Everything old is new again
|Cooking up a storm at
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 youll 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.
free shopping down at the main shopping street