I hear somewhere near Nakamura in Nerima Ward, miso is still made in the age-old traditional way. I figure I’ll just wander around the tidy little neighborhood and find it.
Exiting north from the Seibu Ikebukuro Line’s Nakamurabashi Station, I sally forth in what turns out to be the wrong direction. My consolation prize is Nerima Art Museum, a minimalist 1985 structure dedicated to local and international avant-garde works. I gaze at the abstract oils of Saeko Wakabayashi, and dreamy silver-gelatin photos of miniature model interiors by Mayumi Terada. I am alone there except for the museum attendants, two of whom are snoozing so artfully they appear part of an installation.
From there, I head back to the station and try the South Exit. Passing the usual klatch of coffee and ramen shops, hair salons and convenience stores, I start to worry. Nakamura’s main drag, Sengawa Avenue, built over the former Sengawa Aquaduct (1696), which conveyed fresh water as far as Sensoji Temple in Akasaka, is now busy with cars. I jog southeast searching for a quiet backstreet where I imagine miso might happen.
Apart from the odd mom-and-pop store — a tailor shop with machines in the window, a hair salon of antique hood- dryers — the backstreets are clearly being reworked into clean but blase condos. I am about to give up my search.
Spotting trees on the horizon, I head for them; in Tokyo, old trees frequently shade something of interest. In this case, limbs cover a somber estate slumped behind a rotting wooden fence. I circle the property and find a Ward-posted sign designating the trees therein as protected greenery. Suddenly, I catch on the wind a whiff of fermentation from across the street. Cool beans! It’s Koujiya Saburo Uemon, Tokyo’s only miso-maker.
In a wooden building, surrounded by knee-high plastic tubs forming an ad-hoc lotus-root farm, I meet the vigorous miso-making Tsujita family members. Sixth-generation miso-meister, Kiyoshi Tsujita, 82, is suited up and stepping out for an overnight party at the seaside resort of Atami on the Izu Peninsula, but he poses a few seconds for a photo. His son, Masahiro, and his son’s wife, Miyuki (48 and 45), run the show in his absence, and are waiting for a pressure cooker the size of a Smart Car to finish softening a batch of soybeans.
Yutaka Watanabe, who looks a decade or two younger than his 50 years, is married to the eldest Tsujita daughter. I ask him if miso has kept him in good shape. “Nah,” he says. “My wife almost never cooks anything with miso in it. I feel like I’m about 19, but that’s just because I’m weird.”
There is nothing weird about the practiced way the family weaves in and out of production duties. Miyuki opens a bucket and fingers a mixture of cracked fermented rice grains and salt, called kouji. “Taste it,” she says, “it’s quite sweet.” I hesitate; it smells like a ripe sports sneaker. The taste, however, is crunchy and, in fact, sweet.
Next, Miyuki shows me what looks like a crypt with an elf-size door. “That’s the kouji muro, where we ferment the rice,” she says. “It’s secret, so you can’t take a picture of it,” she warns — “But you can go inside.”
Like a reluctant Alice in Wonderland, I crawl in. The room’s walls are about 30-cm thick and made of oya-ishi, a mineralized volcanic tuff quarried in Tochigi Prefecture. They are coated in organic molds of green, black and umber. The smell is slightly yeasty, but clean. I cannot imagine what secret is hiding in the room, so giving in to claustrophobia, I exit.
Outside, the giant boiler of soybeans is set to blow. Yutaka opens a valve and steam screams out. Miyuki and her sister-in-law grab bunji, paddles of silken wood used to gently maneuver miso’s main ingredient. Yutaka tilts the gimbled pressure cooker, spills the beans, and everyone hurries to spread them under cooling fans.
With oke, specially designed cedar buckets, Miyuki measures out 15-kg dollops of warm beans, which Yutaka heaves into a giant mixer. The combo gets a pitcher of local well water, then a 15-kg bucket of kouji, and finally a bit of miso starter from an older batch to bring the all-organic mixture to a recognizable mush.
I watch as Yutaka hefts buckets to transfer the concoction to a 2-ton vat, where the miso will mature for six to nine months, depending on the weather.
“That looks easy,” I joke, as Yutaka huffs by. He responds by loading up my shoulder with a bucket. I teeter off and almost fall into the vat with the bucket because the miso sticks to the interior. There’s a method to every motion in traditional ways of working, and before long Miyuki and Yutaka have instructed me in a process barely changed since the 1600s.
Koujiya sells various products on-site, including a miso-making set — “It’s not so easy,” Miyuki warns — so instead I take home packs of their savory red miso and famed sweet white miso.
Having worked up an appetite, I head out in search of a place to eat. The residential nature of the area has me worried about prospects, but bonneted 61-year-old Tokie Hoshikawa seems bent on changing the landscape. I meet her planting a garden, in the middle of a parking lot.
“My family used to own much of this area,” she says, waving her trowel about, “but taxes changed things.” She has various vegetables and fruits going, which she waters from her family well of Sengawa water in the rear of her parking lot. “Come back later in the summer, and I’ll have vegetables for you,” she offers, before resuming her work.
I need to eat before summer, so I’m glad to find Kiraku na Utsuwa, a family-run restaurant festooned with wine bottles and specializing in “country-less cuisine.” The stir-fry lunch set arrives on Mashiko pottery, and at first glance looks fairly ordinary — but the taste is a cut above. A simple salad of daikon sticks and nori, for example, sings in Chef Imazeki’s homemade dressing. His son, 5-year-old Hikari, giggles when I praise the cooking.
Lunchtime over, I learn that Hikari is about to take a shamisen lesson in the restaurant. I decide to stick around, and am frankly wowed by what walks in the door. Kenta Mogami, 28, is not your father’s shamisen teacher.
Tall, with rock-star chiseled glam, Kenta is one of five members of the professional acting group Shinsei Wakaba Brothers. He appears on stage as Murasaki Wakaba, and if I think he looks good as a guy, I should see him perform classical dance as an onnagata (man portraying a woman on stage), Hikari’s mom says.
Either sex, I’m transfixed when multitalented Kenta tunes up and demonstrates the mastery 15 years of rigorous shamisen training have yielded. It’s banjo unbound, and even turbocharged Hikari is entranced. While teaching, Kenta is tenderly patient, only occasionally pulling Hikari to attention by tucking the plectrum under the boy’s chin.
I hate to leave the scene of one generation passing skills to the next, but I don’t want to distract. Back on the streets, headed east, I pass occasional farmed plots or vacant fields between unremarkable apartment buildings.
Again navigating by trees, I find Nanzo-in. The temple hosts a superbly proportioned, hulking stone lantern in rustic style, sculpted azaleas, and an 1876 wooden belfry gate which once served as the entrance. Though the exact date of its founding is unknown, a priest named Songan Ryoben is said to have rebuilt the temple in 1357. Inside the Enma Do, or Devil’s Hall (1748), wooden figures, some faceless, others with peeling paint, seem tortured by time, if nothing else.
I am about to leave when Hiroko Sakamoto appears, and after a chat, asks if I’d like to “meet Mr. Lincoln.” As in the president? “Yes,” she says, offering me a lift to her home, which ironically is back near the miso factory.
It is a pleasant surprise to learn that Mr. Lincoln is a variety of rose. Hiroko, 67, and her husband Shigeru, 70, have been raising robust canes for 30 years, and the blossoms are ponderous.
The Sakamoto family moved to Nakamura 83 years ago, Shigeru tells me. “My father taught English at Waseda University, and back then there were only fields out here. I wanted to raise flowers, but apartment mansions started popping up like bamboo sprouts,” he says, laughing. Shigeru, reading the signs of the times, became an architect instead. Retired now, the Sakamotos find their replanted dreams are coming up roses.