&: Chukadon

It’s a sign of confidence that this bowl does not reveal to quick inspection that it contains half of a hardboiled egg and a slice of exquisitely soft chashu. There are only vegetables, glowing with the perfect amount of potato starch. It was good. It was surprisingly good.

I haven't eaten chukadon for years. The last time was when I still had a job and it would appear sometimes in the company cafeteria. It was fancier but less colorful. It didn't have a hidden slice of chashu, either.

It is said that chukadon was invented not too far from where I’m writing this. It was created at a shop in Asakusa that is more famous for a style of soy sauce ramen. It was probably in the Taisho or early Showa. I'm sure the shop where I ate this chukadon has its fair share of obscure innovations attributed to it. Most Chinese restaurants in the area do.

The shop where I ate that chukadon is not far from Yanaka Ginza, a shopping street in the Yanesen neighborhood that is famous for its attractive gentrification. There are no kissaten left there, as far as I can tell, but mostly shops selling tat and cat-related pastries. The last bath house was turned into an art gallery. It’s nice to walk through, though.

Yanaka Ginza’s gentrification should have been visited on many other traditional arcades around East Tokyo. It could have saved Irohakai, which, when every vital store had closed, had its roof ripped off and cars run through it. The bath house on Joyful Minowa is still operating, but it’s more likely to be turned into an apartment block or a Maruetsu Petit than an art gallery.

The Chinese restaurant where I ate my chukadon is closer to Yanaka Cemetery than the shopping street. When I ate there on a quiet weekday, there were three other customers. They ordered ramen. The TV was playing the noon singing competition (I don’t know the name of it, but it’s the one where amateur singers get the chance to perform for a minute or so, then have their performance judged, with a sequence of bells letting them know their score). The married couple that run it are elderly. The shop will likely close soon after one of them passes away or becomes unable to work. It’s like many businesses in East Tokyo.

The indigenization of Chinese cuisine in Japan is interesting, although I have nothing original to say about it. Chukadon is not a foreign food, exactly, even though it was invented at a shop run by people originally from Guangdong. Nobody would say that chukadon was Chinese. But, then again, nobody would say chop suey was Chinese, would they? They were probably both invented by people from Taishan, if I had to bet money on it. But, like I said, I have nothing interesting to say about this. It is worth mentioning that unlike the chop suey Chinese shops I grew up, the people running a restaurant selling chukadon are very unlikely to be ethnically Chinese—and if they are, their connections to the Motherland are limited. The same is true here. The couple running it are both originally from the Northeast. They both came to Tokyo in the 1960s.

I left the restaurant and walked back home through Uguisudani (I believe the bridge from Ueno Sakuragi to Negishi and Uguisudani is called Kaneiji Rikkyo Bridge, if you want to be specific).

Like all red light districts in Japan, wherever you go, Uguisudani is home to a few great Chinese restaurants. Here, unlike the one where I ate my chukadon, they are run by people from the Motherland, usually with a menu—except for the lunch specials—only in Chinese. They reflect the backgrounds of the Chinese women that work in the sex industry.

In Uguisudani, there is a shop that sells daroumian. I was too full to eat there, but I detoured out of my way to walk by and make sure that it was still in business.

I noticed that a Vietnamese grocery store had opened up nearby.


&: Takashimaya

I used to buy magazines from Players Newsstand on Main Street. It was a small, narrow shop beside the abandoned facade of Heasman's Furs. The building is still there, one of the holdouts of the early twentieth century building boom not yet taken by wrecking ball or fire, but that corner—Heaseman’s and Players—has been taken over by a permanent makeup clinic, an immigration consultant, and a retirement planner. If you turned right on Fairford, at City Hall, you'd pass a bunkerlike sewing machine service shop before arriving at the offices of the Times-Herald. Some of these details are unimportant; I’m setting the scene. This is the place where I would play at being an adult. I would buy magazines from Players Newsstand and then walk down Main Street to the National, sit at the counter, order an iced tea and a French fries, and flip through the pages. I was trying to reenact Gary Hyland poems. But by that time, it was only theater. Players didn’t last much past that point in time; the National held on but under new ownership and most of the block around it was destroyed in a fire; most of the old buildings on and off Main got pulled down; Gary Hyland died and no new poets had been born; Main Street was mostly forgotten when the Walmart went in on the edge of town; and I moved away.

This is a short essay about my love for Takashimaya. I am referring to the store in Nihonbashi. I have been to other locations, but the Nihonbashi store is the one that is important to me. And I am talking only about its main building, not the annex or side buildings.

Unlike Mitsukoshi, it’s not grand enough to be intimidating. Unlike Shibuya Parco or Laforet Harajuku, it’s not cool enough to be intimidating.

It was built in the 1930s, making it younger than most of those brick fortresses on my adolescent Main Street; it feels older.

I’ve often tried to put into words the appeal of living in the past in Tokyo. I live in a venerable shitamachi neighborhood with temples and parks and rows of nagaya, but that’s not what I mean, really. I mean: you can live as if it’s 1982. You can feel the end of things, but they’re still hanging on. You know that Takashimaya’s elevator attendants are maintained for nostalgia or the comfort of the elderly women spending Bubble Era pensions or because of the Japanese insistence on not changing anything, but they remain, nevertheless, without feeling like mere curiosity or tourist attraction. I mean: there are people in this city making a living as elevator attendants. There are other people still earning a living in Takashimaya as cobblers and seamstresses and as white-gloved, pillbox hatted desk attendants…

The bursting of the asset price bubble has kept rent low enough that I can earn a living as a freelance writer and translator, and still within a few subway stops of luxury department stores, which I can occasionally make purchases at. It’s still 1982.

Takashimaya feels like a relic and it feels like it will be gone someday or taken over completely by multinational chains, but it’s still there.

I set the scene above to say this: I have always wanted to live in the past, but not the distant past. I am happy to pretend it’s 1982.

The ground floor and the basement of Takashimaya are the best places to watch people. The ground floor feels a bit like a market hall, with stalls set up throughout, then a few anchor stores on the margins, like Hermès and Goyard. The basement sells food. Again, it’s a bit like a market stall. It connects onto the Hibiya Metro. (There’s a word in Japanese for department store basements, I could report to you: depachika. But it just means “department store basement,” which you can say in English, too, even if it’s broken up by spaces. I like the sound of it, though. And it doesn’t mean “department store basement” except in the most literal way, but rather a gourmet food hall. It’s the place to buy ninety dollar melons and find the satellite shop of an ancient Kyoto katsuobushi dealer or a fancy Alsatian bakery…) (I am describing the place without the presence of shoppers from China and Southeast Asia. That’s how it’s been for almost two years now.)

These are spaces almost exclusively occupied by women. Women shop there and women work there. The women that shop there are older; the women that work at older, stuffier shops like Goyard, or local shops are slightly younger than them; the women that work at shops for fashionable new brands are young. Men are found only on the fifth floor, where men’s wear is sold, or perhaps selling furniture on the seventh floor.

Takashimaya is a place for women. It’s a place where mostly women work, selling things mostly to women. I like that about it. It’s an escape. I spent most of my life in places where women were unwelcome. For most of my life, I worked construction or in slaughterhouses or warehouses. I like the company of women.

Takashimaya feels like it’s part of the cities I dreamed about, reading books as a kid. It’s a place where you can see the wealthy and know that they live a short distance from where you live and might buy their bread in the same basement bakery. They are wealthy and their lives might be glamorous, but they still live in apartments that are too small and that might occasionally be invaded by rats. I can tell you, when I was a boy, I heard stories about the richest man in my town. He owned a car dealership and had let his wife open a coffee shop on Main Street in an old bank. He lived in a gaudy house in a subdivision on the edge of town. I never met him. His name never made the newspaper—and eventually there was no newspaper because it was traded between multinational conglomerates and shut down because it made no money.

In the real world, men with undergraduate degrees and a good haircut can't hope to work for the same company their entire lives. There are still a few here. There are still men here with briefcases. This is all hanging by a thread.

It’s romantic. I appreciate the way that Takashimaya lets me believe in the romance. All of this is fake, of course.

By holding on to 1982 or whatever year in the past, Takashimaya necessarily recreates a more egalitarian way of life. Tokyo is still a more egalitarian place than my post-industrial adolescent Main Street, but Takashimaya looks further back.

I went there this afternoon and stopped to look at a pair of women's shoes. The shoes cost several thousand dollars. The odds that I will buy them are very low. There are reasons for that, other than that price. The woman working at the shop told me to take a seat. She began asking me questions about the woman that I would be buying them for. When I said that I liked the color but that I was put off by the bow on the toe, she brought out a catalogue for the next season, offered her card, and tried to arrange a time for me to come back when the shoes arrived.

I’m a rube, I already told you. I fall for the romance. I like the theater.

I like the women that work at department stores. It’s one of those occupations like hotel housekeeping or running food where the esteem they’re held in is nowhere near equal to the dedication and knowledge they—at certain levels— require. But there’s a certain glamor to it, which those jobs don’t have. You are hired because you are beautiful and exemplify some vague idea of the brand. And if you work at *****, you get to wear ***** loafers.

There’s an interesting phenomenon in Japan where women working at clothing stores become celebrities. I think this comes from gyaru magazines like egg profiling them, then Shibuya 109 shop blogs. None of the Takashimaya shop women are featured on blogs, though, as far as I know. They exude professionalism *** ****** **********. The ******* ***** **** ** *** *** ****** counter. They ****** **** ****, slightly intimidating, and with ****** **** *** ***.

Here, again, it’s a bit of that 1982, as well—people working in retail as a viable career, probably decently compensated! Maybe that’s not true anymore, or it’s probably true for comparatively few people working in retail…

I like spending money, too. I like dreaming about spending money. Takashimaya is a good place to do that. I bought ** ******** * ***** *** **** ******* ** ******* **** ****** ****. It makes me **** ******. I remember the day I *** * *** ***** ** ** **** You can see Takashimaya in this picture. There’s the glass roof over the avenue between the main building and annex. ****** *** * **** **** * ***, *** *** * ***** **** ***** **** **** **** *** ** ******** ******. I like the idea of ******* ** ********* * **** ** ***** just so I can **** *** while *** ****** *****. I never had any money growing up and I never had any savings. I still **** **** ****** *** ** **** *** * **** ****** to be stupid. That’s fantasy, too. That’s theater.

I like looking at what Takashimaya sells, even when I don't buy it. I never went to an art museum before I was in my twenties, but I'm not intimidated by retail. I can understand retail. I like window shopping.

You can see Takashimaya in this picture. There’s the glass roof over the avenue between the main building and annex. Find the sign that says Concept LABI TOKYO and go up from there.

Takashimaya is in Yaesu. That's something else I like about it. It's not in Shinjuku or Shibuya or Ikebukuro. I usually take the Hibiya Metro to get to Yaesu, but once a month or so I work from *** ********** ***** or I take ** **** ***** ** **** *** ** nice sheets. I like the way Takashimaya sits in Yaesu, which is a bit like sleazy commuter hubs in any part of the city. It’s surrounded by office buildings. I like the way it looks at night. It reminds me to spend ** ***** ** * ******* ******* ****** *** ** **** ******* ** * ******* *******. I like the way it looks on a rainy night.