Tsukudajima is a neighborhood unlike any other in Tokyo. It survived unscathed the Great Kanto Earthquake and the fire bombings of the Second World War, but other pockets of the city share that good fortune. What sets Tsukudajima apart is the sense of community that has survived for over four centuries.
Originally a grassy island at the estuary of the Sumida river, it was settled at the beginning of the Edo period, at the invitation of Ieyasu Tokugawa, by a group of fishermen from Osaka whose descendents still fish the waters of Tokyo Bay.
Tsukudajima still retains the slow-paced, quiet atmosphere of a rural fishing village. The houses, many of which are superb examples of mokuzou kaoku, traditional wooden timbered structures, are crowded together with only narrow passageways between them. A handful of long-handled water pumps, which still work, are scattered throughout the neighborhood. Docked at a rickety peer in a canal off the river are several fishing vessels and a traditional yakatabune, a tatami-floored party boat, which can be hired out for special occasions.
The small neighborhood is bordered on two sides by a vanguard of nine towering apartment buildings, with more on the way. But if you turn your back on those highrises and look toward the river, nothing looms on the horizon.
The heart of the neighborhood embraces a post office, a liquor shop, a barber shop, and a general store which sells everything from scrubbing powder and dishwashing liquid to jump ropes and penny candy—100 kinds of which attract a constant parade of neighborhood kids. These shops, of course, have been run by their respective families for generations. The neighborhood also boasts three shops which specialize in tsukudani, an Edo-period delicacy.
Tsukudani is a salty-sweet preserve of tiny fish, shrimp, shellfish, seaweed, or other edibles which have been simmered in soy sauce, sugar, and salt. Often eaten as a topping on rice, tsukudani originated in Tsukudajima.
Kenji Kobayashi, the voluble 6th generation proprietor of Marukyu, a tsukudani shop open since 1859, is most often found behind his small counter lined with red lacquer boxes containing various types of tsukudani.
“Each item is simmered for 3 or 4 hours in a huge iron pot,” he said spreading his arms apart, “large enough for two men to stand inside.”
His tsukudani is made exactly the way it’s always been made. The exact balance of salty and sweet is a secret varying shop to shop. “We make new batches every two to three days,” he continued, “depending on what’s needed.”
“Once all our raw material came from Tokyo Bay,” he said gesturing out toward the river. “The fish, the seaweed, the shrimp—but now only asari (clams) come from the Bay.”
The looming towers don’t seem to bother him much. “We’ve got 3 generations of customers coming here,” said Kobayashi. “Even those new apartment buildings are not bad for us,” he said. “Many young people are living there and some of them come in to try our tsukudani.”
Another member of the community is Yasuhide Nakamura, 11th generation master craftsman of Edo urushii nori, Edo-style lacquer work.
“My ancestors started in Nihonbashi at the time of Iemitsu Tokugawa, more than 300 years ago,” said Nakamura. The war destroyed his family workshop, and some forty years ago his father moved the atelier to Tsukudajima. The old wooden shack that serves as his workshop is perhaps the oldest building in the neighborhood.
One of Nakamura’s best selling items is the Edo hakkaku bashi, 8-sided chopsticks made from teak or purple rosewood. “These chopsticks will last 20 years,” he said. “And I’ll repair them for free, if they need it.”
“I make real things,” said Nakamura. And what exquisite things they are. The luminous dakkanshitsu (Japanese sweets dish) his family is famous for is painstakingly crafted layer by layer of hemp linen, washi paper and coatings of red lacquer. Three years are required to create a set of five.
Lacquer painting is a tedious process. “It’s paint-dry-paint-dry,” said Nakamura. “You brush on one coat of lacquer and that’s it for the day,” he said with a grin. “Young people don’t have the patience for this kind of work.”
Patience is most important, stressed Nakamura. It takes time to make something strong, beautiful, and useful—until “aji ga deru,” the deeper quality is revealed.
Something similar, perhaps, happens to neighborhoods. Four centuries of remembrance and appreciation have helped to define the unique sense of community that thrives in Tsukudajima.
Highrise by highrise the city slowly encroaches on Tsukudajima, but life still goes on pretty much as it has for generations. A tofu peddler, a young man in baggy jeans and a baseball cap, pulls a cart through the narrow alleyways and ocassionally blows two forlorn notes on a small brass horn announcing fresh tofu and yuba for sale. A housewife stops him to purchase something for the evening meal. Then he is on his way again—blowing his tune into the evening air.