There’s something alluring about the suburban stops between Sangenjaya and Shimotakaido stations, which has been serviced by the Tokyu Setagaya tramway for the past 110 years.
Low-rise buildings and modest platforms tick by as the tram trundles at a leisurely pace westward from where I board at Sangenjaya. I don’t know what I’m looking for, exactly, but as the tram pulls in at Shoin-Jinjamae Station, the sight of five multicolored larger-than-life-sized busts of Japanese men perched on a wall seems to be the answer.
Since the plaster busts are just down an alley parallel to the tram tracks, I buzz over, but find that the establishment they adorn, Bar Kurahachi, is only open in the evening.
I head across the tracks instead, following cooking aromas emanating from Study, a chic yet casual eatery with fish and meat lunch plates. The entrance is chock-a-block and wheel-to-wheel with mamachari (literally, “mom’s bicycles”). It seems that during school hours, Shoin Jinjamae moms study menus and enjoy a bit of well-deserved downtime. Peering in, I see there are no Study tables free, so I head on.
Nearly next door, at a shop named All About My Croquette, I study up on the humble spud-in-fried-breadcrumbs jacket. Shop assistant Fumie Takubo, 32, tells me that All About My Croquette, which opened only a year ago, strives to make the usually work-intensive home-cooked treat more easily available, and to give it a bit of gourmet flair. Their offerings are a mingling of two kinds of potato — one silky soft and the other firmer in texture — gussied up with mix-ins such as spinach, squid ink, basil, lamb and even a popular beets and cream cheese combo.
My croquettes comprise one that’s a pretty pink inside from the beets, and a plain one, which comes pierced by a plastic sauce container shaped like a hypodermic needle.
“It’s meant to be playful,” Takubo says of the sauce shot, “and kids love it.”
I wonder aloud if they shoot sauce everywhere. “Sure they do,” Takubo laughs. I crunch through both tuber tots, injecting them from time to time with sauce and enjoying the various textures of this classic comfort food.
As I depart, Fumie suggests I check out a small French restaurant tucked behind the main shopping street. “The owner, Take-chan, is a good chef, and you’ll know him by his hachimaki,” she says, referring to the rolled headband worn to ward off evil spirits.
I’m about to zip past a narrow alley, but glimpse a svelte guy leaning on a wall, a cigarette dangling jauntily from his lips. The posture is French, but the hachimaki is a tell. Takeshi Osugi, 40, waves me into his 12-seat restaurant, Pres de Shoin, named for its proximity to the neighborhood shrine, Shoin Jinja.
As he salts a hefty hunk of pork for roasting, I learn that Osugi developed his taste for simple French-style cooking in Lyon, where he was an exchange student. His menu features inexpensive options — “Otherwise I couldn’t eat here,” pipes up a pretty customer at the counter — and he moves with so much authority in his tiny kitchen that it surprises me to learn his place also opened about a year ago.
I order a creme brulee, because after potatoes for lunch, why not? As I crack the burnt sugar topping on the enormous serving, I ask if Pres de Shoin gets plenty of business in the back alley.
“Nope,” Osugi says, laughing.
“It takes a bit of bravery to find me the first time,” he says, “but locals know.”
I take notes, pay, then head off again, in search of the shrine after which both Pres de Shoin and Bar Kurahachimae Station are named. A light drizzle of rain falls as I pass a large local rice shop, a fish monger and a pachinko parlor.
Sprinkled between the usual stores are several new startups — an organic foods store, chic coffee houses and a large supermarket. The street caters, cleverly, to all ages and the virtually traffic-free shopping street bustles even on a wet weekday.
At a crossroads, I spy Shoin Jinja’s impressive torii gate.
Entering, I quietly wander the grounds that enshrine the spirit of Yoshida Shoin (1830-59), one of Japan’s great intellectual activists hailing from Hagi, Yamaguchi Prefecture. From his early 20s, Shoin pushed the boundaries of law for the sake of education.
His most daring plan, however, occurred just before the Meiji Revolution, when Commodore Matthew Perry’s Black Ships were anchored offshore at Shimoda, demanding Japan open to foreign trade. Under cover of night, Shoin and a colleague rowed out and attempted to secure travel to the United States, at a time when the penalty for leaving Japan’s shores without permission was death.
Shoin’s plan to follow a “know thy enemy” tactic was a heroic bid for information and understanding, and records show that sailors aboard the ships were impressed by his bravery. Nonetheless, he and his comrade were refused passage, forced to return to shore and were promptly apprehended and caged. Shoin, sentenced to prison, taught classes from his cell.
As Japan edged toward civil unrest, Shoin found himself eventually siding with Imperial loyalists, who were opposed to the Tokugawa shogunate signing treaties with the U.S. without Imperial decree.
Frustrated by what he saw as a lack of adequate leadership on either side, Shoin continued to teach students, but simultaneously plotted his own political revolution. When his plans, including assassination attempts on ranking Tokugawa officials, were discovered, Shoin was beheaded for treason, at the age of 29.
Shoin’s remains were moved from the execution grounds (located in what is now Kodenmacho) and buried here in 1863, as were several of his colleagues.
The shrine was built later, in 1882, which perhaps explains the rare circumstances of a graveyard existing on the grounds of a Shinto shrine. Also on site, there’s a handsome copper statue of Shoin, and a replica of the Shoka Sonjuku, the Hagi “school rooms” where Shoin taught several men who went on to become key players in the new Meiji government.
Mulling over what Shoin would make of modern Japan, I come across the timeless beauty of 6-year-old Nica Otsuka, making an early shichi-go-san (a festival for girls aged 7 and 3, and boys aged 5) visit to the shrine. I ask her parents for permission to photograph her, and when they agree, she poses like a pro.
“Well, I studied how to do this before,” she quips, “when I was 3.” Her parents laugh, but I can see they have a precocious one on their hands.
Exiting the shrine, I take a quick sidestep into Wakabayashi Park, blooming with waist-high orange cosmos flowers, flame-hued tricolor amaranthus plants and giant sunflowers.
Hiroe Nomura, 86, leaves her park bench to chat with me.
“During the Edo Period, this area was thick with large pine trees,” she says, “and when I married and moved here in 1956, it was still like the countryside. At dawn, you’d hear the cries of Oriental dollarbirds.”
The changes have depressed Nomura. “We’ve gained more restaurants and a supermarket,” she says, “but have fewer places to buy staples. We miss the communication — and competition — that went with many vendors.”
Nomura and I concur, though, that Shoin Jinjamae is still more intimate than many places in Tokyo.
As the sun drops, I retrace my steps, looking at things a bit differently. I know that new places — a fresh branch of Matsuzaki sembei (rice crackers), artsy secondhand bookstore Nostos and a timeshare cafe (Cafe Lotta some days, and Ambird Cafe others) — are changing the neighborhood demographics, but they reflect young investment in an area that might otherwise turn into a town of rusted shutters.
Yoshikazu Hiruoka, 39, the owner of oyster bar Ariku for the past 3½ years, agrees.
“The mood of this area … the mood and the way time moves here, made me choose this neighborhood,” he says. The Tsukiji-trained mollusk expert found his first jobs in popular Tokyo hot spots such as Shibuya and Daikanyama. “But I lived in Shoin Jinjamae,” he says. “Always, when I came home, the atmosphere and the mixture of generations here appealed to me.”
When I leave Hiruoaka to prepare for his evening customers, the shopping street’s PA system broadcasts melancholic traditional music, with intermittent advertisements for an impending local festival.
The sun has dropped, so I stroll over to Bar Kurahachi, where I encounter master Junji Takizawa, 49, going over his inventory. When I ask, he solves the mystery of the busts lined up outside.
“Kurahachi’s owner loves history,” he says, “and his friend sculpted busts of Yoshida Shoin and key figures in the Meiji Revolution.”
I convince Takizawa to take me outside and teach me the names of each bust. They are (from right to left) Yoshida Shoin (1830-59), Takamori Saigo (1828-77), Toshizo Hijikata (1835-69), Shinsaku Takasugi (1839-67) and Ryoma Sakamoto (1836-67).
While outside, I catch sight of another bar next door, Bacchus.
“Kurahachi is pretty old — 20 years old,” Takizawa says, “but Bacchus is 40 years old and very famous. If you wait until 5:30 p.m., the bartender, who’s about 80, will come.”
Takizawa bustles around Kurahachi, getting ready for his evening crowds that are already dribbling in. I wait.
Half past five comes and goes. Then 6 p.m. At 6:30 p.m., Takizawa shrugs.
“If the bar light’s not on, he might not be well tonight,” Takizawa says.
We pause, staring at the dark pub windows. A tram passes, its single light sweeping through the blue autumn evening and in its wake we can sense all kinds of change in the wind.
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