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Where whimsy meets wonder

What's old is new again in Suginami Ward's intriguing and fun-filled Nishiogikubo district

by Kit Nagamura

Antiques tell tales of values, past and present. It’s a good guess that whatever survives for a century or so in the tight confines of a Japanese home is either a work of art, a tool of cunning design, or an item of great sentimental value.

Collectibles, on the other hand, may be mere decades old, but appeal to the modern whimsical eye. From wooden spinning wheels to 1950s Formica tables with boomerang patterns, the surrounds of Nishiogikubo Station on the Chuo Line offer up a wealth of fascinating finds.

When I leave the station’s North Exit, heading toward Nishiogi-kita, I note that the area has spiffed up in recent years. JR East has performed what they dub a “Station Renaissance,” which includes new convenience and retail stores and sidewalks paved in the colors of Spam. This doesn’t jive with my memory of Nishiogi as an enclave of ’60s-style rebels and other down-to-earth hippie types. I start to worry that the funky vibe has died in Nishiogi.

Heading west, I spy a bright-red Shinto torii gate straddling a narrow alley. Unable to see what shrine the gate might be signifying, I wander in. A wee fox altar, maybe 2 meters high and a meter across, nestles beneath an apartment balcony. Next door, Grape’s Nishiogi Akatorii kimono shop offers up a rich array of preloved garments, and accessories fashioned from kimono fabric.

Two shy shop ladies wear their wares gracefully, eagerly pulling out samples of luxurious fabrics to show me. I’m a sucker for silk, so I try to keep my mind on work. “How’s business?” I ask.

“We get foreign customers who often buy obi sashes with gold threads,” says one assistant. “But our main customers are young Japanese girls,” says the other, “because it’s a hot trend to wear recycled antique kimono.”

That’s the Nishiogi spirit, I think to myself, with its merchants living and breathing heirlooms, thrilling to the rare quality of what they’re selling — yet also proud of the fact that their business is, at heart, a non-wasteful, ecofriendly endeavor.

Happily, Nishiogi still features about 60 antique stores. I dart into a dizzying array of places, where, as is true the world over, “antique” is loosely defined as anything older than your dad. I gawk at Meiji Era (1868-1912) blown-glass candy jars, teacups from the Edo Period (1603-1867), boxes of Taisho Era (1912-26) watch faces, spooky dolls from all eras, and some gag-me Showa Era (1926-89) collectibles, such as bobble-head dolls and plastic plates picturing cloyingly cute scenes. I am followed the entire way by a couple of guys who say they are searching for a “truly luscious” large vase. I hope they find one, of course, and I’m on the verge of offering unsolicited help when an aroma of baked goods leads me away by the nose.

Shimizuya’s worn shop-shade flaps in the breeze and I glimpse a cookie that looks like a pale gingerbread man being held at gunpoint. Yuzaburo Kanehara, 75 years old, bakes two-dozen different goods, but I am all about the cookie. “It’s a sable bear,” Kanehara explains, offering me one for free. I insist on paying, and as I examine the chocolate bear eyes and colored sugar buttons, Kanehara tells me he has been here for 40 years. His wife passed away recently and, in his grief, he shut the ovens down.

“More than 100 neighbors got together and posted a group petition on my shop shutters, begging me to keep baking,” he tells me, pulling out the petition. Smart neighbors, I think as I bite off the bear’s head — buttery and chewy on the outside, crisp inside. Every year, Kanehara fashions a cookie to represent that year’s zodiac animal, but the bear is perennial. To handle demand, Yuzaburo’s daughter has agreed to help her father while her child is at daycare. I am in the bakery long enough to be presented with an extra cookie for my son, and to watch a steady flow of customers come and go.

I continue my Antique Road (its real name) show past the empty eyes of SLR cameras, piles of wooden furniture, milk-glass lamps, and china shops. My attention is stuck for a moment on what appears to be a bench of old tools and an aluminum pan of rusty studs soaking in the sun. I call into the shop, named Rakuda (which means “camel”), to ask if they’re removing the rust, or selling wet antique nails. Neither, as it turns out.

“We repair old tansu (traditional Japanese dressers) and we purposefully age new nails so they look authentic,” says 35-year-old Tomonari Yamada. He introduces me to the shop’s owners Toshiyuki Yamamoto, 53, and Izumi Miyazaki, 50, who explain their mission to introduce the beauty of antique furniture and wagarasu (Japanese-style glassware) to the world. The sun streams through their shop-window display of faceted colored glasses, called kiriko, as we chat over chilled tea in cut-glass cups. As I depart, Yamamoto begs me to let people know about Nishiogi’s biannual antique fair, the next of which will occur in mid-November at Iogi Hall, near Rakuda.

Peering up the road, I note a long stretch of well-tended residences, so I veer away to the left instead, on Joshidai-dori (Women’s University Avenue) toward the Zenpukuji district. I walk north along the parklike perimeter of Tokyo Christian Women’s University, alma mater of the likes of clothing designer Hanae Mori and author Jakucho Setouchi. In this neighborhood, I find Satoru Yamaya, a man with lofty goals.

A member of the Japan Kite Flyer’s Association, a tight group of professional kite-akers and traditional artists, Yamaya is celebrated for his sense of humor and remarkable train kites. Looking far younger than his 65 years, and moving like a kid, Yamaya spreads out one of his favorite kites, a series of wind-catchers in cartoon renderings of helicobactor pylori bacterium.

“I had this ulcer-causing disease five years ago,” Yamaya recounts. “I couldn’t drink for days. I tried to distract myself by writing a pylori song, but finally I made a kite instead.”

Yamaya has been designing high- flyers for 30 years, and his works take astonishing shapes — of the Olympic rings, a chorus line of kneeling nude women, and even the train cars of the Chuo Line. One of my favorites is a rectangular kite made entirely out of sake labels. I ask him if he drank all that sake himself. “Yup.”

“But recently I am making messages for people to look up to. We spend too much time looking at the ground, but the sky is an open canvas and I am writing ecology haiku poems with kites,” he says, pulling out a train kite with ecotips written on each panel. Before I leave, Yamaya hands me a gift, a kite no larger than the palm of my hand, printed with an image of The Little Prince from the eponymous book by French writer Antoine de Saint Exupery (1900-45). A line from the book goes through my head as I watch the tiny kite catch wind while I walk down the street: “It is truly useful because it is beautiful.”

Returning to Antique Road and heading north, I locate Youkubo Art Space, another melding of utility and beauty. In what was once his father’s tuberculosis clinic, Taktsuhiko Murata and his co-director wife Hiroko have established a gallery, studio, and artists’ residential complex. Hiroko was the driving engine behind the idea. “I’m a sculptor, and when I studied abroad in various countries, I got inspired to make it easier for international and Japanese artists to work together here in Tokyo,” she explains.

Their artist-in-residence program started in 2001, offering inexpensive lodgings for up to six months, and Youkubo Art Space is now listed with RES ARTIS, a worldwide network of residencies for artists.

According to employee Jaime Humphreys from Britain, Youkubo has fostered international communication in Suginami Ward through art shows, lectures and “Trolls in the Park,” an annual installation in Zenpukuji Park. Last year, five international and five Japanese “art-trolls” situated their artworks in the open air, expanding the concept of both “gallery” and the nature of art itself.

I am just around the corner from Igusa Hachimangu, a shrine said to have been established by Minamoto no Yoritomo, first shogun of the Kamakura Shogunate (1192-1333) in thanks for his military victories. The art of yabusame (horse- mounted archery) was promulgated by Yoritomo to hone the skills of his samurai, and exhibitions of the practice are held once every five years on the long approach I take to the shrine. I’m grateful the cavalry is stabled today, as I absorb the peaceful wooded surroundings of Igusa.