With this summer’s record-breaking heat wave in mind, I aim to find the longest shadow in Tokyo. Alas, I start out at high noon, when even Tokyo Skytree, the world’s tallest broadcasting tower, offers zero refuge. Once outside the air-conditioned environs of Oshiage Station, I am left at the mercy of the scorching sun.
A canal flows past Skytree on the northern edge of the Narihira neighborhood and, under a bridge that spans the water, I spy a makeshift cave of shade. Descending steps to the canal side, I find the air thick with the algal odor of a neglected fish tank.
Tomoyoshi Ogaki, 43, is unfazed by this, since he’s on a fishing mission. Into the murky canal waters, he drops a gossamer line from his dainty bamboo rod, which bears the branded signature of Saotatsu Honten, a shop along the canal famous for high-quality Edo wazao (a segmented bamboo fishing rod design invented during the Edo Period, 1603-1868).
As we chat, Ogaki snags a thumb-sized haze (yellowfin goby), and holds it up for me to admire. “What now?” I ask. “I’ll eat it,” Ogaki answers, grinning at my naivete. Ogaki guesstimates that he catches and consumes about 2,000 small fry a year, prepared as tempura.
I leave him to his casting, and head back up the stairs to wander in a southeasterly direction into the heart of Narihira. The streets throb with heat and are mostly deserted, running between slightly ramshackle buildings. When I pass a grungy bar named Rock Bottom, I worry the name may epitomize the afternoon.
I am a bit surprised, then, to find Hawaiian fabrics shop P-Para, rocking an island aloha vibe. Owner Junko Okano, 52, stocks traditional Hawaiian clothing and dance accessories, and teaches on-site hula dance classes. Okano opened her shop in 2011 — the same year that Skytree was completed — and feels the character of Narihira’s area is shifting toward a younger demographic.
When I meet Kazukiyo Izumi, 71, whose dental office is just above P-Para, he agrees with Okano. Between patients, the University of Southern California graduate kindly gives me a snapshot of growing up in Narihira during the American Occupation years (1945-52). “Our neighborhood was badly bombed, but one hotel survived,” he says. “GIs brought girls there, and frequently got into drunken brawls. We had to wait for MPs (military police) to come push the crowds away.”
Izumi feels the area is still indicative of the postwar years, with back alleys full of “what you never imagined was there,” but senses that Skytree and new subway stations have already brought significant changes to Narihira.
Thanking Izumi for his time, I head out into the heat again, seeing the neighborhood through different eyes. When I slide open the door at Total Cake, I can’t tell if the place is a bakery or garage, since there’s a car parked inside. Owner Kikuo Kitatani, 70, explains that Total makes event-sized confectionary, and this is its distribution center.
Out of community kindness, Kitatani sells a small sampling of his products — puchikēki (mini cakes), apple pie and souffle cheesecake — to neighbors. I glance at the empty cake racks. “You have to arrive really early,” Kitatani says, laughing.
Next door, I find what looks like a warehouse wearing a wedding gown. A makeover by Schemata Architects has transformed a storage facility into a chic white showroom for the graphic textile work of artist Hiroko Takahashi.
Inside Takahashi Hiroko Studio, I find a chorus line of outre mannequins, all depicting a serious Japanese woman in heikō-dachi (karate parallel stance). Each mannequin is wearing a powerfully patterned yukata (summer kimono). It gradually dawns on me that one woman wandering around the shop looks exactly like the mannequins. This, it turns out, is Hiroko Takahashi. I nab the chance to chat with her a bit, over iced tea.
“My grandmother was a doll maker,” Takahashi says, “and I helped her sew doll clothing. Then, at age 7, I saw a Paris collection on TV, and knew I wanted to make people beautiful.”
Takahashi, a beauty herself, aimed to create Western clothing, but entered Tokyo University of the Arts, where she was required to take classes on traditional Japanese weaving and dyeing, or traditional kimono-making techniques. “This wasn’t my main interest, but I realized with kimono, there’s no waste when you cut fabric,” she says, “and I thought, how can I be a fashion designer if I don’t know my own country’s traditional clothing?”
Perusing her yukata of simple graphic lines in sophisticated arrangements, I notice what look like riffs on traditional Japanese patterns, such as seigaiha (wave motif). “I started with a circle,” Takahashi says, “which is simple, but it took time to figure out the perfect size and spacing. I mimic a checker flag, where the space between dots is the same as the diameter of each dot. With stripes, I use the same equal spacing approach. I really didn’t notice that my work resembled Japanese traditional patterns until much later, but I have no intention of revamping old patterns. My designs come from within me.”
Takahashi’s aim is to galvanize attention to modern aesthetics. “When people look for Japanese souvenirs, they always choose old-style crafts. I want to update things,” she says, “to get people excited by current Japanese products. In 100 years’ time, I hope my designs are the traditional items that people admire.”
Takahashi’s yukata are pricey, between ¥55,000 and ¥120,000, reflecting complicated inkjet-printing techniques and superior fabrics, such as a weave of cotton and linen. One pattern I particularly like is titled “Rock,” named for all the word’s implications: rock solid, rock ‘n’ roll, and a rocking motion. I admire covetously the dress Takahashi is wearing, which features the “Rock” fabric. “I’m pregnant now,” she says, “so I made this for me, but I’ll let you know when I make another.” I can rock that idea.
Thanking Takahashi, I head into the humidity again, strolling past an open market, an auntie-style shop of polyester pullovers. Nearby, I come across a flotilla of canoes and kayaks, stuffed into a garage. This dry dock, I learn, belongs to Paddle Quest, a company offering tours of local waterways. Across the street, in the Paddle Quest water sports gear outlet, I meet charming Shinju Horikawa, 46, who started as a distributor of canoes, kayaks and lifejackets, before opening Paddle Quest in 2015.
“Humans aren’t actually supposed to be on the water,” he muses. “But there, you are your own engine, which is quiet. You also get to observe the shore from the perspective of the water, to see the familiar from an unfamiliar viewpoint.”
Horikawa offers kayak lessons and tours, the most popular of which is a Skytree loop. When I ask him what drew him to the work, he answers immediately: “On the water, there are no streets — you make your own. I used to love mountain climbing, but on a trail, you always climb looking at someone’s butt, at the person in front of you. On the water’s surface, you’re free.”
I suggest a “backstreams” story one day with Horikawa, who nods, and waves me goodbye. I pass a public bath, Sakura, and some buildings so old, they seem to be melting into one another. Outside one such place, beside a sign that reads “Swing Top’s,” I find two giant stuffed animals, slumped over as though with heatstroke.
Curiosity wins me over and I part a thick plastic sheet at the entrance. Inside, I find stands of vintage guitars — some for sale— and three guys. Two are members of a band, also called “Swing Top’s,” and the third is a guitar repairman, handling anything from small repairs to complete overhauls.
Band member Mitsuru Ishino, 64, quietly hand-rolls a cigarette and stares at a video of a street musician’s cover of a Dire Straits song. The band’s “boss,” Yoichi Tanabe, 64, sits in a back room with two bankers who’ve made a house call to discuss “things.”
I chat with repairman Yasunori Seki, 57, who started work at Swing Top’s only about a year ago, but already seems in the swing of things. In fact, when I ask to see his workshop out back, he agrees, if I give him time to fold up his futon. “You sleep here, seriously?” pipes up Ishino, genuinely surprised.
Once Tanabe finishes his financial negotiations, he joins us, and offers a characterization of Narihira, where he and Ishino grew up. “In Tokyo, people come from all kinds of places, but in this neighborhood, most of us were born here,” he says. “It’s a place where we have deep trust in each other, and help each other out. That’s rare enough, these days, that people who move away from Narihira often move back again.” His tone when he says this? Rock solid.
Backstreet Stories will be taking a break for September and will return in October.