the renovation of Tokyo Station began in 2007, all the slate roof tiles from the station — some 130,000 in total —were sent to Kumagai Sangyo for checking and cleaning.

The company washed and checked each tile and sent the first batch of 70,000 back to Tokyo. Then the March 11, 2011, earthquake hit, Ishinomaki was one of the coastal cities of the Tohoku region devastated by the tsunami. The remaining 60,000 tiles stored at the company were washed away and scattered.

“Of course,” Enbutsu says, “the Kumagai Sangyo people lost their homes and suffered personal tragedies as well, but they made recovering the slate tiles the first priority on their long list of things to do.”

Eventually, they recovered the tiles and contacted the firm in charge of renovating Tokyo Station. The company refused to use the tiles, saying they were damaged after being soaked in salt water.

“But to the people of Miyagi, and to the Ishinomaki area, it was a matter of pride that their slate would be on top of Tokyo Station. And their use was a symbol of hope for reconstruction” of the tsunami-ravaged areas, Enbutsu says.

Akio Kumagai, owner of Kumagai Sangyo, knew Tani and Ogi had both played active roles in saving Tokyo Station’s red-brick structure, so he contacted the group, and a meeting was held at Yasuda House to plan a strategy of collecting signatures, raising money and awareness about the issue, she says.

The company in charge of the station building renovation was afraid of any delay in the work schedule, and had mostly decided to cancel all the domestic slate and switch to importing an entire set of new slate tiles from Spain, she explains.

“But in our network of concerned citizens, we had a friend who runs her own chemical analysis company,” says Enbutsu. “We gave her a tile and asked her to test it. She proved the tiles were safe and showed how they could be cleaned quickly and easily. We pushed strongly to the construction company, and finally, they agreed to use the tiles.”

During this process, Enbutsu learned that Kumagai wanted to make a community center for all the Ishinomaki people scattered in temporary housing and for the children with trauma from the tragic scenes they had witnessed. “He wanted to start a project called ‘Rias no Mori,’ to create a place where people could gather to enjoy a little farming, or to touch the earth,” she says. “I thought it was a wonderful thing. So, I wanted to do what I could to support him.”

Through a connection with the New York Japan Society, Enbutsu wrote a grant proposal and the project was able to receive $95,000. “Years ago, the Japan Society had invited me as a speaker. I knew them,” she adds with a smile, “and besides, I can write in English.”

Yasuda House is located 5-20-18 Sendagi, Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo, and is open for visitors Wednesday and Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information (in Japanese), www.toshima.ne.jp/~tatemono.