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Lost in construction

Shinjuku residents nail together a long-standing community that may be . . .

by Kit Nagamura

If you ever have a hankering for nikka-zubon and jika-tabi, the outre puffy pants and split-toed booties rocked by Japanese carpenters, construction dudes and painters, supply store Mannenya in 3-chome (district 3) of Nishi Shinjuku has got you covered. The building is hard to miss: it’s acid yellow, decorated with old hard hats, and has a four-story turtle climbing up its side (a painted one). It’s also, incongruously, just around the corner from the sleek Park Hyatt in Shinjuku, the hotel where much of Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” (2003) was filmed. But nothing gets lost in translation at Mannenya; the manager speaks fluent English.

“Foreigners come in, try on some pants and tabi, and then they often just walk back to their hotel wearing the stuff. That slays me,” 39-year-old Masatomo Taguchi says, laughing. I’m listening to this as I try on a pair of white cho-cho zubon (butterfly pants), an extra-wide and vaguely rebellious style that’s seductively comfortable, like wearing air. “Go ahead,” Taguchi coaxes, “you know you want to keep them on.” I do, actually, but I’m on a job, and I’m not sure it’s best done in bloomers. I dig ¥4,000 out of my purse, though, and buy them.

When I ask Taguchi what’s the most interesting thing hiding in Nishi Shinjuku 3-Chome, the pocket of nondescript low- rise buildings behind his store, he leads me to Nemoto, a standing bar with one spindle table and a gaggle of kids hanging out. “Aren’t they a bit young to be drinking?” I ask 56-year-old proprietor Kuma Ino. Ino explains that Nemoto’s tipplers arrive after dusk, but during the day, his mother, when she feels well enough, runs a dagashiya (penny-candy shop).

“In this city, we’re losing the sense of human contact,” Ino says, “and we really need communication with our young, and each other, for our future.”

This allows me to ask Ino about the central issue in this neighborhood, bordered by the Park Tower and Park Hyatt hotels to the east, Tokyo Opera City to the west and the Koshu-kaido (National Road No. 20) to the south. Plans are on the table to level the entire area for redevelopment. Drawings depict four towers, one designed to be the tallest in Japan; a 77-story, 338-meter “supertall” office structure. Slated for completion in 2010, the project has yet to begin.

According to Ino, nearly 75 percent of the area’s residents have agreed to the proposal, so it’s probably just a matter of time before the wrecking ball swings.

Children run in and out of Nemoto as we talk, playing scratch-card lotteries to win novelty toys and candy. I stop two boys and ask them if they’re excited about the prospect of a new “supertall” building meant to be built here.

“We already have lots of big buildings,” says one boy, picking a scab on his elbow, “and they don’t let kids run around there.” “Yeah,” agrees another, “that kind of place is no fun. I don’t want it.” Before I can ask their names, they tear off, cheeks stuffed with gum.

Next, Kaori Watanabe, 9, and her sister Yuki, 7, wander into the store, thrilled to find it open. Their mother arrives later. “My kids look forward to this every day,” she says. Do they want a new building here? All three shake their heads no, suddenly gloomy.

Ino and Taguchi beckon me to walk around the corner to what looks like a two-story residence propped up by huge bags of soba flour. The tiny factory of Kishuya Seimen Yago rolls out noodles — soba, udon and ramen — for more than 100 Shinjuku eateries, feeding approximately 25,000 people every day.

Second-generation manager Masuo Funagoshi, 63, moved his business from Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture 42 years ago.

“This area was quiet back then, with fields and a few small homes, but we’ve been surrounded by huge buildings now, and it damages our sense of connection with one another,” he says.

Funagoshi admits that having a factory, even a small one, smack in the middle of a residential area is also a bit odd. “But people put up with us,” he says, “even though trucks come to pick up the noodles at 5:30 each morning.”

Funagoshi lets me peek in at the big green noodle machine and its attendants, dressed like white ninja in towels and gloves. They scoop up perfect serving sizes and nestle them on plastic palettes that get stacked and stored in coolers across the street until the predawn pickup.

In his boss’s office, with its requisite low black sofas and decorative knickknacks such as water-buffalo horns and a stuffed pheasant, Funagoshi kindly offers me tea. “Is it soba-cha?” I ask. He rolls his eyes. I swiftly change tack and ask him about his plans for the future. “My successor is waiting to come from Sendai, to take over,” he answers. “He will have to decide where and when to relocate, but nothing’s happening for at least 10 more years.”

Since no neighborhood place serves Funagoshi’s fare, I grab lunch at Shanti, an unassuming Italian-Japanese joint with umbrellas shading the outdoor tables and main dishes that come with rice and miso soup. After I’ve ordered, waiter Atsuyoshi Narita offers me a fistful of knotted threads. “Pull one with a red end, and you’ll get a complimentary Aomori-style chawan mushi (steamed- egg custard),” he tells me. I often fail this kind of lucky draw, and sure enough my thread is white. But since I’m the only customer at that hour, I get a free custard anyway, sweeter than what I’m used to and packed with seafood delicacies. The spare ribs I order virtually slouch off the bone, and I leave satisfied.

If Shanti is one local treasure, another is an abandoned estate smack in the middle of the district. The former home of someone the locals know only as “Landlord Kita-san” is surrounded by 2-meter-high walls. Mature trees rise lushly skyward behind the walls, and between gaps one can glimpse a dense, secret garden. Neighbors claim it supports birds and insects you don’t normally see in the city. Compared with nearby Shinjuku Chou Koen’s little “biodiversity” area, all divvied up into artificial dinky displays, Kita’s land is clearly the real thing.

As I wend the narrow alleys of Nishi Shinjuku 3-Chome, between old homes and funky apartment buildings, traffic noise from the highway dissipates until it sounds like waves. I note the numerous new parking lots, though, a sure sign that some residents have sold and run.

At the southern edge of the area, I discover an old kura, or treasury vault, in the middle of a parking lot. I bother “70-something” Chieko Ito, across the street, for an explanation. “The owner used to have a nice house and a beautiful willow tree there, lovely to look at. It’s all gone now, except their storehouse, which is empty, I think. I don’t know why they left it.”

Chieko keeps peering up and down the street, waiting for her 76-year-old husband, Koji, to return from walking the neighborhood his family has lived in for three generations. In the meantime, she shows me something I have never seen before: a long, lacquered telescoping pole used to attach senja-fuda, the name- stickers found on temple ceilings.

“The higher up the better,” Koji tells me when he arrives. And Koji knows heights, being a roof-carpenter by trade.

We chat a bit, and I ask him his opinion of the redevelopment plans. He shrugs.

“What will happen will happen,” he says, glancing at his wife. “I just want to live as long as I can here with Chieko.” They are clearly a well-joined couple. And I’m a third wheel, so I wander off.

I pass a basement live house, The Wall, and spot rocker types grabbing a smoke in the sun. Finally, I meet local-born Yuko Ariji, 61, who recalls being able to see Mount Fuji from where we stand, and catching tadpoles and crayfish in nearby ponds. “Nature disappears in seconds, you know,” she says. “And it doesn’t come back.”

But Ariji is giving it a go anyway, raising cucumbers, eggplants, giant radishes, tomatoes and hundreds of flowers.

“I call this my ‘Garden at Tumbledown House,’ ” she says, with a glance at the skyscrapers just behind her.