Tokyo’s backstreets can be dank or swank, but on the whole, they’re safe. The biggest risk lies in the lure of diversion. Wander off the beaten path on your way to buy eggs or mail a letter, and you’ll get sucked in by bizarre Lilliputian entrepreneurships, copper-clad fronts of prewar wooden shacks, or a huge ball of cedar twigs. The eggs? What eggs?
Zooming around Tokyo’s swank Aoyama district in a cab one day, I spot a backstreet near the Nezu Institute of Fine Art sporting a sugidama (cedar-twig ball indicating a sake joint), a plethora of little restaurants and oversize statues of Adam and Eve. From the car, this nameless street looks intriguing.
On foot, it turns out to be downright perilous. A nonstop stream of taxis slalom recklessly down this narrow shortcut, starting at the Nezu museum (currently swaddled in blue construction netting until architect Kengo Kuma’s new building emerges in autumn 2009) and plummeting downhill, literally and figuratively, from there. I’m forced to dash from one roadside perch to the next, or be crushed.
Six cabs whisk by and I’m hiding behind a cement pole bearing a sign that reads: “Beware of Bag Snatchers.” Perhaps the fact that it connects the haute price tags of Omotesando with the oyster-eaters and Hobson’s ice-cream fans of Nishi-Azabu Crossing makes this street rich pickings for the ride-by robbers.
Taking refuge in a tiny park halfway down the street, I come across a rare sight in Tokyo: a Bato Kannon. This type of Buddhist gravestone commemorates the death of horses, and it begs the question — “Were they road kill?”
“Not exactly,” offers amiable 67-year-old metalsmith Tadayuki Kainuma, who works around the corner. “According to my granddad, a guy named Nishizawa ran a basha (horse-drawn carriage) delivery service and his stable of workhorses was near here. The gravestone shows respect for his animals.”
Good for the horses, but I notice that the light post behind us bears an official police warning: “Women, please use caution in this area.” I don’t want to find out why this was posted, so with a wave to Kainuma, I’m off like a video-game character — leaping to safety, guarding my bag, checking for cars, looking to score points.
I find some points in the chiselwork of Kazuo Nakamura, a sculptor from Yamanashi Prefecture. The stone pair, nameless but known as Adam and Eve, brazenly pose in front of an office building. “They’ve been here 20 or 30 years, and used to be side by side,” relates a shy employee. The statues now face each other across a weedy courtyard.
“Did they divorce?” I ask.
“Maybe,” he says, and we both stare at the headless pair.
I’m reminded of another carved couple — small wooden sculptures on sale at the newly redone, ultraposh Polis Aqua furniture showroom across from the Nezu museum.
“We sometimes have to break up the couple, because people only want to buy the wife,” Polis employee Motoko Kawano admitted as we admired the view of my first street from the store’s rooftop jacuzzi. Sadly, though functional, even the jacuzzi sees no action.
The days of horses ‘n’ carriages may be gone, but the upper reaches of this street are all about marital nesting. Grey’s, for example, specializes in handmade wedding dresses with diaphanous lace and empire waists. The president, Nobuko Ooka, is proud of the gowns (starting at ¥200,000) and the picture-pretty storefront where “people come to take a rest on the bench by the roses,” she says.
Nearby, Violetta, a haberdashery hidden beneath gobs of jasmine vines, could provide the perfect statement-topper for a garden wedding. And, if you need flowers that outlast the ceremony, Mono Green Park offers an Edenic display of preserved leaves and blossoms, which last for one to two years. At first I think I’m imagining things when I pass the decorative “canvases” of fragrant Kenyan leaves, but unlike dried foliage, these retain a fresh smell for months.
Finally, next to Polis, behind a brilliant red facade (check out the peepholes for video vignettes of kids playing), Nomura Premium Goods plans to offer quality baby goods from July 20. “I hear they sell awesome baby buggies,” an on-site construction worker remarked.
Because baby’s got to eat, the street and feeder alleys off it have a slew of restaurants. Tahiti, featuring banana flower salad and garlic octopus, has an uberfunky island vibe. Italian Ristorante Frick, Furukawa sushi shop, and Volca — which specializes in pork slices cooked on volcano-shaped plates that hold coals inside their cores — and which lists over 100 organic wines, are all newly opened, proving this backstreet is about to make it big.
Volca employee Naoki Koda clues me in to what’s not immediately apparent. The place is teeming with secretive bars, such as Kasumi-cho 3011, kyabakura (lounge) Z, and surfer hangout 73 (read as nami, or wave). The sake joint with the sugidama has no sign at all (but I sneaked around to the mailboxes, and I think it’s called “Impecc.”) At each of these places, you need a pass code or membership status to enter. If you’re dying to try one, squeeze Naoki for tips.
My favorite nameless place on this nameless backstreet serves up coffee and dry humor in what looks like a pottery museum. Owner Takeshi Sakamura quit his salaryman existence eight years ago to construct a haven to show off his ikebana skills, sell antique vases, and serve wicked strong java in featherweight wooden cups.
“What is it that makes this place so special?” I ask him.
“No one ever comes,” he quips.
I visit again several days later. The place is full of strangely incompatible folks: a lone broad wearing tabi (split-toe) boots; an aging suit hefting various vases and arguing whether they’re 12th- or 13th-century works; a moon-eyed couple.
“Lots of people here today,” I say.
“Yeah. This never happens,” he says.
I visit a third time, with a friend from Sweden, who gawks and mumbles, “The atmosphere is completely off the planet.” Takeshi grins. His minimalist, objets trouve mobiles swing in a breeze — channeling the spare beauty of 1930s photographer Roso Fukuhara, who frequented this area, then known as Kogai-cho. According to Takeshi, kogai is a kind of kanzashi (traditional hair ornament) once made here. He also claims that Kogai-cho, along with nearby Koga-cho and Iga-cho, was one of three areas inhabited by ninja, employed as the Edo shoguns’ onmitsu, or secret agents.
I sneak off next door to 23, where owner Junzo Kitazawa serves up (free) tea in his antique store. But no throwing stars here. Amid authentic Kewpie dolls and Freemason treasures, I learn about the subtly tattooed early 20th-century Nigerian mask in his display window.
“He’s elite, so I put glasses on him,” Junzo says, over the booming of his antique 1947 Wurlitzer jukebox. Before long, Junzo drags me off to meet his friend, Isao Ikegami, who sells dead-stock concert T-shirts from a hidden shop named Rock is What? “The shop is open whenever I’m here,” Ikegami laughs.
The lower reaches of this backstreet are also eclectic. Don’t miss “select shop” (hand-picked brand goods) R’s Market, featuring hip Norwegian brand tops, but like the name of the tiny bar where the street meets Roppongi Avenue, it feels sincere. At Sincere, any group of three females paying for their first two drinks can drink free after that. A fun come-on, but stick to the main streets on your way home.