Travel | BACKSTREET STORIES

Swordplay and samurai in Tokyo’s Maruyamacho district

by Kit Nagamura

Contributing Writer

I’m strolling toward Shibuya Ward’s Maruyamacho neighborhood when I catch sight of a 2-meter-high fugu “swimming” out toward me from the front of a restaurant, Tora-fugu Tei. I pause to admire the faux prickles and buck teeth of the restaurant’s mascot, and the nearby display tank of live tiger fugu, all meant to lure onlookers into a dinner date with destiny. Fortunately, death by fugu is exceptionally rare nowadays: I’d be happy to take the gamble, but it’s morning still and the store only opens in the evening.

Catch of the day: A 2-meter-high fugu looks out from the wall at Tora-fugu Tei.
Catch of the day: A 2-meter-high fugu looks out from the wall at Tora-fugu Tei. | KIT NAGAMURA

It’s a beautiful spring day and, in the shadow of the pufferfish, I notice Sennari, a tiny kimono shop. In the window is a stunning kimono, covered with seasonal cherry blossoms floating across a sublime gradation of soft pinks and grays.

“That’s oboro shibori (misty tie-dye) made in Niigata,” says Taeko Ito, 64, whose father-in-law opened the shop 70 years ago. “Back in the Edo Period (1603-1868), this area was on the Oyama Kaido,” Ito says, referring to a pilgrimage path leading from Akasaka to Oyama Afuri Shrine, located in the mountains of Kanagawa Prefecture. “Maruyamacho developed into a thriving hanamachi, or geisha district,” she adds, “and kimono were de rigueur.”

Traditional craft: A close-up of the oboro-shibori,
Traditional craft: A close-up of the oboro-shibori, ‘misty tye-die’ kimono from Niigata Prefecture. | KIT NAGAMURA

Most paths to purity in Japan have their fair share of unholy stops en route, I muse. I admire a tiny tsurushibina doll, fashioned from kimono fabric ends, that Ito shows me.

“How, in these days, does a kimono store stay in business?” I ask.

“We have tea and craft classes upstairs and offer an oasis for teachers here,” Ito answers. As we chat, the phone rings and customers stop in: It is clear business proceeds at Sennari.

Thanking Ito for her time, I pop down the alley behind the pufferfish shop, trying to envision the area as an Edo Period pleasure spot. Suddenly, as if to assist, Shimpei Takemura, 39, appears, a dashing figure in traditional tattsuke hakama (trousers tied at the calves). He’s headed to work, he says, and gallantly invites me up to his seventh floor office. Once there, I doff my shoes and enter a dimmed room. As my eyes adjust, I discern the spooky shells of seven samurai or, more precisely, their katchū (full armor), with kabuto (helmets) and menpō (face guards), sitting upright against one wall.

Takemura is the owner of Samurai Armor Photo Studio, where clients come to live out warrior fantasies by donning the iconic armor, then having the moment memorialized in a cleverly-styled photo shoot.

His initial plan was to have a place where people could practice slashing bamboo stalks with real swords but, when the police denied him permission, Takemura went to plan B. He commissioned precise and extremely pricey (about ¥1.2 million apiece) replicas of historical katchū to be handmade by armor experts in Kagoshima Prefecture.

“They’re identical to those used hundreds of years ago,” Takemura says. “Except I’ve had them customized so that they can accommodate people up to 204 centimeters tall, and there’s a small one for children. Luckily, the way samurai armor works means width doesn’t matter. We can dress sumo wrestlers.”

Battle ready: Shimpei Takemura poses with a samurai sword in front of the sets of armor clients can choose to wear at Samurai Armor Photo Studio.
Battle ready: Shimpei Takemura poses with a samurai sword in front of the sets of armor clients can choose to wear at Samurai Armor Photo Studio. | KIT NAGAMURA

I’m engrossed by Takemura’s spiel, and before I know it, I’m kitted up as Kuroda Nagamasa, a warrior who served under Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. As each piece is knotted snugly into place, Takemura ties in some engaging historical lessons and answers every question I have in passable English. For instance, once inside 20 kilograms of armor, what happens if nature calls? The answer isn’t for the squeamish.

Finally, with swords readied and helmet knotted on my chin, I swagger unsteadily into the studio area for a few poses. Takemura says that for those unused to squatting down in a ponderous suit of metal plates, getting the posture right is a challenge. He painstakingly adjusts me into a pseudo-samurai stance, and the photographer snaps away.

Each client gets the original SD card of 150 photos, “including the bad ones,” Takemura laughs. Checking mine, I find the images improbably evocative and the gleam of armor beautiful. Full armor sessions run at ¥13,000 per person, and plans including armored street-strutting in Shibuya (samurai in the scramble!) start at ¥30,000. Reservations advised at samurai.bz.

Thanking Takemura, I stop to snap a picture of pastel-painted buildings seven stories below his studio. “Those are all love hotels,” Takemura tells me, referring to a maze of short-stay establishments that 40 years ago began to replace the hanamachi of the geisha.

Once back on ground level, I see a raucous crowd of men on cellphones at the entrance to the hotels, so I head southeast to another backstreet. I’m about to pass a restaurant with its doors open when the sounds of something like a sword fight, with shouting and clanging metal, come hurtling down the stairwell. My mind still half in a samurai fantasy land, I call out tentatively, “Everybody OK up there?”

At the top of the stairs, three men in hakama appear, with double swords by their sides. My jaw drops. The men are, I discover, highly skilled swordsmen of samurai descent, training in a small dojo set up on the second floor of yakitori restaurant Tsukune Samurai Sakanoue. I’m thrilled when they invite me up to watch.

I feel a powerful allure to formal Japanese swordsmanship and, from the moment I climb to the second floor, I’m mesmerized by the blur of hakama, the sound of metal whistling through thin air and the elegant choreography of parries and attacks. Even the final flick of the blade before it’s returned to the hilt — designed to remove a victim’s blood — is an action of brutal grace.

Project planner Hidenao Kuboki, 40, explains that Tsukune Samurai Sakanoue has just opened. His intent is to create an amalgam of cuisine, cultural exhibition and training space.

Kuboki is banking on the idea that the authentic arts of Japan, some on the verge of extinction, are worth preserving. “Seeing these arts in action will stimulate and revive both overseas and local interest,” he tells me. Kuboki’s contacts include one of Maruyamacho’s last geisha, as well as calligraphers, ikebana teachers and members of the Tenshinryu Hyouho, a 400-year-old martial arts group originally devoted to the protection of shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu.

One of the men, I note, has superior speed and breathtaking acuity. He, it turns out, is Masakumo Kuwami, 39, the 10th Grandmaster of the Tenshinryu Hyouho. Master Kuwami’s interaction with his juniors is friendly but firm, issuing reprimands only when someone’s not paying attention. “The next step is to offer authentic samurai training sessions here, in Japanese on Saturdays, and English on Sundays,” Kuboki tells me.

Pleasure quarters: The colorful love hotels of Shibuya
Pleasure quarters: The colorful love hotels of Shibuya’s Maruyamacho district. | KIT NAGAMURA

I’m already on board with this dinner/display/dojo idea, but when Kuboki plugs in a smoke machine that adds visual drama to the samurai sword work, I know he’s got a winner.

Thanking the men, I stride off alone to the love hotel heart of Maruyamacho. Couples of all ages come and go from candy-colored, dolly-festooned or mirrored entrances. Here and there, I spot small intriguing bars. One, named “Members,” makes me guffaw.

When I come to restaurant Wadatsumi, with its long wooden, covered entrance, hidden pond and red bridge, I’m in for yet another time slip. Deep inside the establishment, I find a tiny sushi counter, where chef Yoji Baba teaches me that this 64-year-old establishment was originally used by Maruyamacho geisha waiting to be called on to entertain patrons.

I watch Baba assemble the lunch he has grown famous for: a set of 24 pinky-sized sushi bites, known as hime-nigiri (princess sushi). “Regular-sized sushi makes you too full to try a wide variety of fish,” Baba says. “But this way, you can taste everything.” For the surroundings and the sushi selection, the ¥2,000 lunch is a steal.

As I’m paying, I check out the other customers. One man, like a modern-day Hikaru Genji, dines with five pretty women. “No, no,” he smiles, catching my raised eyebrows. “We’re work colleagues,” he says with a laugh.

Leaving Wadatsumi and reaching the corner of the ryotei restaurant Sancho, I pause briefly in front of the stone bodhisattva figure known as Dogenzaka Jizo. The statue’s lips are red — from someone’s lipstick, perhaps — and a signboard explains that this is a hibuse jizo, or bodhisattva charged with quenching fires. The way traditional new businesses are heating up in Maruyamacho, a quick prayer to this ancient figure to watch over them seems timely.