Travel | BACKSTREET STORIES

Good, clean dining in the alleyways of Shiba

by Kit Nagamura

Contributing Writer

A beloved friend of mine tells me that an old sentō (public bath) has been repurposed as a restaurant, somewhere just north of Tamachi Station. Reuse of traditional structures is something I wish Tokyo would consider more often to preserve its remaining architectural heritage and to provide visual warmth and texture to the urban landscape. I head off on a bright autumn morning to locate the former bathhouse.

Minutes from Tamachi Station, in an area of Shiba, I find a maze of weathered watering holes, chain restaurants, karaoke joints and gritty izakaya (Japanese pubs). Surrounded by Keio University, Toita Women’s College, the NEC Corporation headquarters, three city hospitals and a few vocational training centers, the area looks like an east Tokyo version of Shinjuku’s Golden Gai. I dub it Shiruba Gai (Silver Gai), combining the words “silver,” “Shiba” and the Japanese verb “shiru” (to know).

Bright lights, big city: The narrow alleys to the north of Tamachi Station are a cacophony of cluttered storefronts and bold signage. | KIT NAGAMURA
Bright lights, big city: The narrow alleys to the north of Tamachi Station are a cacophony of cluttered storefronts and bold signage. | KIT NAGAMURA

It’s just before lunchtime, and Shiruba’s narrow lanes smell of old meat oils, chicken bones and stale beer. A crooked-boned alley cat slinks between closed shops, and a man who appears to have slept here last night hunkers in a doorway, raking a hand through his tangled hair and dragging on a cigarette.

The only other person about is standing in front of what I learn is Ofukuro no Ajidokoro Miyakawa (The Flavor of Mom’s Cooking Miyakawa). Sweet-faced Kazuhito Miyakawa, 74, owns the place and I ask him to see it. “We’re in the midst of prepping,” he tells me, angling his face into the autumn sun. “Please come back later.”

I agree, and ask him if he knows the whereabouts of the bathhouse-restaurant I’m seeking. He does, and in fact it is just across the lane. The red kanji sign for yu (hot water) and a wooden fish hanging outside should have tipped me off, but in Shiruba Gai the visual cacophony of storefronts makes it easy to miss what you came for.

Squeaky clean: Tomohiro Hazama, general manager of Bunbuku sits at one of the restaurant's tables, which occupies one of the baths of the former sentō (bathhouse). | KIT NAGAMURA
Squeaky clean: Tomohiro Hazama, general manager of Bunbuku sits at one of the restaurant’s tables, which occupies one of the baths of the former sentō (bathhouse). | KIT NAGAMURA

Entering Bunbuku, I’m surprised the place preserves most of what was bathhouse Banzai-yu’s interior. An aqua-colored ceramic elephant sculpture that once spouted water, tiled walls, round vanity mirrors and soaking tubs give the place a good, clean vibe.

General Manager Tomohiro Hazama, 36, leads me to table F3. I have to doff shoes — but thankfully not clothing — to slip into one of the bathhouse’s blue-tiled tubs. There’s no water involved, just an upholstered bench, a table and a menu with prices that reassure me I’m not going to get soaked.

The fare is izakaya style, with lunches costing under ¥1,000, featuring fried or grilled seafood, pork cutlets or bento (box lunch) sets, and an intriguing list of milk-themed drinks served in glass jars.

I order the bento, and admire the Mount Fuji painting which once pleased Banzai-yu’s patrons. The work, it turns out, was done by penkie-shi (wall muralist) Morio Nakajima, one of Tokyo’s two or three remaining artisans who create the iconic, sweeping murals — usually of Mount Fuji — for bathers to enjoy while immersed.

Mountain in miniature: The leftover Mount Fuji mural at Bunbuku. | KIT NAGAMURA
Mountain in miniature: The leftover Mount Fuji mural at Bunbuku. | KIT NAGAMURA

After lunch, I chat with Hazama, who tells me that the place is popular for parties and dates. “People bring little towels to put on their heads, and post their snaps on Instagram,” he says. We brainstorm some ideas on how to up the image game: rubber duckies, dry ice, back scrubbers and bars of soap would be perfect props.

Before paying the bill, I check out some of the restaurant’s backrooms, which feel much moister and hotter than the rest of the place. “That’s because those were the boiler rooms,” Hazama says.

Shiba resident Shinichi Shimojo | KIT NAGAMURA
Shiba resident Shinichi Shimojo | KIT NAGAMURA

Once outside again, my wallet no worse for the wash, I find the streets animated with clusters of lunch customers. One man, however, Shinichi Shimojo, 62, is standing in an alleyway entrance yawning and just watching people stream by.

Shimojo, I learn, has deep roots in the neighborhood, since his grandfather, a metalworker who specialized in making lanterns, moved here to ply his trade. Shimojo’s mother, now 90, still lives with him. Where? Shimojo beckons me to follow, and we scurry down a narrow alley, to a sequestered collection of tiny homes hidden by the surrounding restaurants.

“This area used to have everything we needed in our daily lives — shoe stores, tailors, groceries et cetera — but about 20 years ago, that changed,” Shimojo says. “Now we have more than 100 restaurants, and lots of wine bars and karaoke places.” I muse that at least he probably doesn’t have to cook much. “Well,” he counters, pointing out the various exhaust pipes that face the front doors of his and others’ homes, “these blow out hot air all night long,” he laments. In summer, that could give cooking a whole different meaning.

While on this hot topic, I ask Shimojo if he used to bathe at Banzai-yu bathhouse. He nods. “But it was a scalding sento, about 45 degrees Celsius, and it left your skin prickly,” he says. At least Banzai-yu’s transformation, from boiling bath to eatery, doesn’t bother him.

Wishing Shimojo cooler days ahead, I return to explore Miyakawa’s Ofukuro no Ajidokoro. Opening the door, I find myself awkwardly at the bottom step of nothing but a narrow enclosed stairwell. From the bottom of this feng shui nightmare, I call out. A faint reply floats down from above, and I ascend.

Miyakawa’s place is set up for a maximum of 12 people, and offers a whiteboard menu of 10 daily dishes, including mentaiko (pollock roe) omelettes, karaage (deep-fried chicken) and sauteed pork.

Half of the whole: Kazuhito Miyakawa, 74, runs Ofukuro no Ajidokoro Miyakawa with his camera-shy wife, Taka. The restaurant has been open in the Shiba area for 25 years. | KIT NAGAMURA
Half of the whole: Kazuhito Miyakawa, 74, runs Ofukuro no Ajidokoro Miyakawa with his camera-shy wife, Taka. The restaurant has been open in the Shiba area for 25 years. | KIT NAGAMURA

In the time between him serving two customers, who blend perfectly with the worn red leather chairs, highball posters, curling-edged calendars, dolls and reserved stash of liquor bottles, I learn that Kazuhito and his wife, Taka, 71, have done business here for the past 25 years. They, too, remember the blistering hot waters of the sentō. “No one could stand it for very long,” Kazuhito recalls.

Kazuhito’s wife, Taka, is shy, and when I ask to take her picture, she ducks behind the counter. She reappears, though, when I ask how she and Kazuhito met. It turns out that in his early 20s Kazuhito caught sight of her in Nihonbashi, and it was love from the start. “We’ve been married for 50 years now,” Taka says, and Kazuhito nods.

It may not seem like much, but the Miyakawas’ long-lasting relationship, combined with the modest Showa Era (1926-89) vibe of their tiny place, feels vital and worth celebrating, and I vow to return some evening.

Thanking them, I head down the stairs, and wander off. I stop to peer inside restaurant Karnaval at a strange butcher’s chart, showing cuts of what appears to be a dinosaur. Peeking inside, I find restaurant owner Nobukazu Kawasaki, 49, standing near a shelf of Cretaceous critters. I figure there must be some logic to the connection between a carnival, regardless of how it’s spelled, and dinosaurs. Kawasaki sets me straight. “It’s not carnival,” he laughs. “The word means meat-eater, you know, like what dinosaurs were,” he explains.

The ribs at Karnaval fall off the bone at a touch, and come served in a sweet sauce and with a green salad | KIT NAGAMURA
The ribs at Karnaval fall off the bone at a touch, and come served in a sweet sauce and with a green salad | KIT NAGAMURA

Oh wait, carnivore? “Yes, that’s it,” he says, patiently. I look down at my pad, and nod. Whatever offbeat spelling Kawasaki has conjured for Karnaval, his menu at least has teeth. Wagyu sirloin from Hokkaido, at just over ¥4,000 for 200 grams, spare ribs and top-ranked organic vegetables from Uenohara in Yamanashi Prefecture are a few highlights. As we chat, I learn, to my surprise, that Karnaval closes on weekends.

“I have a son, and my wife has another baby on the way,” Kawasaki explains. “I want to be with them, so I take weekends off.” Thanking him, I head off into the afternoon shadows, admiring his commitment to his family.

Perusing another 20 or so small establishments as I stroll, I eventually loop back toward Bunbuku via another backstreet. Grunts and sharp thumps coming from a building cause me to glance into the glass window of the Fight Fit Tamachi branch of Toikatsu Dojo, a boxing, grappling and kickboxing gym. Several guys in gloves are going full-bore at the sandbags. One dances around like a pro, and as I lean in to observe more closely, I realize it’s Kawasaki.

Feeling like an accidental stalker, I turn my attention to boxing instructor Koji Hamada, 35. “The sport of kickboxing has become popular with women,” he tells me, “for its stress-release and weight-loss benefits.” The gym membership is reasonable, too, averaging ¥10,000 a month.

Kawasaki has started to pound the sandbag so hard that conversation becomes impossible except during pauses. In a quiet moment, Hamada lets slip that Kawasaki was, in fact, a pro boxer 26 years ago, often fighting at Korakuen Hall in Tokyo Dome City.

I head back to Karnaval and, once Kawasaki returns from his workout, I order up an early dinner of what every boxer wishes he had: spare ribs. As I wait, Karnaval fills with groups of early diners, laughing and loud. Finally the ribs arrive with a fresh green salad. The meat, in a subtly sweet sauce, falls off the bone at a touch. It’s a knockout dinner and, in the way good food so often does, it feeds my impression of connectivity and community in Shiba.

Bunbuku (Shiba 5-23-16, Minato-ku) and its surrounding alleys can be found a five-minute walk to the north of Tamachi Station, or a five-minute walk to the west of Mita Station.