Under cartoon-blue skies washed by early-autumn typhoons, I stand at Sendaizaka-ue (summit of Sendaizaka Slope) in Tokyo’s Minato Ward. Sendaizaka was named for daimyo lords from Edo Period (1603-1867) Sendai, now in Miyagi Prefecture, who maintained a yashiki (suburban home) on the slope that today hosts the newly rebuilt Embassy of South Korea.
At the summit’s busy six-forked intersection, a policeman mans an accordion traffic gate used to quell sporadic demonstrations rising from tensions between Japan and South Korea. Sendaizaka is no stranger to diplomatic skirmishes. In 1861, Henry C.J. Heusken, a Dutch interpreter working for Townsend Harris at the first American Legation based within the Zenpukiji Temple grounds, misjudged his safety returning home one night. A band of sonno joi (or samurai loyalists agitated by foreign incursions into their country) ambushed him with swords. Heusken was able to make it back to the temple grounds, halfway up Sendaizaka Slope, but perished that evening.
Crossing the intersection, I recall that Sendaizaka-ue is also where several busloads of passengers were abducted into a black hole by the evil Jadeite, antagonist in the popular anime “Sailor Moon.” A crow caws overhead and the cop slightly resembles Sailor Moon’s sweetheart, Tuxedo Mask, so I quickly dip down a backstreet to avoid being sucked into a teen-fantasy zone.
Entering the Honmura-Machi area of Minami-Azabu, I head for the quietest backstreet, which apparently doubles as a popular pit stop for cabbies. Outside a public restroom, six vacant taxis, meters off, tell the tale. As yet another cab rolls up, I skedaddle. Rounding a corner, I discover escaping toilets won’t be so easy. At Aqualabo, I peer in at a showroom packed with European designer commodes, sinks, bathtubs and washbasins. Imported by Osaka head office Tform, the appurtenances at Aqualabo are the kind that make home designers and architects swoon, and are chosen by the city’s finest hotels, including the Peninsula and Mandarin Oriental. The cavernous store includes full bath and kitchen displays, and a peaceful deck outside with a trio of tubs. “Do you ever actually bathe out here, after hours?” I ask Aqualabo’s general manager, 40-year-old Motohiro Ishimura. “Well, the water’s not connected,” he laughs, “and you know, someone might see me.”
Ishimura, the third generation in his family to work with metal fittings, has an innate love of good design. “But people in Japan don’t spend as much time in their homes as they used to,” he laments. “The art of beautiful living, which Japanese used to value, is disappearing. Instead, it’s all a question of what is cheapest.”
An Aqualabo steel-enamel Kaldewei tub, tranquil as a bowl of cream, starts at ¥150,000. For an item you’d hope to soak in for decades, that’s not bad. But what if you also want a matching wall-mounted toilet, or lust after the chic Catalano basin in the showroom window? You’d have to be flush to install it all.
I thank Ishimura for his time and, upon leaving, note the shop’s door handle has wee nozzles in it. It’s a repurposed showerhead. Even used in unconventional ways, designer goods lift the spirits.
Next door, I encounter spirit-lifters from a different era. In preparation for the Honmura-Machi matsuri (street festival), a pair of enormous carved and lacquered shishi (lion-dog guardians) have been set out on display at the local community center. Hideo Kaneko, 69, Teruo Kobayashi, 70, and Eiko Nishikawa, 74, are chuffed that I’ve stopped to admire their staged arrangement, which includes two life-size dashi ningyō (festival-float dolls), fruit offerings, rice cakes and a scroll reading “Hikawa Jinja,” the name of the shrine nearest to Sendaizaka-ue. “These shishi are very old,” says Kaneko, “and it took us a long time to set up the dolls in natural poses.” Kobayashi nods in agreement, tipping his cowboy hat at me.
We chat for a bit, then Kaneko, Kobayashi and Nishikawa invite me inside the town council hall to admire the intricately-carved Honmura-Machi mikoshi (portable shrine) inside. When I start to ask detailed questions about the area’s history, though, they insist on deferring to the council president, scheduled to return in the late afternoon. In the meantime, perhaps I could go fishing, they suggest. Fishing? Really?
I take the bait and head off as directed, toward Honmura Elementary School’s swimming pool, passing en route a slightly unnerving sign that informs me I am exactly 22.5 meters above sea level. Wending down increasingly narrow alleyways, I finally locate hidden fishing hole Shurakuen, completely surrounded by apartment buildings.
Yoko Tsubota’s grandfather, using natural underground water, set up this fishing pond business 91 years ago. Today, ¥900 nabs you a pillow, a rigged pole and a smidgen of green pasty bait for a hour’s worth of catch-and-release. “It’s only ¥600 if you bring your own pole,” Tsubota says.
Across the pond, I spy a young man who appears to be meditating, rather than fishing. Nonetheless, as I approach, he gently reels in a woebegone carp. Masatoshi Nakamura, 37, drops a line here on a weekly basis. “I like the cicadas, and the sound of children playing at the school. I feel more part of nature here,” he explains, deftly freeing his piscine prisoner from the hook. A hard-working soba chef, Nakamura finds escaping to Shurakuen mid-afternoon a Zen-like break.
I, too, could find bliss watching dragonflies and waterboatmen glide over the surface of this quiet oasis. Instead, I head back to my matsuri friends, where president Hiroshi Hisamatsu, 66, is waiting. We hunker down on tatami mats to page through a thick scrapbook of the area’s history. The shishi were carved in 1862 by one Sanshiro Tsunetoshi, I learn, and the dolls, from a slightly later period, represent Takehaya Susano-o no Mikoto, the Shinto god of the sea and storms, and Takenouchi Sukune no Mikoto, a legendary figure said to have served under Empress Jingu and lived for 280 years. Hisamatsu and I find it miraculous that the shishi and dolls survived both the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 and the fire bombings of World War II that burned so much of the area.
As we talk, members of the town council begin to gather. Everyone chips in with details to help me visualize the town’s history. While the street layout seems unchanged since the Edo Period, all daimyo estates were converted to rice fields after the 1868 Meiji Restoration. Then, as numerous embassies moved in, a lively shopping street emerged in Honmura-Machi. Post-bubble economics put paid to that, though, leaving Aqualabo about the only business going. Today, the council seems somewhat proud that its hood is home to many foreign residents.
I’m just about to mosey on when Kobayashi lets slip that, after a lifetime of working as a carpenter, his hobby now is carving likenesses of the tools of his trade. Intrigued, I ask to see his work studio. “Work studio?” someone guffaws from the peanut gallery. “He doesn’t have a studio. He probably makes those things on his futon!” “Nah,” Kobayashi retorts, “I make other things on the futon.” Raunchy repartee ensues.
Kobayashi offers to take me to his house to see his work, but the sky is darkening already, so I hesitate. One of the council members quickly sidles up. “Don’t worry,” she says with a wink, “he’s the safest guy here!”
With that, we’re off. On the way, Kobayashi relates how his job has always been crafting intricate carpentry, but now that he is 70, he gets relegated to routine work, with little creativity. He suggests that carving seems to take the edge off that disappointment.
I’m not expecting high art, but as Kobayashi lines up his creations in zelkova wood — thin saws with carved handles, a carpenter’s square, hammers and chisels that come apart as real ones might — I feel the undercurrents of deep appreciation. “I made my first carving to send to a blacksmith, so that he would understand exactly the kind of chisel I was ordering,” Kobayashi says. When I compliment his acuity, he flushes slightly.
When I leave Kobayashi to his family and dinner, and walk home through the blue evening, I realize he has shared with me a tactile history of his life, and the delicate construct of his pride.