Let's pray to the Great Black One

In Tokyo's Azabu Juban district, times past and present meet in enthralling harmony

In Tokyo, it’s prudent to pray to the Great Black One if you want to improve your financial outlook for the coming year. Putting in a good word for U.S. President-elect Barack Obama wouldn’t hurt as well, once you arrive at the Slope of the Great Black One, or Daikokuzaka, a back street minutes from Azabu Juban.

First, a little history. In the 17th century, the Japanese culled an assortment of seven deities, three from India and three from China plus one of their own, and dubbed them the Shichifukujin, or Seven Gods of Good Fortune. They are often depicted packed together on a little boat, and that’s one ship you hope comes in. Ebisu is the god everyone associates with business success, but ask Ebisu, “Who’s your daddy?” and the answer would be Daikoku, god of wealth and worldly endeavors. Shrines dedicated to Daikoku are numerous in Tokyo, but Daiho-ji is the only one perched on an eponymous street. That’s got to be doubly lucky.

I escalate up to Exit 4 of Azabu Juban Station on the Nanboku Line, and the road diverges before me. Roppongi Hills looms in the distance off to the right, but I walk the less-traveled path on the left, toward Daikokuzaka.

What should be a 5-minute stroll takes me hours, because the area is filled with fantastic restaurants, shops and a bustling energy that smacks of old Edo. Sake-vendors roll damp barrels and heft beer cases, elderly ladies swarm over sidewalk stands of bargain hats and purses, and street-side bars do double duty, lending their interior spaces to vegetable hawkers during the day.

Tetsuo Fujii, age 60, expertly grills fresh fish at his street stall, Anbai, and serves meals cooked on charcoal and wood-burning stoves inside his teeny 10-seater restaurant, Ginka. “I’m new to the area,” Fujii admits, “but my dad agreed to help finance my business here because Azabu Juban is a great address.”

No need to tell that to the Matsuo brothers, three of whom have taken over their father’s 80-year-old photography outfit, Matsuo Studio, across the street. I chat with the oldest son, owner Michio Matsuo, who at 74 is the spitting image of his father’s portrait hanging below the studio’s pressed-tin ceiling.

“This area matched Akasaka in popularity 80 years ago, with geisha houses, restaurants and lodgings,” Michio says, adjusting the eyeglasses he inherited from his father.

Michio’s father snapped glamour shots of geisha and their occasional accidental offspring. I ask Michio if he recalls any “special” geisha. “Well, there was Yoshiko,” Michio offers, but then adroitly changes the subject . . . “We really love it when families come here, and we adore kids. We have a lot of third-generation customers.”

Matsuo’s windows and walls proudly display a broad range of clientele, from cameos of samurai to portraits of foreign kids in traditional Japanese clothing

Next door, I meet 70-year-old Toshio Hasegawa, who mans Shizuya Kagu Center, a furniture store that tunnels bizarrely all the way through the block to Azabu Juban’s main drag. It turns out the Hasegawas cobbled together two separate buildings, and they can usually be found chatting and drinking tea somewhere in the middle, where they constructed joining walls.

“Our furniture isn’t much of a story,” laughs Toshio, beckoning me to follow him on a miniadventure a la Indiana Jones. We take a lift that only stops on one floor, squeeze through a dark cavelike storage area, and emerge on one of Shizuya’s roofs. Toshio then nimbly leaps onto a shaky wooden bridge connecting one roof to the pitched peak of the other, and I’m meant to follow. I’m easily twice Toshio’s size, and the boards groan under his weight; I tell Toshio I’m no Indiana Jones and to be prepared to quickly call an ambulance if I fall.

“Now here’s a story,” Toshio says, testing a plank meant to reinforce the rotting framework and pointing to a forest of 50-odd burled bonsai trees, some in priceless containers. Toshio’s father, Nakasaburo Hasegawa, was one of the revered gardeners chosen to exhibit his trees at the 1970 Osaka World Exposition. Though no one tends to them professionally these days, and some teeter out of reach on the disintegrating deck, I agree with Toshio that it’s worth risking life and limb to see several of these elegant survivors.

Later, back on terra firma, I run by a smorgasbord of excellent restaurants. Aside from high-quality sushi, tofu and ramen places, one can enjoy Pavarotti and pizza at Global Dining’s La Boheme, or gobble up homemade castella and seafood dishes at the newly opened Portuguese restaurant A Tasca. While checking A Tasca’s schedule of live music (Dec. 23-28), I sip Pena de Pato douro 2005, a Portuguese wine featuring complex fruit notes, a slightly caramel finish and a light touch on the wallet.

On this same back street, three French restaurants, a branch of Le Petit Tonneau, the newly renovated grande dame Les Choux, and cozy basement hideaway La Palette pack in customers. At La Palette, I chat with owner/chef Kiyoshi Kogure and his charming wife, Reiko, and they promptly introduce me to Katsuhiko Fujisaki, a local born in Azabu Juban just three months before the World War II firebombing in 1945 wiped out much of the area.

“My mother went into shock, and her milk just completely stopped,” Fujisaki explains. “So she bought a goat, hitched her in the yard, and I was raised on goat’s milk.” Fujisaki reinforces Matsuo’s depiction of the area as a lively entertainment district, pointing out that the neighborhood elementary school, Nanzan, was remarkable in that offspring of landed gentry and illegitimate children studied happily side by side. “We had a lot of single moms, even back then,” Fujisaki says.

When not studying, Fujisaki spent a lot of his free time in the dark. The Daimaru Peacock grocery store was originally a cavernous movie theater, as was the nearby 7-Eleven and the Seifu grocery store. “My family offered display space for movie posters, so I got free tickets to the shows,” he gloats.

Today, Fujisaki’s younger sister, Kazuko, runs Fukuya, an aesthetic salon with 110 years of history. Katsuhiko says he was forbidden to date any of the geisha who once purchased makeup at their store. “No fraternizing with the clients,” he laughs. The fact that Fukuya started out selling wallets and purses helps explain the salon’s window display of hundreds of manekki nekko (fortune-beckoning cats).

Crossing the street, I go fortune-beckoning myself, up Daikokuzaka proper. But here, the wallet is sorely tempted. At Parisian chocolate shop A La Reine Astrid, delicacies get the white-glove treatment. Their best-selling ganache, the Palet Argent, is flecked with real silver and gold leaf. Further up the hill, you can indulge in Provencal fragrances at Un Tiens, where fine soaps are handmade on the premises; the soft, skin-pampering bars of lavender and cedar are irresistible.

I also pop into the area’s gem, the Blue and White shop, run by renowned author and expert on artistic traditions of Japan, Amy Sylvester Katoh. For 33 years, Katoh’s store has championed rural and sustainable crafts, supported physically-challenged artists and worked to re-establish appreciation of rapidly vanishing Japanese architecture and lifestyles.

“Next year,” Katoh tells me, “we’ll focus on the concept of mottainai, or the Japanese feeling of regret at waste,” she says. “Nobel Prizewinner Wangari Maathai picked up on this word in Japanese, and we’re going to use it too,” she continues. She hands me a sack fashioned from tenugui (hand towel) seconds and her message, that thrift can be beautiful, is in the bag.

I take a brief side-jaunt up to the Kyushu-based Nabeshima clan’s 1635 Kenso-ji Temple, a surprisingly large and dense forest of ancient trees and toppling tombstones. Here rest the remains of clan leaders, and their retainers who committed suicide to follow their lords into the afterworld, as well as a memorial stone for 22 young military officers, executed for their part in a famous attempted coup d’etat against the government on Feb. 22, 1936.

Sobered, I approach the sunlit courtyard of Daiho-ji, facing the Great Black One, Daikoku-sama. You have to give a little to get a little, so I toss my ¥5 coin into the box, ring the bell, clap twice. Peace is the wealth I wish for, and then I bow and leave.

In line with the nationwide state of emergency declared on April 16, the government is strongly requesting that residents stay at home whenever possible and refrain from visiting bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
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