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Strolling old Fukagawa, where gardens and true glitterati mingle

by Kit Nagamura

I may be jumping the gun a bit on fall colors, but early October’s glorious weather has got me craving some autumnal arboreality. So, at Kiyosumi-Shirakawa Station on the Oedo subway line, I take Exit A3, a mere stone’s throw from the Kiyosumi Teien garden east of Tokyo’s Sumida River.

Plonking down ¥150, I enter the light-dappled grounds of a classic kaiyu-shiki niwa (literally, “many pleasures garden”), arranged so that visitors behold a variety of miniature landscapes as they stroll around the central, rainwater-fed pond.

Believed to have first graced the residence of the bon vivant mikan (mandarin orange) merchant Bunzaemon Kinokuniya (1669-1734), in the early 1700s the grounds came into the possession of Kuze Yamato-no-kami, the lord of Sekijuku Castle, a strategic stronghold to the northeast of Edo (present-day Tokyo) in what is now Chiba Prefecture.

Lord Kuze is credited with the basic structure of the garden, which graced his yashiki (secondary residence), but the layout then underwent significant revisions when acquired by Yataro Iwasaki, the founder of Mitsubishi, in 1878.

Within two years, Iwasaki had added to his entertainment venue an expansive Japanese-style home and a two-story red-brick building designed in the Tudor manner by Josiah Condor (1852-1920), a British architect often dubbed “the father of Japanese modern architecture.”

However, both buildings fell victim to the devastating Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, when thousands of locals fleeing post-quake firestorms only survived by leaping into the garden’s ponds. After that, the Iwasaki family donated the garden to the city of Tokyo as a permanent evacuation site. Happily, the city elected to preserve half the formal garden, and designated the other half as a public park.

One of Iwasaki’s passions appears elegantly underfoot as I circle Kiyosumi Teien. Making use of his steamship fleet, he selected and brought sublime rocks — rippled, pockmarked, blue-tinted or jasper-veined — from all over Japan to be focal points in his garden. I join a pod of children leaping nimbly over the isowatari, a path of unconnected stones that rise out of the pond, designed to focus one’s attention on the surrounding waters frenzied with metabolic carp begging treats.

Great blue herons swoop through air fragrant with tiny orange osmanthus blossoms as I wend a lazy circuit. I enjoy the company of 68-year-old Kimiko Morimoto, a fellow shutterbug, and we chat about history. Once she learns of my interest in the neighborhood, she graciously leads me through several backstreets to the studio of Akio Kurokawa, an Edo kiriko (Edo-style cut-and-faceted glass) artisan. “Talk to him,” she suggests, mounting her bike.

Wiry and quick-witted, Kurokawa, 72, tells me that Edo kiriko, which dates from at least 1834, involves the engraving of geometric designs on crystal or glass vessels. Most pieces feature a colored layer of glass over a clear base, which emphazises the pattern etched by the diamond cutter. Traditional patterns reflect those once found in daily life, such as nanako (fish scales), kagome (basket weave) or asa no ha (hemp leaves).

I ask Kurokawa how he got into this work. “Well, once you graduate high school, you have to do something,” he says with a shrug and lopsided grin. “After the war, we all helped our families.” Kurokawa found himself apprenticed to Hideo Kobayashi, a local Edo kiriko artisan.

“My oyagata,” Kurokawa says, referring to his master, “was really tops at this. Any good thing I’ve ever made is thanks to him” — and judging from his walls adorned with prizes and certificates garnered over the past 50 years, he has a lot to be thankful to him for.

While Kurokawa sometimes fills specific orders, his specialty is freeform design. “To make the same thing all the time is boring,” he says, handing me a book published by collectors of his work that includes photos of a series of dishes named after operas: Turandot, Madame Butterfly, La Boheme, etc. “My friends thought that up,” he says. “I have no brain for such stuff.”

Modest as he might be, Kurokawa’s work is a complex libretto of soaring curves cutting into geometric patterns, and it’s easy to see why his highball glasses start at ¥30,000. Bedazzled, but not wishing to overstay my welcome, I take my leave as Kurokawa sets his diamond cutter spinning again.

Perusing small shops along Kiyosumi Street, I duck into one with clean lines called Onnellinen, which, I discover, means “happy” in Finnish. Its shelves proffer seasonal goods, both local and Scandinavian. Autumn is conjured in knitting needles and skeins of beautiful Isager wools from Denmark, snuggled up to handmade leather shoes and felted purses. “You’ll find lots of neat shops around here,” says owner Sawako Serada. “It’s a great new trend.”

Following her suggestion, I explore several intriguing pocket galleries before stumbling on the Fukagawa Edo Museum, where I learn that the Shirakawa and Kiyo- sumi districts I’m perambulating were known collectively as Fukagawa during the Edo Period (1603-1867). Like most land across the Sumida River from Edo, this was, in terms of sea level and economic status, even lower than Shitamachi, the city’s so-called Low Town. Still, lively festivals and its edgy appeal made it popular with Edoites.

The basement museum recreates a main street and several back alleys of Fukagawa, circa 1840. Sounds of vendors, sparrows, rain and night crickets fill the air — all synchronized with lighting that cycles through the hours and seasons. Cheerful docent Shigeru Yonezawa, 71, leads me past a store selling fish oil for lamps and dried sardines for fertilizer, and I am suddenly grateful that the museum skips the olfactory sense.

Yonezawa divvies out sharp tidbits of Edo information that make the museum, and times past, come alive: An egg cost (at today’s prices) about ¥400; a diet of polished rice meant Edoites often suffered from beriberi; and vendors of insect pets jacked up their prices during cold weather due to scarcity of stock. As I leave, I ask the name of the mechanical cat that occasionally rises up and cries out from a rooftop. “That’s Mamesuke,” he says, suggesting that the cat may have been here since the museum opened in 1961.

Heading back out to the streets, at Edo Dagashiya Takahashi, a traditional penny- candy store, I meet Nobuo and Tamiko Takahashi, both in their 70s. They’ve run their small shop, crammed with nostalgic cheap treats, for the past 26 years. Inside, it’s wall to wall with kids chatting, laughing and getting real-world facetime. Nobuo, who’s clearly the community’s cornerstone, stands outside greeting all who pass by name and carving traditional toys.

Across Kiyosumi Street, a row of 1930s two-story buildings runs like a protective firewall around Kiyosumi Teien. At Tea Room Gallery Rakuan, owner Itsue Saito serves rare varieties of Chinese teas, including Yunnan’s best, and oversees an artisan’s display space that seems popular with foreigners. Nearby, at Meicha Yoshinoen, a purveyor of Japanese tea, Satoko Takagi and her 9-year-old granddaughter, Miyu One, sell prepackaged teas from Uji and Shizuoka. “We once packaged everything by hand,” Satoko tells me, “but tea is surprisingly brutal on your skin.”

At great caloric risk, I next dip into Fujimura, a small wagashi (Japanese traditional sweets) shop. Owner Masami Tsujii, 72, and his wife generously ply me with samples. I try both the Fukagawa sweet, a delicate creampuff shell encasing sweet azuki bean paste, and a Basho-an monnaka of bean paste and sticky rice inside crispy wafer shells shaped like the thatched home of haiku poet Matsuo Basho, who once resided in Fukagawa. Moved by these sweet concoctions, I purchase some of both.

Now in dire need of exercise, I zip around Kiyosumi public park, and head west, where a pink factory catches my eye. Dodging between rapidly moving cement trucks, I head to the operations offices of the Asano Concrete Co. “Skin pink was the color our company founder, Shoichi Asano, liked,” says 26-year-old concrete technician Shinsaku Matsuoka, referring to Shoichi Asano (1848-1930), who established Japan’s very first cement factory back in 1873, the year cement was first manufactured in the United States.

As he talks about his job, Matsuoka kindly escorts me through powdery clouds from the gravel and sand used to make concrete. “It’s heavy work, and I wish more women were in the business,” he says with a wink. “But I’m proud to be part of a firm that provided building materials for Tokyo Sky Tree, Roppongi Hills and Midtown.”

Shoichi Asano clearly liked this neighborhood; when locals complained about the ash output at the factory, he invented an electric ash-collector that transformed the waste into potash fertilizer, so he didn’t have to move. Of course he built concrete ties to his country’s future, but his skin-pink factory to this day stands as an example of how industry and residences can coexist given ingenuity and earnest sensitivity.