Rather than dwell on the dark side of life at this time, I decide to get my game on by heading to a store just off Azabu-Juban’s main shopping street in central Tokyo’s Minato Ward. Max Game, at the foot of Kurayamizaka (Dark Slope), is surrounded by kids of all ages sitting at tables, strategizing and laughing over decks of Yu-Gi-Oh!, Vanguard and Dream Master trading cards.
Once a button shop, then a candy store, Max Game has for two decades specialized in everything from the flashest video adventures to used trading cards. “There aren’t many places like this,” 30-year-old manager Hiroshi Yoshida explains. “We sell what kids really want. I’d personally like to see kids getting exercise outside, but in our era, there’s no space. At least here they can get out of the house and socialize.”
Yoshida’s words float around in my head as I toggle west on the backstreet behind Max Game. Just past the venerable old building of the Salvation Army’s Azabu Corps, I almost miss a tiny sign painted on a window that reads “Antiques.” Entering a dank stairwell, feeling like a video-game avatar, I locate a low-lit room arranged with exquisite pottery, pendulum clocks and metal deskware.
“These don’t look like antiques,” I opine. Osamu Saruyama nods. “I have a few,” he says, handing me his name card, a paper strip measuring 150×5 mm, printed with teeny letters. Turns out I am in Guillemets Layout Studio, a display venue for 44-year-old Saruyama’s tableware and household designs that are fast taking over from his interest in antiques.
Realized in conjunction with craftsmen in metal and pottery, Saruyama’s work echoes the geometric Bauhaus style of Marianne Brandt and blends in nicely with the few antique pieces also displayed. Saruyama’s designs are not cheap, but they are collectible, and will be featured at one of Japan’s largest craft fairs, Nagano Prefecture’s upcoming Matsumoto Crafts Month (April 29 to May 31).
Thanking Saruyama and moving on, I run into the tentacles of Octopus, a printed-matter design studio round the corner from Guillemets. “We’ve been here for 33 years,” says Chieko Sakuma, who owns Octopus with her husband. She hands me a sheet of stickers depicting the company’s wee red octopoid mascot, a Pokemon wannabe.
“Our landlord owns several buildings in the area, and he rents to creative people for cheap,” Sakuma tells me. She then points out the alley that runs past her shop. “You should check that out. We call it Omoshiro Dori.”
“Amusing Avenue” is filled with the scent of beeswax and carnauba boot polish emanating from Spica, a rehabilitation spa for leather goods. Manager Yoshinori Tanaka, 29, is one of a seven-man staff who grant high-society bags, shoes and other leather goods an extra life.
“We’re young guys, passionate about our jobs,” says Tanaka, polishing a man’s black brogue shoe to a liquid shine. “We’re also trained shoemakers.” So, do you take custom orders, I ask (my own foreign shoe size in mind). “Not yet,” he answers, “but maybe some day.” In the meantime, Spica will do an entire leather sole replacement for ¥20,000, refurbish a bag for ¥15,000 or stretch a pair of tight shoes for ¥1,800. Buff location to know about.
Across the alley from Spica, a signboard reads “Lucky Panda.” Heading inside, expecting a Chinese takeout shop, I find instead a bar fashioned from a gutted 40-year-old home, retrofitted with iron windows, brick paneling, hand-fashioned wooden stools and a double-story ceiling with couch loft. Lucky Panda’s owner confesses that he’d like to keep the place a secret hideaway for regulars. So, you didn’t hear this cheat from me.
Back on the main backstreet, as it were, I find two 60-year-old buildings side by side like aging buckteeth. The first, painted iron oxide red, is Mishima. Open evenings, the vine-draped home dangling with glass-art baubles is part art gallery, part bar, and part restaurant serving shabu-shabu courses.
The establishment next door, all but swallowed in grape and ivy vines, is Kyutaro. I find 51-year-old master Shouryou Higashitani, a native of Kyoto, checking over vegetables ordered from his home area to serve in Kyutaro’s menu of sukiyaki and kamonabe (duck hot-pot).
“I ran a restaurant in New York for 10 years. Coming back to Japan, I noticed the beauty of old Japanese homes and Japanese pottery,” Higashitani explains. By opening Kyutaro, he found a way to honor both passions.
There’s a rough beauty to the dining area upstairs, divided as it is into three rooms, making it perfect for private twosomes or small reunions. Back downstairs, near the cash register, I note shelves of glossy green Oribe-style pottery. “I made these myself for the restaurant,” Higashitani tells me.
Higashitani’s work is not for sale, but Kyutaro hosts pottery classes every other weekend. “Plus, once a month, we have live jazz during dinner,” Higashitani adds. I pocket a schedule and vow to return.
Free-roaming the next stretch of road, I note this neighborhood is clearly in identity transition. Aging apartment buildings are cheek-by-jowel with cleared plots turned into parking lots and ultra-modern, chic abodes. I decide to “action” one small house, all bundled up in plastic wrap stretched around boards of lumber — it’s the kind of anomaly gamers can’t ignore.
Ducking under the plastic, I knock several times on a sliding door behind which I can hear what sounds like a pneumatic drill and hammering. Kaname Nunokawa, owner of woodwork shop Nunokawa Mokko, finally answers. He agrees to let me in, but warns that I might suck up a lungful of sawdust.
The shop is a-whir with activity and adrift with the pollen of wood particles. Nunokawa and his three carpenters have been making furniture for decades, but their newly opened business focuses on crafting chairs to order for restaurants and companies. Would Nunokawa take personal orders, I ask, entranced by the graceful lines of one chair frame. He pauses for a second, then concedes: “Possibly — if we’re not too busy then.”
Taking the hint, I slip out and continue on. At a crossroads, a plastic dog poking out of a second-floor window catches my eye. Investigating, I discover L’Atelier de Zero, which is owned by 67-year-old Keita Sawada and crammed with “antiques.”
“My wife wants me to get rid of my treasures,” says Sawada forlornly. “She won’t let me have them in the house, so I’ve brought them here, where I read, listen to the radio and talk to people who come by.” As I examine a World War II air-raid lampshade decorated with bombers, and wartime watercolor paints packed in porcelain tubes because metal was too precious to waste, Sawada’s wife rings him. “Yes, I am here,” he answers, rolling his eyes. “With a customer. Yes, really.”
Surely there are prizes hidden in Sawada’s collection, but the afternoon casts shadows, so I carefully maneuver through the maze of relics, heading outside again.
Electing the narrowest of mossy alleys, threading between small homes and a high wall, I find myself at a modern building emblazoned with giant letters spelling out GLASS. Here, 49-year-old Tomohiro Kano teaches the art of pate de verre, or molded and kiln-fired glassworks.
A direct descendent of the renowned Kano family of Nihonga (Japanese painting) artists, Tomohiro started out in commercial filmmaking before a serious road accident landed him in hospital, causing him to reevaluate his life. Seeing a family friend’s glasswork, Kano recalls: “It was like an aquamarine ocean, and I knew then that I wanted to make such things.”
Aside from instructing 45 students, Kano uses his precisely organized studio to create works of art. In the back, he unwraps an 85-kg glass piece from his “Amorphous” series. The deep-blue orb is a pulsing magic egg, a gamer’s dream goal. “Art is the spiritual element passing through one’s body,” Kano says, “and this is also a material for the spiritual to pass through.”
When we leave the studio, Kano guides me through a warren of alleys between century-old homes where no cars could possibly drive. At the path’s end, he introduces me to 91-year-old Chioko Seino. From the genkan (entrance) of her home-its bare floors gleaming and furnishings as spare as Saruyama’s design studio- Seino recalls when she first moved here as a bride from up north in Yamagata Prefecture. “I didn’t really like it,” she confesses. “The place was full of frogs, bugs, snakes. Then there was the war, and many times I took refuge from bombs in Miyamura Park.”
We sift through a few photos of her past, and a decoration her late husband, a policeman, received from the Emperor. Then we sit awhile, watching as a breeze whiffles through the spring leaves on a tree growing on the hill nearby. “Where you live,” she muses, “becomes home.”
I walk to what was Seino’s refuge, Miyamura Park, known by foreigners in the area as Step Park because of the steps leading down to it. A gust of wind fills with floating cherry-blossom petals, and I know for today, it’s game over