Hitomi Shibata says, We’re not like a married couple we are like a team. We help each other through the tough bits. She makes a gesture as if pulling a rope. She and her husband Mutoyoshi live behind Sensoji temple, but were born and grew up three houses apart on nearby Kappabashi kitchenware street.
Mutoyoshi, with the bad back, smiles from under his big cap as he returns from his walk. He steps carefully toward one of the vinyl-covered stools in the entrance hall, which he has opened as a kiosk-like shop on the weekends. He recently retired from 45 years running his restaurant, Sushi-e, on the other side of the temple.
Mrs Shibata’s electric frypan sizzles with Chinese-style dumplings. Tasty o-yaki, savory pastries, she calls out. Business is modest on this lesser travelled route. She has two staff, one is Chinese; she offers you yaki nikuman, steamed pork buns whose bottoms she browns crisply in a frypan. She is proud of them. These are delicious she repeats. You won’t get these anywhere else in Tokyo.
Another woman makes dumplings for the wonton soup, leaning over a low table in the raised floor area that is normally the family living room.
Mr Shibata watches with a beatific smile, a little dazed. On the shelf behind him is his carving of a miniature Sanja festival omikoshi portable shrine. He says, All I ever wanted to be was a sushi-ya. From elementary through middle and high school. Eventually my parents let me take an apprenticeship at Sushi-E in Ginza.
He learned the hard way. He opens his mouth to show you missing teeth. Kerang! he says, jerking his head back as if being punched. They were knocked out on the job, he says. After 10 years, he was the first apprentice to take a noren, literally the shop curtain, a licence to use the name. He says there are now some 23 Sushi-e around.
Asakusa is changing. Kids don’t follow their parents’ trades, says Mrs Shibata. She says an 8-year apprentice is running the restaurant. Times are tough, says Mr Shibata. You ask him about the cheaper sushi stores now flourishing.
You know what, he says, they don’t do it right. His hands go into action as if on autopilot, he squeezes his imaginary rice, bracing his right middle finger on the bunched upstretched fingers of his left hand, leaving the right first finger floating to mold the rice with just the right pressure. Otherwise it’s uneven, he says. Too hard in the center.
You suck in air while biting the hot nikuman. You say they are too cheap; 250 yen for a huge and tasty homemade bun. No additives, says Shibata. We only put in things that are good to put in your body.
With long chopsticks she turns two sorts of o-yaki, one filled with nira garlic chives and egg, the other with negi leek and red pickled ginger. She continues calling to people passing by. Some young couples stop. In summer she will sell shaved ice.