On a crisp and cloudless winter morning, the streets outside Komagome Station in Tokyo’s Toshima Ward scintillate with shards of sunlight cutting between sharp shadows. I bundle up against the cold, and set off to seek out an artisan that I heard tell of on a backstreet last summer. It’s a luxury to have both a destination and plenty of time to wander.
A bridge over the railway tracks sports railings of blue enamel cherry blossoms, and to the south, I discover a tiny concrete plaza with a few dormant cherry trees and a stylized river of pink tiles running though it. It’s a typical pocket park with little visual appeal, but I pull my camera out anyway, shifting a bag of treats I’ve brought for the artisan to my free arm in the process. Suddenly, I’m swarmed by a flapping kit of about 60 pigeons. Like Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 thriller “The Birds,” I’m alarmed, but manage to catch a few photos on the fly. The pigeons, gradually figuring out that I’m not going to feed them, flock off, but they leave me newly alert to my surroundings.
Because of the birds, I note a small placard, identifying the plaza as the Somei-Yoshino Memorial Park. Apparently I’m standing in the heart of what was once Somei-mura, an Edo Period (1603-1868) village of gardeners admired for their advanced hybridization of trees and flowers. The village is long gone, but is celebrated in the name of Somei-Yoshino cherry trees (Prunus x yedoensis), a cultivar derived from a grafting of the Yoshino variety from Nara and a local Somei cherry. Both Tokyo and Washington D.C. are awash in the hardy, showy Somei-Yoshino hybrid, probably the most widely planted variety of blossoming cherry today.
Wending downhill, I run across two elegant new art galleries. Komagome Soko, as the word “soko” implies, is a repurposed storage house, opened just this spring. The gallery’s clean, spacious rooms and leftover traditional architectural beams suit an installation of gridwall and concrete sculptures by Mexican conceptual artist Mario Navarro. Nearby, gallery Kayokoyuki is busy hanging a show by painter Masanori Tomita, but I glimpse the work from one of the gallery’s windows, and catch the scent of the oil canvases from outside. It’s nice to have two notable galleries so close to one another.
I move along, headed toward what appears to be a retro-style shopping street, with its bars sporting names such as Penny Rain and Nombei (“drunkard”), and other stores including a grocers, a small florist and a 100 yen shop. I stop in front of a shop called Carites, seduced — like a magpie mid-flight — by its window display of splashy crystal-and-bead-encrusted formal dresses. Who shops here, I can’t help but wonder, and enter to investigate.
“We sell and lease out the city’s best European competition ballroom gowns,” owner and dancer Reina Takizawa, 34, explains. In a soft pair of old booties — hammocks for dancers’ feet — Takizawa walks me through her mannequins, pointing out the feathered skirts, Swarovski-laden bodices and Latin frocks designed to barely cover a dancer’s X-rated bits during a cha-cha. I heft up a slinky silver dress covered in little mirrors, and it feels like it weighs about 10 kilograms. Takizawa just shrugs; that’s show business.
Renting a hand-sewn gown, from, say Lithuania or the Ukraine, runs between ¥50,000-¥70,000, and to purchase the gown, three to four times that amount. Then there are the elaborate “stoned” accessories, mounted on vinyl backings to keep them from flying around, to be purchased.
“It’s expensive to compete,” Takizawa admits, “but gowns made in Japan are even more costly.” After three years in the ballroom business, Takizawa clearly knows all the right steps to take toward success.
When I waltz off, it’s with a new appreciation for the rigors of competitive whirling.
Once on the main shopping artery, I stop briefly in front of Marue Kampo Yakyoku, a pharmacy specializing in traditional Chinese medicines. Glass jars hold bits of cinnamon bark, dried roots, mushrooms and herbs. Inside the drugstore, though, in a display case lorded over by a taxidermic pangolin, lesser-known animal parts are sold for health benefits.
Kazuko Tanikawa, 55, tells me that Marue has been in business for 60 years. She and her Nepalese husband spread out some of the pharmacy’s rare medicinal items, including pit vipers with their fangs intact or red reishi (lingzhi mushroom) for treating cancer and high blood pressure.
“You can also get suppon here,” Tanikawa says cheerfully, referring to the Japanese soft-shell turtle, “but today we’re sold out.”
Instead, she shows me something that looks like a shriveled coin purse. Do I know what it is? Nope, sorry to say I don’t recognize a rare and extremely expensive bear’s gall bladder when I see one.
“It’s worth more than its weight in gold,” Tanikawa tells me, and admits to having won hers at a recent auction for such things.
It’s likely some doubt shows on my face, so Tanikawa brings me a broken piece of the ursine innards and coaxes me to run my finger over the velvety green fuzz inside.
“Now taste that,” she says. And I do, gentle readers. It’s supposed to assist liver function and, since the holidays are here, I tell myself the bitter weirdness cannot hurt. But I am not sticking around for the second course. Bidding everyone at Marue thanks for their time and informative kindness, I move on, zeroing in on the artisan I’ve come to meet.
Finding the workshop of 68-year-old Ichiyoh Haga is a bit tricky, but worth the hunt. Inside his studio, once a car garage, I find Haga and his apprentice, Mayumi Tayama, hard at work. Mayumi is making teeny window frames no larger than her thumb, and Haga is fashioning a bucket smaller than a thimble. Cut from a large paper clamp, and painstakingly soldered and filed, the tiny bucket is destined to be a prop in one of the fantastical creations that Haga is famous for building.
“People call what I do ‘miniatures,’ ” he says, “but there must be a better word for it. What I do is a form of art.”
To prove it to me, Haga escorts me to the building next door, and unlocks his personal gallery (entry fee ¥100 for adults, ¥10 for children). Inside, displayed on easels, is a series of romantic Parisian shop fronts, done in extraordinarily realistic detail, and all fashioned by hand at approximately 1/12 scale. Each of Haga’s “Art in A Box” series measures roughly 60-by-80 centimeters in size, but peering into each box’s depths, artistically spotlit and rendered with breathtaking authenticity, is like seeing into a delicate past. Each work is empty of people, but bears the patina of aging and Haga’s palpable empathy for the bits and pieces that make up our human lives. None of the works are based entirely on an actual shop or street, yet the viewer is imbued with a powerful sense of nostalgia for what never really existed. “The scenes are from my imagination,” Haga says. “Sometimes at night, I cannot figure out what the next details will be … but then I dream them, and wake up to make them real.”
Haga leaves to me examine the series on my own, and I’m mesmerized by the details: the perfect baguettes and the flickering light in an early morning boulangerie, the mop propped in the corner of a cafe, the art gallery with real miniature paintings inside. Gradually, I get it. These aren’t just models or miniatures, but 3-D evocations of an interior vision, as artistic as Giorgio De Chirico’s or Maurice Utrillo’s paintings of street scenes.
With a background in the fashion business, Haga only started creating his works at age 48.
“The economic bubble burst and, as a diversion, I made a model of a small train station,” he says.
People immediately noticed his talent, and before long, Haga had commissions from places such as Ito-ya, who had him recreate their 1930s stationery store from blurry photographs, and Nicorette, which had him make a miniature Japanese tavern for a TV commercial.
“When I did the Nicorette job,” Haga says, with a laugh, “I actually quit smoking.”
I spend over an hour watching Haga finish the teeny bucket he was working on. Deftly wielding needle-nose pliers, soldering tips, torches, files and, finally, dunking the bucket in a “poison-like” chemical bath for aging, Haga sets up the perfect tiny replica. It’s Lilliputian perfection.
The afternoon is turning a slightly blue shade outside, so I decide to call it a day. Thanking Haga-san, I bow farewell. His workshop, full of tools, neat wooden cabinets and industrial lighting fixtures overhead, would make an awesome artwork, I think.
Searching now for Komagome Station, I lose my way but, by luck, stumble upon Nakazato, a wagashi-ya (Japanese sweets shop). Opened in 1873 in Nihonbashi, the shop moved to Komagome after the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. Nakazato makes only four treats: two kinds of nanban-yaki, bean paste between brown sugar pancakes; “budo,” bean paste rolled into the shapes of purple grapes; and age-monaka, sweet bean paste sandwiched between fried and lightly salted thin wafers. The age-monaka is a brilliant combo of flavors and textures: savory and sweet, crunchy and soft, new and retro. I snag a box of six, and head off humming toward the new year.
To visit Ichiyoh Haga’s private gallery, please contact him through his website: www.ichiyoh-haga.com.