Travel | BACKSTREET STORIES

The little curiosities of Monzen-Nakacho

by Kit Nagamura

Monzen-Nakacho, a bustling area in Tokyo’s Koto Ward, is, as its name suggests, near mon, or important gates. The gates referred to have in fact been in place for nearly four centuries, marking the entrance streets to Buddhist temple Eitaiji (founded 1624) and Tomioka Hachimangu shrine (established 1627). Both shared what was, at the time, little more than a shoal of reclaimed soil, and visitors often came by boat to dock at the gates.

Today, land reclamation has put nearly a kilometer between Mon-Naka (as it’s called for short) and the sea, but the incessant rains of July have brought a new world of wet. Dodging puddles, I walk through a mist of infinitesimal rain drops to explore the Tomioka section of Mon-Naka, focusing on the street that leads to Eitaiji temple and dead ends on esoteric Buddhist temple Naritasan Fukagawa Fudodo (established 1703).

Tokyo Noble's tiny umbrellas at Nanatsuru. | KIT NAGAMURA
Tokyo Noble’s tiny umbrellas at Nanatsuru. | KIT NAGAMURA

I’ve gambled on not really needing an umbrella, so as I pass under the red Naritasan gate at the head of Tomioka, it, of course, begins to pour. I take cover at Nanatsuru, enticed by its colorful window display of miniature bumbershoots, created by Japanese umbrella maker Tokyo Noble. The tiny umbrellas are functional and would be perfect rain gear for, say, squirrels.

Fortunately, Nanatsuru stocks Tokyo Noble’s human-sized umbrellas as well, along with a carefully curated collection of artisan-made products. Satoko Yagi, 42, co-owns the store with her husband, Shusaku, a bamboo craftsman whose chopsticks, daikon graters and kitchen utensils also grace the shop’s shelves. As I peruse the eclectic array of hand towels, hats, bags and jewelry, an elderly man in construction worker’s clothing pops in to buy a miniature umbrella. He ponies up ¥1,000 and heads back into the rain with a bright green mini-brolly. What will he use it for, I wonder aloud. Satoko shrugs.

“This street gets lots of curious people,” Satoko says, “religious devotees and quite a few tipsy folk.” For explanation, she points out an open-air standing bar situated on a diagonal from her shop.

Takeshi Hashimoto, store manager of bar Orihara Shoten, recommends Yuki no Bosha, a sake from Akita Prefecture. | KIT NAGAMURA
Takeshi Hashimoto, store manager of bar Orihara Shoten, recommends Yuki no Bosha, a sake from Akita Prefecture. | KIT NAGAMURA

The rain has let up, so I head over to check out bar Orihara Shoten. At lunchtime, the place is packed with pink-cheeked sippers enjoying some of the establishment’s more than 250 varieties of Japanese sake. Store manager Takeshi Hashimoto, 45, explains that customers can snag whatever bottle they like, take it to the counter, and get a single glass poured. Prices range from ¥300 to ¥2,000, and the shop’s popular offerings include Yuki no Bosha, a daiginjō (top-quality sake) from Akita Prefecture. Though Orihara also has branches in Thailand and Singapore, Hashimoto thinks the Mon-Naka location is perfect. “People can go pray, then drop in for a drink. Japanese offer sake to the gods, so it’s not strange at all to have sake shops near temples and shrines.”

Noon is a bit early for tippling, so I wander off down a side street behind Nanatsuru, in search of lunch. A seductive aroma of warm Brittany-style crepes draws me in to the clean concrete storefront of galette shop Cafe Cotton. The menu offers bespoke combos, but I opt for an unfussy spinach and Gruyere galette (¥980). Owner-chef Yoko Kinebuchi, 50, deftly spreads out a circle of batter on the griddle, adds ingredients and folds over the lacy edges of the galette. The 100 percent buckwheat crepe is wonderfully crisp and light.

Yoko Kinebuchi begins making a galette at Cafe Cotton. | KIT NAGAMURA
Yoko Kinebuchi begins making a galette at Cafe Cotton. | KIT NAGAMURA

We chat, and I learn that Kinebuchi named her cafe after the kissaten (old-school coffee shop) her mom used to run in Ginza, and prides herself on adding unusual items to her galette lineup, such as Thai Pad Kra Pao, chilli beans or a clam chowder sauce. She also whips up dessert galettes with homemade bitter caramel sauce that are, it must be said, magnifique.

Newly fueled, I head out again. Too full to think of food, I skip by shops selling tsukudani (sea life bits simmered and preserved in a soy and cooking sake sauce) and Japanese sweets. What grabs my attention, though, is a blond-furred tanuki (Japanese raccoon dog) with a toothy sneer, and a pop-eyed squirrel. This taxidermy twosome are the unofficial mascots of Medaka Antiques. The official mascots are actual medaka (Japanese killifish) swimming around in most of the shop’s vases and bowls.

Owner Yoichiro Kumano, 41, has for two years been in the business of, as he puts it, “selling useless stuff.” Kumano explains that he started placing killifish in the shop’s vessels to demonstrate how old things that seem useless can be repurposed creatively.

Customers don’t seem put off to find little fish swimming around in the antique store’s glassware. As I chat to Kumano, several people peruse and make purchases from Kumano’s hodgepodge of furniture, cutlery and curios, most culled from people who live in the neighborhood.

Mon-Naka resident Junko Toyama, 63, drops in to chat with Kumano. “I’m in the process of getting stuff together to bring in,” she says, in a tone that suggests this process might not happen immediately. Kumano nods; the two appear to know each other well.

As I admire the shop’s most valuable treasure — a Chinese table of intricately carved walnut valued at ¥5 million — another local shows up. Yukishige Umeda, 72, has brought a gift for Kumano, something edible, in a plastic bag. “He comes here nearly every day,” Kumano tells me, gesturing toward Umeda. “That’s because I love you,” Umeda exclaims, theatrically. When I ask if this is a genuine bromance, Kumano just shakes his head, Junko laughs and Umeda grins. Their relaxed camaraderie is, perhaps, all the answer I’m going to get.

Pushing on, I muse that at Medaka Antiques, things, as well as people, get a second chance to be needed or valued. As I am thinking this, I happen upon what is left of Eitaiji temple. The temple’s former dominance in the area was lost during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), when imperial attempts to eradicate Buddhism in favor of the Shinto faith caused many temples to disappear. Although greatly reduced in size, the temple maintains a profound stillness. Two large pots hold lotus plants, where rain pearls on leaves and a single dark pink bud.

The fragrance of the temple’s burning joss sticks seems to follow me as I leave, but gradually I realize that the smell of incense also emanates from the shop next door. Shop Fujiya is tended by 28-year-old George Shimizu, the son of a British mom and Japanese dad. “Before World War II, we ran a teashop cafe here, but after,” George says, referring to a time when much of Monzen-Nakacho was destroyed by bombs, “we switched to incense.”

George Shimizu holds Kenny the terrier at his family's incense store Fujiya. | KIT NAGAMURA
George Shimizu holds Kenny the terrier at his family’s incense store Fujiya. | KIT NAGAMURA

George allows me to pick up each box of incense and give it a sniff. Reiwa and Kojurin, both popular blends, have lightly intoxicating sandalwood notes, but others bring to mind toilet freshener and Latin playboys. As we laugh at a box of brutally pungent cherry sticks, a small squeaking sound comes from behind the counter. “That’s Kenny,” George says, lifting a boxy Norfolk terrier into his arms. Kenny is clearly missing George’s attention, and my nose can’t take much more fragrance, so I leave the two of them, with thanks, and continue on.

When I reach the grounds of Naritasan Fukagawa Fudodo, I can hear drum pounding, and conch blowing coming from the temple’s goma kitō (fire ceremony), which is held five times a day. Off to the left of the temple, I find Fukagawa Park, once part of Eitaiji’s land.

Priest Tamura with a Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) monument. | KIT NAGAMURA
Priest Tamura with a Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) monument. | KIT NAGAMURA

Today, the park makes for a tranquil post-rain walk. Tucked in the back, near a highway overpass, I find two massive stone monuments. Priest Tamura, from Narita-san, leaves his desk to help me determine that the stones were erected in memory of lives lost in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) and the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95). Next to Naritasan, a huge stone lantern, the firebox of which was destroyed during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, is carved with the names of people who contributed to building this memorial to lives lost during the Sino-Japanese war.

Thanking the priest for his time, I circle back to a chic new cafe across from the incense shop. Monz Cafe serves a solid cup of joe, which I sip watching people come and go, and I send out a prayer that things stay this peaceful.

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