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Sunday, Sept. 23, 2001
Where to go for a true taste of downtown
By MAMI MARUKO
Although the shitamachi areas of Tokyo may have lost some of their bygone ambience, a few shops dating back to the Meiji or early Showa eras still remain. Sticking to tried-and-tested favorites, they are loved by customers old and new. Some have even appeared in the works of great writers and poets such as Soseki Natsume and Kotaro Takamura. The following stores and restaurants are survivors, having lasted through the Great Kanto Earthquake and/or World War II. Their masters are part of a long artisan tradition and take great pride in their work.
Arai Bunsendo: This shop, selling traditional sensu (folding fans) for nihon-buyo (Japanese dance) and kabuki, was established about 110 years ago. It stands in the heart of Senso-ji Temple's nakamise (covered shopping arcade), alongside shops selling such items as kanzashi (ornamental hairpins) and Japanese paper parasols.
The master and owner, Osamu Arai, trained in sensu-making and still practices his art today. The shop, and a newer branch nearby, sells various types of sensu, at prices from 1,680 yen to 50,000 yen.
A 3-minute walk from Asakusa Station. 1-30-1 Asakusa, Taito Ward, (03) 3841-0088. Open: 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Closed the Monday after the 20th of every month.
Yonekyu Honten: This restaurant is more than 100 years old and serves delicious gyunabe at 3,000 yen and 3,600 yen. Now popularly called sukiyaki, the gyunabe served at Yonekyu is a caldron of beef (Omi-gyu from Shiga Prefecture), tofu, shirataki (noodles made from konnyaku starch), spring onions and shungiku (a leafy vegetable, Chrysanthemum coronarium). These are cooked in warishita (a sauce made from soy sauce, soup stock and mirin or sugar). This is a method characteristic of Kanto-style sukiyaki, explains the lively fourth-generation master of the shop, Kanao Maruyama; in Kansai the warishita is added afterward. Yonekyu and its sukiyaki were celebrated in poet and sculptor Takamura's poem "Dinner at Yonekyu," written at the end of the Meiji Era.
An 8-minute walk from Tawaramachi Station. 2-17-10 Asakusa, Taito Ward, (03) 3841-6416. Open: 12 noon-9 p.m. Closed Wednesday.
Chanko Kawasaki: Chanko-nabe (a stew traditionally served to sumo wrestlers in which fish, meat and vegetables are boiled together in a pot) is a representative dish of the Ryogoku district. Kawasaki, which opened in 1937 and is housed in a wooden building that survived World War II, is the oldest chanko-nabe restaurant in Ryogoku. It uses only chicken and vegetables with a stock prepared from chicken bones. Master Tadashi Kawasaki is proud that the shop has always been staffed by family members and that its nabe recipe has not changed for 64 years.
The course menu priced at 4,700 yen comprises chanko-nabe with chicken and vegetables, including carrots, daikon and burdock, three types of yakitori, two side dishes and chicken salad or tori-wasa (parboiled chicken with wasabi and soy sauce.) It is the only restaurant in Japan that serves a premium type of Shira-yuki, a nihonshu from Nada, Hyogo Prefecture, straight from the barrel (taruzake).
Just across from Ryogoku Station. 2-13-1 Ryogoku, Sumida Ward, (03) 3631-2529. Open: 5 p.m.-9 p.m. Closed Sunday and holidays.
Takemura: Located on a quiet back street in Kanda, this kanmi-dokoro (Japanese confectionery shop) has been standing since the early Showa Era. Earlier this year its wooden structure was designated a protected historic building by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. Even the interior has not changed since its opening.
Among Takemura's sweets, you can find age-manju (deep-fried bean-jam bun), two for 430 yen, and anmitsu (boiled adzuki with black syrup and bean jam) at 710 yen. The bean jam is homemade and just 400 age-manju are produced each day.
A 5-minute walk from Kanda Station. 1-19 Kanda Suda-cho, Chiyoda Ward, (03) 3251-2328. Open: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Closed Sunday and holidays.
Habutae Dango: First opened in 1891 as a teahouse called Fujinoki-chaya, Habutae Dango is one of the few remaining dango (dumpling) shops in Tokyo. Its dango have long been prized for their smooth, silky texture, similar to that of habutae (a glossy silk cloth with a fine weave), which gave the shop its name.
These delicious dango, just 200 yen for a stick of four, are made in a flat shape in order to distinguish them from dango used as votive offerings. They come with either undiluted soy sauce or strained bean-paste toppings. They were celebrated in Natsume's novel "I Am a Cat," as well as in a travel essay by Shiki Masaoka. Both authors frequented the shop. Utensils from the Edo Period and Meiji Era are on display at the entrance of the shop which, although it has been repeatedly rebuilt, has a perfectly preserved garden that can be viewed while you enjoy your dango.
A 3-minute walk from Nippori Station. 5-54-3 Higashi Nippori, Arakawa Ward, (03) 3891-2924. Open: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed Tuesday (unless it's a holiday, when it's closed the next day instead).
Kawachiya: This 250-year- old restaurant stands on the street that inspired the neighborhood of the famous "Tora-san" movie series. Serving mainly freshwater-fish dishes, such as Shizuoka eel and carp miso soup, the specialty is the 2,000 yen una-ju (eel and rice), coated with a tare (sauce) whose secret recipe has been handed down in the family. The restaurant has a dining hall built in 1931 and a zashiki (tatami room) in the back where only course menus (5 yen,000-8,000 yen) are served. Paper lanterns hanging at the entrance welcome customers.
A 5-minute walk from Shibamata Station. 7-6-16 Shibamata, Katsushika Ward, (03) 3657-4151. Open: 11 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Open all year.