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Shooting galleries in Nihonbashi

by Kit Nagamura

Summertime, and the living’s less easy than queasy as Tokyo’s temperatures and humidity soar. It’s like that as I exit the Hibiya Line’s Kodenmacho Station, in Chuo Ward, headed for Jisshi Koen, the area’s sole park.

My plan is to walk northeast, to the Bakuro-yokoyama district, where I’ve heard that building vacancies and low rents have allowed many contemporary-art galleries to move in. I envision a day spent jumping in and out of air-conditioned indie art emporiums.

Things start out differently. I find Jisshi Park to be a block of gray dirt and sand, bordered by a smattering of trees and earthquake-toppled stone lanterns. A 1.7-meter-high bell incarcerated inside a modern concrete belfry looms over all.

A sign informs me that the Kokucho Toki no Kane bell was first cast in 1626 to ring out the hours in Edo (present-day Tokyo), and that it was then recast in 1711 to repair damage from the city’s periodic fires.

No longer used, the bell just hangs there, forlorn — but unlike so many temple ringers around the city, this one is under lock and key. I ask a gent on a park bench why. “It’s in jail,” he guffaws, and then explains that this open space was once inside the grounds of Japan’s largest prison, Denmacho.

Established by the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1613, Denmacho prison generally held between 100 and 400 accused outlaws from all walks of life, including women and samurai, until it was moved to Yotsuya in 1875.

Among its most famous inmates was Shoin Yoshida, a samurai educator imprisoned there in 1859 for attempting to stow away aboard one of U.S. Navy Cmdr. Matthew Perry’s “Black Ships.” He claimed that he did so to learn more about the “barbarians” he feared would colonize Japan — but back then the 1630s sakoku (closed-country) laws were still in force, and what he did could have cost him his head.

Though Yoshida was eventually executed for plotting rebellions against rulers he thought responsible for treaties unfavorable to Japan, many of his students took on important positions during the Meiji Reformation that followed the fall of the shogunate in 1867.

Jailbreaking, I cross the street under a torturous sun to take refuge at Dai Anraku Temple. However, there I stumble on a stone tablet marking the spot where Denmacho’s executions took place. Mental images of beheadings superimpose themselves on my vision of the temple’s jizo (bodhisattva statue), and I start to wonder about human cycles of suffering.

Before the heat fries me entirely, I head northeast through backstreets chewed up by jackhammers and construction crews. Nothing here resembles an art gallery.

Crossing Kiyosumibashi Avenue, I spot a line of people waiting outside a building decorated with what looks like tiny Pantone color swatches and a sign “Colorworks.” Now, I’m hopeful. The ground floor, however, is Alimentare e Bar Renea, a trattoria with display cases holding 20-odd deli dishes to order in or take out. I pick one of the cheap lunch-plate combos (¥950) and find the tasty morsels and friendly service recommend the eponymous white-tablecloth restaurant in the basement.

Recharged, I climb stairs to check out the building’s three upper floors. One displays British Farrow & Ball wall-coverings; another Colorwork’s brand of paint, Hip — in 1,488 shades; and on the fourth floor I hit pay dirt in Palette Gallery, an art and design space meant to highlight innovative wall treatments.

Trotting downstairs, I am almost out Renea’s door when a jar of dry macaroni pasta catches my eye. Each little tube is stuffed with a bit of rolled paper.

“Every one has an original fortune written by author Machi Yamada,” manager Fujio Suzuki tells me. “They’re really funny,” he adds. I plonk down ¥100, and get one. Mine promises I will have a modicum of good luck, and recommends I immediately visit an industrial factory. Not an art gallery? Funny indeed.

Being slightly superstitious, I visit the very next industrial-looking site I find, a deep garage full of forklifts and pallets of the unartistic sort. Yasuo Suzuki, 62, the owner of Kounsha, tells me that his goods-transportation business started 100 years ago, when his grandfather made deliveries with a bike and rear-car. But the area he serves, Bakurocho, long known as a clothing tonyagai (wholesale district) has changed, he explains, rubbing the grease on his hands. How?

He shakes his head, uncertain how to respond. “But I’m not interesting,” he says. “Let me introduce you to someone who is.”

Suzuki whistles up his wife, Hisako, and she guides me into an alley so narrow that a postman arriving on his scooter nearly squashes us. Behind Kounsha, in a hollowed-out old building, I meet willowy 43-year-old Akemi Shiroyama, proprietress of L’atelier Exquis, a workshop where she fashions and sells one-of-a-kind bags.

With a background in designing swimsuits for Olympic synchronized swimmers, and a love of innovative fabric use, Shiroyama for years created handbags on the side. However, mere months ago, she decided to hang out her shingle. “I love this area, because people are so warm. Also, I want to hold collaborative events with artists and designers here,” she tells me. If you can find them, I think to myself.

Hisako gazes at her new neighbor with undisguised admiration. “This part of town was really depressed,” she says, “but in the past two years, small shops and galleries like this one are popping up everywhere. It’s reviving.”

As Shiroyama demonstrates one of her favorite bag designs, a model that converts from bagette to boho in seconds, I note half-finished pencil sketches of birds on her wall. “I drew those,” she says. While L’atelier Exquis is not, strictly speaking, a gallery, I realize that my macaroni fortune worked a charm.

Before I move on, Hisako’s husband introduces me to his 94-year-old father. As I snap pictures of the two men, their camaraderie and laughter is infectious — and I understand why Shiroyama chose to open shop nearby.

Wandering south across Edo Avenue, the wholesale clothing district of Bakuro-yokoyama smells of plastic garment bags and ironed cotton. I note that many shops actively discourage non-commercial shoppers, but a few are less strict.

At Noda, a kimono shop 68 years in the same location, silk remnants fashioned into small, drawstring bags can be snapped up for ¥100, and tenugui (hand towels) for a mere ¥124. As I purchase a couple of these ecofriendly snips, I note a beguiling painting in the window of a crisp little gallery across the street. At last, art and air-conditioning, I think.

Walking into the Tobin Ohashi Gallery, run by partners Robert Tobin, 63, and Hitoshi Ohashi, 48, I’m struck by the raw energy of the work on the walls — done by young Indonesian painters way outside the traditional Bali box — and the welcoming aura.

I tour the gallery’s cleverly arranged three-room space — each with a different shape and intimacy level — admiring how front-window artist Agus Sumiantara has taken ordinary glass blocks and paint brushes and elevated them with sumptuous color and composition. I also like a kinetic oil-and-charcoal series titled “Emotion in Motion” by Ida Bagus Putu Purwa.

The gallery gradually fills with young people, Japanese and foreigners. These are members of Ohashi’s Tokyo Art Collectors Group, I learn, gathered to attend one of his gallery tours. Would I care to join? Does a brush hold paint?

Walking with Hitoshi, I soon learn that the area’s galleries are rarely in locations as accessible and obvious as the Tobin Ohashi. We pop up first to third-floor Unseal Contemporary and take in a show of pop-art mandalas by Buddhist priest Yukihisa Hirabayashi. At miniscule Gallery Hashimoto, refreshing works of sculpture and painting from Aoki Noe’s “Sky Water” series share space with Tadasu Yamamoto’s photographs.

Heading north again, we descend to the echo-filled basement space of αM Gallery, a Musashino Art University showcase for talented young curators as well as norm-busting conceptual artists.

I gaze at Shiro Masuyama’s provocative installation “Stratosphere Vol. 2,” which focuses on issues of borders and terrorist mentalities in Belfast, where he currently lives. A video showing him scooping dog poo off his front step is intriguing, but I don’t have time to fathom its meaning.

Ohashi guides us to two more galleries. At CASHI Contemporary Gallery Shima, our group ogles the pen drawings of Keita Sagaki, who reproduces famous works or makes landscapes out of tiny comic and erotic characters compressed or expanded in size to create tonal values. Next door, Radi-um von Roentgenwerke AG, a converted storehouse with red doors, is hosting a group exhibition celebrating the gallery’s 20th anniversary with a show of miniature “hand-sized” sculptures and objets.

Circling back to Tobin Ohashi Gallery, Tobin generously offers chilled wine to all as the sun sinks. I ask Ohashi if I have now seen every gallery in the area. “No way,” he exclaims, his eyes popping out. “There are more, at least 20! I will do them later, so please come!” Coolest thing I’ve heard all day.

To find out more about free Tokyo Art Collectors group tours, visit the Tobin Ohashi Gallery website at www.tobinohashi.com.