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Catch a falling star

A slow stroll down Tokyo's Shirokane Shotengai is a hoot

by Kit Nagamura

Overhung by funky plastic streetlights, enlivened by piped music, and flanked with small stores, Shinohashi Shirokane Shotengai is exactly the kind of shopping street that once served as the commercial hub of many postwar Tokyo neighborhoods.

The nostalgic character of this shotengai (shopping arcade) in southeast Tokyo is so unlike its posh surroundings that if you ask anyone in the area for directions to “the cool little street with the old shops,” they know immediately what you’re talking about and point you in the right direction.

I walk east from Shirokane Takanawa Station and first find Ryugyoji, a temple with what used to be red gates, but now they’re sun-bleached to a pulsing pink. Built in 1630 near Roppongi, but destroyed by fire and rebuilt in its current location in 1668, the temple is the final resting place of Hikozaemon Okubo (1560-1639), a famous and well-respected adviser to the first shogun, Ieyasu Tokugawa (1542-1616), and to several of his successors.

Okubo was known to be daringly outspoken, and to often make his point with engaging and ironic wit. A classic story, perhaps more illustrative than based on fact, depicts Okubo protesting an edict in Edo (present-day Tokyo) that forbade anyone of rank below retainer from riding to the palace in a covered palanquin. Okubo, recognizing the plight of the aged and crippled in such circumstances, supposedly rode to the palace in an uncovered wooden washtub in order to demonstrate the absurdity of the law. A woodblock print by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-92) depicts Okubo lifting Ieyasu in a fireman’s carry and saving him from battlefront flames, further bolstering his image as a heroic and humane figure.

I pass two more temples and a shrine before reaching the shotengai on my right.

The shopping street is flooded with sunshine and paved with newish pink- and slate-colored stones. Loudspeakers play jaunty old Japanese tunes, while construction workers in their puffy pants and tabi (outdoor socks) stroll past street vendors, adding to the calypso atmosphere.

Takahiro Fukunaga, 24, offers, from his bicycle basket, fresh ¥100 puddings made by nearby restaurant Kaizokusen, which he tells me means “pirate ship.”

“So I guess you’d call these Pirate Puddings,” he quips. While we chat, he sells off roughly half of his two dozen puddings. Meanwhile, 31-year-old Terao Noriaki, a folk singer by night and tofu hawker by day, blows his plastic rappa (toy bugle) to attract customers. “You may not know it,” he grins, “but this bugle is not sold anywhere. You have to be a professional to get one.” He, too, does a brisk business.

I pop into Ozawa Stationery Store, to find the owner’s 52-year-old wife, Hisae Ozawa, nearly hidden behind crammed shelves of goods.

Hisae’s father-in-law opened the store 60 years ago; it smells of sumi ink and the lamps are coated in an unapologetic film of dust. “We get TV people in here sometimes,” Hisae tells me, “because we sell things you can’t find anymore.” She points to bags of menko — a game played by flipping cardboard tokens — that I didn’t realize was still made.

The next shop I visit, Joshuya Kawashima, specializes in irimame (parched or roasted legumes). I rattle open the wood-and-glass door. There’s a turtle shell on the wall, a calendar set to a Tuesday 10 years ago, and a cardboard box of mikan (mandarin orange) rinds on the floor. I call out and wait several long minutes. A pendulum clock chimes. Finally, 66-year-old owner Teruichi Kawashima appears, as though by happenstance.

Jolly and sweet-natured, Kawashima seems less interested in talking about the 1930s bean business he inherited from his dad than the box of mikan peels.

What are they for, I ask.

“Nothing disgusting,” he laughs. I raise my eyebrows. “They’re for putting in the bath, which is good for your health,” he explains, “but that may be unreliable advice, and you’d better realize from the start that they make the bath dirty.”

We stare at each other for a moment, then we both burst out laughing. I offer to buy his favorite product. That turns out to be a ¥1,000 packet of about 150 peanuts. He tries to give it to me for free, but he only has three bags left, and I’d feel bad receiving such a pricey gift with nothing to give in return. So I shell out.

I continue my odyssey to Labyrinthe, an upscale but cozy French restaurant. In the subdued glow of the interior, with massive candle stalagmites and the aroma of fantastic things cooking, owner and head chef Moriaki Sakamoto, 42, tells me he designed the place for romantic couples. He chose this location 12 years ago because there was no competition nearby. “You can order a course here,” the Paris-trained chef says, “but I always suggest the a la carte menu, so that you satisfy your individual desires.” Sounds good to me.

I note that many of Labyrinthe’s plates have been repaired with gold. “They are imported from France,” Sakamoto explains, “so when they chip, I get them professionally repaired. I don’t like to waste things.” On my way out of Labyrinthe, which can be pretty hard to find, I attach a mental string so I don’t waste time wending my way back soon.

At Men’s Shop Kobayashi, Yoshihiko Kobayashi, 75, and his wife are watching TV surrounded by stacks of undershirts and jackets for men of a certain age. Kobayashi originally sold umbrellas, and still repairs them for a nominal fee. He takes out his repair tools and parts and explains how disposable umbrellas encroached on his business.

“I decided to sell men’s clothing because the stock doesn’t change as frequently as women’s fashion, and I hate to make garbage,” he says.

Saving mikan rinds, selling old stationery stock, and repairing plates; the people on this street share a reluctance to throw things away that is old-fashioned, but also cutting edge.

When I ask Kobayashi for some interesting anecdote about his shop, he pauses in thought. “What, you don’t like my owl?” he asks, shrugging. I’m caught off guard. He points to the corner of the store where perched on the edge of a wicker basket lined with (it must be said, alas) newspapers, is the cutest owl I’ve ever seen.

“That’s Bibi,” he says, and calls to her. She answers him with a querulous owl gurgle. A 2-year-old British-born Little Owl (Athene noctua), Bibi is especially chatty when Kobayashi’s wife brings out a plastic container squirming with grubs.

“When we have our summer street festival, Aug. 1 and 2 this year,” says Kobayashi, who is the neighborhood association’s chairman, “we bring out our Harris hawk, too, and one of Bibi’s owl friends visits, and we put them all in the window so you can see them.”

Yoshikatsu Eto, 72, owner of the street’s other stationery store, and vice-chair of the neighborhood association, has watched the street evolve all his life.

“When the people of a place change,” he says, “the place must also change.”

Clearly Eto is contemplating what the next generation will bring to the shotengai: oblivion or continuity.

Exiting the shotengai toward Shinohashi (Bridge No. 4) and Meiji Avenue, I discover newly opened Nareu, a chic interior-design shop. Owner Mitsuyo Saito, young and dynamic, specializes in bespoke creations in wood.

“If a client wants floors that look like they went through a hurricane in Florida, we’ll make them,” Saito says.

I gaze around his shop, full of odd and cedar-scented creations such as a wooden bicycle and lampshades made from wafer-thin sheets of wood, laser-cut in lacy sheets. While not likely to dovetail with the traditional ethos of the shotengai, this could well be its future.