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Not ducking tradition in Higashi-Ueno

by Kit Nagamura

With its lotus-laden Shinobazu pond, park grounds, and national museums, the Ueno area in Tokyo draws millions of visitors a year. Nearby Higashi-Ueno (Eastern Ueno), however, seems to be another world altogether. When I exit Shin-Okachimachi station, under skies portending summer heat, this low-lying area seems half asleep.

Overhead, seagulls call and sunlight streams through quiet alleys bordered by humble two-story homes, some bolstered with corrugated metal, others sporting nanobalconies strung with morning laundry. Light catches on a macrame of telephone and electric wires, and the streets are nearly vacant.

Intrigued by a metronomic thumping coming from an open window, I peek inside to find 72-year-old Kazuo Yasukawa excising tiny donuts from pig leather with an old Horie die-cutting machine. “These are the backings for snaps on coin purses to be sold in New York,” he says, proudly showing me photos of the flashy final products.

“I’ve been doing this for 35 years. It’s really all I can do. There are lots of shops like mine around here,” Yasukawa tells me, barely looking up from his job.

Walking on, I keep an eye out, but just as in the case of Yasukawa’s shop, workshops aren’t easy to spot. Instead, I find the narrow entrance of a Shinto shrine to Inari (god of fertility and agriculture, among other things) tucked between apartment buildings. Judging by the number of flags bearing the names of those who donate to its upkeep, the shrine is well-funded. A stone tablet reveals that the shrine occupies a location once held by a small hokura (wayside shrine) dating back to 1180. Somehow the hokura was neglected, then buried for several hundred years, during which time the area was plagued by incessant fires and disasters. Then, during the Edo Period (1603-1868), a vassal to the shogun received the land, and once he began to dig into the area’s past — literally and figuratively — he unearthed the little hokura. He re-established the shrine, which apparently quelled the area’s dangers. The shrine was, at one point, moved to nearby Shitaya Shrine, but when small fires broke out again, residents promptly moved it back.

Shitaya Shrine, it turns out, is just around the block, so I wander over to see it, too. Early summer light sparkles off the water in the temizuya (ritual cleansing basin) and lights up graceful carvings of birds overhead. I learn that this shrine, too, has been moved several times, from its first home on the Ueno plateau in 730, to the general vicinity in 1680, then to this exact location in 1928.

I catch sight of a priest hurrying by and hoping to learn more, follow after him. To my surprise, he enters a wire cage, calling gently to a white duck waiting inside. He bends to pet the creature with such a sweet expression on his face that the words of United Nations interpreter Jean Herbert come to mind, where he, in his 1967 book “Shinto: At the Fountainhead of Japan,” describes Shinto shrines as “a visible and ever-active expression of the kinship — in the most literal sense of the word — between individual man and the whole Earth, celestial bodies and deities, whatever name they be given.”

Priest Abe, son of Shitaya’s kannushi (head priest), seems a bit flustered when I approach, but visibly relaxes when I ask about the duck. “That’s Ga-chan,” the 32-year-old says. “I’ve raised him from the time he was born. He eats canned sweet corn and cabbage.” Ga-chan sounds like the proverbial “lucky duck,” I think. Since Abe appears busy, I decide not to bother him further.

Now more at home in the neighborhood, I discover a narrow alley — slightly wider than my outstretched arms — and stop in front of a linen noren (shop curtain) that reads “Monsho Uwaeshi.” Could this really be the workshop of a kamon (family crest) designer, I wonder? When I knock, Shoryu Hatoba, 57, and his son, Yohji, 30, appear, both looking sartorially smart in their kimono. I learn they are third- and forth-generation kamon creators, but that their shop, Kyo-gen, moved to Higashi-Ueno only four years ago.

“It’s no easy thing to make a living designing mon,” Shoryu says, painstakingly limning the details of a crest onto a kimono sleeve with a bamboo protractor; the brush of which he dips in freshly ground sumi ink (made from soot, oil and bone glue). Shoryu and his computer-whizz son have worked hard to expand the perimeters of their business by applying kamon designs to furniture, tableware and accessories.

“We still do things by hand when we can, because few remain who can do this, and we want to pass along that cultural skill,” Shoryu says. As he works, the studio fills with the incense of ink, and Yohji responds to his father’s every need instantly, even adjusting his obi as I snap photos. The men share an uncommon mutual respect, with Yohji dotingly devoted to his father. I ask Yohji if his upbringing was on the strict side. “Absolutely,” he says, smiling.

When I comment on a beautiful cobalt-blue crest, overprinted somehow with the Hannya Shingyo (Buddhist Heart Sutra) in minutely delicate gold characters, Shoryu orders Yohji to escort me to the workshop that Kyo-gen is collaborating with to make this unusual printed creation.

Yohji’s upbringing requires that he carry my equipment as we trek from Higashi-Ueno to the workshop in the neighboring district of Kotobuki, and here, at leather-stamping factory Artistic Beauty, I meet 65-year-old owner Yasuo Shimizu, who is, frankly, a firebrand. Both the Kyo-gen and the Shimizu family businesses were founded in 1910, but Yasuo, being an only son, fled to the United States, planning never to return. He worked as a wedding cameraman in Hawaii for six years, then a prep chef in San Francisco for another six years. Only his father, who was seriously ailing, brought him back to Japan. Once he returned, he was stuck.

“I hate this work,” he says, laughing, “but it’s in my DNA. Plus, my father’s customers wouldn’t let me go.”

Protests aside, Shimizu is openly proud to handle the precision branding of world famous luxury-brand logos into his leather. In the early days, his father used a mixture of droppings from Japanese Bush Warblers, egg whites and vinegar, and heated brands over charcoal embers to emboss products with gold leaf, but now Shimizu has taken the shop electric, with stamping machines he has nicknamed Benz, Porche and Cat. “I used to have a Ferrari, too, but I sold it,” he says with a laugh. Cat, I note, is the oldest machine, with a lever that looks like a feline tail.

Shimuzu admits that he has grown to enjoy the social connections his work provides and collaborating with Kyo-gen is part of that. Their current project combines the efforts of washi maker Iwano Ichibei IX — a living national treasure — with Kyo-gen’s silkscreening and kamon expertise, and Shimizu’s embossing know-how. The resulting work celebrates not only Buddhism, but craftsmanship, community and family history.

Taking reluctant leave of Yohji and Shimizu, I wander back to Higashi-Ueno, and my eye is caught by Tosaku Honten’s window display of glossy-bamboo fishing poles, or wazao. To my surprise, I learn from spirited shop master Kohei Matsumoto, 64, that the shop has been in the immediate vicinity since 1788. Intuiting my interest, Matsumoto sends me upstairs to find his twin sons crafting the delicate rods.

Firstborn Ryohei, 28, quietly engages in togikomi, the act of polishing the lacquered joint of a stave, which is part of the three- to four-month process required to produce a rod. “My brother’s been doing this for ten years,” twin Shuhei says. “I’m just starting and Ryohei’s teaching me.”

New to the profession, Shuhei is enthusiastic to point out that their rods, if used with care, will offer a century of finely responsive fishing pleasure. “Lasts about as long as a human,” quips Shuhei.

I might as well be “gone fishing” myself as I learn about kirikumi sagyo, the painstaking selection of different bamboo types — nebori for the handle, yadake for the thicker staves and hotechiku for the thinner end pieces — and admire the hallmark of Tosaku’s poles: a red thread wrapped around each joint, then covered with five layers of black lacquer that grow more translucent as the years pass.

Aside from worrying about finding wives who will appreciate their rarefied lifestyle, both guys lament the fact that they are nearly alone in their craft. “We really need competition,” points out Ryohei. Since each fishing rod is fashioned entirely by one man, and signed like a work of art, perhaps the twins will eventually develop distinct techniques, and offer one another the challenge they require. Parting from Tosaku Honten, I head off under the pale lapis of Higashi-Ueno’s summer twilight, moved by the continuity of families here.

Getting there: The Higashi-Ueno district, in Tokyo’s Taito Ward, can be reached from Shin-Okachimachi Station on the Oedo subway line.