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Much about nothing in Akabane Iwabuchi

by Kit Nagamura

The nexus between Tokyo’s rainy season and the heat of summer brings beastly humidity. I choose to explore Akabane Iwabuchi, an area in Tokyo’s Kita Ward, for the possibility of cool breezes coming off the nearby Arakawa River. But that idea is toast the second I exit the subway; sunlight pulses off the concrete intersection of Kanpachi and Kita Hon Avenues, and leaden air churns in the wake of rattling trucks and cars. Effluent from a corner ramen shop turns gamey before it reaches the sewer and boxy utilitarian low-rise buildings, in every nuance of beige, work like oven walls. I’m instantly wilted.

Only an enormous mosaic, covering the side of a four-story building facing the intersection, offers any visual relief. “Sand Mountain,” a 1954 work by illustrator Rokuro Taniuchi (1921-81), portrays a blushing girl and frisky puppy leaving footprints as they climb a dune backed by dark blue water. Taniuchi created only two monumental tile works in Tokyo: one at the busy Omotesando crossing featuring a sun-drenched beach scene, and Akabane Iwabuchi’s “Sand Mountain” with its, thankfully cooler, seaside colors.

Veering down a backstreet in search of shade, I meet two women in gauze tunics and broad-brimmed hats at the entrance to what appears to be a newly built temple. “Actually, Shokoji is the oldest temple in the area,” 73-year-old Junko Tsuchiya informs me. Her daughter, Satoe Tsugita, 42, nods and suggests that I interview the priest. They accompany me to the temple offices, secure me an appointment for mid-afternoon, then offer to tell me about their hometown over lunch.

We plod off to Metro Cafe Deguchi Niban, which, as its name suggests, sits right above exit two of the subway station. Over the bistro’s roast-pork lunch set (¥1,200), Junko frets about the future of her neighborhood. “People pass through this place now, without stopping,” she says. Historically, this wasn’t so. During the Edo Period (1603-1868), the area served as the first shukuba (a post station and crucial rest stop) on the Nikko Onari Kaido — a road built to expedite the Tokugawa Shogunate’s frequent trips to Nikko’s Toshogu Shrine. Then, Junko explains, in the early 1900s, Toden electric trams and trolleys enlivened the area and, later, Akabane Iwabuchi enjoyed traffic from people transferring from the Saitama Line terminal on their way in to Tokyo. “Now there’s a through train, and a highway, so we’re passed by,” Junko says.

Neither Junko nor Satoe wallow in self-pity, though. Junko implies that living close to the Arakawa River automatically inures one to hardship. “That river used to rise often, flooding and killing people. It’s managed better now, with sluice gates,” she says, referring to the 1924 completion of the Akasuimon floodgates, and the newer gates installed in 1982. “But I can still remember several floods.”

With lunch done, we venture once more into the swelter. Before parting, I snap pictures of my new friends posing as ghosts under a willow tree — willows supposedly shelter such spirits. Thrilled, but not chilled, we go our separate ways.

With time yet before my priestly appointment, I wander through alleys bordered by homes cobbled out of sweat and nails. Junko’s words reverberate as I pass several abandoned abodes, with mailboxes taped shut and vines snaking from the inside out. At a newer, well-kept residence, I spot a poster wrapped in plastic that depicts traditional Japanese kites.

Ringing the doorbell, I meet Yasuo Shimura, 65, a professional tako ueshi (kite-maker), who has been in the business for 35 years. Shimura shows me his workplace, a third-floor garret that we access via a wobbly set of pull-down stairs. My slippery socks and camera bag make the ascent tricky. “No one has fallen yet, but you could be the first,” Shimura says with a laugh.

Pride gets me safely to the attic, which today doubles as a sauna. The fierce faces of warriors and demons — dynamically painted on washi (Japanese traditional paper) and pinned to the walls — make the room even hotter. Showing off his creations, Shimura relates that kite-making techniques were likely imported to Japan from China, along with Buddhism, in the sixth century, but kite-making took off once Japanese mastered paper making in the 10th century. “At first, they were expensive, only flown by the very wealthy,” Shimura says. I remark that Shimura’s cheapest kite, at ¥13,000, is still rather exclusive.

“Perhaps,” he admits, “but by the Meiji revolution, kites hit their heyday. After that, in the 1880s, Tokyo was strung up with electric wires — a kite’s worst nightmare. Kite-flying in Tokyo was actually outlawed. It’s still illegal to this day.” I ask Shimura if he is, necessarily at times, flying in the face of the law? His eyes widen, and grinning, he nods.

To change the subject, Shimura loads a brush with ink, and demonstrates sumi-ire, the outlining of a design — in this case a samurai’s face — on the kite’s “skin.” An Utagawaha painter, Shimura’s style descends from that of famous ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858). Next, Shimura applies kegaki: broad brush strokes ending in delicate wisps that resemble hair. “This changes everything,” he says, pointing out how the warrior now appears alive and appropriately wind-swept, “and hair is the hardest detail to do well.” Once the ink is dry, Shimura proceeds with iro-tsuke (adding color), then splits bamboo hone (bones) for the kite’s flexible yet resilient skeleton and, finally, attaches a bridle.

Shimura is also a skillful letterer of Edo-style characters, a job he did for Kodansha publications for nearly 20 years. To prove his skills, he writes the kanji characters for my name on a small kite. “Now, if you can get this to fly, your name will rise,” he says. Since he has produced gorgeous kites for royalty, the heads of state, and media darlings, I feel in lofty company. Grateful for his time and gift, I reluctantly cut the string to Shimura, and descend the rickety stairs back to terra firma.

When I arrive at Shokoji, I am surprised to discover that head priest Jukoh Takahashi looks startlingly young in his samue (monk’s work clothing) top, with cargo pants and sneakers below. But it turns out the clear-eyed, tonsured 36-year-old has headed the Jodo Shu temple for six years already. He’s a young, old hand at the job, and the 39th generation of his family to steer Shokoji, which claims its roots go back to the year 1200, during the Kamakura Period.

“More than 500 years ago, we were located near the Arakawa River,” Takahashi says, as he shows me around. “But we were washed away by a flood in the early years of the Meiji Period, so we moved here.” Takahashi explains that the temple’s 10-meter-high Kannon statue was erected in 1870, supposedly to calm the Arakawa River. Recently restored, along with the temple’s main structure, the Kannon echoes an early Asuka-Period style of the benevolent bodhisattva: male in appearance, with a smartly stylized goatee.

As we walk outside the temple’s main gate, Takahashi points to the street. “This used to be a brook,” he says, “and people tied boats to the second floor of their storehouses, to quickly escape from floods.” We stroll off through the neighborhood together, and it’s a bit like doing the town with a celeb. People wave, invite us in and want to connect.

Passing Kida Mago Jiro Shoten, a tiny tofu shop, Sachiko, 83, and Susumu Kida, 82, come out to greet us. Like a fairy tale couple, they exude conjugal bliss. Breezes flow through their home, built in the late 1920s, and Susumu shows me how removable shoji (paper panels) in his sliding doors help keep the air circulating.

Next, inside a chaotic jungle of tools and wires, we meet 72-year-old master tinkerer Masao Ooka. Hard of hearing, and with hands like grilled meat, Ooka tells us he can make just about anything, as long as you can describe it. If you can’t, he doesn’t give a tinker’s damn. He’ll figure it out, because he’s a survivor. He stands at the edge of his shed and points down the street. “This was once all shops, and now, there’s nothing,” he says.

Takahashi and I commiserate, walking off into that “nothing.” We find giant fuzzy leaves of a new paulownia tree, hear the season’s first cicadas, and soak in the quiet before parting in front of his temple.

Heading for home, I make a final stop to watch Koichi Sano, 65, expertly size a sheet of glass with an oil-fed cutter. A third-generation glazier, Sano has provided customers with windows and screens for 45 years. Chatting until dusk, I learn that Sano is, in fact, priest Takahashi’s second cousin. Then, Ooka drops by to ask Sano to cut pieces of mirror for a “secret” invention he is working on; Sano does it for free. I’ll bet they all eat Kida’s tofu, too. The “nothing” in this neighborhood suddenly seems, at the end of a blistering day, refreshingly cool.

Getting there: Akabane-iwabuchi Station is the last stop on Tokyo Metro’s Namboku subway line.
Kit Nagamura’s Backstreet Stories will take a break during August and return in September.