The big-ticket gifts of Kumano-dori


Special To The Japan Times

As November grows chilly, I warm up with an urban hike to hunt out seasonal gifts for friends and family. Tokyo is a bastion of creativity and craftsmanship, and shopping the backstreets is like touring a gallery of desires you never knew you had. I exit the Ginza Line’s Gaienmae Station, and trot off toward Harajuku.

At the first busy intersection, an algae-green plastic tank brimming with teeny medaka (killifish) catches my eye. Shigeharu Oku a 45-year-old employee at the nearby Inose Liquors, wanders over. It’s his aquarium. “I started off with only two fish,” Oku tells me, “and they liked each other. Now I have lots.” As I watch, he gingerly nets the plumpest of the fry, and flicks them into a bigger tank of clean water, filled with marbles and colored rocks. “Look at all these babies,” he says, pointing to a third tank of fry the size of pinheads. “You can take some, for free,” Oku offers. Procreative killifish make tricky gifts, I think, so I demure, but thank Oku before continuing down the backstreet at Inose’s corner, known as Kumano -dori.

When I pass the clinically pristine Tokyo Hearing Care Center, I recall that a family member needs a new hearing aid, so I duck inside. To my surprise, the center doesn’t sell hearing aids, per se. Instead, it offers a rarefied brand of see-through earphones called Just Ear. The three basic models — Monitor for composers, Listening for music enjoyment and Club Sound for heavy bass dance music — cost ¥200,000 per pair. Company Director Satoshi Sugano explains that fully bespoke sets are ¥300,000, but they’re handmade by a series of experts who custom fit, tune, engineer and sculpt them to the customer’s needs. Sugano deftly twists a Club Sound set deep into my ears and hooks me up to a player. I have to admit, I’m ready to rave. The sound pounds. A dream gift for a music-lover, I think, taking note and thanking Sugano before moving on.

Nearly next door, I’m intrigued by the exterior of Mizugame-ya, a small house decorated with green ceramic objects that resemble amoebae and paramecia. The sign outside advertises a ceramics gallery and shop on the second floor. Entering, I discover on the first floor a cozy izakaya (pub); a wood interior punctuated with inlaid hand-painted glazed tiles gives the tavern a distinctly artistic feel.

Manager Yugo Saida, 44, leads me upstairs to a wonderful display of ceramic works by Akito Hirotsuji, a potter based in Kutani, Kanagawa Prefecture. Colorfully modern wine coolers and water pitchers are priced in the vicinity of ¥10,000, Saida tells me. What about the more idiosyncractic hand-built works? “Well, if Hirotsuji, now in his 70s, agrees to sell them,” Saida says, “they’d run about ¥150,000.” It’s just a guess, but I think there are bargains to be had here. Thanking Saida, I promise to return, if only to sample some of the gorgeous tamagoyaki (folded egg omelette) the chef has set out to cool.

Several doors down, at shop Entiere, I locate a trove of Italian-made silver charms (including, oddly, tiny hedge-trimmers and a Lilliputian hand grenade) as well as brooches and cufflinks in enamel on silver, running ¥12,000-¥25,000. The staffers at Entiere, extremely welcoming, tell me they will offer any Japan Times reader who makes a purchase there this year the free gift of a small teddy bear. Free bears and free killifish? How nice is this street, I think.

Leaves ride gusts of wind as I follow a sign directing me down a side alley to Orie gallery’s display of glass art. One work in particular, “M.060102” by artist Toshio Iezumi, mesmerizes me with it undulating layers of green glass. If I had no financial glass ceiling, I’d buy it for ¥2,160,000, but fear it would become one of those gifts you fall in love with and can’t give away. Luckily, just looking is free.

Continuing easterly, I almost saunter right past Area Tokyo Honten, but a waft of spicy men’s cologne, an olfactory enticement, pulls me back. Inside, the furniture showroom is stuffed with L-shaped sofas in Man Den shades. Here and there, I note one-of-a-kind pieces, too, such as a hand-carved walnut low chair (¥660,000) and angular side table (¥260,000). I ease down into the chair, and its silky contours prove far more comfortable than upholstery. It takes some willpower to leave its embrace, to be honest, but I’m married to my shopping mission.

Out on the street again, the sky closes in, gray and chilly. All my nonshopping has made me peckish, so when I come to the window-front display of Pusako Kitchen’s treats — individual snack packs of chicken, pork, fish — I imagine one of those will tide me over.

Somehow, I totally miss the illustration of a dog’s posterior on each package. It’s only when the shop president, Hisako Otabe, 45, asks me what kind of pooch I have that I cop a clue. I want to roll over and play dead. I struggle to appear nonchalant, and study the packet. Wow, it’s ¥800 for only 100 grams of dog food, I mumble.

“Yes, but it’s the best dog food in the world,” Otabe remarks, disappearing behind a curtain to the rear of the shop, from which comes a smell unfamiliar to me. Seconds later, Otabe reemerges, bearing two trays of freshly baked eel bones. “We make our products right here,” she says, “and we use highly compressed, all-natural ingredients.” Her brag board of hundreds of happy customers, and nine years in the same high-rent location, speaks of success. Now hounded by hunger, I shake hands with Otabe and push on.

I visit two more luxurious and seductive shops, both glowing around the theme of wood. Hokkaido-based interior design company Cosine, despite its scary trigonometric name, specializes in simplified interior design pieces, such as their walnut “Branch Coat Stand” (¥78,000) and a clever art easel that doubles as a clothing rack for children ( ¥33,000). They also have small ornaments made of birch bark and elegant toys for toddlers.

Nearby, Orbitex features “worldwide textures.” The showroom feels ironically earthy, with oversized white teak furnishings suited for commercial spaces as well as textiles and lighting elements for private homes. Store manager Yusuke Kubo, 29, pulls out samples of their best-selling rugs. “This one is made of cannabis,” he says, pinching his fingers together at his lips to bring home the point, “and here is one woven entirely of shoelaces.” I draw closer to the latter, amazed, and note the price: ¥560,000. Not for those on a shoestring, obviously, but a cool option if someone else foots the bill.

When I spot Organic Table Lapaz across the street, I pray it is a restaurant for humans, and part ways with the charming Kubo.

Good as its name, Lapaz’s menu features organic produce from the outer corners of Japan. I order the “Hungry Salad” and savor the deeply nuanced flavors of naturally grown veggies in light dressing. Lapaz is a good option for strict vegans, but meat is on the menu for carnivores, too. Owner and conceptual master Kohei Matsuda, 35, says his one rule at Lapaz is “absolutely no MSG.”

Matsuda explains that the area near his restaurant has seen an influx of new, eco-friendly businesses. He intends to help the community coalesce in an identity of sustainability. It strikes me as a great idea; Lapaz’s chic and young clientele seem to agree.

As Matsuda and I chat, I notice from the restaurant window an elegant shrine that I seem to have missed in my hurry to find food.

Thanking Matsuda, I go off to explore the Aoyama Kumano Shrine, from which the street I’ve been walking along takes its name. It is a colorful gem, painted in autumnal shades of red and gold. A cheerful gang of five senior men, former elementary school classmates, arrives as I am leaving. I overhear their leader, Masao Hara, 75, teach them the history of the area. “The street that crosses Kumano-dori at this juncture,” he explains, “was once the main road from here to Kamakura, more than 1,000 years ago.”

When I introduce myself, Hara also teaches me that Aoyama Kumano Shrine was established in the mid-1600s by Yorinobu Tokugawa, leader of the Kii branch of the Tokugawa clan. The shrine’s symbol is the Yatagarasu, or the three-legged crow god of guidance, cleverly adopted by the Japan Football Association as a badge design. Shrine talismans featuring this soccer crow hero would make inexpensive gifts, but the laughter and closeness of Hara and his classmates remind me that the best gift you can give or get is time together.