Archive for September, 2010

Food for thought: bell crickets and coffee in Jimbocho

Monday, September 6th, 2010

Mr. Takai doesn’t care much for ordinary crickets. He’s a connoisseur. For the last 20 years, he’s been raising “suzumushi,” bell crickets, so that in September his knife, scissors and hardware store will ring and sing with cricket song.

Nestled among the used bookstores of Jimbocho, the Nozaki Cutting Tool shop, now under the stewardship of Mr. Takai, has been selling bladed tools for almost 100 years. In times past, there were other such shops in the neighborhood, but bookstores have crowded out the hardware competition. One wall of the narrow Nozaki shop is lined with 100s of scissors—left-handed scissors, long-bladed tailor’s shears, delicate German scissors shaped like a crane—and a wide range of the hand-forged, one-piece Japanese scissors found in every home sewing kit. Above the rows of scissors are kitchen knives—beautiful tools with the Nozaki named stamped into the shoulder of each blade. Kitchen knives and scissors are on perpetual sale—20% percent off.

Mr. Takai sells tweezers, nail clippers, toenail clippers, ear cleaners and barber shears. He’s got two-inch long Victorinox Swiss Army pocket knives in assorted rainbow colors and a Victorinox machete with a 15-inch blade. Also in stock is a large stuffed 4-point antlered buck’s head. He’s got a samurai-like sharkskin-handled knife with a gleaming 180mm blade. He’s got knives to cut paper, slash bamboo, or hack through branches, and knives that are works of art—handle-less knives shaped like a dragon, a bird, a bamboo shoot, a feather. He sells traditional Japanese planes of all grades. Other traditional carpenter’s tools crowd the back wall. Hand-made hammers—some with heads the size of a thumbnail—the odd pliers, screwdriver, or rasp fill spaces on lower shelves or behind the counter.

Mr. Takai is a bit of a collector. On the top shelf of a dusty glass cabinet is a small assembly of old pocket knives, antique nutcrackers, a small metal camera, a few straight razors, and a fountain pen or two. Those are not for sale, he says, but offers to show me a nutcracker.

But what brought me into the Nozaki shop was the sound—the choir of cricket song pouring into the street. Covering the counter, on the floor, behind the counter, and next to the grinding wheels on which Mr. Takai will sharpen your blunt knife or dull scissors for about 800 yen, are plastic cages filled with his suzumushi. Suzumushi are not as lovely as the korogi, the lithe field cricket.  Bell crickets are long-legged, pot-bellied bugs with the nasty habit of cannibalizing their cage mates. So every autumn Mr. Takai must purchase a few crickets to top off his breeding herd.

He says suzumushi are not difficult to raise. The female lays her eggs (which are so small you might fit ten into a grain of rice) near the end of September. Mr. Takai tends the cages through the winter keeping them clean and not too cold. When the hatchlings emerge in May, he lets them feed on slices of eggplant or cucumber, and fresh watermelon in summer. The standard technique is to impale the food on small bamboo sticks stuck into the dirt to keep the food unsoiled.

Some 200 years ago in Kanda, just a few minutes walk from Mr. Takai’s shop, an astute entrepreneur named Chuzo, who ran an oden stand, caught some suzumushi, put them in bamboo cages, and sold them along with his stew. Together with the son of a samurai, they set up the first business in bug sales. Such business continues. After the stifling heat of summer and after the drone of cicadas which only seems to intensify the heat, have dwindled away, you see people in pet shops, in department stores, in markets and festivals, buying these suzumushi insects. And you see the plastic, cricket-filled cages in train stations, in coffee shops, in police stations, and in bars—for the cricket’s song brings the first cool promise of autumn.

Mushi-no-ne,” the song these insects make, is like the ringing of the tiniest, most delicate silver hand bell. Japanese have always loved listening to crickets. For almost a thousand years, music lovers have collected suzumushi into cages to hear them sing of autumn. Department stores even sell exquisite bamboo cages filled with a few crickets perfectly reproduced in black iron, which will sing uninterrupted when you finger a switch.

Mr. Takai is a reticent, soft-spoken fellow, who chooses his words carefully. Why does he keep raising crickets for 20 years? He just likes the sounds his insects make, he says. He shrugs his shoulders as the tiny chorus of carillon chimes echo and ping from his oiled blades and saws.

Along a narrow passageway behind the Nozaki shop are three kissaten, coffee shops, each over 50 years old, and each recommended by Mr. Takai. Exit Takai’s shop, take the first right then the first left and you’ll spot the brick pile which is Ladorio. This rustic kissa is celebrating its 61st birthday this year. Try their pomegranite “squash” soda.

Next to Ladorio is the venerable Milonga, a Latin music kissaten for tango lovers. And if the crickets are not singing in the Nozaki shop, seek out the mountain hut-like Saboru.

Hidden away behind a pot of ornamental grass near the Saboru entrance is a box of bell crickets provided each year by Mr. Takai. He says they usually start singing just around five o’clock.