As new amusement facilities burgeon in Tokyo, yesterday’s trendy spot soon becomes forgotten. Yet in the Shitamachi, the old part of Tokyo, there are shops and crafts that have endured the test of time to claim a history of being in business for over 100 years.
Funabashiya is an unassuming shop that boasts a history of serving Japanese sweets for over 200 years. The first shop opened in 1805, during the Edo period, and served its original “kuzumochi.” Kuzumochi is made from the starch of the kuzu plant and flour. At Funabashiya, the mixture is then fermented for 15 months to give it a distinct firmness when it is steamed. The bouncy textured mochi is then covered with a sweet cane sugar syrup, then sweet bean kinako powder is sprinkled on top. The sweetness is subtle but not overpowering. As a teahouse, Funabashiya also serves traditional anmitsu dessert, a mixture of sweet beans, clear jellies and fruits coated in a light syrup and an apricot preserve shaved ice. The natural fruity taste of the apricot preserve is a delightful alternative to the artificial syrups of today.
The original Funabashiya has stayed at the same property a block away from the Kameido Tenjin Shrine. Originally, the street was lined with many shops but being less of a tourist attraction now, there are few stores remaining from the days of pilgrimages. One other shop that has stayed intact throughout the years is at the entrance of the shrine. Kora Isogai specializes in accessories made of tortoise shell. Kame-ido literally means “turtle well” and at the shrine, there are plenty of turtles peacefully swimming and lazing around. The shells though are from sea tortoises and the shopkeeper is quick to say that no extinct animals are now killed for their shells. The shop currently has supplies to last another 20 years. With the decline in artisans skilled to craft from these delicate shells, it is possible that tortoise shell accessories may not last another 100 years. There are hair decorations, dessert picks and even lamp shades in the exquisite pattern unique to tortoise shells.
Another traditional craft from this district is Edo-style cut glass. It is said that the origins of Edo cut glass date back to 1834 when glass craftsman Kagaya Kyubei copied English cut glass. The Japanese Edo kiriko is known to have freehand engraving of seasonal elements like falling leaves and cherry blossoms. The Edo Cut Glass Association has a showroom in Kameido. Along with traditional wares like ashtrays and sake cups, artisans now experiment to make all kinds of decorative ware including computer casings.
Kameido is a part of Koto Ward which played a prominent role in the Edo Period. Located at the edge of Tokyo Bay, for hundreds of years, this area was a transportation artery of canal ways. Call it the Venice of Tokyo. The Nakagawa Funabansho Museum pays hommage to Koto ward’s water history. On the third floor of the building is a recreation of the original boat inspection station (funabansho) built in 1661. Rice and goods being brought into Edo were inspected and taxed there. Women and children were also allowed to travel on those transportation boats as they journeyed only in emergencies. The second floor of the museum is a collection of traditional Edo fishing rods. Handcrafted from bamboo, purists still favor these rods over fiberglass ones. Yoshiyuki Hayasaka is the director of the Edo fishing rod artisan association and he elaborates on how the rods are made almost exactly the way they were for centuries. “The entire rod is made from bamboo. The skill to make them can still be passed down, but the bigger issue is the decrease in the supply of bamboo good enough to make them,” he explains. What is most amazing is how sturdy these rods are considering that as many as fifteen different parts are connected together, one piece snugly fitting into the next. Despite their exquisite beauty, Hayasaka is insistent that it is not just a piece of art but a tool. “They must function superior to other types of rods otherwise they will be meaningless.”
Fishing used to be a major industry in Edo, and clam-digging along Tokyo Bay a popular activity. Masumoto Ryotei is a restaurant that specializes in Kameido daikon (Japanese radish) and fukagawa meshi, a clam dish popular during the Edo period. Kameido daikon is a type of radish, smaller and juicier than the typical Edo daikon grown elsewhere. From late Edo to the Taisho period, this vegetable was a delicacy in many local dishes. Kameido has of course urbanized since then and Masumoto has contracts with farmers to grow the radish in parts of Katsushiki ward and Chiba prefecture. At the restaurant, the radish is served in many manners. It is cut into sticks served simply with a miso dip. It is pickled, sliced thinly as part of the nabe stew, and grated into the tempura sauce.
The other dish that the restaurant is famous for is its clam dishes. The simplest version of the fukagawa meshi is clam miso soup poured over rice. From early in the Edo period, Tokyo Bay fisherfolks would eat this dish because it was cheap and easy to prepare. In time, various versions of the dish developed. A popular variation is one where the rice is steamed with the clams. It can be eaten outside as a bento. Around Mozen Nakacho Station, there are little restaurants specializing in Fukagawa clam dishes. At Masumoto, while the steamed rice and clam dish is flavorful, the stew version is addictive. The clams caught in Chiba, on the other side of Tokyo Bay, are large and succulent. The stew is full of vegetables like carrots, enoki mushrooms and of course radish. The broth is rich and the rice is a barley mix with finely chopped ginger and radish leaves. There is a pickled pepper in miso as a condiment; this is fine cuisine.
A much simpler dish is the tsukudani, or preserved clam. Tsukudani is seafood, small fish, seaweed or clams, brewed in soy sauce and sweet. Since it preserves well, in the Edo period, it was often given to regional lords as a souvenir from the capital city to bring home. Other regions began making their own versions but tsukudani is still regarded as a Tokyo specialty. At Jokame in Morishita, they have been making preserved clam and seaweed dishes since the Meiji Period. In Tsukudajima, near Ginza, there are plenty of other little shops that have been in operation for over a century, surviving booms and busts, keeping their little morsel of history intact.
Story by Carol Hui
From J SELECT Magazine, December 2008