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Sunday, July 25, 2010

BACKSTREET STORIES

Brilliant facets of Nishi-Ojima


Setting off to explore Nishi-Ojima (West Large Island) and Kita Suna (North Sand) in Tokyo's downtown Koto Ward, I know better than to expect a seaside resort.

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Facing off: Ferocity burns in the eyes of this naginata (long-sword) fighter (left) during a practice session (right) at Joto High School. KIT NAGAMURA PHOTOS
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Sure enough, where I emerge from the Toei Shinjuku subway at Nishi-Ojima Station, I spy neither ship nor shore. But behind a tangle of parked bicycles I spot a plaque commemorating one of the most- visited "shells" in old Edo (present-day Tokyo) — the Gohyaku Rakanji.

That temple complex was built in 1695 to house 500-plus wooden carvings of arhats (enlightened ones) crafted by Buddhist priest and sculptor Shoun Genkei (1648-1710). It included Sansodo, a three-story pagoda nicknamed "Sazaedo" ("Turban-shell Hall") for its interior spiral ramp. Circling upward on this, visitors were rewarded at the summit with sweeping vistas of the surrounding marshes, Mount Fuji and the sea. Nothing is left of the original complex or the pagoda, but 305 of Shoun Genkei's works can be seen in Meguro Ward's modern Gohyaku Rakanji.

I head west on a backstreet that bottoms out at a single-track railroad, the Etchujima Freight Line. I walk along the track banks, overgrown with weeds and flowers cooking under a hot blue sky, in a rural quietude rare in Tokyo. Out of the blue, a nifty orange electric locomotive zips by. I jog after it, attempting to catch a photo, unsuccessfully.

"Too bad you missed it, 'cause it won't come again for hours," offers someone from the umbral depths of a factory by the tracks. I glare in response because it's hot and I can't see who is talking, but then Jimmy Ahmed, a 40-year-old from Mumbai, emerges from Kuriyama Kogiyo metal machinery shop, grinning. While we chat, his coworker Tatsuyuki Omagari, 69, continues cutting out metal ship parts in a shower of sparks. Huge magnets hang from the factory ceiling and as my eyes adjust, I can make out a faded poster of a girl in a blue bra tacked up on the corrugated walls.

"If you want to know what's worth taking a picture of," Ahmed offers helpfully, "go see the guy next door. He makes glasses, and I think he's famous or something."

As Ahmed seems to be right about the freight train — the tracks remain deserted but for white butterflies fluttering in the heat — I check the next building with its unpromising lace curtains. Toward the back, though, I'm delighted to find the workshop of Toshio Takizawa, master craftsman of Edo Kiriko, a Japanese style of cut and faceted glass said to date from 1834. The most popular form now features crystal or clear glass coated with a colored layer on the outside, through which the artisan engraves and facets geometric or freehand designs. Takizawa invites me in, saying, "I entertain visitors and media all the time."

"Young," Takizawa answers when I ask his age (it's 71) — "but I started learning this craft at 15, straight out of high school. My school teacher told me I didn't have the brain for academics, but said I had some artistic sense. I guess it was my fate to follow this path."

As Takizawa talks, off to one side 42-year-old Hidenori Takano nods at me with his eyebrows as he marks cutting guidelines on glass rims with a pen. "He's my deshi (apprentice)," Takizawa remarks, "but he's 70 percent on his own now. He's a smart guy."

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Sparkling skill: Hideaki Shinozaki works on a lead-crystal glass.

Takizawa displays some of his favorite creations — a plate with glittering fan designs, a bowl in the shape of an open cherry blossom, tiny gemlike works used as obidome (ornaments for kimono belts) — and tells me the Ojima area was once crisscrossed by canals for barges transporting glass and coal. "A lot of glasswork is noisy, and when ordinary residents settled here, they complained about that," he says. "But Edo Kiriko work is relatively quiet, so there are a few of us still around."

Though he's extremely easygoing, I can see that Takizawa is busy — he has a huge order to pack in wooden boxes — so I head off in the direction of the Ojima Green Road Park, which Takizawa tells me follows the route of a former tramway.

Heading north through the black-green shade of trees, I meet Fumiko Nagashima, a martial-arts instructor on her way to teach a class at Joto High School. She invites me to watch a practice session of Tokyo's number-one naginata (long-sword) team.

A quick bow of respect is required before entering the dojo, a gym filled with Joto's 14-woman team swinging competition oak swords in a precision warm-up kata (pattern of movements). Unlike the original naginata — weapons fixed with a tanged, slightly curved blade at the end and used primarily by women for self-defense — these competition swords are fashioned with split bamboo at the end, Nagashima tells me, "so that the girls don't break each other's wrists and ankles."

I talk to the team's star, Fumiko Shimizu, 17, as she dons armor similar to that used in kendo, but with the addition of suneate (shinguards) of wooden slats. "Naginata is not about strength," she tells me, "it's about art. You need to use your body, heart and mind simultaneously, and that's a challenge."

Though she makes it appear effortless, Shimizu practices for two hours, five days a week. Once on the gym floor, she moves like lightning, and if I were in high school, I'd definitely want to be her BFF.

Amid the susurrus of hakama (traditional split skirts), the blur of swinging naginata and the sparring cries of "men" (mask), "kote" (forearm) and "sune" (shin) the team's main sensei (teacher), 66-year-old Chiyo Tanaka, corrects form strictly, making sure each of her students hits with the curved 5-cm tip of the weapon. "That's the cutting zone," she tells me with a disarming smile.

The room is now thrumming with controlled ferocity and the eerie battle mews of naginata faceoffs. Occasionally a sword zips a bit close and it seems like a good time to make room, so I depart (with a bow), and head south.

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While this bowl (above) and plate show the artistry of Yuji Kadowaki and Toshio Takizawa, respectively.
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In alleys too close for cars, I pass a kakigori (shaved ice) stand with a line of young customers panting in the afterschool summer heat. Crossing Shin Ohashi-dori, I meander along Oshima Chuo Ginza Avenue, enjoying the retro vibe of mom-and-pop shops. A minor mob swarms Hiyoko Dagashiya, a penny- candy shop. The charismatic owner — "just call me Hiyoko-obasan (Auntie Hiyoko); everybody does" — has been divvying out treats to kids of all ages in the same location for 34 years.

I glance questioningly at an elderly gentleman playing an antique wooden pachinko game just outside the entrance. "He comes every day," Hiyoko confides. I watch him pay in ¥10 coins until he wins a few ¥100 tokens, which he then gives away to kids standing nearby.

The shadows are lengthening, but Hiyoko tells me there are two more Edo Kiriko artists I should see, and guides me to their homes. At the first, second-generation craftsman Tadayuki Okubo is out exhibiting his work at a department store, his wife, Masako, tells me. She lets me glance at his pieces, some in classic patterns and others with more whimsical figures of small animals and flowers.

Around the corner, at Shinozaki Edo Kiriko, I meet Seiichi, 78, who, with his son, Hideaki, 51, heads a five-man team mainly working in Kagami Crystal, the country's finest lead-crystal glass. Because Hideyaki is working on deadline in the shop, I talk to Seiichi, who, to my surprise, has no name card. "I don't need one," he says, brimming with confidence.

Seiichi learned his craft from three masters, starting at age 15 with an apprenticeship at what he calls "The Tokyo University of glass" — Shimizu Glass Corporation in neighboring Katsushika Ward. With countless awards to his name, Seiichi is now eager to support his son's rise in the business. "I only work half-days, and I can no longer make the kikutsunagi cuts," he confides, referring to the most demanding and complex pattern of repeating chrysanthemum flowers, "but I'm still number one."

I watch his son, Hideaki calmly slicing razor-cuts on a delicate wine goblet, and I mention it appears that he'll have a competitor for that title soon. "Well, this craft is easy to learn, but it's also easy to quit," Seiichi quips.

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Charisma lady: Penny-candy store owner "Auntie Hiyoko" (right) with two of her customer-friends.

Walking further south, and crossing the Onagi River, I am surprised to find another Edo Kiriko workshop, Edo Garasu Kojyo, selling the works of Yuji Kadowaki, 38, and his father, Kenji, 64. Below the manual gear system used to turn the cutting blades before the workshop was motorized, Yuji is rough-cutting designs into tumblers while his father, with water and polishing wheel, smoothes back to transparency the facets Yuji has cut in the glass.

Yuji tells me it takes about 15 hours to do one of the more complicated designs on a single whisky tumbler. Does he ever slice a hole by mistake? He shakes his head, already very sure of his skills. "Maybe on extremely thin, or handblown glass," he then admits. "But it's rare."

Having looked at gorgeous works of cut glass all day, I can begin to see the face of each craftsman reflected in his creations.

I head for home just as the sun glows beneath a heavy coating of rain clouds. Surely it's my imagination, but light cuts the surface of the river and the streets as though it, too, were fashioning a Kiriko glass artwork.

Kit Nagamura will be taking a break during the month of August, but will resume her "Backstreet Stories" in September.


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