Oh look fancy that, it was made in 1953, the year I was born, says Toshio Nagai, holding up the DVD box for Gate of Hell. This won Academy Awards you know, he says, putting it down again.
It’s not the film you want, but there is plenty more at J-Price, Nagai’s discount kiosk. Not that Nagai is much help looking; he admits he doesn’t particularly like movies, despite having bulging shelves of DVDs and homewares spread into the arcade off the Ginza line platform.
What sells best? Cheap things! he answers. Doesn’t really matter what. He has padlocks, scissors, cleaning goods, dummy security cameras. The adult film corner offers Too Much Punishment Part 2, and Trample Insanity. The internet is cheaper, he concedes. How does he survive against the spread of 100-yen shops? Not a problem! he says. No competition around here. It’s still quite a walk to bargain stores Don Quijote or Daiso at Rox.
The Asakusa ekichika arcade is one of Japan’s oldest. There are bars, a coffee shop, an antique coin dealer, a Thai and a Vietnamese restaurant. There’s a cheap barber, two remedial massage clinics and a fortune teller. Plus fried noodles at Fukuchan, which dates back to Tokyo’s first Olympics.
You worry they might all be thrown out as the city purges so much of its history before the next Games. Nagai scoffs. Not a chance! The developers realise they can’t make money off the space above us, because it’s all roads and you can’t put a building there. We’ll be ok maybe another 10, 20 — or maybe 30 years! he says.
You don’t feel so confident. Corrugated plastic and disposable umbrellas patch leaks in the ceiling and walls. There’s a sour aroma from years of busted pipes. Across the way, Fukuchan says the ownership structure of the warren makes it impossible for anyone to take over. But you can picture the authorities, in their zeal to clean up, making some health or safety excuse to shut the place down.
Nagai has been here 13 years. It used to be a shoe store. He leads you outside and points at the old sign. Can you remember when our phone numbers had no “3” in front? he says.
J-Price opens roughly noon to 10 pm; sometimes Nagai opens later, closes earlier. Whatever I feel like, he says. You say, It’s good being your own boss. He says cheerfully, The customer is my boss. But no one really comes here especially.