Travel | BACKSTREET STORIES

Playing cat and mouse in the alleyways of Harajuku

Cat Street may be well-known, but what of its quieter sister street?

by Kit Nagamura

Contributing Writer

Most who are familiar with the Harajuku area have walked Cat Street, a predominantly pedestrian road that connects Omotesando avenue with Shibuya.

Fewer, however, have explored the narrow street parallel to Cat Street, running a shelf above topographically. While Cat Street swarms with hip kitties every day of the week, and was named for that quintessential fashion platform, the catwalk, the small street parallel to it has no name. I decide to explore the lesser known road.

Out of the spotlight: The street next to Cat Street is as quiet as a mouse.
Out of the spotlight: The street next to Cat Street is as quiet as a mouse. | KIT NAGAMURA

“Mouse Street,” as I’ve dubbed it, is a great deal quieter than Cat Street. Toward its Omotesando side, a few international brands have a presence, but heading toward Shibuya, these quickly give way to recherche labels, including children’s fashion shops such as Frankygrow and Wafflish Waffle.

Beyond clothing, there’s a mishmash of yoga wear, nail services, hair salons, plus some bags and baubles, and then — billions of bilious blue blistering barnacles! — a whole store devoted to Tintin, the unflappable globetrotting young journalist brought to life by Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi, under the pseudonym Herge.

Popping into the shop, I’m whisked back to childhood summers pouring over volumes of “The Adventures of Tintin,” given to me by my Swiss grandfather. Remi’s crisp linear drawing style is said to reflect his appreciation of the Japanese woodblock works of ukiyo-e artists Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai. I browse the extensive array of character goods, including all the official Tintin books in Japanese translation. With a quick nod to a life-size figurine of Tintin’s slightly cynical dog, Snowy, I make like a moon rocket and blast off down the street.

There’s a smoky tinge to the autumnal air as I scurry along quiet Mouse Street, murine in its subdued grays. Occasionally, alleyways offer glimpses of Cat Street below, a parallel world packed with shoppers. Continuing along, I pass a few private homes tucked between small retail shops, and find several mouse-size lots of vacant land, suggesting an area in transition.

Stopping in front of a dusky rose-hued building, I note a giant graphic of a diamond ring on its second-floor window and first-floor signboard. Inside, I expect to find nuptial bling, but owner-artisan of Ileava & Co., 38-year-old Maya Nishimura, emerges from her tiny studio in the rear of the shop to explain that her handmade work spans a wide range, from cute “Hug Bear” rings, to elegant moon-inspired pendants and minimalistic cloud-shaped pieces.

“I’ve been interested in jewelry since high school,” Nishimura says in English, acquired during her apprenticeship with iconic jeweler Steven Hanna in Los Angeles. “I also lived in San Francisco for years,” she says, “so I sell works here from several foreign jewelers as well as my own.” Unlike many jewelers in Japan that focus on itsy-bitsy adornments suitable for a dainty clientele, Ileava’s selections include shelves of heftier and more assertive pieces.

As I admire some of Nishimura’s wedding band sets — one has rough edges to symbolize a couple still working at smoothing out their relationship — I feel the presence of a tiny canine face peering down at me from the second floor of the shop. Nishimura’s husband, Georges Sakai, 43, trots down the stairs, cradling an elderly Chihuahua. “This is Rain,” he says, stroking the dog. “We built a little house for him on the second floor, and he likes to poke his head out and watch customers.”

Petting Rain, I ask Sakai about the neighborhood. He fires off a roster of interesting places, one of which is next door. “I have to go there anyway, so follow me,” he says. This is how Georges, Rain and I find ourselves in eyeglass shop Factory900 Tokyo Base.

Factory900, I quickly see, offers spectacular spectacles, many suitable only for those comfortable with being spectacles themselves. The styles are so outlandish that I assume the brand to be European.

“Factory900 frames are manufactured in Fukui Prefecture,” shop manager Toshihiro Hasegawa, 41, tells me. “In fact, that’s where about 95 percent of all frames in Japan are made, in about 2,000 factories.”

Eye-catching accouterment: Toshihiro Hasegawa dons a pair of Factory900
Eye-catching accouterment: Toshihiro Hasegawa dons a pair of Factory900’s unique FA-087 spectacles.

I’d bet money that most of Fukui’s factories make nothing like Factory900’s most distinctive frames, the FA-087 models, known as “The Six Eyes.” Designed by Yoshinori Aoyama, and winner of the 2016 A’ Design Award and Competition, the frames feature six eyeholes that wrap around the wearer’s temples. When Hasegawa dons them, he transforms into something resembling a superhero spider.

“Glasses are not just for looking through,” he says, showing me a series of models he personally owns, “but for enjoying how you look and feel when you wear them. Some make you feel powerful, or stylish or serious.”

I admire the mood-making frames, but just as I’m about to move on, Sakai asks Hasegawa if his special order is ready yet. Hasegawa nods. Wondering what style Sakai has chosen, I’m shocked when Hasegawa produces a Lilliputian pair of specs. This custom-made pair, it turns out, is for Rain. “He’s 12 years old,” Sakai says, slipping the chic frames over the Chihuahua’s cataract-ridden eyes. I ask if the prescription helps Rain see, but Sakai shrugs and shakes his head. No matter. As a fashion statement, at least, they’re right as rain.

Doggone-good style: Rain the Chihuahua sports a stylish pair of custom-made glasses.
Doggone-good style: Rain the Chihuahua sports a stylish pair of custom-made glasses. | KIT NAGAMURA

Thanking Sakai and Hasegawa, I see myself out. Barely 20 paces down the road, I find a sign that reads HellcatPunks. Though that sounds like a mouse’s personal nightmare, I climb a flight of stairs to find this once front-and-center Harajuku store’s new location. Shop manager Yume Ito, 27, busily arranging a display inside a coffin, remarks that the somewhat hidden location seems to suit the unisex punk rock-inspired line. Apart from its iconoclastic skulls and zippers, the clothing quality is remarkable.

Midafternoon, I hunt out a place to refuel. I consider stopping at Smokehouse, a spacious barbecue eatery that flavors the air with grilled meat, but instead turn up a side street to find Sakai’s suggestion, Tamawarai. The Michelin-starred soba restaurant usually has a line waiting out the door, Sakai warned me, but the noon rush is long over, so I snag a seat.

Entering, I immediately note a mouse-hole-sized nozoki-mado (peekaboo window) in the traditional wattle-like walls of Tamawarai. The interior is minimalist, yet cozy. Owner-chef Masahiro Urakawa, 50, tells me the tearoom-style bamboo and vine window treatments in the dining area were handwoven by a local tea sensei in her 70s. “She did them in one day,” he says, still in awe.

I order a few sides before the soba: smoked herring and tofu. Each dish arrives in carefully curated pottery — such as Aka-Shino and Karatsu — designed to set off the food perfectly. As I taste Tamawarai’s superb soba, textured, speckled and delicate, I learn from Urakawa that he harvests his soba in Ibaraki Prefecture, and then grinds the buckwheat daily.

Curious as to what his workspace looks like, I’m thrilled when Urakawa guides me down to his flour-powdered noodle-making room. “My style is arabiki,” he says, referring to a rough grind that’s challenging to roll out, but is particularly healthy to eat. Urakawa hauls out the hand-turned stone mill he first used, back when his shop was in Ebisu over a decade ago. We both give the old mill a few labored turns. It’s clear to me why Urakawa now relies on an electrically powered mill to feed Tamawarai’s admiring crowds.

Sated, I thank Urakawa for his time, and head off toward the end of Mouse Street. Before I reach it, though, I discover a local shrine, Onden, half hidden in dusk light and surrounding buildings.

From past to present: Mutsuko Funada, head priest of Onden Shrine, holds up an old woodblock print.
From past to present: Mutsuko Funada, head priest of Onden Shrine, holds up an old woodblock print. | KIT NAGAMURA

Mutsuko Funada, 25, whose father passed away this summer, has taken over the position as head of the shrine. She kindly sits down with me to reveal the area’s history.

“The old Japanese characters for Onden can be read to mean ‘secret fields,'” she tells me, and explains that this area was once scattered with rice paddies and inhabited by ninja from Iga province, whose charge it was to protect Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period (1603-1868).

“Today, Onden is quite popular,” Funada says, “and we alone are allowed to carry our portable shrine during festivals along Omotesando avenue.” Funada explains that the shrine’s resident gods — Omodaru no Kami, the god of facial beauty; Ayakashikone no Kami, the god of couples; and Kushimikenu no Kami, the god of hair — make it a fashionable place to visit. “Kushimikenu no Kami may be why there are so many hair salons in this area,” she adds, laughing.

Funada unearths a woodblock print of Onden as it appeared in the Edo Period. The image reveals a powerful river running through the terrain, turning a water wheel so large that the farmers working nearby look the size of mice congregating at an exercise wheel. From Onden, it appears, Edo folk had a clear view of Mount Fuji, a view that today is buried by buildings.

Thanking Funada, I walk home in the gray gloaming, trying to conjure the fields of old, and musing on the ways of mice and men.

Cat Street runs perpendicular to Omotesando avenue and connects the Harajuuku and Shibuya neighborhoods. To get there, take the Yamanote Line to Harajuku Station (Omotesando exit) or the Chiyoda Line to Meiji-Jingumae Station (exit 4) and walk from there. Neighboring “Mouse Street” runs parallel to Cat Street to the southeast.