Don’t Topple The Stone: Tateishi Nakamise

Don’t Topple The Stone: Tateishi Nakamise

Tateishi is the heart of downtown Tokyo.  Located in the Katsushika Ward, it was born, like Ueno, out of the post WW2  black market — PX goods, dented cans of Spam, lizard faced gangsters and corrupt GIs side by side with small factories and light manufacturing.  Like a wagon wheel, 5 covered shotengai (shopping streets) fan out from the train station with numerous, twisting alleyways connecting the whole mass.  A friend who grew up there sent me a promotional video for the area and it looked lively and charming, so I told my children we were going to a “crazy shopping street” to explore.  The problem is Tateishi Nakamise is pretty grim at first glance. Many shops have closed down, things are falling apart, the public toilets are of the “squatting” type (my five-year old daughter took one look and declared, “I can hold it.”) and it seems smaller than what I imagined.  We wandered a bit, bought some cold yakitori (sad) and I started to apologize as my daughter kept asking me what was “crazy” about this run-down street. But then, as often happens in Tokyo, Tateishi started to reveal itself — 1950s signage recognizable from Godzilla movies; tiny alleyways, hidden at first look, packed with Izakayas; old noodle shops and Soba mills; Chinese style ramen shops; a butcher shop — with a restaurant tucked behind — frying whole quarter chickens in vats of bubbling oil. We ordered luscious Tsukune (a kind of minced chicken meatball), chicken wings and bacon-wrapped, cheese-stuffed shishito peppers from a street-side Yakitori stand (happy and delicious), bought a range of spicy pickles from an ancient store and my 11-year-old son was both thrilled and embarrassed by a bookstore heavy in the used porn. I could see lines forming at various izakaya and oden restaurants and red-faced revelers getting an early start to their drinking (apparently  3pm is a totally acceptable time to start drinking in Tateishi). People know each other here, know each other’s families, know why they look so happy as they tuck into that first cold beer — this a community and a tight one at that.  I needed an in.

That “in” turned out to be my friend Nobu.  Taller than the average Tokyoer, he has a narrow face, warm eyes and always styles with a cap.  In his 40s, he was born and raised in Tateishi, spent time in New York working at a sushi restaurant  and soaking in Brooklyn’s underground reggae scene.  Occasionally his directional sense can fail him and things that are  just “around the corner” can, in fact, be miles away — But, I’ll happily follow him because he is a spirited fan of downtown Tokyo and knows the deep and cheap places to eat .  And he really knows Tateishi. We left the train and ducked into an alley which I had not noticed previously, twisted and turned and came out to a brightly lit Yakiton (grilled pork restaurant)  simply jam-packed with people, seated on stools around a large bar.  The pork master was grizzled, hands like knotted mahogany from a life-time of turning skewers over hot coals.  Two older women, dyed hair of jet black and copper with improbable makeup, shouted orders while two younger helpers fetched beer and the favorite local drink of Shochu with sweet plum (native Tateishiers are sugar mad and eat their Oden with sweet miso instead of the normal hot mustard). Things were dirt cheap and soulful and good. Boiled bits of pig head with a tangy, vinegar miso, spicy pickles, skewers of soft bone pork and fatty shoulder meat.  Free cabbage. We caught one of the last chicken thighs before they sold out — smoky and juicy and licked with a homemade terriyaki sauce that has been simmering on the stove for 50 years.  Does this place have a name?  It doesn’t need to. Its customers are local and probably think of it as “the place” and they get there early because it closes at eight, and they drink and eat pig ears and kidneys and laugh and talk to their neighbors and kibbitz with the staff who set up impromptu tables outside to take the overflow.  It was alive and real and old and worn as the lines on the master’s forehead.  And I was caught in the flow, part of the dynamic with old men practicing their few words of English and kindly excusing my lumbering frame as I tried to maneuver out of my tiny stool to the fantastically dirty public urinal couched in full view of the entire street. It is the type of place (and it does, in fact, have a name: Edokko) that binds a community together, healing wounds and resentments and offering a home to the teeming populace of such a crowded city.

Walking back to the train Nobu pointed out the narrowest alleys, lined with rundown shacks, that used to be filled with prostitutes in the post WW2 years.  Itateishi had been the red light district and many one room brothel had transformed into the tiny izakaya that had caught my eye. In his youth, Nobu said there were many porno theaters tempting horny 14-year-old boys.  What is left of Tateishi’s Red Light district seem to be some low rent hostess clubs with names like “Sweet Boobs” offering tired salary men the chance to spend $50 talking and buying drinks for Filipino women dressed in cheap ball gowns.

“This is all going to be wiped out,” Nobu announced. “The government is going to knock all of this down and make a big development.”

What?  I just fucking got here!! Where will all these people go?  Where will I go?  I’ve barely touched the surface dammit!!!!

Governments are corrupt whether in Japan or the middle or Niger. Some canny construction magnate cum developer noticed those empty shopping stalls and the lingering stench of stale urine, noticed that the peeling paint and derelict factories were residing alongside some very prime real estate (a train station)  and money changed hands, newspaper editorials were written and influence put the pressure on and sooner or later Eminent Domain will rear its mighty head and the bulldozers will crank into action.  Tateishi Nakamise will be dust and crinkled zinc pan while a gleaming building will rise up with luxury apartments, a Denny’s, a Domino’s Pizza, a chain Izakaya, a high-end ramen spot, 2 7-11s and a supermarket.  All great cities are in constant flux, re-making and rebuilding themselves decade by decade, but Tokyo is more so.  Over the centuries, it has been wiped out numerous times by fire, by tidal wave, by earthquake and war. It wears its impermanence like a badge, believing that the heart of Tokyo will always remain.  The problem is, though, that the  heart is more delicate than we think. Those dusty back lanes and decrepit shopping strips are the living memory of a time before the powerful Japanese economy rose, a time of sorrow and suffering and want and there just not being enough to go around.  The folks who lived through that time, who ate whale meat because there just wasn’t anything else, who made the hard choices about their bodies, their labor, their freedoms are the people who form the core of modern Japan. They are the ones that re-use bath water to fill their washing machines, who hang their laundry outside, who recycle, who make sure the streets are clean and act with kindness and see weakness in open violence. They are the ones who developed and perfected the foods we so love — ramen, oknomiyaki, huromon, yakitori — because they were cheap and filling and nutritious. The restaurants and izakaya they ran made the most out of the least, and through hard work and respect for their customers occasionally approached the sublime. And they were not looking for fame or riches, they were looking to make a living and provide their community affordable and delicious food  so that their customers who, like them, worked so hard, could relax and feel all that loss wither away for a brief moment. And like those streets, that generation is getting old.  And will the next generation, who have never wanted for anything, understand?  Will they continue to hang their laundry outside or will they just say fuck it,  ignoring the $100 a year in savings and buy a dryer and revel in a fluffy towel?  Will they want to work with the cheap cuts of meat or will they open their instagram friendly yakitori selling only the finest chickens and kobe beef?  Will they be happy to see that dirt, that ghost of suffering and ugliness, razed to the ground until all of Tokyo is a high-end convenience store offering 24/7 imitations of the foods and soul that once defined the city?  I have no idea.  I have not been here long enough to predict a thing.  Tateishi means “standing stone” and the name was derived from one of these stones (Tateishi-sama) that has occupied a shrine here for 600 years. Worshipped by local people as the embodiment of Inari (a Shinto fox deity), It once stood 20 inches tall.  It now protrudes barely a centimeter above the ground and without it, without Tateishi, a wellspring of Tokyo’s very heart will stop beating and for that I will mourn.

Edokko 立石7-1-9
Katsushika, 東京都 〒124-0012

6 Replies to “Don’t Topple The Stone: Tateishi Nakamise”

  1. You are an urban poet. You capture the very heart and soul of a city. Dirt, grit, smelly toilets, happy folk who like to eat and drink (cheaply) in companionship. Reminds me of Chinatown, Harlem, Lower East Side, Little Italy, sixty and seventy years ago. Real estate developers (neighborhood and nation destroyers) are evil, greedy monsters.

  2. I love it! A seriously old school place and its old school people.
    But hey, it sounds dangerous being around so much fried pig face and soju.

  3. i hear you; cece and i read you. as i read i could see it, and wished we were there to feel it. thank you!

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