I change trains three times before boarding one of Tokyo’s shortest lines, the 2.5-km Keisei Kanamachi. I’m bound for Shibamata, which isn’t precisely a backstreet, but it’s tucked so far from most major thoroughfares in the back-beyond of Katsushika Ward that I imagine it will fit the bill.
Once I leave the station’s awning, the sun blazes like a Klieg light on a roasting plaza and threatens to melt the bronze statue of Shibamata’s favorite son, vagabond salesman Torajiro Kuruma, protagonist of the much-loved “Tora-san” movie series. Directed and written by Yoji Yamada and starring the late Kiyoshi Atsumi, all 48 movies, filmed 1969-95, focus on Tora-san’s endearingly flawed life, his ill-fated love affairs, and his periodic visits to his “normal” family members and sleepy hometown of Shibamata on the northeastern edge of Tokyo.
The Shibamata I’m headed toward, then, is both real, and simulacrum. I get a sense of this when I stop in at souvenir shop Tamaya, the sole purveyor in Japan of Tora-san Kewpie dolls. I also note a basket of tawashi (palm-fiber scrubber brushes) generally used to clean vegetables, but here touted as body brushes. “The fibers are softer than usual,” the shop-owner assures me, “and the brushes are handmade by a local gentleman, Mr. Sagara, who is in his 70s.” I buy one, and ask the shop-owner her name. “Sakura,” she says, as though it’s her screen name, and her meishi (name card) only carries the single name, too. Maybe it’s this oddity, or her oval-faced beauty and down-to-earth energy, that make her seem exactly like the kind of woman Tora-san always loved, but never landed — hence the series title, “Otoko wa Tsurai Yo” (“It’s Tough Being a Man”).
Well, it’s a piece of cake being a woman, I think, heading out into the heat again. Along with a few intrepid, sweaty Tora-san tourists, I dip in and out of shops, and at one, I buy a Shibamata popsicle, an ice-cold cucumber impaled on a chopstick.
Crunching along, I see a vending machine dressed as a red robot. That lures me into the shady interior of Haikara, a dagashiya (penny-candy shop) selling 1960s-style treats such as ume (plum) jam in little squeeze bags, pig-nose-shaped Maeda-brand crackers, and sosu-sen (rice crackers with sauce topping). I consider taking a pop at the corkgun shooting gallery inside, but the prizes of chocolate cigarettes, caramels, and cheap plastic coin banks look like they haven’t budged in ages. I might share this fate, I think, unless I move on.
The former movie-set area of Shibamata is the sando (road leading to a major temple or shrine), which here culminates at Daikyoji Temple (1629), commonly known as Taishakuten, where Tora-san claims to have taken his first bath. I browse the corridor of wooden, tile-roofed shops offering kusa dango (rice dumplings flavored with mugwort), tsukudani (soy-simmered preserves) and sembei (rice crackers) roasted while you wait. Despite fierce temperatures, the sando rocks a social synchronicity between commercialism and religion.
At Matsuya Ame, a candy store that opened for business the year the Meiji Era began (1868) and specializes in throat-soothing nuggets, I meet 58-year-old Hiroyasu Igarashi, who began making candy fresh out of high school. In winter, he cleaves the candies in a show of dexterity and rhythm, “but it’s just too sticky to do that in the summer,” he says. As consolation, he offers me one of his summer treats — a miso-flavored bite blended from the sugars of cane, sweet potato, rice, and wheat and filled with a hardened bean paste — with a warning. “Be careful of your teeth,” he says, as though I’m 5 years old. I bite down, and experience immediate lockjaw. “Better to suck it,” company director Osamu Miyazaki, 42, suggests kindly, as I bow out silently.
As the Nitenmon (1897), the main gate of Taishakuten, looms ahead, I admire the swirling grace of its wood carvings. They are magnificent, agrees 69-year-old Masanobu Sonota. We chat about the unique traditional toy he makes, a hajiki-zaru (jumping monkey) which leaps up a stick on a bamboo spring. As Sonota explains that monkeys are believed to be the attendants of the protective deity Taishakuten (derived from the Hindu god Indra), I sense he is quite attached to the history of the temple. He bows his head, and after a bit tells me that his grandfather was one of the principal carvers of the Nitenmon itself. Sonota, following in his ancestor’s blade work, also carves temple figures, so he is rarely at the store. I part with a sense of immense luck and pass through the Nitenmon with a new appreciation.
Inside, Taishakuten is a visual feast. I plunk down ¥400 to slide in my socks across the boardwalk encircling the rear gardens, gliding along until a kind priest points me toward the temple’s real treasure. Flanking the sides and back walls of the Soshido, the temple’s main hall, I find a series of enormous panels of intricately carved zelkova wood depicting scenes from the Hokekyo (Lotus Sutra). After completing the first panel in 1922, master carver Toranosuke Kato suggested that an additional nine panels be sent out to various Tokyo artisans. While the first set of works was destroyed in the Great Tokyo Earthquake of 1923, and it took a nationwide search to procure a second set of panels this large, the whole project was finally completed in 1934. I marvel at how the various artists have coaxed airy elements, such as flying birds, clouds and fire — as well as a broad array of human emotions — from wood.
My head swirls with heavenly images and a touch of heatstroke as I wander through a quiet neighborhood of small homes and empty lots, with my shadow stretching off to one side of Taishakuten. At the end of the road, I find Yamamoto-tei, a magnificent late Taisho Era (1912-26) home which, for a fee of ¥100, is open to the public. Manager Wakako Yoshida explains that owner Einosuke Yamamoto was the wealthy inventor of the camera-shutter spring, and that the gardens are ranked in the top five in the country — up there with Katsura Rikkyu in Kyoto.
Again leaving my shoes behind, I explore the sukiya-style (refined, teahouse-influenced) rooms, bearing names such as Bird, Wind, Moon and Star, but it is the garden, casting its verdant glow into the house, that pulls the eye. This late-summer afternoon, it is a gem box of greens in peridot, malachite and jade. Sun-laden bushes and gnarled pines draw the eye backward and up through the scenery, motionless but for the occasional heat-drugged butterfly, or flick of a sleepy carp’s tail. Blurring the realms between its simple interior and the outdoors, and bearing the restrained flourishes of Taisho style visible in the rounded frames of windows and in one Western-style room, Yamamoto-tei is nothing if not tranquil.
Though not eager to leave, I head around the back to find Yamamoto-tei’s original entrance, replete with a parked jinrikisha (rickshaw). Too bad it’s not in use today, I think, crossing the street and ascending a path to the Tora-san Memorial Museum.
For ¥500 I peruse the charming animated shadowbox displays of Tora-san’s childhood, movie-set reconstructions, and some of the clothing that actor Kiyoshi Atsumi wore in his role. I even cave at the hokey photo machine that contrives what appears to be a snapshot of me and Tora-san on a date.
Outside again, from the crest of the park above the museum I gaze down the grassy slope featured in each opening scene of the “Tora-san” series. Toward the bottom is the Yagiri no Watashibune, a hand-rowed ferry service slowly crossing the Edogawa River to the Chiba Prefecture side.
It’s late afternoon but still oven-hot as I wander back toward Taishakuten. In the temple compound, I have the eerie sense of time travel when I see, in the heat and dust, a solitary kimono-clad Edo daikagura (traditional juggler) spinning a silver hoop on the outer edge of his paper umbrella. I am the sole spectator at first, and watch transfixed, but gradually a crowd materializes, cheerful and innocent, like extras from a “Tora-san” film.