Sewing stitches of creativity in the streets of Kuramae

by Kit Nagamura

Special To The Japan Times

I’m knocking about Taito Ward’s Kuramae area one chilly February morning, visiting an artisan friend, when he mentions a brand new chocolate shop has opened nearby. My ears perk up. Any good? “People are lining up,” he says. I dash off to check it out, because it sounds like news. Never mind that I’m not a news reporter; that’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.

As it happens, Dandelion, a “bean-to-bar” small-batch chocolate factory and cafe, is drool-worthy. The open-view layout allows customers to watch each step of the chocolate manufacturing process — roasting, winnowing, melanging (mixing), blocking and tempering, but if you want to take a bar home, you usually need to arrive before noon.

San Franciso-based Dandelion’s Tokyo branch is cleverly positioned on a backstreet near Kuramae Elementary School, and for afternoon crowds it serves chocolate drinks, baked goods and even a “Bite Flight” of three brownies, each concocted with chocolate from a different region.

Surely I’ll live to diet another day, I tell myself, as the chocolate fires me off to explore some of the area’s temples. Each of the three I visit sports a sobering plaque claiming the remains of sundry Edo Period (1603-1868) artists.

Horinji Temple, a lovely space with a twisted but pampered pomegranate tree and child-protecting ojizo statue, is the final resting place of painter Sukoku Kou (1730-1804), renown for his dynamic depiction of samurai in battle. Around the corner, Matsudaira Saifuku-ji protects the remains of ukiyo-e woodblock artist Shunsho Katsukawa (1726-93), famous for depicting the inner character of popular stage actors of his time. He also headed the Katsukawa School, where the ukiyo-e great, Katsuhika Hokusai (1760-1849), studied.

Ambling northward, I pause beside the closed gates of Ryuhoji Temple. When I ring the doorbell, the priest admits me and I discover beside a towering weeping willow a memorial stone to the poet Hachiemon Karai (1718-1790), better known by his pen name, Senryu (river willow). Senryu’s work resembled haiku in form but focused on human foibles and humor, rather than on the seasons or nature. To this day, the often cleverly humorous poetic form bears his name and has a wide following.

Heading in a southwesterly zigzag fashion, I think on Senryu’s death poem: “Kogarashi ya / ato de me o fuke / kawayanagi” (“Bone-chilling winds / and then the buds bloom / river willow”). I pass parking lots, coin-laundry caves and nondescript buildings, thinking how slowly spring must come to an area without trees.

I nearly walk past a little shop with a sign that reads “YKK,” but noting a flurry of people inside, I zip in for a chat. K-Fastener sells every YKK zipper made, I learn from Takahiro Kato, 49, who opened the shop with his business partner, Mariko Kobayashi, 62, 20 years ago.

“You can buy just one zipper, if you want,” Kato offers, explaining that K-Fastener has loosened its wholesale policies of the past. “A lot of manufacturing went abroad during the past two decades, and we lost business, but young craftsmen are gathering in this area again, and we welcome that.”

Kato, his name card dangling from a cute zipper lanyard, shows me the shop’s two hit products. One is YKK’s Excella line of finely toothed, polished zippers plated in precious metals. Very fly. The other is the polar opposite: a comically giant plastic bead zipper available in 580 color variations. K-Fastener also carries massive waterproof zippers used by commercial fishing nets, the shop’s most expensive items. Thanking Kato for his “fasten-ating” explanations, I move on.

Next door, I note that Tokyo Vinyl sells straps — Japanese call them “tapes” — in all sizes, colors, widths and materials, as well as rolls of designer fabrics.

“Even straps should be part of fashion,” opines Tomoko Funakoshi, the 40-something chic owner of Tokyo Vinyl. With a background in leather goods and a passion for creativity, Funakoshi acquired the business three years ago from 80-year-old Miyoshi Suzuki.

“Suzuki-san still lives upstairs, ” Funakoshi says, pointing up. “I used shop here, and I loved the fabrics she sold. I used to joke that I’d take over the business someday. Then she retired, and her two sons weren’t interested, so she sort of made me keep my word.”

While deeply respectful of her predecessor, Funakoshi exudes her own creativity. She pulls out her phone. “Look, I dropped it this morning and it broke, in a lovely willow pattern of glass.” I feel the spirit of Senryu watching us as she scrolls gingerly through photos of Kim Jones’ men’s collection in Paris this year.

“I was managing the collaboration of his show with the work of Shinji Ohmaki’s gossamer fabric sculpture ‘Liminal Air — Space Time,’ she says. Clearly, if straps and vinyl fabrics are going to find their place in modern fashion, Funakoshi will be the one to get them there.

Wishing her well, I next jog across the street. I’m drawn in by a caricature of a guy on a sign that reads: “As much as you can stuff in, as long as you can close the bag” above a box of leather scraps. Inside shop Tsunoda, established in 1927, I meet Kouji Shimoi, the 67-year-old model for the caricature, and shop manager Yoshimi Ichihashi, 38. The duo proudly show me the shop’s offerings of gammaguchi (frog-mouth) purse clasps, leather hides and hardware for manufacturing bags. Like K-Fastener and Tokyo Vinyl, they sell to hobbyists and pros alike.

When I note a lovely old pendulum clock in the middle of the store, Shimoi tells me it has been there at least since he started working, 48 years ago. The clock face reads Towanny, a maker I don’t recognize.

“The owner had that painted on the clock,” Shimoi tells me with a grin. “It’s actually the name of a magnet we invented.”

Shimoi brings out samples of the discreet fasteners that, to this day, grace so many chic bags. When Shimoi tells me that in Japanese characters “towani” mean “permanent connection,” I get a sense of Tsunoda’s proud history, reinforced when Ichihashi shows me photos of Tsunoda’s original wooden storefront, which was razed, as was much of the neighborhood, during World War II.

As customers fill Tsunoda, I thank the staff and once again cross the street. I want to check out Trimco. As one might expect, it’s a trim business. Mai Mamada, 31, cheerfully informs me that the 1933 company sells more than 1,125 different varieties of ornamentation, including feathers, sequins, rayon braids, mink balls, tassels, lace, etc. “It’s just so fun to go around with customers to choose the perfect trim,” Mamada says, adding that though Trimco supplies trim for many of Japan’s major stage production and concerts, individual purchasers are welcome, too.

On bidding Mamada farewell, I head north, and pass a mitsumata (Oriental paper bush) in full and fragrant bloom outside a window display of beautiful washi paper products. The first floor is deserted, though, so I give it a pass.

I cannot help but gaze in wonder and admiration at the next shop’s windows, though. Never have ribbons been displayed with more elegance than at the Mokuba ribbon company. Founded in 1967 by Shoichi Watanabe and bolstered by his daughter Keiko’s keen artistic sensibilities, the company has garnered a worldwide profile. Perfection comes at a price, yes, but if you received a gift with this kind of ribbon, you’d probably save the ribbon and not just toss it. I wander breathlessly through a display of gold lace and barely escape trading in my wallet for what little it’s worth in yardage.

Like an indecisive chicken, I cross the street again to check out Ogihara, which specializes in parts and decorative items for bags, purses and belts. Tsuyoshi Ogihara, 32, strikes me as incredibly young to be heading the business. “My dad started the company 10 years ago,” Ogihara says, “but he got sick. I took over for him.”

This alone would win me over to Ogihara, but the fact is, his shop offers an astounding array of goods, carefully organized and featuring items such as bamboo and wood rings, as well as a wide variety of turnlocks.

Slightly south of Ogihara, I find cheerful salesman Junichi Tanaka, 53, hefting a bolt of Ultrasuede at Sasaki Shouji Company. “We supply materials for shop displays, jewelry cases and even box interiors,” Tanaka tells me, “and we’ve been doing that for 120 years.” Maybe it’s the result of longevity, luck, or simple levity, but Tanaka’s manner is as gentle as the ultra-microfiber materials he sells. He sends me off with a beautiful sample card of his company’s products, and a desire to use them.

By now, the sky is matching Sakaki’s Ultrasuede color chart for “lilac” and I know the evening is setting in. I make one last stop at Sanyo Shokai, which also sells hardware for handbags. Perhaps it’s the time of day, but everyone working at Sanyo is in high spirits.

Boss Sumie Sasaki, 65, tells me that the shop has been around “for more than a century,” but then she disappears. Sanyo’s brass hardware items are very attractive, as well as enamel decorative studs, but the place is so abuzz with activity, it seems hopeless to dig deeper. I snap a photo of some of the staff, giddy and full of laughter, just as Sanyo’s shutters are closing for the day. Outside, winter’s wind is still bitter, but the promise of flowers feels not far off.

Kit Nagamura will be traveling in March but Backstreet Stories will return in April.

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