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Scarecrows are sprouting in Shitamachi

by Anne Pepper

Over one hundred jauntily clad figures line the street where the Koto Ward Office once stood.

Ever since the ward office moved to more spacious quarters elsewhere, the local merchants association has worked hard to keep pedestrian traffic heavy along this venerable shopping street. The autumn harvest campaign actually started last spring, when they lined the street with containers holding rice seedlings.

Throughout the summer, shoppers have delighted in watching the plants grow. They’re now about 60 cm high, and when the heavily laden stalks wave in the breeze, locals feel as proud as a farmer in Yamagata surveying his rice paddies.

Shopkeepers and residents have pitched in to tend the rice and make the whimsical scarecrows (kakashi) that protect the plants from hungry birds. Neighborhood school classes got in on the act when they heard that prizes were going to be awarded for the best scarecrows.

Festivities will climax today, a national holiday, when the Koto Ward mayor’s prize will be awarded in a ceremony starting at 3 p.m.

Strollers can enjoy several attractions in addition to the scarecrows. Near one end of the street is Kiyosumi Teien, a lovely garden that was formerly the private estate of the founder of Mitsubishi. Near the other end is Kiba Koen and the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art.

In between, dozens of small shops and restaurants line the tree-shaded street now known as Edo Shiryokan-dori, for the museum where the ward office formerly stood. The museum contains an authentic slice of old Shitamachi. Several old houses and even a canal show what life used to be like in this working-class district.

Just as Edo townspeople limited displays of finery to the linings of their garments and wore modest exteriors, so it is with most of the establishments along Edo Shiryokan-dori. Anyone who judges these shops and restaurants by their exteriors will be making a serious mistake.

The tiny, rustic restaurant across the street from the Edo Shiryokan is famous for its authentic Fukagawa meshi (steamed rice with clams) and has been featured in The New York Times. A couple of doors from the intersection of Edo Shiryokan-dori and Kiyosumi-dori is a small shop crammed full of Edo style as well as latter-day souvenirs. Mr. Sato, the proprietor, dresses in Edo clothes and wig, and is happy to pose for photos.

Across the street, the eye-catching facade with a rope noren hanging over the entrance is a public lavatory built in Edo style, but with modern plumbing.

A bit further along, also on the left (with Kiyosumi-dori behind you) is a once-grand temple whose grounds have now shrunk in size, but whose large statue of the bodhisattva Jizo continues to attract visitors, just as it did in the Edo Period. Past the traffic signal and the shiny new convenience store, there’s a quaint old soba shop on the left and a large kimono store on the right.

On the next corner on the left is Azumaya Office Supplies, whose imaginative proprietor came up with the idea for the Scarecrow Festival.

Pass another traffic light, and if you still haven’t eaten, the Chinese restaurant on the left, Ichi Ryu, with the red facade, serves portions big enough to satisfy a ricksha puller.

Most of the action ends at the next traffic light. Across the street (Mitsume-dori) is the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art.

The intersection of Mitsume-dori and Edo Shiryokan-dori is halfway between Sumiyoshi Station on the Toei Shinjuku Line and Kiba Station on the Tozai Line. The intersection of Kiyosumi-dori and Edo Shiryokan-dori is halfway between Morishita (Toei Shinjuku) and Monzen Nakacho (Tozai).