Each year, I tell myself I have to make time to enjoy the famed trellises of wisteria blossoms at Kameido Tenjin in Tokyo’s eastern Koto Ward. Then, I blow it. This year, I enlist my mother-in-law, who’s savvy about such things, to get the timing just right. “It’ll be really crowded,” she warns.
Sure enough, after I alight from a JR Sobu Line train at Kameido Station on a dazzling weekday, all I have to do is follow a parade of parasols heading north on Meiji Dori. Kameido, once a turtle-shaped island, was subsumed in sandy landfill during the early 1600s. However, people who moved to live on the new land found they could only draw fresh water from a well dug over the original island — so they named the area by combining the words for turtle (kame) and water well (ido).
Turning left on Kuramaebashi Avenue, I join the hordes at Kameido Tenjin. Built in 1646 to honor the Heian Period scholar, poet and politician Sugawara no Michizane, who was posthumously deified as a god of learning, the Shinto shrine today is a study in crowd management.
I head for the highest viewing point, its red taikobashi (drum-shaped bridge) celebrated in woodblock prints of artists such as Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858), Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Hiroshi Yoshida (1876-1950).
Destroyed by fires repeatedly — most recently in wartime U.S. bombings — the shrine’s reconstructed bridge incorporates concrete steps that are invaluable to today’s throngs of camera-toting visitors. From this elevated vantage point, I enjoy the same breezes that are wafting through 15 trellises of flowers, scattering their fragrance.
Continuing over the shrine’s second bridge, the flatter “female” bridge (need I explain?), I head to the shrine to pray for poetic inspiration. Then, circumnavigating the shrine’s pond, shaped like the kanji for “heart,” I locate a fudezuka — meaning, oddly enough, “a memorial site for old brushes and pens.” Here, calligraphers, writers and painters can lay their exhausted implements to rest. Checking my Pilot fountain pen, I see at age 50, it’s nowhere near retirement.
As I linger to admire wisteria racemes reflected in the pond, a great gray heron startles a stack of sleeping turtles with his squawking “Fraaaank!” Another one glides in — Frank, presumably — and I admire his graceful landing among the flowers.
Leaving the shrine, I spot Bekko Isogai, a turtle’s worst nightmare. Specializing in items fashioned from tortoiseshell, its products include traditional wapin (hair ornaments) in the style of the Edo Period (1603-1867), jewelry, eyeglasses and even a Zippo lighter case. When I stop in to chat, head artisan Minoru Isogai, 65, is shaping a bit of blond shell, the honey-colored plastron from the reptile’s underside. Having learned the trade from his now 99-year-old father, Minoru has the challenge of passing on his skills to his sons Katsumi, Tsuyoshi and Daisuke — aged 40, 39 and 36, respectively.
“There are few of us in Japan still making tortoiseshell items,” Isogai says, “because we’re not guaranteed a supply of raw materials.” Since Japan signed relevant provisions of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1991, and due to a serious degradation of reef habitats around the world, many tortoiseshell artisans have despaired of continuing a traditional art form practiced since the Heian Period.
“I didn’t want my sons to follow me if they couldn’t make a living.” Minoru says. “By carefully divvying out my father’s stock, sourcing shells from Cuba where hawksbills are part of the diet and the shells would otherwise be discarded, and participating in a turtle-farming project on Ishigaki Island, I think their livelihood might be safe.”
Couldn’t you use the turtles sunbathing next door, I ask, half in jest. “Oh no,” Minoru says, smiling sweetly at my idiocy. “Only the hawksbill sea turtle has a shell that can meld seamlessly.”
Picking up one of the most expensive items at Isogai, a hairpin, I note its mesmerizing translucency, warmth, and near weightlessness. The price tag, ¥378,000, clearly indicates the skill required to produce the piece — and also the material’s rarity.
Minoru graciously invites me to his studio, a five-minute stroll north of the shrine, to see part of the process. Inside, he puts on jazz music and shows me the workstations of his sons. “It’s not easy managing three boys,” he confides, and I nod, imagining the various temperaments and artistic drives involved. “They also insisted we stop working sitting on tatami mats. That was hard to get used to,” Minoru says with a sigh.
Then, as he plucks a few pieces of pre-soaked shell and uses a kogatana (cutting knife) and gangiri (toothed file) to smooth their surfaces, I note the astoundingly lovely patterns, like Buddhist carvings of clouds, on the inner side of the natural shells. Next he sands the tiniest scratches on the pieces’ surfaces to help the thin layers adhere. Lightly sprinkled with water, then sandwiched between two heated teppan (steel plates), the pieces need only five minutes of carefully calibrated pressure to fuse seamlessly. Minoru gently bends the result, pliable as taffy, to demonstrate how the material can be worked into nearly any shape.
Fearing I’ll take up too much of his day, I thank him and stroll off to the quiet neighborhood east of Kameido Tenjin. On a residential backstreet, at the honesty stand of shop Kameya Izumido, I find small six-packs of kuzuyu, cakes of pressed and flavored kudzu flour which, when added to hot water, make a gelatinous gruel.
Store-owner Tadashi Kuramochi, 66, invites me in briefly to see his wee operation that makes and supplies ginger, cinnamon or citrus-flavored kuzuyu across the country. As we chat, half his roadside stock sells out.
Around the corner, in tree-darkened depths of ancient Fumonin Temple, I find a grave marker for tanka poet and novelist Sachiyo Ito (1864-1913), as well as the face of a lovely Kannon (deity of mercy) statue hidden behind red spring maples. Further east, I locate the area’s oldest shrine, Kameido Katori Shrine. Established in 665 by Fujiwara no Kamatari — founder of the storied Fujiwara clan — and dedicated to the gods of victory, it is also home to a statue honoring to the once locally grown Kameido daikon, said to be thinner but more nutritious than today’s grocery-store variety.
Now hungry, I am nonetheless intrigued by a rack of blue worksuits hanging out to dry at Sanwa Kogyo. Company head Hideyuki Yamaguchi tells me he’s a second-generation boiler-maintenance professional whose clients manage massive buildings, Roppongi Hills for instance. Rooting through a drawer of boiler-tube expanders, he explains that he also does repairs for locals.
“There used to be lots of blacksmiths and small machine shops around here,” he explains, “but now when stuff needs fixing, we’re the only people left who can do it.” Just then, hunger steers my gaze to several huge boxes of candy on Yamaguchi’s shelf. Clocking me, he says, “That’s salt candy; this is incredibly hot work, and we need it!”
Salt is not on my lunch menu. Neither, really, is a vat of miso, but I can’t resist a brief halt at Miso-no-Kyutei. Septuagenarian owners Miyoko and Toyonaga Katsutoshi, both sporting nejiri-hachimaki (twisted-cloth headbands), are genuine foodies, and are as at ease with one another as young lovers.
In the business for nearly six decades, they grow animated explaining each of their many miso varieties. From Miyoko, I learn that the Kameido daikon isn’t grown in Kameido these days, though it is in nearby Katsushika-ku. Seeing my disappointment, she slaps a dollop of a light-amber miso into a bag. “Try that, and come back if you like it,” she says, with a confident smile.
Back out on Kuramaebashi Avenue, a block-long line of customers at Matsumoto, the area’s preeminent daikon restaurant, discourages me. Across the street, at Oshiage Senbei, I buy rice crackers cut in the shapes of daikon and small turtles, but they’re not lunch. I must now appear deliriously hungry, because a random guy comes up to me and asks if I’m searching for Kamiedo Gyoza. No, actually, but that sounds good.
Obtaining vague directions, as I weave through a narrow alley back toward the railway station I suddenly smell nirvana. There’s another line, but I join it and, 20 minutes later, pot-stickers arrive, crispy on one side and fragile on the other. They’re dirt cheap and tasty and I scoff four plates of them like wildfire as the day winds down. I won’t wait for wisteria to return to Kameido.
On June 29, Kit Nagamura will appear in NHK World’s “Journeys in Japan,” a special program on Matsuo Basho’s haiku. Live-streaming and broadcast times can be found at www.nhkworld.com.