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Season’s greetings garnered in Tokyo’s Yanaka Ginza

by Kit Nagamura

Exchanging gifts in winter generates great warmth, but it can also freeze ones finances. So, while I love the glitz of shopping in Tokyo’s Ginza district, this year I take my yen to Yanaka Ginza, a backstreet version of its eponym. The idea? To see how many local or handmade gifts I can score on a budget of ¥20,000.

I emerge from the north exit of the Yamanote Line’s Nippori Station into a bonechilling November drizzle. Trudging uphill through a virtually deserted little neighborhood, I can hear rain ticking on my umbrella as I walk the boundary line between Arakawa and Taito Wards. “Where are all the people?” I wonder.

Finally at the stairway leading down to Yanaka Ginza, I spy a melee of colorful umbrellas. Before descending, I dip into Neco Action, a shop that’s strictly cats. Magnets, clocks, face towels and socks all sport feline themes. I pick up a charmingly illustrated tin button for ¥210, designed by fanciers of outdoor mousers. “We love cats in this neighborhood,” shop clerk and cat illustrator Mai Hatano tells me. “You’ll see them everywhere.”

Sure enough, as I cross the street toward an alluring spread of baskets, buckets, bags and boots, I see a damp cat lurking near Matsunoya, an aramono (sundry goods) shop. From amongst the utilitarian craftworks sold, I score a candy-red celluloid container (¥1,260) and two discontinued-production 1960s glass dishes in pale mauve (¥735 each).

Descending into Yanaka Ginza proper, I find souvenir and foodstuff purveyors, dating back from the very inception of the shopping street in the 1920s, interspersed with brand new concept stores.

One of the newbies, Jaaku no Hankoya (Wicked Name Stamp Shop), lets you add your name to the shop’s stamp designs, which range from cutesy to iffy. Japanese characters are the norm, of course, but the hanko (stamp) makers can include any name, up to six Roman letters. I order one of the preinked, basic models for ¥2,600, ready to go in a mere 30 minutes.

Next, at gift shop Tamaru, Yasuji Ogawa, 73, directs me toward a shelf of Shizuoka Prefecture-made paper maché figurines known as tamuningyo. A sweet horse, in brown washi paper with a jute tail and pink hooves (¥1,100), turns out to be a signed and numbered work. Who could say nay to that?

Amidst neighboring Nuno Fusen’s cat-crazy range of fabrics and stuffed toys, I pounce on a pair of grimalkin earrings (¥800). Zigzagging to the other side of the street, I discover the Motherhouse brand’s newest branch, opened here a month ago. “Motherhouse, founded by 32-year-old Eriko Yamaguchi, is a collaboration of Japanese designers and craftsmen in developing countries,” Marketing Director Shuji Ito explains. Forever in need of man-gifts, I buy a nifty leather and jute passcase (¥1,800).

Next, I slip into the party atmosphere at Mini Miji. Shop owner Miki Sato shows me the sewing machine and workspace where she fashions almost all of her hair accessories by hand. Feathers, beads and baubles gussy up headbands, decorated clips and elaborate fascinators. I purchase a pink floppy flower adornment (¥2,205) just because it’s pretty.

Shopping in the rain works up an appetite. From Yanaka Shippoya and Atelier de Florentina, aromas utterly dissimilar, yet equally enticing waft my way. Yanaka Shippoya doles out warm doughnuts shaped like cat’s tails and filled with various creams and flavored fillings. Atelier de Florentina — “the world’s only shop specializing in Florentine cookies,” according to chef Mihoko Kajiwara and her helpful husband, Makoto — offers infinite varieties on the classic cookie in an artistically minimalistic setting. I taste both treats to fuel further shopping.

I have to say I’m relieved, though, when the next aroma I smell in the moist air is the clean fragrance of roasting tea, a perfect followup to sweets. At Kanekichien, shop master Yoshinori Kobayashi instantly offers me a steaming cup. As I purchase a pack of the tea he recommends, a Shizuoka sencha called Tenkaichi (¥1,260), we chat. Peering into the depths of the store, I noticed metal doors engraved with cranes. “Those are the tea vaults,” Kobayashi says, his voice reverent. Curious, I strain to see inside, but Kobayashi says it’s not allowed.

Suddenly, a cheerful gentleman in a sweater vest and apron wanders over, and I am thrilled to meet 70-year-old Shohei Seki, whose father opened Kanekichien here 60 years ago. We gab for a bit, and then he asks if I’d like to see the tea vaults. Does a cat have nine lives?

Inside, Seki sets up two lacquer bowls of tea leaves, sifting each and sniffing the ruffled leaves. “Which is better?” he quizzes me. I point to the greener leaves, flecked with gold. “Ah,” he says, “it looks that way. But we don’t know yet.” Next, with all the finesse of a wine sommelier, he weighs out measured bits of tea, steeps them, then strains up a bit of each to smell it again. Finally he spoons up a sip from each cup, then disposes of the rest in a spittoon. “Now you try,” he offers.

To my amazement, the darker, somewhat duller leaves blossom with flavor, while the greenish gold one are bland. “That is why we taste every batch of tea that comes in,” Seki says with a grin.

Hearing that Seki enjoys writing haiku poetry, I ask if tea connoisseurs have descriptors that rival wine experts, and if so, how would he characterize the tea we both favor, Harunocho. He thinks for a minute. “It tastes like forest mist,” he says, with obvious pleasure.

On Seki’s suggestion, I head back to the steps of Yanaka Ginza, in search of a sweet shop that incorporates Kanekichien’s tea in its product.

Goto no Ame, I find, sells lovely flat packs of handmade candies, with bits of their natural ingredients visible inside. “Apricot, yuzu, cinnamon and ginger are the bestsellers,” 49-year-old ponytailed owner Kunio Ito explains, though clearly he likes them all. Goto no Ame cannot have been in business for 91 years unless they were good, I reason, and promptly purchase five packs (¥1,500), including the green tea candy.

Backtracking yet again, I duck into Midoriya, a bamboo crafts store. Featherweight chopsticks and exquisite bamboo cricket cages catch my eye. Moving toward the rear of the shop, though, I find a treasure.

Sitting on tatami mats, Suikoh Buseki, 55, is engaged in mentori, shaving barely visible edges off willowy strands of bamboo. Bunseki, I soon learn, is a master bamboo basket weaver, awarded and acclaimed worldwide. His gossamer baskets are dances of delicate susudake (smoked and aged bamboo) and madake varieties, secured with rattan threads. Diaphanous layers create a moiré effect, or guide the eye through the magic of woven tension versus the void in Buseki’s works. One of my favorites is fashioned of pale gnarled bamboo, swirled to evoke the spirals of an oceanic turban shell.

Trained in his art by no less than two National Living Treasures — Shokansai Iizuka (1919 — 2004) and Shokosai Hayakawa (1932) — third generation bamboo artist Buseki is nonetheless as unassuming as anyone in Yanaka Ginza. Only when he works, making the bamboo sing and bend to just within its limits, is his mastery obvious. Feeling his way through a new work, titled “escargot,” Buseki says, “I get hints from nature all the time.”

Too bad for my friends, but Buseki’s creations are out of my financial reach. Still, I feel rich to have watched him in action. Thanking him, I move on.

In a daze, I wander into Tonerien Chayutei, located at the foot of the stairs to Yanaka Ginza, and advertising an awesome-looking Mont Blanc version cream puff. I order one, with tea. When the chou crème arrives, the waiter tells me its shell is concocted of brown rice. In fact, biting in, I find delicious crispy bits of caramelized grain. Inside, pureed chestnut paste and whipped cream mingle, and I unexpectedly excavate a whole sweetened chestnut surprise at the center. It’s divine!

When I inquire about the tea at Tonerien, I am soon joined at my table by owner Toshio Toneri himself, a 51-year-old, cleareyed tea aficionado. Since 1924, Tonerien has specialized in gyokuro, or “jade dew,” teas from Fukuoka. Grown under straw shade mats, and brewed at reduced temperatures for longer than usual sencha (green teas), gyokuro is considered the finest grade sencha available in Japan. A “full course” gyokuro tasting set can be had at Tonerien for ¥750, but I opt instead for a ¥525 bottle of yuzukosho (a peppery citrus condiment) and a ¥750 brick of green tea yokan (bean paste sweet) for gifts instead.

Heading home with change in my pocket, I note Yanaka Ginza’s stepway is named “Yuyake Dandan” (gradual sunset). Happening to glance back down the slope, I find the skies cleared, and ablaze with fire. The best gift of the day is, of course, priceless.

Backstreet Stories will take a break during December, returning in January. Kit Nagamura wishes all her readers happy season’s readings!