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Banking on the riverside alleyways of Komagata

Hidden crafts and a Michelin star in Tokyo’s aquatic neighborhood

by Kit Nagamura

Contributing Writer

The shadowy backstreet that parallels the west bank of the Sumida River, between the Umaya and Komagata bridges, has always struck me as woefully underrealized.

Two venerable dining establishments — the freshwater loach specialists at Komakata Dozeu and the grilled eel experts at Maekawa — have for centuries denoted the area’s aquatic proximity, but a smattering of new guesthouses and hotels appearing in the Komagata district suggests an area in transition.

I exit the Oedo Line at Kuramae Station, and am welcomed with buckets of autumn rain. Splashing northward, the wind playing my umbrella like a pinwheel, I try to snap a few shots of the 1929 pea-green Umaya Bridge. “Umaya” means “horse stable,” a nearby sign informs me, and the bridge was supposedly named for barns housing the steeds of the Tokugawa shoguns during the Edo Period (1603-1868). Decorated with horse-related motifs, the Umaya’s three through arches bound over the rain-pelted Sumida in a simple, but discernible, art deco style.

One of the tricks of roaming the city is to know when to seek shelter. As it’s nearly noon, I join a queue waiting to eat at McLean Old Burger Stand. Inside the U.S.-style rustic interior, owner Kohei Ochia, 32, has the grills sizzling with fat patties. I order the Monthly Burger (¥1,330), an umami combo of daikon radish, scallions, myōga ginger, lettuce and tomato complementing a juicy beef patty and toasted bun. Even the side fries sport crispy exteriors, despite the damp day.

Beans and burgers: Mai Kuboki prepares a cup of ice coffee at Leaves Coffee Apartment, which shares a space with McLean Old Burger Stand.
Beans and burgers: Mai Kuboki prepares a cup of ice coffee at Leaves Coffee Apartment, which shares a space with McLean Old Burger Stand. | KIT NAGAMURA

My counter seat faces a small cafe that shares an interior space with McLean. The freshly brewed black ice coffee from Leaves Coffee Apartment, served by barista Mai Kuboki, 31, is bitter but floral, and as I sip, the rain obligingly dissipates.

Moving northward, toward Komagata Bridge, I peek into a bustling sushi shop. I dodge workers hefting plastic carryalls of empty bowls and plates as they run in and out of the establishment. Chef and owner Kiyotaka Suzuki, a hale 68-year-old with 44 years of sushi-making under his belt, explains that Komagata Sushi runs a regular restaurant, but also offers popular yakatabune (pleasure boat) cruises.

“Most yakatabune order their sushi from outside shops, so it’s not as fresh as ours. That’s the merit of our business,” Suzuki says. “The demerit is that we have to get up really early to choose fish, then cruise until late, so we’re often short on sleep.”

Because he’s settled in for a chat, I ask Suzuki if he’s seen changes in the Komagata area. “Tons,” he says, “this place used to be so quiet. There really was nothing here at all. But what’s brought change is the arrival of the Oedo Line and the new walking area along the river.”

Legging it: A man ferries a customer across the Umaya Bridge by rickshaw.
Legging it: A man ferries a customer across the Umaya Bridge by rickshaw. | KIT NAGAMURA

I follow one of Komagata Sushi’s employees down to the river terrace. Across a magnificently rusted dock, first mate Masaya Otsuka, 39, readies a boat for customers scheduled to arrive by rickshaw in the evening. Workers load and unload tableware, beer bottles, cutlery — back and forth — as the ship’s crew tunes the engines. A brief glimpse of the effort that goes into prepping the yakatabune makes the fare (¥9,000 per person, plus tax) for a two-hour cruise, full-course dinner with fresh sushi and a take-home gift seem pretty reasonable.

Continuing north on the backstreet, I pass some abandoned buildings and stop in front of a facade that appears one shake shy of toppling. A woman strolls up, and we chat about the building, which we agree is a mystery. It turns out that Mitsuyo Saito, 54, actually lives next door, and while some things in Komagata are locked in secrecy, she does hold a key to the area’s history.

University treat: A tray full of daigaku imo, candied sweet potatoes cheap enough for students to enjoy.
University treat: A tray full of daigaku imo, candied sweet potatoes cheap enough for students to enjoy. | KIT NAGAMURA

She guides me to the rear of her building, and heaves open heavy factory doors. A field of grasses and weeds, and a wall, are all that separates her building from the Sumida River.

“This is where my husband’s family used to offload and process satsumaimo (sweet potatoes),” she says, adding that she is married to the president of Kawako Shoten, Tokyo’s most famous purveyor of sweet potato products.

“Kawako Shoten opened 142 years ago,” she continues, “and my husband is the fifth generation in the business. In 1876, his ancestor Koheiji Saito farmed sweet potatoes in Kawagoe, up north, and shipped them here. People complained that the potatoes arrived in bad shape, so they refused to pay fair prices. Saito didn’t believe those claims, so, at the age of 20, he moved to Tokyo to supervise the shipments himself.”

Over the years, Kawako Shoten gradually began to sell sweet potato treats made from their flawless spuds. Saito kindly leads me to Kawako Shoten’s nearest storefront, the Komagata branch of Oimoyasan Koshin, on Edo-dori avenue.

Several small groups of women are already lined up to buy daigaku imo (university potatoes), the candied sweet potatoes that are supposedly named for being affordable to students. At the window, Saito recommends I try two kinds of Oimoyasan’s golden nuggets: a regular Satsuma potato and a seasonal Azuma variety. Both come sprinkled with black sesame seeds and doused in a secret honey-hued sauce. Biting into the Satsuma, pillow-soft and warm, is like tasting early autumn sunshine, but I favor the crisper coating and textural intricacy of the Azuma.

Thanking Saito for her uber tubers and time, I move on, but don’t get far. Next door, I drop in to shop at Oshimaya Onda, where sixth-generation chōchin (paper lantern) painter, Osamu Onda, 40, is hard at work. Compared to the ebullient potato shop, Oshimaya Onda is a library of quiet concentration. Here, one slip of a brush can render an expensive lantern unsellable.

Patient craft: Osamu Onda paints a paper lantern in his shop Oshimaya Onda.
Patient craft: Osamu Onda paints a paper lantern in his shop Oshimaya Onda. | KIT NAGAMURA

I sit silently for a while, listening to the soft scritch of Onda’s pencil tracing a family crest over a lantern’s paper exterior. Gradually, as he shifts to inking outlines, I learn that it takes approximately 10 years to become proficient at making designs look true on a curved and bamboo-ribbed surface. When I ask him which designs are the most challenging, he answers like a true artisan: “There’s no use in thinking which are difficult and which are not; you just must continue to do them.”

Before leaving Onda to his work, I learn that he paints tiny personalized lanterns — with prices starting at ¥2,000 — but drying time and his backlog means orders often take weeks to deliver.

As I head back down to the riverside backstreet, the shadows are deepening. I stop at a curious handbag shop, Atelier Nakajima. Shinichi Nakajima, 59, sidles over to explain that his company once produced wholesale bags for department stores, but now creates one-of-a-kind “beauties,” combining rare fabrics, quality leathers and unique shapes. “Would you like to see where we work?” he asks. I nod, of course.

Family affair: Shinichi Nakajima, Yoko Takiguchi and Nagakazu Takiguchi of handbag shop Atelier Nakajima.
Family affair: Shinichi Nakajima, Yoko Takiguchi and Nagakazu Takiguchi of handbag shop Atelier Nakajima. | KIT NAGAMURA

Upstairs, in a room festooned with hundreds of handbag patterns, rolls of crocodile and lizard skins, weavings, African fabrics and sewing machines, I meet Nakajima’s sister Yoko Takiguchi, 64, and her husband, Nagakazu, 65.

“We explore galleries and studios for artistic inspiration,” Yoko says. “But we want to make bags that beg to be picked up, admired, and most of all, used.” She adds that the trio regularly takes customized orders.

Now 80 years in the same location — the Nakajimas’ father produced leather belts — the family seems a well-oiled creative team. When I ask if new hotels springing up in the area have changed the vibe, they enthusiastically agree. “The influx of young people is so interesting,” Yoko says. “Some local artisans even accept students and teach skills. We used to just work away here, all by ourselves. Now people drop in.”

With this upbeat impression lingering in my mind, I move on, but come to an abrupt halt in front of a restaurant sign: Nabeno-Ism. I’ve heard tell of this Michelin-star establishment, run by renowned chef and arguably Joel Robuchon’s most trusted protege, Yuichiro Watanabe.

I take a peek inside, finding the entire first floor to be a glassed-in kitchen. To my delight, Watanabe himself emerges and, instead of shooing me off, he leads me upstairs to Nabeno-Ism’s second floor dining area. The intimate space opens out to a terrace with unobstructed views of the river.

The water sparkles with late afternoon light and the traffic of pleasure boats and water buses. It’s an extraordinary location for reveling in Watanabe’s French cuisine , which is infused with Japanese accents.

“Finding this spot was my destiny,” Watanabe says. “It has a long history, with restaurants that have survived here for hundreds of years, and that’s my challenge, to survive just as long.”

Watanabe starts to recount discovering a passion for cooking at the age of 10, at his mother’s side. “She had many cookbooks, and we watched cooking shows on TV a lot,” he begins, but we’re interrupted by a phone call from none other than his mom, inviting him to dinner. On Watanabe’s face, I glimpse both his roots and his future, and bow out quietly to let him take superlative care of both.

To explore the Komagata neighborhood, alight at Kuramae Station on the Oedo Line.