From Tsukishima Station on Tokyo’s Oedo subway line, I launch myself northward toward Tsukudajima. A mere sandbar in the early days of the Edo Period (1603-1868), Tsukudajima long ago began to be expanded with boulders and landfill on the way to creating the area we now know.
Named after Tsukudamura, an Osaka area from which skilled fishermen were recruited by the first shogun, Ieyasu Tokugawa (1543-1616), to help provide protein for his growing capital, by 1644 Tsukudajima had become the island home to a thriving piscatorial community.
I don’t expect to find any old salts on today’s Tsukudajima, as half the island is given over to highrise apartments, but nonetheless I soon find myself in a maze of old homes, including authentic nagaya (wooden row houses) that have survived the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, wartime bombing and more recent shakers.
I stop at one place because, to be frank, I smell something. “Anyone home?” I call out to no avail. Then, peering through the window I spy two shelves of hens and roosters in cages. “There’s no one here but us chickens,” they might have said (a la The Three Stooges). Typical islander’s self-sufficiency, I think.
Moving on, several lanes over I notice two red flags flapping in the breeze and a sign reading “Tsukuda Tenzai Jizoson” that beckons me down a dimly lamp-lit tunnel between tiny homes. Hoping not to disturb anyone, I slip in quietly and find a 1738 Jizo, the bodhisattva protector of children and travelers, carved on a stone tablet. The real stunner, though, is an enormous ginkgo tree trunk taking up half the shrine space. Like a spirit from a Hayao Miyazaki animation film, the maidenhair tree charges right up through the roof. Locals in this tunnel of homes have built the shrine carefully to accommodate the tree, apparently protecting it for centuries.
Emerging at the other end of the alley, I gaze backward at the impressive crown of the ginkgo before surfing right into the Namiyoke Inari Jinja (lit. Wave Protection Fox Shrine). Such shrines are meant to keep fishermen safe at sea but, reminded that I am exploring land only marginally above sea level, I make an offering. After pausing to admire stones the size of bluefin tunas used for trials of strength, and large chunks of wave-shaped driftwood placed decoratively within the precinct’s confines, I sail away.
Following a canal fed by tides from the Sumida River that flows on two sides of Tsukudajima, I come to a cinnabar-colored bridge, the Tsukuda Kobashi. Crossing, on one side I see, amid newer craft, a rotting traditional Japanese flat-bottom boat wallowing like a frog in the mud. On the other side, there’s an odd concrete enclosure, also filled with mud, which a nearby sign explains holds buried wooden flagpoles. It also says that the poles, taken out only during local festivities, have been secured in this fashion since the Edo Period. Really?!
I get an affirmative answer to that question from a wiry man who appears to know wood, since he is filing two pieces of it when I approach. Hideyasu Nakajima, 66, patiently explains that submerging certain kinds of wood in mud retards decay and protects from insects.
Happy to learn more, I dock at Nakajima’s streetside table, checking his wares. His handmade hakkaku ohashi (eight-sided chopsticks) in ebony, ironwood and black rosewood, are surprisingly expensive (¥3,900 to ¥18,900). “They will last you decades,” Nakajima says unapologetically, without looking up from his work. “Try them out.”
In a bowl, Nakajima has floated several cubes of konnyaku (devil’s-tongue jelly), which is notoriously difficult to grab with chopsticks. I rise to the challenge, and go fishing. Nakajima’s hakkaku ohashi not only nestle nicely in the hand, but the konnyaku can’t escape their sharp octagonal tips.
I notice Nakajima also sells lacquered products — mirrors, combs, spoons, etc. Did he make these too? “Yes,” he replies. “I am an 11th-generation lacquerware artist.” Now seriously impressed, I ask to see some of his larger works. He obliges by gingerly unwrapping a dish done in the kanshitsu (dry lacquer) style, decorated with bright raden (mother-of-pearl inlay) fish. “I’ve had this for years, and the lacquer has matured into a very rare shade,” he says.
With prizes too numerous to list, Nakajima’s talent might be wasted on chopsticks, I comment. He corrects me, pointing out that lacquer needs to absorb moist air, and is therefore a seasonal art. “Also, finished pieces are incredibly expensive,” he warns when he sees me eyeing a large neguro (red lacquer over black) tray. Probably the chopsticks are an easier sell, I surmise, watching him hone yet another pair.
It is hard to look at chopsticks without thinking of food, so I head off in search of Tsukuajima’s most famous product.
Tsukudani, bits of sea life simmered in soy and mirin- (cooking sake-) based sauces, was invented by local fishermen to preserve catches. The osmotic inhibition achieved by simmering in salty sauces keeps the condiment fresh without refrigeration for up to two weeks.
“It used to keep for up to six months,” says Kenji Kobayashi, 46-year-old owner of Marukyu, purveyor of tsukudani since 1859, “but Edo tastes are too salty for people today.” As I glance over his offerings — tiny clams, krill, konbu seaweed, baby anchovies, tuna, and amber-colored squid slivers — Kobayashi runs me through the production process. “It basically involves washing, salting, drying, and then boiling. We usually have two vats going in rotation, but not when it rains or gets too humid. Tsukudani doesn’t like rain or steam, and when the weather’s hot, we need to make it saltier. That’s why tsukudani flavors change with the season.” I ask if I can watch it being made. Kobayashi stares at me as though I have grown fins. “No way,” he says.
In fact, all three tsukudani shops in the area — including the oldest, Tenyasu, which dates from 1837 in its much-photographed wooden building, and Tsukuda-gen Tanakaya (from 1843) — closely guard their recipes.
Marukyu’s tsukudani veers toward the sweet side. For ¥1,000, I pick up a sampler of three varieties before heading to Sumiyoshi Shrine, which Kobayashi has told me dates back to when the first fishermen arrived from Osaka.
The torii gate to the shrine features an unusual ceramic sign painted by calligrapher Ippin Shijin Shinno in 1882, and wooden carvings above its temizu (hand-washing basin) show ships and fishermen hauling in nets.
Beside the shrine, I find a fishing shack, filled with boat rental notices, fishing rods, tackle and hooks. The shop is wide open, but devoid of life save for a tank of goldfish, swimming in a piscine purgatory.
I set off finally to circle the island via a waterside path. Here, odors of dead crustaceans alternate with those of sea roses, barges and pleasure boats plow the Sumida and gulls keen overhead as I pass a lighthouse built in 1866 on Ishikawajima, another island lost in the spread of landfill.
Toward the end of my walk, I happen upon what resembles 50 flower shops along the riverside, each about a square meter and sectioned off with concrete dividers. Sharing a bench with 84-year-old Kimie Nishizaka, I learn how this came to be. A native of Kyushu, most of Kimie’s family was killed during World War II. At age 18, she was forced to move in with her uncle, here in Tsukudajima. “My uncle came home one day and told me he had registered my marriage to his adopted son, Hiroshi. Life was like that, then. I became the kind of wife who when my husband moved his tea cup, I knew he wanted tea, and I got it for him.” She grins at me; there is no rancor in her words.
“Hiroshi hated that people habitually dumped their garbage here by the river. He started to put out flowerpots and plants, and that made people rethink their actions.” The idea eventually went viral, gained municipal support, and today nearly all the neighbors tend a planting space. Hiroshi’s legacy lives in Kimie, too; her space is brimfull of blossoms.
I wander a bit further, and happen upon an alley of brand-new row houses where members of the Miura, Takita, Kameyama, Sato and Koishikawa families are setting up a feast of wine, salads, squid yakisoba noodles cooked by their kids, and barbecued beef. “This is the new nagaya style,” quips Yukihiro Takita. “We look after each other.” They invite me to join them, and as the sun sets on our laughter, I am reeled in to the warmth of modern island life.