Went to an exhibition in some abandoned nagaya houses on this rainy day in Sumida Ward, came across this dog-legged lane, a jumble of corrugated tin-clad factories merging with clapboard houses and some piles of stuff. As with many districts where people make things, there seems to be no council zoning. The neighbourhood feels as if it regulates itself. Everything is built for use and not decoration. People’s lives and work blend into one.
You can hear a hiss and thumping sound, a heavy press, maybe a machine punching out metal parts. Could be from the low-roofed building with a bulging cement wall that looks ready to collapse, behind a stack of spare tyres under plastic sheets. Wherever it is, this massive, lubricated machine is driving a piston down, hitting its object with a deep subsonic thud, followed by a light clink of the part separating, then whooshing down again.
A man emerges from the workshop with the bulging wall. Dressed in gumboots, a beanie and parka, he stops on the muddy path and squints at me. He doesn’t speak. I’m not sure if I’m welcome to stand around here, behind the houses. I say hello. He says, You want to take a look in my factory?
Masahiro Takagaki is disarmingly unself-conscious. He shows me in, clearing a space for us to stand. On one hand the place is a mess. On the other, it is rich with dark colours, warm with the smell of oil, soft despite the harsh fluorescent light, and overflowing with a seeping, lived-in spirit. So complete are all the elements here that it seems almost irrelevant to ask about them. Just soak it all in.
Not much could have changed here since Takagaki installed his cast-iron presses 50 years ago. Except the wall that seems ready to collapse. But the whole building will soon be torn down, like the nagaya. Takagaki is being forced to move. He says he can go across the street.
He shows off the metal parts he is making. Small brass hinges that open only to 90 degrees. He says, You know the bunka-sho, national cultural awards. The ones the Emperor gives out? Well, these are the hinges for the boxes.
The front door opens and another man enters, dressed as if for a polar expedition in a puffy jacket and rainproof pants. He nods toward us. Takagaki says, He’s my friend.
How do you do, says the friend in an exaggerated English accent, and then heads directly to a chair on the other side of the doorway, in front of a big-screen TV showing motorboat racing. He picks up a betting guide and studies it. Shortly he declares loudly, again in careful English and to no one in particular, This is a pen.
Takagaki says he lives a few doors up and this is just his factory. But it seems he spends a lot of time here. It’s a boys’ shed.
Takagaki says he lives a few doors up and this is just his factory. But it seems he spends a lot of time here. It’s a sort of den. A hideout. A boys’ shed. It’s starting, he says. We watch as the midget single-driver boats careen around an imaginary corner on the water, as if on rails. Takagaki mutters at the TV, No good! no good!
After the race he looks at me and shrugs, as if it didn’t mean anything. I ask, Do you ever win much. We only do this for fun, he says. It’s our hobby.
I figure I’ve taken enough of his time. He gives me a card with his name on it, and asks me to write mine with my country. He says, I’ve had all sorts of people through here. Taiwanese, Chinese, Europeans. He seems to know the strange spell his place casts. Why else invite people in? He doesn’t seem concerned about moving. Perhaps he’s going somewhere better. I wonder if he actually needs to work. He says, Come visit me anytime. I’ll be here another month, maybe.