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Aoyama warmth beats the cold

by Kit Nagamura

Kotto-dori (Antiques Avenue), a pin-straight link between Aoyama and Roppongi avenues in Tokyo’s Minato Ward, was once a melange of pricey boutiques and high-end antique stores. Word has it that the street is going through changes, so I set off to see what’s up.

Bracing against icy winter winds, I first head to the southern end of Kotto-dori, by the towering headquarters of Fuji Film Corporation, and straightaway go looking for a warm interior.

The flagship of world-renowned designer Junko Koshino is gloriously tropical inside, and her current collection, dubbed “Le Soleil Levant” (“The Rising Sun”), certainly sizzles. At 70, Koshino’s creative powers are at a peak, it appears. Vibrant color-blocked gowns channel Mondrian’s paintings, gossamer capes feature sleeves that inflate like giant windsocks at the slightest movement, and kimono-based dresses with gold details mimic maki-e (gold-powder painting) on lacquerware. This last is no accident; on the second floor of Koshino’s showroom, I find a display of her own lacquerware designs, precise ziggurats of nesting trays and tall cylinders in red and black.

When Koshino appears from a back room, I jump at the chance to chat with her. She tells me that NHK’s next daily six-month morning drama serial, set to start in September 2011, will be based on the life of her mother, Ayako Koshino, a clothing designer who raised three daughters single-handedly after her husband died in World War II.

Our talk turns to Kotto-dori, where both Junko and her older sister, Hiroko, have stores. “I don’t know who named this street Kotto-dori, but I’m the one that named Killer-dori,” she says, referring to a neighboring thoroughfare parallel to Kotto-dori. “I called it that because it ends up in Aoyama Cemetery,” she says with a laugh, squashing my guess that it was for killer fashion stores or price tags.

But I need to stick to Kotto-dori now, so, thanking Koshino-sensei for her time, I head off. Just across the street, I’m attracted to the fresh red-and-white exterior of Isehan Honten. A sign outside advertises a “Beni Museum.” That couldn’t possibly be a museum for Edo Period (1603-1867) lipstick, I think, laughing to myself. But I’m wrong. Isehan, in business since 1825, is Japan’s last company using traditional methods to hand-make komachi beni, a lip rouge derived from safflowers. Their museum gives an overview of the process.

“We use only the red-pigmented petals,” Miki Shimada, the PR manager, says, explaining that, “they occur in a mere 1 percent of all safflower petals.”

Once culled from the prickly plants in Yamagata Prefecture, the precious petals are then washed, crushed and patted into beni mochi (beni cakes) to dry. Later, these cakes are mixed with linen and wrung out again, and the red extract is sieved to purity in lacquer boxes.

So, I could try this at home? Shimada laughs. “There are some secret steps that even I don’t know,” she admits.

The final production process involves painting a layer of extract into a small ochoko (sake cup). Shimada hands me one, and, hold on, I don’t mean to give her any lip, but it’s green. Not even a nice green, but Wicked Witch of the West metallic green. “That’s called tamamushi iro,” Shimada explains. “An iridescent ‘jewel beetle’ color is the hallmark of authentic beni lip color. Chemists have studied this, but they still can’t explain just why it happens.”

Shimada dips a brush in water, and touches it gingerly to the very edge of the beni layer. The green morphs into a brilliant red. Applied, the shade is a pleasing sheer pink, which can be intensified by adding layers. Aside from the fact that it’s entirely natural, it’s also odorless and I can’t feel it on my lips. That’s a lot to smile about.

Authentic beni is not cheap — the average ochoko, yielding approximately 50 applications, costs a bit over ¥12,000 — but this represents about 2,000 flowers transformed by the last two men in the world privy to the beni-making process. Isehan organizes make-up seminars and contests, and actively supports a small community of artisans and performers related to their product.

I feel beni-ficent departing Isehan, and head toward Chokoku-ji, a Soto Zen temple that’s home to 32 ascetic monks. One invites me to sit and observe a prayer session. I accept, mesmerized by a 10-meter-high sculpture of Kannon carved from a single log of wood. Though I try to ignore the cold, my knees shiver.

Kimio Matsushita, 87, watches me from the temple’s reception desk. He gleefully informs me that full-length meditation sessions suited to non-speakers of Japanese are held here on Mondays, for a nominal fee of ¥100. Matsushita recalls moving to this neighborhood 50 years ago: “There were no houses then. I was a policeman, a hard job, and I wasn’t good at it.” I ask him if working for the temple, where he has been for 20 years, is better. He grins and nods.

As I leave Chokoku-ji, I realize it’s past lunchtime. Down a side alley, I pop into coffee shop Toquio to grab a bite. I’m lucky it’s open, as Toquio is closed on any date ending in a 1 (1, 11, 21, and 31) manager Takeru Takahashi tells me. Curious, I think, ordering an orange liqueur souffle and hot chocolate from a handwritten menu. The souffle arrives a cloudlike perfection. The chocolate, however, half fills the cup and trembles like pudding. Takahashi instructs me to mix in hot milk from the pitcher provided. Once done, it’s still really thick, but it might be the richest hot chocolate in town.

Satiated, I return to Kotto-dori. Interspersed with vacant buildings, I find occasional esoteric antique shops. Tidy and tiny, these display their treasures like museum pieces, and price them accordingly. I’m intimidated, and concerned that navigating cramped confines in a down coat might spell disaster. The owner of one, taking a cigarette break outside his shop, tells me that many vendors have left due to high rents along Kotto-dori, “but they’re still here and there.”

Climbing worn stepways in the back alleys, I keep an eye out, but instead come across the Taro Okamoto Memorial Museum, former studio and home of avant-garde artist Okamoto (1911-96). Perhaps best known for his sculpture “Tower of the Sun,” centerpiece symbol of World’s Fair Expo 1970 held in Osaka, Okamoto’s “art is explosion” credo is apparent in the primary colors and dynamic gesturing of his work.

Attached to the museum, coffee shop A Piece of Cake looks like a good place to assemble my notes. Life is A(nother) Piece of Cake as I try a slice of homemade Tarte Tatin, garnished with spiced stewed fruit, made by 51-year-old owner Masako Okawa. Ogawa plans to open her next business, a pancake shop, on Kotto-dori, and explains why she loves the area: “It’s the perfect mixture of residences and good businesses. We’ve got greenery and schools, a hospital and cemetery. From birth to death, we’re set here.” Ogawa sends me off to meet a friend of hers, a young bag designer, who she says epitomizes the creative spirit of the area.

Though off my intended route, I locate the atelier of 33-year-old Asa Nishijima, designer and maker of leather goods. Nishijima’s eye was influenced by his American father and Japanese mother’s antiques business. “I’m always lifting stuff from my mom,” he says, fingering a 1920s brooch, “and I found a passion for leather — its smell and texture — while spending time on my uncle’s horse farm.”

An eclectic and sensual mingling of exotic leather types and outre sculptural forms has earned Nishijima a burgeoning clientele of fashionistas. I wonder to myself, squeezing through the tiny passageway between his showroom and workspace, how long his wee garret perched above Aoyama Cemetery will hold him. “One customer couldn’t fit through that space,” Nishijima says, as though reading my mind.

By the time I head home, the evening air is freezing. I take a lungful, though, at the stunning sight of a full moon rising over the cemetery. Perhaps Ogawa is right: From birth to death one could be set here.