Oh lordy. My old neighborhood is now a hipster place. It’s turning up on lists of cool neighborhoods or hidden gems or ”places to discover.”
I moved to Kōenji in 1983. I would take the Chuo Line from Shinjuku Station and it took about fifteen minutes. You’d get off the train and have a choice between the minami and kita exits. Mine was the south exit. From there I’d walk ten minutes or so through an old shōtengai. I loved that walk. It’s worth saying that the shōtengai extended all the way to a subway station of the same name. And there was another shōtengai on the north side. If you like shōtengai, you were all set.
As I would walk home, I’d see a futon store to my right where I’d often browse looking for new covers for my zabuton. Next to that store and on the second floor was a restaurant that served fried rice with an ebi furai on top of it and a dab of curry. It’s a great combination that I’ve rarely seen elsewhere.
On the right side I’d pass a few pharmacies and small grocers. Eventually I’d pass a kōen on the right that was featured in the novel 1Q84 by Murakami Haruki. It’s always a quiet thrill when you unexpectedly encounter a place you know in a shōsetsu.
From there, things got seedier. Kōenji, for some reason, was where many bar hostesses and other creatures of the night chose to live. There were a few jazz coffee shops, and some good oden spots. But what really proved to me that this was indeed the home of the tattered butterflies of the night was the public bath. And it was simple. Unlike any other public bath I’d been to, this one stayed open until 1 AM. Every other bath I’d ever been to—be it in Kyoto or Tokyo—closed at 11 PM.
I’d sometimes go right before closing and join the raucous group of women hanging out there. I never really chatted with them. I usually came with the guy I’d end up marrying and I didn’t linger or try to make friends. We’d meet outside after bathing on our respective sides of the bath and then go eat some oden.
Checking the internet now, I see that our bath had been around since 1929! I’m very happy to see it is still open and still open until 1 AM. I guess there are still some things that do not change!
- minami – 南 south
- kita – 北 north
- shōtengai – 商店街 shopping street
- zabuton – 座布団 floor cushion
- ebi furai – エビフライ fried shrimp
- kōen – 公園 park (the kind children play at)
- shōsetsu – 小説 novel
- oden – おでん a type of food that is sold by street venders and in bars (it practically cries out for beer) and now in 7-11 and other stores. It has an unmistakable smell to it due to the fish products it uses. A lot of non-Japanese fail to see the charm of it. But in the winter, before many homes had heat, it was a great way to warm up before returning to a stone cold room.