The Unfolding Mystery of Kami-Itabashi

The Unfolding Mystery of Kami-Itabashi

The reports from NY have been of freezing temperatures, thick snow, fog and general unpleasantness.  On the other hand, winter here in Tokyo has been a mild affair so far.  When the sun goes down, it gets chilly, a few nights dipping below zero.  But in general, I have been greeted by blue skies almost every day, the sun bright and warming. I have been taking advantage of such weather by indulging in long bike rides, pedaling the small streets, getting lost and eventually winding my way to where wanted to go.  I make mental notes of all the shops, the mysterious restaurants and  the tiny neighborhood museums that I want to return to.

But my biggest joy is taking an easy cruise from Kitamachi, my neighborhood’s shotengai (shopping street) south-east to Kami-Itabashi in the Itabashi ward.  I have been here long enough and poked my nose into enough places that shop-keepers and others wave to me or stop me for a quick chat.  There’s the great butcher who is still puzzled at my requests for a whole rack of ribs, the chicken master, the older women who sells me potted herbs (parsley, rosemary, basil) for far cheaper than it would be at the supermarket.  There’s the somewhat sad cafe, with the exhausted proprietress, who still manages to rustle up a delicious plate of curry rice and pancakes for my daughter and I when we make an infrequent visit. If I am lucky I see Takashi of Takashi Ramen, who is always excited to share a few words of English after his years cooking in California.

Marking the start of Kami-Itabashi is my all time favorite Izakaya, Big Tiger’s.  I was honored the last time I was there to be made a “member” and receive my own special plaque that now hangs on the wall.  I don’t really know what privileges this gives me but the Professor of Japanese culture, who looked and dressed  like an Asian William S. Burroughs, and the half Russian – half Uyghur transvestite (who is also a champion Beat-Boxer) seemed fairly impressed.  About two blocks from Big Tiger’s is a traffic light and when you hang a left you enter into the heart of Kami-Itabashi.  The street winds a bit like the “Bloody Elbow” of Doyers Street in Manhattan and ends at the train station.  I doubt that any guide-book to Tokyo mentions this area, but I have totally fallen for it.

During the day, the shops bustle selling vegetables, discount clothing, candy; there are a number of fine ( and cheap) ramen shops, crowded with high-school boys,  including my all-time favorite: Tamashii (Soul of Noodle).  An import food shop sprawls out onto the street with a decidedly Anglophile bent and wide variety of British, Canadian and Australian specialty items (Tam Tam Cookies, Devonshire Clotted Cream, maple syrup and oddly A&W Root Beer). There is also the famous sweets shop, Hitomoto Ishidya and an ancient rice cracker shop.

At night the side streets begin to light up with hidden izakaya and tiny restaurants of all sorts serving yakitori, oden (various types of fish cake, root vegetables and egg long simmered in broth and served with hot mustard), yakiniku (Japanese BBQ), eel and all sorts of other specialties.  I follow the footsteps of a group of old men, furtively walking into a barely noticeable alleyway.  They all enter a small doorway, welcome lantern hanging from outside, and briefly the sound of karoke and laughter escape trailed by the fragrant aroma of grilled fish.  By the train station I am seized by hunger.  I wander into a small, very clean yakitori, a plastic awning pulled down to keep in the heat.  The smell of frying chicken is powerful and I order a beer and see they offer about 8 different kinds of fried chicken.  I am given a plate of tender sliced pork with my drink and after an appropriate wait, the special garlic fried chicken arrives.  It is blazingly hot and crunchy, the flesh juicy and awesomely garlicky. It is right up there in my Bird Hall Of Fame.  Around the corner is the decidedly suspicious Takoyaki (savory balls of dough containing a piece of octopus in the center) shop, whose eccentric owner is Big Tiger’s best friend.

I feel like a could spend a month eating and exploring these couple of small streets and never get tired, never get bored. Kami-Itabashi is like a microcosm of Tokyo — a constantly unfolding world that I am just barely able to see into.  And yet, every step is rewarded.  Every encounter, every dish ordered holds me by the hand and leads me to the very first fits of understanding the new home that I have chosen and that weirdly, like Big Tiger hanging my plaque on his wall, has chosen me as well.

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