Cities are usually defined by neighborhoods in inner wards or located near transit stations. Tokyo is no different. However, in this project, photographer Nik van der Giesen and THYNK founder Leo Kominz rediscover Tokyo through its intersections. Here, where shops and people are located far from any station, local names have been changed or forgotten, and yet there is a vibrant social and cultural scene. Here we find the true blood that runs through the veins of the city.
Out to witness the old and new of Nishiazabu, Nik and I started our journey on a gloomy May early afternoon, on the southern side heading towards Hiroo. First, we had to tackle a major task: Lunch. We headed over to Manmi, a restaurant I’ve been frequenting ever since I randomly walked into it a couple months ago.
When I was in Barcelona, I met a girl who said, as a foodie, she never goes to two types of restaurants when traveling; ones with pictures of the food outside, and ones on major streets. Although it doesn’t really directly apply to Tokyo (there are many incredible restaurants on the main streets), I did relate to her overall sentiment. As many great restaurants as there are on main streets, Tokyo’s food scene is special because of the shops tucked in back alleyways, hidden in street corner basements , or on the third floor of an old spooky building with barely even a sign. Manmi certainly fit her criteria.
Manmi is what you would call a “Washoku-ya”, quite literally “Japanese Restaurant.” It is a little more high-end compared to the commoner’s “Izakaya,” but not so up-and-tight as a “Kaiseki” restaurant. More importantly, Manmi serves delicious lunches, from hamburg-steaks to seared fish, and I especially like the home made “Konbu-no-Tsukudani” that comes with every option. After my second helping of rice that I ate with fresh raw egg and dashi-soy sauce, I asked the Mama-san what brought her to Nishiazabu.
“I actually came here more than 10 years ago from Miyagi. My husband and I ran a shop there, but I wanted to come back to Tokyo, where I’m originally from. He did too until he backed out at the last moment, and decided to stay in Miyagi. So I went on to open this place myself.
I chose Nishiazabu because I thought it would be friendly to small mom-and-pop shops. It certainly has been. It’s never loud or rowdy, and people will stick with you if you do things the right way.”
After I told her the background behind the Tokyo Intersection project, Mama-san started going into a frenzy.
“What? Trying to see the history of Nishiazabu? Why didn’t you tell me this earlier?? First, you have to talk with my old landlord. He was born and raised here. 80 years in this area. Then you have to meet the owners of the shrine down the road. The family has been here forever. Then there’s…”
By the time we left Manmi, the Mama-san had called up three different people. Her old landlord, although recovering from a bad cold, said he’d love to meet us. Spontaneous meetings and interviews; yes, it’s certainly what makes these local areas such a joy.
Those were the first words I received from Mr. Yahata, owner of a small tobacco shop, but more importantly, owner of the building that houses the tobacco shop, one of the most raved about wine bars in the area in Ellevage on the second floor, and what some gourmands rank as the “Best Japanese restaurant in Tokyo“ in Suetomi on the third. (Even the internet backs it up: Suetomi is a top 20 restaurant on Tabelog, out of the 50,000 or so in Tokyo).
Mr. Yahata was born and raised in Kogaicho, now going on his 80th year, and his stories of the past were fascinating and eye-opening.
“First of all, if you look at the Nishiazabu intersection, Kasumicho was only really the Northwestern and Western side. Everything else was Kogaicho. That’s why all the places still reflect this–the Kogai elementary school on the southeast side of the current intersection, and the Kogai-zaka hill on the northwest corner. People don’t realize that the intersection itself is new compared to when you go back 80, 90, 100 years. Gaien-Nishi street is a new road, and the other existing roads only had street cars on them.
And listen to this. Leo, where you’re standing right now, there was a river. It went straight down past Hiroo and connected to the river in Ebisu. You could actually travel by boat in this area.”
This was such an amazing discovery. I knew that Tokyo, famous for being a city composed of hills and valleys (this can be seen as the Ginza line is underground in Asakusa, but comes out on the third story of a building in Shibuya), had many rivers that were now running underground, with the Shibuya river being one of the most famous. I let my imagination go wild, back to the early 1900’s, when I could have potentially gone on a boat from my house, down to Ebisu, then to Shibuya. How the city has changed.
“Oh and if you’re documenting this, please let me say one thing. To all those saying that the name Kogaicho came from the Koga and Iga ninjas, please stop this nonsense. There were never any ninjas in this area.”
I could have listened to his stories for hours, but this being a spontaneous meeting, we were pressed for time. As we said goodbye, Mr. Yahata handed me an old map of the area. “Keep this. Most of these shops are gone, like most of the Tokyo I knew, but I think it’ll give you a good perspective.” No ninjas, no more river, but Mr. Yahata is still standing, and the Kogaicho spirit lives on.
Actually, it was more than true. Iwata is a “Sakanaya” fish and seafood shop that has been in Nishiazabu for more than 100 years. It is the go-to fish shop for the “Rien”, the kabuki world, and its regulars consist of aristocrats, politicians, executives of major companies and movie stars. I once stumbled upon the Mama-san making a substantially large order of sashimi. I pulled myself together and asked, “how much does this go for?” “Oh, yes it is a little much, isn’t it? But the customer is a regular. We ask for (puts up five fingers), but he orders every week, so I go a little overboard!”
…Yes, there are people that spend $2000 a month on sashimi in this city.
As one might expect, the Iwata couple are the sweetest people I’ve met. Their prices may be high, but their service is like none other. After the interview, Mama-san handed us two pieces each of the legendary Toki salmon. “Go home, make a nice helping of rice, and grill this salmon over the stove. Don’t forget a large helping of ‘daikon-oroshi’, and it will be a simple yet amazing experience.” I went home that night and did as she said, and my perception of salmon had changed ever since (and I come from Portland OR, land of salmon). I went back the next day to say thank you, and took a peek at the display. Toki salmon: $18 per slice. The supermarket down the street sells 3 slices for $3.80. Wow, and thank you so, so much, is all that I could say.
Mr. Iwata, the fourth generation owner of the shop, now in his 70’s, had amazing stories to share. How he and his friends as children would play in the backstreets and somersault down Roppongi-dori to the Nishiazabu intersection. How they would love the annual open day of the U.S. military base next door because the officers would let them ride the helicopters. How Roppongi Hills was just a bunch of houses with a small lake in the middle; the “tsuribori” fishing joint and all the people who would accidentally fall into it, sleepy after eating lunch; the biggest land owner who ran a goldfish shop, now living on one of the top floors of high-rising luxury apartments.
I asked him what was the most significant event during his years here in the area. He responded with, “It has to be the decision not to make the station. People make it sound like it was a consensus, that there was this outrage over even the notion that a station could be built here. It certainly was not. I know a lot of people that wanted a station here, and I can say it now, but there was a lot of money involved. A lot of votes swung because of money.
It certainly would have changed the character of this entire area. Nishiazabu would be a completely different place. And as a man who runs a shop, where having more people in the area correlates pretty much directly to more business, it might have been better. But we’ll never know. And honestly, I like Nishiazabu just as it is.”
Clickhere for Part.1!