Everything old is new again
Cooking up a storm at Mamegen

You might think Azabu Juban is all swanky dining and dancing 'till dawn, but, as Sally Fisher finds, the charm of old Edo abounds in this quaint neighborhood.

When you're lost in the tangled tunnels of Shinjuku station or the neon-crusted canyons of Shibuya it's hard to remember Tokyo is a collection of villages with blurred borders. But just a short walk from gaijin-infested Roppongi is a spot clinging to some Edo traditions. In the main shopping street of Azabu Juban, the aroma of grilled eel wafts a full block. Down a side street an artisan makes tatami mats and a Chinese herbalist sells dried seahorse pills for fatigued genitals. The tree-lined shopping strip, Azabu Juban Street, is rarely crowded, but some locals fear it soon will be.

The interior is cool and the dishes hot at Noodles

Bypassed by the Hibiya subway line in 1961 by shopkeepers to preserve the village atmosphere, the strip now has two subways running underneath. Since the end of last year the Namboku and Oedo lines opened in a move greeted enthusiastically by the current crop of store owners. "It was getting too quiet and bad for business," says one shopkeeper, which seems odd for an area sandwiched by major roads and the Shuto Expressway. And if it seems a long walk to the surface from the subways, you're right. In order to survive major earthquakes, the Oedo platforms are, at almost 40 meters below street level, among Tokyo's deepest. Above the platforms are two huge storage areas for food and supplies.

Bargains at Blue and White start at JY250

And while the area is long on quaint appeal and is named after the linen once planted there, it's better known today for its super-expensive apartments and thriving bar and restaurant scene. On the last weekend of August the main street was jammed for the annual "cool breeze matsuri." Miss Tokyo was a special guest and the street closed to traffic as the locals danced and the merchants sold street food, antiques and sake in the recreated "working class atmosphere."

When the US arrived to force the doors of Japan open during the Tokugawa Shogunate, it was in Azabu the new embassy was born. On the edge of Azabu Juban at the Zenfukuji Temple is a plaque commemorating the Americans’ arrival in July 1859. An embassy was built on some of the shrine's land, and today the area is home to many envoys including Korea, Singapore, Austria, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Pakistan, Argentina and Madagascar. The expats have added some fine ethnic restaurants, notably Korean and Chinese, but the flavor here is overwhelmingly local.   

Standing out front of his family's century-old taiyaki shop, Naniwaya, owner Morikazu Kanbe touts for business.

Stroll on
Standing out front of his family's century-old taiyaki shop, Naniwaya, owner Morikazu Kanbe touts for business. The 78-year-old wears a chef's hat but quickly ’fesses up to being sacked from the shop's little kitchen years ago. "Our shop is almost 100 years old, and we make the best taiyaki (snapper-shaped pancake filled with sweet red bean paste) in Japan. This has been in our family for three generations," says Kanbe. Inside his sons are slaving away with iron molds over intense heat.

Where Roppongi's devlopement meets Azabu Juban's Zenfukuji Temple

A short walk away from the subway station on the main shopping street and toward Roppongi Tunnel is probably Azabu Juban's most famous feature: the only onsen within JR's Yamanote line naturally fed by its own spring. But it seems the temperature needs a little coaxing, as the enormous woodpile out back and the old guy cutting it attest.

Don't be fooled by the austere façade. Inside are baths filled with water dense with minerals as well as a sauna and space for chilling out afterward. This is said to be a favorite for yakuza; the owner's not fussed by the tattoos and missing pinkies. But several male visitors disappointingly report a lack of nude gangsters inside.

Almost as big a letdown is the state of Azabu Juban's antique market. Held on the first Saturday of each month, the market at times runs on the diminutive side. For traditional and even modern adaptations of Japanese housewares and clothing, forget buying them secondhand and walk across the road from Patio to Blue & White.

Real indigo-bathed cotton is sewn into shirts and skirts while shards of blue and white pottery are made into earrings and buttons. There's a wall full of traditionally patterned cotton fabrics for making yukata, cushions, napkins and tablecloths. White porcelain plates with blue dragonflies are under JY1000.

A few blocks toward the subway station is a small shop selling incense and traditional fragrances mostly from Kyoto. Kou, from the kanji for fragrance, is the Tokyo branch of the Masahiro family's main store in Kyoto. Incense of musk and bamboo sells from JY250, as do simple burners while silk-embroidered purses for holding his concoctions to keep moths at bay are JY6000. The nearby shop Tansutakara, crammed with beautiful kimono, looks like it came straight from the Edo Museum.

Make a meal of it
When it comes to eating, decision-making is fraught. You can eat whale or tonkatsu from the tiny old back-street shops favored by salarymen on Friday nights, or try one of the three excellent soba shops. At the modern, brown-tiled store on the main shopping street, Mamegen, there are traditional crackers and sweets made from soybeans, with the cooks doing their stuff in the window.

Also on this street is the famous yakitori shop Obechan. For JY140 try a skewer of mouthwatering hot grilled chicken liver. But avoid the crowds and the TV cameras; this place is a favorite for cooking shows looking for the real deal. A few doors away is the grilled eel shop Yatsumeya. The owner says Tokyo celebrities are fond of eating in his modest establishment or taking away from the window in the front where the master cooks.

For more stylish surrounds, try the brace of Chinese cafès where the noodles are great and the interiors hip. At Beni Tora, diagonally across from the onsen is a Chinese noodle bar with an open kitchen that clatters with woks wielded by chefs brought direct from Hong Kong. The lamb, spring onion and noodle soup is excellent, as are the gyoza that come sizzling to your table in their blackened cast iron pan. An English menu is available.

Down the street is Beni Tora's sister restaurant, Manrikiya, which is just as cool but does only Japanese noodles, or more to the point, ramen. The lunchtime hit is cha shu barbecued pork ramen at JY950. The kitchen is open, the interior new, and on one wall painted in English and Japanese, "Beer refreshes you after work." There's an English menu, here too.

Crossing over Sakurada Dori at the subway end of this street you’ll find a new Chinese café, China Doll. In clean lines of dark wood and red, this place is cheap and the food delicious. Peking duck (one pancake only) and an organic green salad are winners at JY550 each, and again, the menu is in English.

On the same street is Noodles, with another modish interior and open kitchen but this time also an open deck upstairs. The menu is small, but noodles with duck and curls of leek, or pho with steamed chicken for JY1000, are great eating. English menu on request.

Among the bars of note are Ma Bar and Café Life Café, both open until 2am.

After dinner, cruise the few blocks up Shin Ichinohashi Street toward the Roppongi Tunnel and stop at Comme Ca Ice on the left. The stark black-and-white interior sells 18 gelato flavors in black sesame-flavored or normal cones, with red bean, deep purple sweet potato and cassis among the more exotic offerings. This gleaming store with its fashionable label is testimony to Azabu Juban's surge out of Edo and into the future. Sometimes, it's said, even the local tatami maker eats there.

Crowd free shopping down at the main shopping street



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