Taking a perch with the hip birds of Uguisudanicho

by Kit Nagamura

Contributing Writer

There are two places in Tokyo named after valleys favored by the melodious uguisu (Japanese bush warbler): Uguisudani Station on the Yamanote Line, and Uguisudanicho, a small neighborhood wedged between Daikanyama, Ebisu and Shibuya. On a day of early winter blue skies, I wing off to explore the latter.

I land briefly at Yamadaya Manju Gen, a purveyor of delicate bean-paste treats originating from Ehime Prefecture. Shop manager Masahiro Norimatsu, 39, tells me that Yamadaya Manju’s diminutive buns have kept the company in business since 1867.

“The ingredients are quite simple, just sugar, beans and wheat,” Norimatsu says, “But we use a large-crystal sugar, a melt-in-your-mouth smooth koshian bean paste and a covering that is exceptionally thin.”

I decide on a taste test. A single manjū arrives on a cherry bark tray, with a glass of green tea. The treat is the size of a bush warbler’s egg (bigger than a quail’s, smaller than a chicken’s), and the bean paste glows a pale mauve inside its diaphanous skin. The taste is dominated by an earthy, but silken, bean flavor. I purchase two boxes for oseibo (year-end gifts), then fly on.

Avian artwork: Bird-themed graffiti along the walls of the Uguisudanicho neighborhood, named after the Japanese bush warbler.
Avian artwork: Bird-themed graffiti along the walls of the Uguisudanicho neighborhood, named after the Japanese bush warbler. | KIT NAGAMURA

Gliding north, I choose a fork that runs parallel to the Yamanote Line tracks. The backstreet’s quiet is interrupted only by the whoosh of trains, and the occasional whining squadron of go-karts being driven by people dressed up as characters out of Nintendo’s Mario games. Along the walls on the other side of the street, I observe an ongoing urban battle: slapdash tagging and inept graffiti interspersed with makeshift attempts to paint over defacement with equally graceless splotches of paint.

Not so lost: Chisato Takeshita in her bakery Chirimulo, which looks like a treehouse straight out of James Matthew Barrie
Not so lost: Chisato Takeshita in her bakery Chirimulo, which looks like a treehouse straight out of James Matthew Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan.’ | KIT NAGAMURA

Continuing on, a melange of cinnamon, camomile, nutmeg and tea in the air brings me to Chirimulo, a tiny bakery I’d have missed if not for a line of customers out the door. Once the crowd thins, I peek inside the whimsical structure. It looks like a treehouse built by the Lost Boys from James Matthew Barrie’s “Peter Pan.” The tiny space features a functional swing, retro lightbulbs and a “Poetry Room,” which turns out to be the toilet.

Chisato Takeshita is the Wendy of this world. She has baked professionally for seven years and opened Chirimulo half a decade ago. “I concoct adult muffins and cakes,” she says, “with strong spices, liqueurs and creative combinations such as bananas and cardamon, or roasted tea and camomile.”

Whatever her wild recipes, success seems to be the outcome; Chirimulo only opens Wednesday through Saturday, from noon until the wares sell out. “That’s usually about 2 p.m.,” Takeshita says. I buy a pair of treats to try later, then with thanks, flit away.

Passing a parking lot filled with painted murals of flowers and birds, but also defaced with graffiti tags, I angle southwest to find two shops featuring leatherwork. At the first, Arumo, I meet owner Kohei Omura, 37, and moments later realize that the shop’s name is his, spelled backward. A minimalistic white shop interior offsets the clean shapes and understated surfaces of his chic leather bags. He points out his new line of small fabric shoulder bags. “I make them from secondhand sportswear, which I cut up and re-sew with new fabrics,” he says.

At over ¥10,000 each, they strike me as a bit pricey. “Well,” Omura offers, shyly, “they take a lot of work to make. And, actually, I’d like people to use them respectfully.” I nod as I appreciate one of Omura’s bestsellers, a featherweight waterproof rucksack of beautiful craftsmanship.

Thanking Omura, I head next door to Isamu Katayama Backlash. If Omura’s works are hummingbird-light, the leather jackets and wallets at Backlash are ponderous as emu. The 20-year-old made-in-Japan brand targets serious leather lovers, shopkeeper Takashi Aoyama, 30, tells me. “There are heaps of leather brands in Japan these days,” he says, “but ours is second to none.”

Heavy leather: A collection of bags, wallets and belts at leather store Isamu Katayama Backlash.
Heavy leather: A collection of bags, wallets and belts at leather store Isamu Katayama Backlash. | KIT NAGAMURA

I remark on a rack of Backlash’s super-thick riders’ jackets, noting their unusual shine. “We have an entirely unique leather processing procedure,” Aoyama confides. “Most places dye leather first, then sew. We make the product first, checking the leather’s raw qualities, then sew and dye it. For drying, the piece gets thrown into a special machine, which results in its special texture and this cool shrinking around the zippers.”

Because Backlash usually selects cuts from the shoulder areas of cattle, the leather is ultra-durable, matching the hefty prices that hover around ¥200,000 per jacket.

Thanking Aoyama, I take my leave. Out on the street again, I spy a sign embellished with a life-sized, sculpted green bird. Following the instructions, I head down a narrow backstreet, and descend a flight of stairs painted with birds and one wistful cat.

Doken Pet, I discover, is a supply and boarding house (¥1,500 per day, per cage) for fine-feathered friends. Owner Yoshiko Takahashi, 47, and her husband used to sell all manner of critters at a department store rooftop pet shop, she tells me. Six years ago, however, they decided to downsize, then a year later relocated here, where they focus mostly on birds and their lifestyle paraphernalia.

I can’t take my eyes off Doken Pet’s boarders, including a puffy peach-colored cockatoo, a parrot and some canaries. Sensing my interest, Takahashi kindly carries out on one finger a juvenile finch she is raising. Like most teenagers, it promptly flies off to find trouble. Takahashi remains unperturbed, and carries on showing me the shop’s array of bird toys and a flock of adorable little felt birds she fashions by hand. Finally, the prodigal finch returns, landing on her head.

Bidding Takahashi farewell, I head off in search of lunch, worrying about my chances in what seems like an increasingly residential area. A sudden turn, however, brings me to the groovy pink-painted and ivy-covered homestead of Pells Coffee & Bar, a charming nook with hot sandwiches and superb Woodberry Coffee Roasters coffee. As I snuggle into a sunlit bench alcove, Satoshi Doi, 28, and Riko Inoue, 27, bop around the kitchen to ’70s tunes, preparing my order.

By chance, the owner of Pells, who also owns the Pells Hair salon next door, drifts in. Yudai Hashimoto, 30, tells me the name of his Pells empire (which includes a new coffee stand in Shibuya) is an acronym for peace, encounter, liberty and lifestyle. “People used to wait on a bench outside for my hair services,” Hashimoto says, “and I’d offer them coffee or beer. Then I thought, why not make it a real place for everyone.” I, for one, am glad he did.

Sated, I head off into the afternoon shadows that stretch catlike across the backstreets. I’m about to pass two nameless storefronts with a few beautiful dresses in each of the windows. When I knock on the glass, Aya Tanizaki, a pert 40-something fashionista lets me in. As she dashes back and forth via a tiny entrance she gouged between the two storefronts to allow her easy access to both stores, she tells me about her 20 years as a stylist and distributor for the works of French designer Julien David.

The right side of the tracks: Backstreet atmosphere near the train tracks of Uguisudanicho.
The right side of the tracks: Backstreet atmosphere near the train tracks of Uguisudanicho. | KIT NAGAMURA

We start to chat about the vaguely hippie vibe of Uguisudanicho. “Twenty years ago, nearby Daikanyama was such a cool place, you know,” Tanizaki says. “It was old and worn but interesting,” she continues. “But now it’s gentrified. If you want to give young people places to try new things, you need cheap rents, not fancy development that destroys creativity and is boring. People who used to like Daikanyama are now drifting toward us.”

Excited by our conversation, Tanizaki pulls me by the arm up the hill behind her shop. “This kind of place is what makes a neighborhood,” she says, nudging me toward a bread shop named Fluffy. Inside, I meet owner Kayo Okumura, 47, who has for 11 years baked the exact same goods. “People move away, but they come back to visit, and are thrilled that I still sell the breads that they remember,” Okumura says.

Fluffy customer Yuko Kato, 60, chimes in. “Many of us in this neighborhood have been here for four generations,” she says. “And that gives the place stability and identity.” Both women agree, however, that Shibuya developments just to the north, in Sakuragaoka, are already impacting their environment. “Empty buildings, awaiting demolition, attract graffiti and vandalism, and that spreads to us,” Kato says.

I add some Fluffy bread to my bags, and plan to head for home, but I’m drawn into one last store, packed with American goods. Midori Nonaga, 71, and her husband have run Red Wood Mainyard, an ame-kaji (American casual) clothing and accessories company for 41 years. Nonaga, one of the longest business presences in the area, predicts the future. “All shops in this area and along the tracks will be gone in about nine years,” she says. “They want to widen the roads for the Sakuragaoka development. I plan to work until I’m 80, but I bet it will be in online sales.”

As I walk along the train tracks in the winter dusk, Nonaga’s fatalism and humor has me singing under my breath lyrics from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” — “‘Cause I’m as free as a bird now, and this bird cannot change” — and wondering what Uguisudanicho will look like a decade down the road.

Uguisudanicho is an eight-minute walk to the south of Shibuya Station, or a 10-minute walk north of Ebisu Station.