Over the last 15 years, Tokyo has been giving herself a makeover with showpiece projects like Ebisu Garden Place, Roppongi Hills, Shiodome, Midtown, and the facelifts in Ginza, Marunouchi, Shinagawa, and southern Shinjuku. Glossy designer boutiques have muscled out coffee shops, bookstores, bento shops, and mahjong parlors, and entire neighborhoods have been swept clean of untidy city life.
The area around Kanda station, however, is Tokyo with dirt under her nails, unabashed and unconcerned with what anyone else thinks. The elevated tracks rest on a series of red-brick arches as solid as bridge abutments. Since space in Tokyo is a commodity not to be wasted, the district swarms with enterprise—newsstands, yatai food carts, peddlers, pachinko parlors, bars and even a broom-closet-sized quick print shop run by an elderly typesetter who operates an ancient printing press. Livelihoods are jimmied out of the most unlikely locations.
A three-minute walk from the west exit of the station is Imagawa koji, an arch passageway too unimportant, it seems, for map-makers to include in their street plans. This permanently shadowed lane is home to a lonely cluster of drinking shops. Once a flourishing village of some 20 tiny nomiya, now just ten shops remain. The proprietors lived upstairs with the constant noise of trains rumbling overhead. Now, after almost forty years, Teruko Nitta is the last remaining resident and the boss of Imagawa koji.
Every working day at 5:30 pm, Nitta unlocks the wooden sliding door of her nomiya and hangs out the indigo-colored noren declaring Daimatsu open for another evening of drinking. On warm days she leaves the door open and slides a small corrugated piece of fiberglass sheeting across the gap to keep the cats out.
“The joren will be coming soon“ she says wiping down the pale wooden counter. She sets out a wicker basket of hard-boiled eggs, shells crusted with salt. Customers from other nomiya will drift in around 8 pm. Some of the joren, regular customers, have been coming here for 30 years.
Nine can sit elbow to elbow on the stools at the Daimatsu counter. Three more can squeeze in around the toy-like table in the wee alcove behind the counter.
“When I was young, I came to Tokyo and helped my aunt, a geisha in Akihabara. I was around 16,” Nitta pauses and smiles. “If I tell you more, you could guess my age!”
Asaoka Ruriko, the Nikkatsu film star, first owned Daimatsu. “She ran a mahjong parlor up there,” says Nitta pointing upstairs. “The place was very popular.“
Nitta, still quite fetching with her bright eyes and quick smile, ministers like a favorite aunt to her customers. Everyone is made welcome.
“We‘re like a big family,” she says. “My words are rough and I’ve got a bad mouth. But it’s okay” she laughs, “my customers are all nice and they don’t mind at all.”
“Which dish should I put out first,” she muses. Nitta prepares kisetsu no mono, seasonal foods, and a decent meal can be had in the simple daily dishes she prepares: Tohoku-style green beans with miso and sesame, burdock with carrot and chili pepper, tofu lees with shredded carrot and burdock, shredded chicken with wild chervil and wasabi, sliced beef with boiled potatoes, carrots, and onions—foods Japanese mothers make, foods one never tires of.
“I learned from my customers how to cook well,” she says setting a few dishes on the counter. “Years ago they used to come into the kitchen and cook with me, telling me how they liked it.”
She gets her vegetables and other foodstuffs from katsugiya, peddler women, from Chiba. “The katsugiya are disappearing,“ explains Nitta. “But a few still come to Kanda. I wake up at 7 am, and get my potatoes or bamboo shoots or eggs from them. By 10 am they‘ve sold out of everything.”
Goto-san, a manager at a nearby trading company, slides open the door and takes a seat at the counter. He has been coming here for over 25 years. Lately he stops by twice a week. “My father introduced me to this place,” he says. “And a couple of years ago I introduced my daughter too.”
Tonight Goto has brought along two friends—newcomers. Several other customers amble in. The counter is full. Collar buttons are unfastened. Neckties are taken off, folded, and tucked neatly into shirt pockets.
Nitta chats and jokes with everyone as she pours sake, beer, or sudachi shu, the citrus-flavored tipple of choice, into large clear glasses.
Daimatsu and the thousands of drinking shops like it across Tokyo are essential to city life—utterly unpretentious joints with no atmosphere except the sublimity of the everyday—where high and low meet at counter level.
But the future of Daimatsu is uncertain.
Nitta has been given an eviction notice by the railroad company. Several years ago a small fire broke out in the shop next door. The company is worried that a larger fire might interrupt train service. Only because Daimatsu is also Nitta’s residence, is it difficult for them to execute the order.
“Besides,” says Nitta.”I offered to become the manager of Imagawa koji, so now the railroad company comes to talk with me about any problem around here.”
“Still, I don’t know what will happen,” she says with a shrug.
Daimatsu is the kind of place we all eventually return to. A coin purse hangs from string tied to a sprinkler pipe above the counter. “I put that up seven years ago,” explains Nitta. “I looked inside once. There’s 2000 yen in small change. Maybe the person will come back someday to claim it.”
1-1-10 Kaji-cho, Chiyoda Ward. 03.3252.6061. Closed Saturdays and Sundays.