Mention Jizo-dori in Tokyo and everyone will think you mean the street in Sugamo, Toshima Ward, where the silver set combines bargain hunting with visits to the famous stone jizō (bodhisattva statue) there. Walking near Edogawabashi Station on the Yurakucho Line, I pass a less well-known Jizo-dori, in Bunkyo Ward. A sweet-faced carved stone kosodate ojizōsama (bodhisattva who protects children) housed in a shrine at street’s entrance draws me in.
“Our statue washed up here when the Kanda River overflowed,” says Keiko Uchida, an elfin 74-year-old who runs nearby sweet shop Asadaya.
A placard explains that the stone figure — almost the size of Uchida — was deemed by locals as a divine gift and has been worshipped since it was deposited here in the early Meiji Era (1867-1912).
“Ojizōsama’s face changes occasionally,” Uchida confides in me, sotto voce, “and sometimes he cries.” I raise an eyebrow. “But not everybody sees that,” she says, as she reaches for a rag and starts to rapidly beat the statue’s face with the cloth.
I think if that doesn’t make him cry, nothing will. I know Uchida is simply removing dust from the bodhisattva, but as she does so, his face takes on an undeniably damp appearance, as though he has just emerged from the river or has been weeping. Mildly unnerved, I follow Uchida back to her shop, which is arranged with baskets of colorful sweets that are offered at family alters during O-Bon observances to honor the spirits of one’s ancestors.
Keiko Uchida and her husband, Zenichi, are third-generation owners of Asadaya, which opened in 1906. “Our place burned down during World War II, along with this entire area,” she says without a yoctogram of rancor, “but we came back.”
As she sets to wrapping traditional bean cakes offered to those who bring donations to temples during O-Bon, I head out. But first, I spot something I’ve never seen before — beautiful square packets wrapped in lotus leaves.
“These are called hasu-no-ii,” she says, unfolding one to show me that this “lotus leaf well” is filled with simple white rice and black beans. “We prepare this for Buddha, who visits our home altars during O-Bon. It’s something like Buddha’s obentō (lunch box), for the return journey,” she says, laughing. “Everyone used to make them, but it’s rare to see them nowadays.”
I thank Uchida and head off, thinking Jizo-dori itself is a rare kind of shōtengai (shopping street) to see these days. Its vibe of alluring innocence mingled with accessible nostalgia is a Showa Era (1926-89) snapshot in Polaroid hues. Outside small-scale storefronts, neighbors greet one another between errands in a gracious and unhurried manner. A tinkling broadcast of Hawaiian music floats through the air, and thematic lighting fixtures feature a cartoon ojizōsama, rendering the street both quaint and dignified.
I use my hand as a visor against the fierce sun to read a handmade series of signboards explaining the history of the area. I learn that during the early 1900s, Jizo-dori served as a rest stop for workers commuting between the countryside and a major munitions factory near Korakuen, in Iidabashi. Commercial establishments took such deep root then that even when razed during World War II, many sprouted up again after the war was over.
In the hot summer air, the aroma from roasting senbei (rice crackers) from nearby shop Kisaku is too delicious to ignore. There, 65-year-old Shigeru Miyazaki braves the additional heat of a charcoal brazier — 700 to 800 degrees Celsius — to bring Kisaku’s signature crackers to what he calls a perfect “fox-color.” For the past 20 years, Miyazaki has worked eight-hour days at the job, and rarely burns a cracker. I’m allowed inside his glass cage to snap photos, but after three minutes, I’m ready to keel over.
Miyazaki recommends that if I want to know about the history of Jizo-dori, I should talk to Kisaku’s owner and head of the neighborhood association, Yukio Shimada. Since Shimada is out running errands, I wander off down the street, nibbling on one of Kisaku’s wazato kowashi (intentionally broken) senbei, prized because the broken edges soak up soy sauce and bring the cracker additional flavor.
Caramel-scented gusts come from Aruteria, a bakery chain specializing in melonpan (melon-shaped buns with thin cookie crusts), as I stroll by stores for shoes, medicine, meats, fish and even a cheerfully named Dolphin Dentist. I walk past shop Musashiya Kometen, but retrace my steps to take in the tidy rice-purveyor’s premises. Once a common feature in every neighborhood, rice merchants are relatively rare now in Tokyo.
“In the city, we’re undersold by grocery stores, but I can tell you, outside of Tokyo, no one buys rice in a supermarket,” laughs owner, Yoshitaka Kodera. “And just think, this area itself was not long ago rice fields,” the 53-year-old says, hefting a sack of grain with muscles buff from the work. He tells me his discerning customers love a Nagano-sourced rice called Koshihikari Goroheimai. “It’s a bit sturdier than most, but with a firm and sweet taste,” he says.
Thanking Kodera and moving on, I next duck into Shusai Okazuya, a mini deli offering ready-made side dishes. I sample owner 47-year-old Hisao Mase’s shiodare (salt-seasoned) chicken. It’s juicy, tender and just salty enough for summer — a solution for those lazy days when it’s too hot to cook.
Outside again, it’s move along or be cooked. I seek refuge in Cafe Beans, a quiet place with a modern Danish style, where owner Michiyo Akasaka (60-something) takes my order of coffee.
“If at all possible,” she says, “please drink it black.”
I nod, but wonder aloud if she is out of milk. “No,” she says firmly. “My coffee is specially sourced from individual artisanal farmers, then AeroPressed, and the result is like a fine wine.” Into which you would not pour milk, of course.
My cuppa comes, and the single-origin Coko beans from Rwanda deliver a wine-like clarity and a bitter-free finish. Akasaka then dishes out a slice of heaven, her homemade black cherry pie, then lets me sample her Moroccan-style salted lemon preserves. The latter has a tempered sharpness that would sing on fish, I judge. Akasaka smiles. “I just love to cook healthy real food,” she says, and as I glance at her lunch menu, packed with organic vegetables, it’s clear she means it.
Out on the street again, I am studying an array of bonsai trees outside tea shop Gyokuroen Kissachashitsu, when owner Yokichi Fujita, 84, emerges. He places into my hand a wee bonsai, in a blue pot the size of an egg. “I want to give this to you,” he says.
I’m perplexed, but following Fujita inside his green tea emporium, I see that senbei shop owner Yukio Shimada is there, waiting for me. Word travels fast on Jizo-dori, I realize. Shimada shoos me off with Fujita. “You have to go see what’s on his rooftop,” Shimada says. “I’ll be here when you get back.”
As we climb, Fujita explains that he inherited hundreds of bonsai plants from his wife’s family in Ibaragi. I see that what at first was merely a care-taking duty has clearly evolved into a passion, as we step out into Fujita’s miniature forest of gnarled ancient trees.
“Our world is almost covered in concrete now,” he says, running his hands affectionately over a century-old pine. “And I wonder, where’s the green gone? So I come up here and I do my morning radio calisthenics among these trees.”
Fujita teaches classes in bonsai maintenance (first and third Sundays, 2-4 p.m., ¥500). I think a class like that, followed by Gyokuroen’s shaved ice and powdered tea, would be a great way to go green.
Back downstairs, Shimada is waiting, and Fujita wanders off, perhaps to let us talk. Shimada offers me a cup of what I think is water, but it’s actually firewater. We sip toward tipsy as Shimada talks about the neighborhood he strives to protect, an area he says was once wetlands, teeming with life.
“But we killed off all the frogs with pesticides, you know,” he says, “so, I’m all about genki (health) not genkin (money). These days, convenience stores are killing our neighborhood. No one’s going to cry if we disappear, though, unless we can show people our quality, and help them choose to keep us in business.”
This is why, Shimada explains, he sources superior rice for his crackers, chooses expensive sumi (charcoal) for roasting them, and has them hand-made. “Culture is our very sustenance,” he says.
On that deep note, Shimada and I wave thanks to Fujita as we head outside. Under a sky tie-dyed with summer’s sunset, locals greet Shimada, then head off to shop in a street loaded with commercial options. I hope they make good choices.
Getting there: Jizo-dori is a five-minute walk south from Exit 2 on the Yurakucho subway line’s Edogawabashi Station. Kit Nagamura will take a break in August; please look for the next Backstreet Stories the final Sunday in September.
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