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Sunday, Dec. 27, 2009

BACKSTREET STORIES

Fun and funky Fukagawa

East of the Sumida River in downtown Tokyo there's discoveries waiting, and a human warmth, too, that hark back to times gone by


After so many yearend parties and as the weather grows wintry in Tokyo, it might seem like madness to go for a walk, but a stroll east of the Sumida River, in Fukagawa, is an ideal way to clear the head. The area offers expansive parks of lingering colored leaves, magnificent art shows and, in some back streets, a jovial and humane spirit that bodes well for the coming year.

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It's noon when I surface from the Oedo Line's Monzen-Nakacho Station. Drawn to an alley of izakaya (Japanese pubs) that are festooned in sprays of sunlit plastic New Year's decorations, I stop in front of Yuchan, an establishment that's so buried in memorabilia and decorative chatchkas I can hardly find the entrance.

I loiter just long enough that the owner pops out from among the whatnots, and beckons me inside. I squeeze through the sliding doorway to behold a sweet, eight- seater place.

"Just call me Master Shirai," the owner says. When he realizes I'm taking notes, he quickly adds, "I'm 64 years old, but I'd rather be 35. Please write down that I am handsome!"

I nod, as Handsome Master Shirai's son, 29-year-old Yuji Shirai, sets a place for me. I order the sashimi set. "Good choice," Yuji tells me, "cause we get fish fresh every day at the Tsukiji market."

The sashimi arrives, generous slabs that taste like blue ocean made flesh, including a perilla leaf loaded with uni (sea urchin gonads) and steaming miso soup. Yuji tells me it's ¥500. The entire time I dine, I am afraid I may have misunderstood the price.

There are three others in the restaurant: a shy businessman, Yuji's girlfriend — a designer who produced the Yuchan T-shirts Yuji and his dad are wearing — and Yuji's mom. The ambiance is tight, family-oriented, and the food is the best value for money I've had in a decade.

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"Tell foreigners to come right on in here," Master Shirai says, and his family shoots looks at one another wondering who will translate should foreigners visit. I assure them that if a customer can say "sashimi," all will go swimmingly.

A duo of Hoppy Beer salesfolk arrive, and as Master Shirai is voicing his disappointment that they have not brought a new year's calendar of bikini girls he had been anticipating, I put my one ¥500 coin on the counter and move on.

Walking east toward the Shingon Buddhist Fukagawa Fudo Temple (1703), it occurs to me that during the Edo Period (1603-1867), I'd have had to swim, as the road I've chosen and everything south of it was once submerged in muddy waters. Landfill schemes and roads have pushed the sea back and obliterated most of the canals that used to provide a transportation network for low-lying Fukagawa. Ironically, Fukagawa Temple today specializes in blessing cars; come the new year, visitors queue to pay from ¥6,000 to ¥20,000 to purify their rides.

Practically next door to the temple is Tomioka Hachimangu (1627), Tokyo's largest shrine dedicated to Hachiman, the god of war. Tomioka also boasts Japan's largest mikoshi (portable shrine). Decorated with precious gems and weighing in at 4.5 tons, "portable" is not the operative word here, but I glimpse the ornate construction which is displayed behind glass at the shrine year round.

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Trailblazer: Yukiya Arai, 12, was a guide with good sense. KIT NAGAMURA PHOTOS

Today, flea-market vendors and bargain-hunters set the shrine abuzz as they do every 15th and 28th of the month (except on holidays). Buoyant ex-Radio Shack employee Aki Takayanagi, 65, shows me an item on his table, an odd cigarette lighter with a teeny music-box contrived inside, but he doesn't really want to sell it. A vintage, much-loved Pilot fountain pen is another story, however, and I depart elated with my purchase.

Leaving the shrine, I pass a vendor of tsukudani (preserved edible tidbits boiled in soy). Aside from rice grasshoppers and small fish, there are woven baskets heaped with kawaebi, tiny pink shrimp the size of fingernails, dappled with newly fallen gingko leaves. The leaves, in fact, blanket the shrine in gold. Its groundsman, 62-year-old Shigeo Toyoda, has to sweep and bag them all up, and as he is carting off a tower of bags he offers to show me one of the area's historical sites.

At first I think he means the sumo wrestlers' graveyard behind the shrine, or the Benten shrine nearby. But no. We walk past a block of traditional wood-slat homes to Hachiman-bashi, a small red bridge that appears constructed from an Erector Set. "It's the first iron bridge ever built in Japan, in 1878," Toyoda informs me. "Of course, there's no water under it any more."

I snap a photo of Toyoda on the bridge. A breeze sets flocks of leaves aloft and Toyoda goes after them. I cross the bridge and head north, through Kiba Park, toward the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (MOT).

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Architect Takahiko Yanagisawa designed the predominantly minimalist, elegant museum, opened in 1995. It features generous display space for its permanent collection, as well as galleries for cutting-edge exhibitions.

I pop in to check out two shows. One, titled "Luxury in Fashion Reconsidered," presented by the Kyoto Costume Institute (through Jan. 17), examines the evolution of values and desires as reflected in clothing from the 1600s to the present. From jaw-droppingly ostentatious brocades to Martin Margiela's one-of-a-kind jackets made of broken records and plates, the show knocks my socks off. Likewise German artist Rececca Horn's solo exhibition, "Rebellion in Silence: Dialogue between Raven and Whale" (through Feb. 14), is a powerful and comprehensive representation of Horn's work. Covering films, installations, recent paintings, and her trademark eerily silent machine and feather pieces, it is a must-see.

I head west again, in an art-induced daze, seeking the Fukagawa Edo Museum. I stop a student on his way home from school to ask directions. Yukiya Arai tugs on his uniform and looks momentarily distressed, but offers to walk me there. I soon realize his concern; the museum is under renovation, scheduled to reopen in August next year. But, Yukiya says, there's something else I could look at instead.

He leads me to Edo Miyageya, where 68-year-old Nobuo Takahashi is wearing a chonmage (Edo hairstyle) wig and playing with some of the traditional toys he sells. He and his wife, Tamiko, who runs a dagashiya (penny-candy shop) just down the block, have schooled several generations of kids in the traditional aesthetic and social geniality that have characterized this neighborhood for hundreds of years.

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Outside the dagashiya, where Tamiko displays homemade folk figures of good fortune, Otafuku and Hyottoko, and her very own sculpture of Doraemon, I notice a young man working a pile of disposable chopsticks with an electric sander. Akira Kusakabe shyly admits that he hates to see the wooden waribashi go to waste, so he's building a tiger out of them. A tiger for 2010, I ask? Nope, just a tiger, he tells me. A quirky kind of artistic spirit thrives here.

Two minutes down the road, I follow the sun's last rays to Kiyosumi Teien, a pond-dominated strolling garden. The former feudal estate was purchased and landscaped with a power-collection of boulders and stones from around Japan by Yataro Iwasaki, of Mitsubishi fame. It teems with ducks and koi the size of hogs.

I continue leaf-gazing through Kiyosumi City Park, down toward a pink cement plant. Here, I manage to sleuth out the elusive Kiyosumi Gallery Complex, a group of galleries occupying the three top stories of a distribution warehouse.

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Stepping out of the industrial-grade elevator, I meet with Tomio Koyama, owner of the eponymous gallery in the complex. "We moved in three years ago, and chose this place for its big elevator and wides spaces," he tells me.

I wander through cheeky modern exhibits, and have the good fortune to run into one of the artists, Amy Bennet, a New York-based painter of surreal glossy winter landscapes, and her cartoonist husband, Jonathan Bennet. "This is an overwhelmingly awesome neighborhood," Amy says when I ask her for an impression.

When I emerge from the complex, the sky is violet and preparing a show of its own. I zip down to the Sumida River to watch the last light power up on the water. It's just past high tide and the banks are deserted. Suddenly, I feel my feet fly out from under me. Not a landmine, but a sea mine: the river has coughed up jellyfish and they spread out, stranded, as far as the eye can see. I dodge them as the dark edge of evening drops, sharpened on the whetstone of winter.



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