In the years after the 1923 Great Earthquake, Katsuo Tasaki’s father cooked tempura and sold it here on Okazu Yokocho, Side Dish Alley. At the street’s peak, the family nagaya, shop-house, was one of 70 food stores.
In the US firebombing of March 9, 1945, neighbours formed a bucket brigade to try to save Torigoe’s famous shopping street. One-hundred thousand people died in Tokyo that night, but the buckets did their job. At Side Dish Alley, they thwarted the wall of flames that exploded two kilometers away in Kaminarimon and ate their way down here. Tasaki was two years old. He says, My father said the fire was 20 to 40 metres high.
Now 73, Tasaki has just sold the yellow corrugated tin building where he was born and grew up. On this Sunday he is sorting his stuff on the ground floor. I hung onto it as long as I could, he says, stepping outside and looking up at his building. It’s kanban architecture, he says, of the tombstone-like structure that could have come from a Hollywood Western. He speaks vigorously, using strong hand gestures.
It’s not good to leave an old premises vacant when developers are around. He makes a gesture as if striking a match. I couldn’t keep it empty, he says in a hushed voice. It could just go up, like that!
I should have sold in the Bubble, he says. I could have made 200-million yen. But that would have meant cutting my roots. We are basically farming people. Your land is not about money.
Someone who saw an ad for the building on the internet says it was offered for 70 million.
Tasaki will leave the neighbourhood by next March. Developers will tear the building down and do what they’re doing to the vacant block opposite. Erect another condo.
His move was inevitable. He has been living across the river in Sumida-ku and visiting this place only on weekends. It’s not good to leave an old premises vacant when developers are around. He makes a gesture as if striking a match. I couldn’t keep it empty, he says in a hushed voice. It could just go up, like that!
Tasaki says that in its heyday, Okazu Yokocho was a delicatessen for the 2000 workers in the local machine shops, small industries and crafts businesses. Whole families worked together so no one had time to cook. Fried food shops, simmered food shops, miso paste stores, pickle shops and liquor stores met everyone’s needs.
The street was built quickly. The standard nagaya was designed as a pair, with a central staircase. Tasaki says, You couldn’t be drafting drawings for 500 different buildings so they mirrored them. The frontage was 3.6 meters, or two ken. A six-mat room in front, and a four-and-a-half mat room at the back. The materials for some parts such as the common wall and staircase, could be shared to cut costs.
Tasaki likes his measurements. One ken is 1.8 meters, or six shaku, a shaku being about one foot, or 30 centimetres. It’s a basic unit of life! he says. You sense a kind of triumph in his certainty in the numbers. He says, A tatami mat is one-ken by three shaku. He says, That’s enough for a person – well maybe not a European but a Japanese person – to lie down! He says this as if he means…What more would you want?
He walks to the corner of his building and points up the street to the barber shop, then up and down the shopping street. There are still 13 nagaya in this area, he says.
They’re not likely to last. The Abe government’s tax hikes on vacant premises mean many people suddenly can’t afford to keep old places. Is it just a coincidence that demolition is sterilising the city ahead of the 2020 Olympics? Historic parts of Torigoe were saved by people with buckets. It will take a lot more to save them now.