The store name is Kanariya Blouse Shop, Asakusa, but Mrs Kanariya is not her name and she won’t say what her name is, That’s privacy! she says. She declines to be photographed at first. She’s bashful. But on your second visit she is persuaded her clothes are neat and her hair looks fine, and she touches it to make sure it’s in place as you talk.

Canaries, or kanaria, once stood for a sort of sophistication or artiness. That may be what’s behind the name. Mrs Kanariya says she doesn’t know. Her sister-in-law opened the boutique after the war. Dad ran a metalwork factory out the back, making distilling equipment and bottle sterilising machines. But there was no one to take over the family business, and it stopped with him. He made the iron sign above the entrance.

kanariya thru doorwaykanariya streetkanariya floral sleevekanariya toys

The clothing display looks unchanged since maybe the last Olympics. But you notice the clothes are quite modern – and certainly inexpensive. You say the colours look peaceful. She says, No, these sorts of colours used to be bright! They might look quiet now, but that’s because clothes around us are louder.

I run this shop like a mental stretching exercise, she says. To save me going senile. I am 81 and I have six grandchildren and I am not senile – but I am not young. I do everything that needs doing, and I choose exactly what to sell. I buy my stock in cash so there are no returns. I never hold bargain sales. I think it’s very rude to customers who buy at full price, to then cut your prices, like the department stores do.

She likes to change the display, moving blouses to different positions, swapping them with the seasons. Most customers are elderly and many come on their way to visit temples or graves.

kanariya blouses upperkanariya blouses stand

She has lived here since 1970. I came as a newly-wed from Kudan, Kudanshita, she says. I didn’t want to come to Asakusa. But now I can’t stand to leave. People quickly become your friends, and it’s interesting and convenient and has everything.

kanariya fly smile

You tell her you feel the same. Though before you moved here, you heard the low-city people can be a bit nosy, that everyone knows what everyone else is doing, that’s what you heard.

Yes I know, she says. People say that. But it’s not like that. I live my life so as not to be too sticky with people, and not to cause anyone bother.

That’s not to say she cuts off. People behind the shopfronts here grow up with family-like ties. Mrs Kanariya’s eldest son was classmates with the daughter of Mrs Ishii, a few doors up at Ishii Fruits. The late son of the Ohtake menswear shop was the Kanariya’s home tutor. The sharpening stone woman rarely opens these days, since her husband passed away.

You can easily walk by without a thought. But with their self-effacing attitudes and quiet displays, people like Mrs Kanariya carry the street’s history.

kanariya sign