The midday sky swirls with typhoon clouds as I set off to explore a little shopping area known as Tabata Ginza in Tokyo’s Kita Ward. I’m thrilled to be in the charismatic company of a third-generation rakugoka (traditional storyteller) who lives nearby. I met Mikio Katsura, 32, by chance in Tabata last month, and he has kindly agreed to give me an insider’s tour of the area.
Katsura and I meet up at the western edge of the shopping area, a 15-minute walk southwest of Tabata Station. At first, we seem to just follow our noses toward a delicious fragrance issuing from bread shop Kawamura. Plump brown-crusted loaves cool on outdoor racks, advertising their sweetness in the breeze. If there are people tending the bakery, though, I can’t see them. Gazing at Kawamura’s sign, done in magic marker on Styrofoam under an awning of candy-corn colors, I begin to glean the area’s unpretentious vibe.
Katsura nips down a thin alleyway and points out an old home painted hippy-style with fish and blue waves on the exteriors. Maruike House, as the 60-year-old abode is known, is “maybe open,” Katsura says, laughing. The door to the first floor entrance is, at any rate, propped ajar by a dehydrated plant in a pot. Creeping inside, we find a darkened corridor of six dorm-like rooms, all closed. A row of green metal mailboxes suggests the existence of ateliers and tiny shops, most with late afternoon or weekend visiting hours. Nothing stirs now, though; it’s too early. Undaunted, Katsura climbs the outer stairs to the second floor, and I follow. There, inside shop Kimono Mamesaku, owner Yukiko Takahashi, 42, seems as thrilled to see us as we are her.
Mamesaku only opened last month, but Takahashi is convinced her passion for making kimono an everyday wardrobe choice will catch on. “Kimono should be hanging in your closet, alongside other clothes, as a regular option,” she says, “not just for formal events.” Aside from teaching people how to don the national garb, Takahashi also sews her own kimono from French and Lithuanian linen cloth, and handcrafts charming ceramic obidome (obi cord ornaments). When she learns that Katsura is a rakugo performer, she questions why he is not wearing kimono. To this he responds by dashing off, promising to return shortly.
Meanwhile, I head back down to the first floor, because Takuya Hamada, 37, has arrived to man his shop, Pack Record. His shop stock features “vintage” books and records from the 1990s, many of which appear to have estivated here for far longer. Why this odd period fascination, I ask. “This is the music I listened to,” Hamada explains, brandishing his favorite album, The Kingtones’ “Independence Day.” Hamada admits his shop is partially personal effects storage, but since his weekday job involves dealing in antiques, he might be on to something. I take his handmade name card, which is his shop info and a tiny caricature of an animal face penned on a ping-pong ball.
Outside Maruike House, I hear wooden geta gradually clopping closer. Katsura has returned, looking like an utterly different man in kimono. Takahashi comes down to the alley to admire his transformation, and another young woman, Mieko Kuchiba, 31, joins us, too. Kuchiba, it turns out, runs a tiny coffee shop cum gallery called Maruchan, on Maruike’s second floor. I ask her what the cafe hours are, and she responds, “When I have free time.” Since timing is everything, Katsura, Takahashi and I grab the chance to get seats at Maruchan.
Kuchiba’s coffee starts with beans painstakingly hand-roasted through a wire basket, then finely ground, and finally filtered through a coffee “sock.” In addition to the coffee, something of a party mood is brewing, so Kuchiba decides to call the building’s owner to come join us. Her name? “We all just call her ‘Madame,'” Kuchiba says, straight-faced.
Landlord Madame Haga arrives shortly, an elegant, slightly self-effacing woman who chats amiably with her younger crowd of artistic tenants and seems delighted to meet Katsura.
We settle into the cafe’s sofas, sip coffee and discuss the advantages of having lots of artists together under one roof. Like members of a venerable Parisian salon, we pass an hour being entertained by snippets from Katsura’s rakugo stories, laughing and admiring the talent his 13 years of study have yielded.
When Madame must move on, Katsura and I head back out to the main street of Tabata Ginza. The sky has deepened into late summer blue, framed almost all the way down to the horizon by small shops. In preparation for the evening, a man turns skewers of yakitori at a tiny stall, another tends bobbing bits of delicious-looking oden (ingredients stewed in soy-flavored broth) and yet another does a brisk business in various okazu (cooked side dishes). Men glide by on bikes, moms let their kids roam free, the elderly park their shopping carts to chat with each other and cars theoretically could pass through, but they don’t. Markedly different from the city’s other ginza areas — the glitzy one in Chuo Ward, and the touristy crowded one in Yanaka — Tabata Ginza is like a 1960s Tokyo time capsule.
I glimpse a courtyard shaded by a tall tree behind a traditional rice shop and tug Katsura along with me to explore. Sumiko Kawano of Kawano Kometen rice shop understands my interest.
“We used to have three enormous persimmon trees out back here and a pond with carp,” she says, “but our house was one of the oldest buildings in Tabata Ginza, so it became embarrassing. We rebuilt half, but you can clearly see the half that remains is of rare quality. It’s made of cypress, and is very beautifully constructed.” It pleases me to hear her appreciate the beauty of old Japanese architecture, but Kawano and I both know it’s praise too little and too late for much of Tokyo.
Katsura, oozing charisma and charm, falls deeply into conversation with Kawano, who gradually comprehends his imminent celebrity status. They have relatives who know each other, and as they chat about that, I duck out to see a bit more of the street.
I pass a few shuttered businesses, a brand new dental clinic, and K-Sense, a craft beads shop that is so fluorescently lit and well-organized that it appears beamed in from another planet.
More in the retro style of Tabata Ginza is Ajinomise Sakaeya, a corner store lit by bare bulbs, specializing in nukazuke (vegetables pickled in rice bran) and other preserved foods. Ryuichi and Michiko Shindo (82 and 76, respectively) are the current owners of Ajinomise Sakaeya, a storefront that dates back to 1934.
“It was all machiya and geisha around here back in those days,” Michiko says, “but pretty much everything burned down in the war. Still, we rebuilt, in the same place. We are not giving up.”
As Michiko says this, I notice her pinky finger seeks out Ryuichi’s, until they touch. This subtle gesture of solidarity, while perhaps unconscious, somehow suggests the source of their resilience.
Rejoining Katsura, I walk through a cool summer evening breeze, and nearly pass by a tiny Italian restaurant, Puccii. But, because the night is young, and I have a master storyteller with me, I suggest we grab dinner. The tiny 16-seat Puccii, it turns out, boasts a 2014 Michelin Bib Gourmand ranking. Inside, chef Shigeo Ishida, 50, recommends we choose between his creative pastas, such as an intriguing pistachio carbonara or chilled pasta with shrimp, but then again, his classic Napoli pizzas can be nicely paired with fine wines. The place accepts only cash, but that simply seems fitting in the vintage veneer of Tabata Ginza.
Tabata Station is a 15-minute train ride from Tokyo Station on the Yamanote Line.