Mining gems in Okachimachi

On early maps of Edo, as Tokyo was known prior to 1868, Okachimachi is rendered as a town (machi) densely packed with the tiny dwellings of okachi — low-ranked, poorly paid samurai infantry.

Today, as I exit the Hibiya Line subway station at Naka-Okachimachi in Taito Ward and head south alongside the elevated Japan Rail (JR) tracks, I find Okachimachi still houses cut-rate valuables — indeed, it’s practically pave with discount diamond outlets. The hoard of shops offering pearls, rubies and reputedly the city’s best deals on ingots is broken, incongruously enough, only by wafts of fish coming from Yoshiike, a spacious seafood market that dates from the 1920s.

Continuing in a southward direction, I find a jewelry store divergent from the others. Inside Miyabica, owner and artist Natsuko Minegishi, 36, hands me one of the necklace pendants she makes on the premises. I can’t determine what the light, soft, striated material is.

“It’s layers and layers of pigment-tinted lacquer, dried carefully over about a year,” Minegishi explains. From this layered medium, she cuts and sculpts pieces so the cross-sections of lacquer appear. “The process is known as tsuishitsu,” she tells me, “and it originated in ancient China.”

The intricate pieces look fragile, but their creator assures me they can last for hundreds of years, and that when they are worn daily they gain additional luster and shine.

Minegishi also tells me that I’m about to enter an artisans complex known as Aki-Oka 2K540. Sure enough, on leaving Miyabica I find a tunnel under the rail tracks, supported by two rows of enormous white columns behind which nestles a trove of small shop-workshops. Trains rumble overhead as I make a quick reconnaissance of this remarkable place.

I pop into bag shop @Griffe Tokyo, where owner Takeo Fujii, 50, explains the mall’s name. “Aki-Oka means between Akihabara and Okachimachi, and 2K540 is the exact distance — 2 km 540 meters — to the marker in the central Nihonbashi district from which distances are calculated in Japan,” he tells me. “The complex is JR-owned, and they think of things like that.”

Perusing Fujii’s purses and wallets, I realize they are made from printed matter. “I use vintage fashion magazines or comics, soaked first in a tanning solution, then distressed and dried, and finally laminated for strength,” Fujii explains. I take one of Fujii’s business cards, which describes his position succinctly as “boss.” I invite the boss to lunch to learn a bit more about the mall.

Over box lunches, Fujii explains that the complex opened in December 2010 to provide artisans with relatively low-rent spaces in which to work side by side.

“I used to have a shop in the city-center Aoyama district,” Fujii says, “but not everyone there pays attention to the real value of things — just on making money. There’s too much ‘fast fashion,’ which has its place, but Aki-Oka is all artisans, making things by hand, and that’s really attractive.”

Like most of Aki-Oka 2K540’s other denizens, Fujii produces his goods on the premises. When we return to his shop, he shows me part of the process — all but the secret lamination procedure — and I learn that he’s happy to custom-make a bag from any newspaper or magazine; it takes two months and prices start at ¥16,000.

Next, I wander into Takumi no Hako, a store featuring kibori (wood carvings), kurume kasuri (Japanese ikat-style woven fabrics), bamboo products and tsuge gushi (handmade boxwood combs). When I arrive, two artisans are at work.

“In this shop, each of us has several generations of experience behind us,” says 38-year-old Toshiaki Ando, who is engaged in the painstaking filing of comb tines on a honey-hued crescent of wood. “I’m fourth generation, and Mr. Yagi over there is third generation,” Ando adds, checking his comb for symmetry.

Shusaku Yagi, 37, is busy splitting a hefty trunk of bamboo cured in his family kiln in Kagoshima Prefecture, at the southern end of Kyushu, into thin strands. I ask him to pause for a photo, which he does, but then the bamboo splits badly. “There’s a rhythm to this work,” he says, good-naturedly, picking up a nata (short hatchet) forged for him by renowned swordmaker Shiro Kunimitsu. As I stand by quietly, Yagi finds his rhythm again, and the bamboo sings as the nata divides it perfectly.

While they’re working, both Yagi and Ando concentrate hard, and generations of responsibility are etched into their expressions. But when they put down their tools, things get a bit goofy.

Ando, as befits a comb-maker, has long hair that he twists up on top of his head. “He so looks like someone’s aunt from behind,” Yagi teases. Ando then grabs a pair of deer antlers, which he uses to polish his boxwood combs, and makes a suggestive gesture with them. Yagi, in response, holds up two bamboo bowls he’s woven as if they were a bra, and flutters his eyelids.

Suddenly, I glimpse what Aki-Oka is all about. The proximity gives artisans, normally reclusive types, the chance to support, inspire and cut loose with one another. Reluctantly cutting myself loose from the fun, though, I head to the next shop.

Entering 2mOa, which follows the complex’s tendency toward the typographically weird, I encounter a slightly different vibe. Named for the moa, an extinct flightless New Zealand bird, 2mOa is both jewelry store and conceptual-art space run by 55-year-old Masato Moriyama and Hiroyuki Mashiko, who is three years his junior.

“Our aim is to come up with new, surprising concepts of jewelry,” Moriyama tells me. Surprising is right. There are rings and badges made from old coffee and tea cans, necklaces of discarded wine corks, food packages and keyboard letters, and pendants fabricated from melted shavings of refuse silver. They are unexpectedly pretty, and have me questioning the entire nature of utility and body decoration.

“You can bring in your own cans,” Mashiko tells me, “and we’ll make any jewelry you want from them.”

My eye is caught by a necklace of butterflies printed on and cut out from sandpaper, then strung together. “Sandpaper makes scratches first, small wounds, before any work can be polished smooth,” Mashiko explicates. “It’s just like humans in love.” Wearable poetry.

I could spend all day in the creative lab of 2mOa, but head off instead to discover the story behind Aki-Oka’s unofficial mascot. In nearly every store, I’ve seen plastic or stuffed versions of a fat little creature with what appear to be horns.

“Those are not horns! They’re Uamou’s antennae,” protests his creator, Ayako Takagi, in her store featuring numerous versions of her character. Uamou, an alien, and his sidekick Boo, an alien ghost, popped into 29-year-old Takagi’s head 10 years ago. At that time, she illustrated and self-published 2,000 copies of a book featuring Uamou — and somehow, the character became her life.

“Uamou hasn’t had a big break yet,” Ayako’s older brother, Tetsuya, comments from Yoshokuya Boo, the cafe he runs next door. Perhaps so, but both the store and the cafe are filled with visitors on a cold winter’s afternoon, and that bodes well.

Nonetheless, having myself sadly reached a point of creativity saturation, I drift out of Aki-Oka, into the sunless back alleys to the east — almost missing a humble chalkboard sign for Miniature Park.

Peeking in, I find Kazuo Kiuchi, 47, wrapped with a plaid blanket around his waist like a kilt, overseeing what he claims is Japan’s most complete collection of historical metal figurines. The store is chockablock with 5-cm-high Roman and samurai warriors, female combat soldiers, tools for painting and displaying works — and even a section of graphically erotic miniatures.

“Unpainted kits start at about ¥6,000, but skillfully painted works fetch up to 10 times that,” Kiuchi tells me, proving once again how artists can invest everyday raw materials with untold value.

Heading for my train home, I hesitate in front of one last window, despite a sign that mandates “no standing and looking.” I can’t help it, though, because inside is the day’s most curious gem.

Perhaps reading the plea in my stance, Takamasa Seki lets me in for a better look. A self-professed “stupid-thing-maker,” Seki’s current project is tinkering with his newly purchased turquoise Peel P50, the world’s smallest production car.

“These were first made on the Isle of Man in the 1960s,” 53-year-old Seki tells me, proudly patting the 59-kg microcar, a 2012 limited-edition replica that he waited many months to acquire. Apparently it’s a sweet ride, though Seki says it’s too risky for the roads of Tokyo.

As I head home enjoying the opalescent dusk, the words of the renowned English craftsman-designer William Morris (1834-96) come to mind: “Not on one strand are all life’s jewels strung.”

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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