Pineapple cakes, pirouettes and petals in Aoyama

by Kit Nagamura

Special To The Japan Times

The one time of year I’m happy to linger in Aoyama Cemetery is when the venerable rows of old cherry trees growing around the gravestones blossom. Before heading there, though, I decide to first get in the mood with a bit of personal spring renewal.

I seek out FA Salon, a secretive cocoon on the fourth floor of the Minami Aoyama Nishino building. Owner Fabio Alfano, 40, greets me European-style (kisses to each cheek), and throws out his arms to show off his brand new signature salon. It’s a cozy four-seater with clean design, and I’ve heard it books up fast. “Yes, we’re already busy,” Alfano says, “but our specialty is personalized service and we take the time to carefully listen to each client.”

Alfano learned hairdressing at his father’s knee in Italy and refined his skills in London before finally settling in Tokyo with his Japanese wife 11 years ago. His forte? “Well, everything,” he says, “but color is key. People often come to me for corrections after they have encountered, how can I say this, mistakes at other places.”

I’ve signed up for a shampoo — organic Davines products from Italy give such a lovely herbal fragrance — a spine-tingling head spa plus trim and blow from Alfano’s colleague, Shingo. Shiny, chic and relaxed, I’m ready to roll. However, hearing that I’m off on a story, Alfano stows his scissors and jumps in the elevator with me. “There’s someone you have to meet,” he says.

At the ground floor, I’m introduced to Mitsuko Nishino, the building owner who, at 87, also happens to run a small tobacco shop at the entrance. “I don’t smoke myself,” Nishino volunteers with a husky laugh, “I just sell.” Hailing from Sendai, where her family used to raise and harvest tobacco, Nishino is the fourth generation in her family to hawk smokes.

I ask her if the ubiquitous vending machines and new smoking laws affect her business. “People come here because they want to talk,” she says, gesturing to a little stool she has at the ready for customers. “When I contemplate quitting this job,” she adds, “I realize I can’t. I have to be here for people.”

Social interaction might be her real raison d’etre, but Nishino also stocks over 500 different kinds of cigarettes. “It makes me use my brain to keep up with all the varieties,” she says. When I request a snapshot of her with Alfano, she laughs shyly. “It’s okay, as long as his wife doesn’t get mad!” she says. Alfano gently adjusts her hair a bit before I shoot. The scene feels intimate and nostalgic, like a film clip, half Federico Fellini, half Yasujiro Ozu.

Thanking Alfano and Nishino, I head down an alley Alfano recommends, flanked on one side by a new high-rise and an array of intriguing storefronts on the other. I pass Essence, a health-oriented Chinese restaurant, then Mame, a tiny wagashiya (Japanese traditional sweets shop), but it’s Dear Pet, a shop selling memorial goods, that piques my interest.

The interior of Dear Pet tinkles with glockenspiel background music, and its shelves are stocked with miniature butsudan (Buddhist household altars) for departed rabbits, cats, turtles and dogs. Jewelry fashioned from the ashes of your deceased critter, candy-scented incense sticks, tiny altar candles, and even a pooch-sized open coffin round out the merchandise.

Shop owner Reiko Soga, 48, in the pet memorial goods business for 13 years, points out the shop’s best-seller, a ¥11,000 butsudan-in-a-box. “All the elements — the incense burner, candle holder, flower vase, etc. — fit snugly inside the box,” she explains, “so you can leave it in the living room and no one will know what it is.” I take a good look at the design, because I don’t want to be the house guest who inadvertently sets her coffee cup down on Momo-chan’s memorial.

Thanking Soga for her time, I quietly move on, making mental apologies to the un-memorialized pets in my past. Emerging on a two-way street, I turn right and am immediately intrigued by what looks from a distance like a giant toothpick-like art project. On closer inspection, I learn this is architect Kengo Kuma’s ingenious use of jigokugumi, a hellishly complicated traditional form of Japanese wood joinery. The lattice-like structure houses SunnyHills, the famous Taiwanese purveyor of pineapple cakes.

I wander inside the remarkable work, which feels like a bamboo glade, interwoven with sunlight and shadows. General Manager Yuteki Dozono, 34, proudly informs me that the building’s joinery is not merely decorative, but fully load-bearing. How does he know that? “I actually worked with Kengo Kuma on the design of the building before being hired by SunnyHills,” he explains.

Before I peek upstairs, a store clerk sidles over and offers me a free pineapple cake and tea set. Really? “We offer this to everyone,” she says. Everyone?

Dozono fills me in. “SunnyHills was founded in 2007 in Taiwan by Michael Sheu,” he says. “Sheu left a successful career in IT to assist farmers and agricultural ventures near his childhood home, which grows both tea and pineapples. At first, Sheu set up a small enterprise at his mother’s house, but his mother kept giving away the cakes to visitors. It became our habit, and our way of showing we’re not just about profit, but more about omotenashi (hospitality).”

As Dozono talks, I break the cake’s buttery exterior and enjoy the fibrous, dried, 100% pineapple filling, followed by a swallow of honey-scented Taiwanese tea. It occurs to me that offering up a little taste heaven in heavenly surrounds is an excellent way to have people remember your product.

Thanking my hosts, I set off walking again. After my pineapple cake pig-out, the last thing I want to encounter is a room full of waif-like women and lots of mirrors, but as luck would have it, just around the corner from SunnyHills, I stumble through the wrought-iron gates of what turns out to be Japan’s premier ballet company, the Matsuyama Ballet.

I’m about to grand jete away — I don’t want to disturb the ballerinas — but after a quick backroom conference, Matsuyama’s executive administrator manages to sneak me into the company’s rehearsal for its upcoming production of “Romeo & Juliet.” The room is awhirl with practice tutus and petal pink slippers and the infinity mirrors make it appear as though I’m surrounded by cherry blossoms. It is frankly more movingly beautiful than I could have anticipated.

One figure clad in crow-black moves through the dancers with authority. This, I learn, is chief choreographer Tetsutaro Shimizu, 69, son of ballerina Mikiko Matsuyama and Masao Shimizu, who established the company in 1948.

During a lull in activity I’m gently ushered into a side room with Shimizu. Following us in like a spring breeze is Shimizu’s wife, none other than Matsuyama’s prima donna, Yoko Morishita. Aside from being Japan’s first internationally recognized prima donna, Morishita is also considered one of the world’s greatest dancers, period. Beyond her countless awards and accolades, her performances with Rudolf Nureyev in the 1980s caused The New York Times to gush that it was she who made their pas de deux a “show-stopping experience.”

Even muffled in a down jacket and hand-beaded Hanae Mori scarf, Morishita throws off an incandescent sparkle. “She still dances full-length ballets, and she’s the longest-performing ballerina in the world now,” Shimizu says proudly. Morishita nods, but adds coyly, “A ballerina doesn’t talk about her age.”

Their break over, some of the company’s 80 dancers are shifting restlessly outside the door, so I excuse myself, grateful for a glimpse of their world. I note on the way out that the Moriyama Ballet company offers classes for all levels and ages, and this inexplicably adds a little lift to my step.

Back out on the road near SunnyHills, I explore two nearby gems, shops featuring traditional Japanese craftsmanship. Utsuwa Kaede offers 40 styles of selected handmade pottery from around Japan. Refined porcelain plates, rough slab work and stoneware reveals the inspiring range of Japanese tableware.

Meanwhile Origata, which at first appears to be someone’s old, wooden-framed home, is part shop and part facility for exploring the once commonplace but now rarefied world of folded paper. The owner, well-respected designer and poet Nobuhiro Yamaguchi, drops by while I am there and explains that Origata offers half-year courses (once a month) in various arcane traditional arts currently experiencing a revival of interest in Japan and abroad.

Full to the brim with the unexpected richness of Minami Aoyama, I’ve left the blossoms for dusk. In the waning light, their petals appear lilac, pink and mint green amid the gravestones but already so many have begun to fall gently on the living and the dead.

Kit Nagamura’s Backstreet Stories appears on the first Saturday of the month.

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