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You don’t know what you’ve got (till it’s gone) in Tokyo’s nagaya

by

Special To The Japan Times

After hearing rumors that one of my favorite hideaways in Tokyo, the Sanuki Club, is slated for demolition, I stand outside the hotel’s front gates with apprehension. Aside from offering some of the cheapest lodgings available in Minato Ward, the property’s beer and barbecue terrace — tucked under mature trees and backed by Japanese garden landscaping — as well as its historical wooden buildings, mini bamboo grove, and a stylishly unconventional modern lobby, have long delighted its intellectual and artistic clientele. I’ll be crushed if it has closed.

Front desk manager Hiroshi Hirano brushes off my fears with a grin.

“We were scheduled to be torn down,” he admits, “but we get to stay in business through the 2020 Olympics because of Tokyo’s hotel-room shortage.”

Koji Yasuoka, general manager at Tokyo’s Sanuki Club
Koji Yasuoka, general manager at Tokyo’s Sanuki Club | KIT NAGAMURA

But, I wonder aloud, why tear the club down at all? Hirano shrugs.

“This neighborhood used to be an idyllic ‘temple town,’ ” he says, “but now enormous buildings surround us, blocking our views and changing the atmosphere.”

Waiting to speak to 38-year-old General Manager Koji Yasuoka, I sink into one of the treasures of the Sanuki Club’s lobby: a Conoid Cushion Chair designed by renowned U.S. “woodworker” and consummate craftsman George Nakashima (1905-1990). The low-slung chairs, represented in the permanent collections of design museums around the world, are angled to encourage relaxation and, in the lobby, they facilitate an appreciation of the spring garden swaying in the breeze outside.

When Yasuoka arrives, he finds me staring at the lobby’s two-story-high wall adorned with hefty handmade 40-by-60-centimeter tiles, each about 3-cm thick and coated in a dense and profoundly blue glaze.

“That’s called Setouchi-yaki,” Yasuoka says, adding, “it’s a pottery style from Hiroshima that no one makes anymore.”

I gaze at the richly nuanced hue, which conjures the sunlit Inland Sea near the city of Setouchi, and then notice the lobby’s ceiling treatment of interlocking metal pieces that render the simple fluorescent tube lighting into a cubist vision of clouds. The hotel is full of such subtle delights.

Yasuoka offers to show me other areas of the hotel, and en route casually mentions that the building is said to have been built on the site where famous samurai Tsuna Watanabe (953-1025) once constructed a yashiki (vacation home). The current hotel was finished in 1972, to the specifications of the same architect who created the National Noh Theater in Tokyo, Hiroshi Oe (1913-1989), and was designed to provide visitors from Kagawa (where the city of Sanuki is located) affordable lodgings in Tokyo.

Yasuoka guides me to three traditional Japanese buildings behind the main hotel. One, the Hana Jyukai, was the former villa of pearl-industry pioneer Kokitchi Mikimoto’s grandson. Another, with wavy antique glass windows and a smoky incense of age, was the former villa of Shiro Fujita (1861-1934), who worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Both houses are available for private party reservations, but the third, a delicate teahouse, is sadly now used as a storage facility. All three merit national heritage stature.

As we walk through a grove of bamboo — “transplanted from Kagawa,” Yasuoka remarks — I ask what will happen to these buildings if the Sanuki Club is demolished after the Olympics.

“That’s a good question,” says Yasuoka, clearly concerned.

A garden at Tokyo
A garden at Tokyo’s Sanuki Club | KIT NAGAMURA

Though reluctant to leave the hotel, I thank Yasuoka for his valuable time, and decide to see for myself the neighborhood changes that desk clerk Hirano mentioned.

Major apartment complexes have indeed sprung up everywhere, with still more mid-construction. Compared to the hotel, of course, they present fairly monotonous, anonymous facades. Only luxury cars plying the entranceways hint at the inhabitants. I walk completely around the Park Court Azabu tower, and its ground-floor dental clinic, cell-phone shop and convenience store. The only store with a crumb of individuality is Enomoto Kometen, the most sterile-looking rice merchant’s shop I’ve ever seen.

“Five years ago, they built this high-rise right where my shop used to be,” says owner Eiichiro Enomoto, 68, who was born in the neighborhood. “I got this space and an apartment in return, but I lost my freedom. This isn’t my own home anymore. I can’t come and go when I please, and a lot of my friends have moved away.”

As we talk, I note that Enomoto nonetheless retains deep pride in his work.

“I’m just a regular rice guy, but restaurants still come from far away to buy here. And look,” he says with a laugh, pointing out some cheeky pigeons sneaking in through the doorway, “I’ve even got guests!”

Enomoto shoos the pigeons away, and before he does the same to me, I thank him and head on.

I see Sakai Lumber Shop, diagonally across the street, sticking out like a horse-and-buggy at a fancy car show, . Inside a glass-box office, I find a wife and husband sharing a laugh about something — which could well be their unexpected visitor. They kindly allow me to come in and sit with them. But when I ask their names, they clam up. Finally, they settle on pseudonyms, “Kumako” and “Yattchan,” and tell me that once, long ago, the whole area was filled with lumberyards.

Eventually, I understand that the Sakais reside on the hard end of change, and that they’re wary of anyone who might bring more. Kumako, with a shake of her head, has a symbolic focus for her woe.

“See that ugly sculpture across the street?” she asks, pointing out a pink-striped column that looks like a plaster tube sock. “That’s what they put in place of a gingko tree that was here for hundreds of years.” Her husband nods.

“We tried to save it,” he says. “We even begged at City Hall. But they didn’t listen. They never do.”

Kumako rubs her hands nervously, and I realize she and her husband held that tree, and other now-vanished aspects of the neighborhood, sacred.

Before I move on, Yattchan shows me an aerial photo of the area, taken in 1955, before the Shuto Expressway was constructed. The massive gingko tree stands like a guardian over a neighborhood of neat nagaya (wooden row houses). Yattchan then gives me directions to a Mr. Sato, whom he says “knows everything about this area” and whose father took the photo.

I search out Suikosha, the architectural photography studio of Motonari Sato. Sato, a robust 75, lives in an elegant old tiled home, and invites me to sit on his front steps. His wife quietly brings us chilled tea as we look through the aerial shots of Tokyo that Motonori’s father took through the window of a Cessna plane over the years. The collection now resides at the Edo-Tokyo Museum in Tokyo’s Ryogoku neighborhood.

Koyama-yu, the now-closed local public bathhouse
Koyama-yu, the now-closed local public bathhouse | KIT NAGAMURA

Our discussion wends its way around to the Sanuki Club, and Sato, detecting my interest in historical structures, breaks into a wide grin. “I have something to show you,” he says as he sets off through a charming maze of remaining nagaya, their alleyways teaming with life and laughter.

We pass two tofu shops kitty-corner to one another.

“Any rivalry there?” I ask. Sato shakes his head. “They’re friends,” he says. “And see the three coin laundry places there? The owners are friends, too.”

Finally, we slip through an alley so narrow that I hesitate.

“Can you make it?” Sato laughs, as I crabwalk my way in, holding my cameras to one side.

We arrive at the home of Shizu Naganuma, the “70-something” owner of Koyama Yu, the area’s century-old sentō (public bathhouse). Though closed now due to a lack of customers, Naganuma unlocks the doors and lets me wander through this Taisho Era (1912-26) dream of clean living. Soaring wood ceilings, naive tile artwork, gorgeous old glass windows and a hand-painted Mount Fuji mural create an airy fantastical space that begs to be preserved. Before we part ways, Sato and Naganuma suggest that it could serve as an art gallery, and I agree.

Happy pair: Tobacco shop owner Teruyo Mitate and architectural photographer Motonari Sato both live in a Tokyo neighborhood of nagaya (wooden row houses).
Happy pair: Tobacco shop owner Teruyo Mitate and architectural photographer Motonari Sato both live in a Tokyo neighborhood of nagaya (wooden row houses). | KIT NAGAMURA

Thanking Naganuma, Sato next introduces me to Teruyo Mitate, owner of the local tobacco shop.

“She’s the neighborhood’s Queen Bee,” Sato says.

Mitate loops her arm in his, clearly tickled by the praise.

“It’s OK — I know his wife well,” she reassures me.

She then proceeds to greet everyone who passes her shop, from salarymen to kids, and they respond. Sato is right: Mitate is located precisely at the entrance and exit to the nagaya, and her good nature makes her the gatekeeper.

When Sato and I part company, streetlights are blinking on. I decide to grab dinner at Yoshikawa, a recently opened katei ryōri (home-cooking) counter restaurant. Run by two nagaya-born locals, Mihoko Yoshikawa (45) and Kamina Hikara (44), the place is, frankly, where the boys are.

I sit at the counter, chatting happily and nibbling dishes of simple fare. Who, I have to wonder, would trade all the warmth and camaraderie of the nagaya for a miserable monotony of locked and anonymous facades?

Yoshikawa, a recently opened katei ryōri (home-cooking) counter restaurant
Yoshikawa, a recently opened katei ryōri (home-cooking) counter restaurant | KIT NAGAMURA

The Tokyo Sanuki Club is located 5-minutes’ walk from Azabujuban Station. For more information, visit sanuki-club.tokyo.