Akasaka: Sublime and surreal spots in Tokyo's government district

by Kit Nagamura

Special To The Japan Times

A diplomat friend and I enjoy lunch at the Akasaka Capital Tokyu Hotel, in the governmental hub of Tokyo. As we part, he tips me off that there’s a little-known footpath from the hotel, leading uphill to the Hie Shrine, one of Tokyo’s most important Shinto sites. I decide to climb the discreet bamboo-shaded path for a quick visit.

By the time I reach Hie’s Shinmon gate, which sports elegantly layered roofs that lift at the tips like the wings of a heron, I find I’ve also climbed above the sounds of the city. I’m admiring the peaceful grandeur when a bit of monkey business catches my eye.

Where most shrines have guardian figures in the form of foxes or sacred komainu (lion dogs), Hie sports stone monkeys on either side of the haiden, and its zuijin (warrior figures inside the main gate) are also larger-than-life simians. I head to the shrine offices to investigate.

Meeting with priests Hiroyuki Korehisa, 34, and Hiroyuki Uchida, 39, I get the scoop on the shine’s history, which is believed to date from the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), and enshrines Oyamakui-no-kami, the god of Mount Hiei on the border of Shiga and Kyoto prefectures. In 1478, brilliant engineer and local lord Ota Dokan requisitioned the shrine to protect a castle he was constructing.

“The shrine has moved around a lot from its original location on the castle grounds to a new spot just outside the castle moat, in 1607, so that locals could visit it freely,” Korehisa explains. “It was reduced to ashes in the city-wide Meireki Fire of 1657, but rebuilt again in this location in 1659.” As we stroll the grounds, I learn the shrine was again decimated in World War II bombings and the current concrete buildings were erected in 1958. To this day, though, the shrine’s mandate still includes protecting the castle grounds of old, today occupied by the Tokyo Imperial Palace. A plaque on the shrine’s inner gate proclaims its mission: “Kojo no shizume” (“Bringing peace to the old castle”).

I suddenly remember to inquire about the monkeys. The courtyard of pebbles crunch underfoot as the two priests and I walk over to the stone guardians. “It’s really difficult to explain Shinto gods,” Korehisa sighs. I nod and pat the sweat off my brow, knowing how enmeshed the stories can get. Korehisa points out that the monkeys are clad in hats, clothing, and even split-toed tabi socks. “The monkeys that inhabit Mount Hiei are believed to be the spiritual connectors between humans and the gods,” he explains with bracing brevity.

The male monkey, according to Korehisa, is known as Masaru. “You can hear the word for monkey, saru, in that name, right?” Depending on the Japanese characters you use to write Masaru, the name can mean “to win or excel” or “kindness,” or even “to send evil away quickly,” he says. The female monkey, he points out, clutches a small baby. “Japanese believe that monkeys have relatively easy pregnancies, and monkeys share the burden by raising their young in groups. That’s why people pray here for things like safety, easy childbirth and social kindness toward one another,” he says.

We pass tall storage shelters for the shrine’s mikoshi and dashi (portable shrines and floats) used in the biannual Sanno Matsuri, one of Tokyo’s three major festivals (along with the Kanda and Fukagawa festivals). Finally, we stand before a small fox shrine.

“The Sanno Inari is the only building that has survived here from 1659,” Korehisa says. “It has been repainted recently, so it looks new, but it’s over 350 years old.”

I’m delighted the little shrine outfoxed the flames, not least because it is the reason behind a beautiful tunnel of 90 vermilion torii that lead to it. “This entrance has become a popular power spot,” Korehisa says with pride, “and it was even used recently for a Vogue fashion shoot.”

In fact, I’ve noticed several people passing through the torii, trying to take selfies that do not include two perspiring priests and a foreign reporter. Thanking my guides, I head down the glowing red tunnel of gates, reluctantly leaving behind the oasis of nature for the traffic and thrum on Sotobori Avenue.

Even at 3 p.m. the day is scorching and I’m immediately scouting out shade. I find a sign that reads “Okamura Chair Museum” and deduce that, at the very least, it might offer an indoor place to sit.

The first floor is deserted, but it features an adorable red roadster, identified as an Okamura Mikasa touring car, from 1957. Heading upstairs, I meet the front desk staff and learn that the museum usually requires reservations for entrance. Since I have arrived at a slow hour, and no other groups are scheduled, I’m allowed to enter — just this once.

The museum covers three floors. It starts with a video presentation on the origins of Okamura Corp., founded by Kenjiro Yoshiwara in 1945. Initially a co-op of postwar aviation engineers, the corporation churned out pots, pans and other small household goods during Japan’s recovery period, expanding later to office furniture. The co-op’s engineers took a stab at automotive innovations, too — hence the automatic 4WD Mikasa roadster on the first floor — but cars eventually took a back seat to their main product, office chairs.

The museum displays Okamura’s first battleship gray office models — sturdy workhorses you can still spot in the oldest offices in town — through to its state-of-the-art chairs designed for specific kinds of computer work, with lumbar cradles, adjustable arm rests and neck supports. I try out various noble thrones — the Contessa, one of Okamura’s most popular chairs, and the Baron, as well as a wild futuristic desk and chair arrangement that make me feel like I could do work at warp speed.

On my feet again, I head out across Sotobori Avenue and trudge east along an Akasaka backstreet of new shopping facades, inexpensive international eateries and bars, and the occasional traditional establishment with two careful cones of salt out front to ward off evil. The smell of cooking grease permeates the air and sunlight slants through buildings like an amber stage spotlight.

I stop in at tofu store Akasaka Iseko Shokuhin, where owner Yuichi Ise, 56, offers orange-flavored tofu donuts in addition to the usual cakes of curd. Though forced to relocate his Roppongi shop when Roppongi Hills was built 15 years ago, he has made a name for himself in his Akasaka location. “Not many people live nearby,” he says, “and it was hard at first, but customers come.” In fact, as we chat, the last of his products disappear off the shelves. When I ask Ise what I shouldn’t miss in the area, he and his staff point me to Kinryu, a traditional multicourse kaiseki restaurant.

The heat, time of day and Kinryu’s exclusive reputation make me hesitate. But, standing in the entrance, I can hear workers chatting somewhere deep inside. I call out. After a long silence a smiling face peeks around the corner, and I meet Takeo Gomei, 62, director of sales at Kinryu.

Gomei whisks me around the premises, one of the last four ryotei (ultraexclusive restaurants) in Akasaka. Designed by renowned master of Japanese modernism Yoshida Isoya (1894-1974), the 64-year-old Kinryu features gorgeous Akita cedar heartwood ceilings, hand-blown glass windows, decorative details including a vase by pottery luminary Kitaoji Rosanjin (1883-1959) and a maze of private rooms. It is no surprise to learn that Akasaka geisha regularly entertain guests here.

Gomei, it emerges, studied English in St. Louis, Missouri, and once we get talking he’s suddenly inspired to show me the restaurant’s private tea room, and secretive back rooms, designed for use by politicians. “Each room has its own private bathroom and staircase,” Gomei says, letting the implications sink in. In one, he points out the ceiling ornamentation: paintings by mid-1800s Edo artist Gan Rei. As my eyes focus, I realize the subject matter is erotic, but the peasant figures going at it are somehow more charming than titillating. An intriguing choice of decor for politicos.

Loath to part with this rarefied atmosphere of elegance, I ask if I may dine at Kinryu’s bar — an 8-meter long, 5-ton block of wood from the Congo, shaped like a geisha’s comb. As Gomei proudly brandishes a new English menu and offers me a seat, I realize this formerly “members-only” establishment doesn’t plan to rest on its traditional laurels.

Kit Nagamura’s Backstreet Stories will take a short break in September before returning again on the first Saturday of October.

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