TOPCommunityTW CreativesBon Voyage Tokyo: Episode 2 – Shitamachi and Tofu Blocks

Bon Voyage Tokyo: Episode 2 – Shitamachi and Tofu Blocks

No tofu, no life

By Jean Freund

TW is collaborating with Tokyo-based illustrator Jean Freund for a limited series, ‘Bon Voyage Tokyo’. Every Monday from April 5, Freund will write about his experience as he develops and draws for his new book Bon Voyage Tokyo, a sister publication to Bon Voyage Japan focusing on the uniqueness of the Japanese capital. Expect weekly giveaways, including chances to contribute to the book yourself. Readers can also back the project over on Kickstarter until May 16.

Past episodes:

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I love Tokyo’s shitamachi. They are old but they have lot of charm. The remaining constructions from the Taisho and Showa eras have this authentic feel, a true identity. Some are entirely made of wood, others use greenish copper materials. Some have stone storefronts with parapets on top. They look true to me, not like modern constructions where design is often completely left behind. It’s true some buildings are quite old. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to be living there in winter or when the next big earthquake hits. 

I feel inspired again. Perfect for my book. I remember that my mission is to meet Ikeda-san, a super-experienced tofu master. Noriki from Nantoka Shotengai thought she could be a good fit for my project.

So here I am. Her shop looks quite nice but it’s nothing compared to the huge temple next to it. The shape of the roof, wooden beams; I am overwhelmed by the quality of the architecture. I draw a few sketches and write down notes for later (when you draw architecture the key is to understand how it actually works). 

But let’s forget about the temple, it’s tofu time.

I get in and there she is. She stands in front of me, already bowing  90 degrees. 90 degrees? That’s more than polite, I usually go for 45. I return a 91-degree bow, she’s a sempai after all and I must show some respect. We stay like this for a moment until she yells at me.

“So what do you want anyway? I’m busy!”

As she moves towards her tofu machine, I realize she actually lives on this 90-degree angle. She’s old, so old. She seems fit for the job though; she knows what she’s doing.

“Noriki from the ramen shop sent me”, I say. “I’m an artist and I want to draw the everyday Tokyo and meet the locals. I’m making a book about it. What is your relation with tofu?” I venture to ask.

She turns to me and suddenly straightens up. Looking me in the eye and says: “Tofu is my life and my life is tofu. I eat it plain, with soy sauce, with ginger; grilled, hot, cold. The smell, the shape, the color, it’s a gift from mother nature. My father was a tofu man, my grandmother was a tofu woman, my great-grandmother and I will be too until I die! Did you know that before its great transformation into this delicious white form, tofu his actually a soybean that we eat as edamame? We also turn that into soy sauce. We make inari sushi and kitsune udon with it. We have shrines for it. Do you not know the extent of its power?!” she yells.

I feel like a young padawan lectured by old Master Yoda. Ikeda-san is obviously following the Way of Tofu. The Tofu Do, I guess you could say. I wonder if she has a huge tattoo of a tofu block on her back like yakuza have koi fish and dragons. 

“What else do you do, in your free time?”

“Free time?!” she shouts. “There is no free time, holidays or anything in this business! I’m not like my son, who quit many years ago to become a salaryman. He takes six days off per year, how lazy!”

“A salaryman? Here, in the shitamachi?” I ask.

“He’s been in the business district for a long time, with all the skyscrapers. It’s new and shiny, probably trendy. Nothing like this shitamachi. If you want to see a different Tokyo, that’s where you should go. I don’t have time for you anyway.”

“Here, say I sent you and bring him some fresh tofu,” she hands me his business card.

Teppei Ikeda is his name. He works for a soy ink company.

Weekly Giveaway: Special Draw-With-Me on Instagram

Freund will be taking over the TW Instagram account this week. Participate in polls and pitch your ideas for a unique illustration that will be featured in the book. Don’t follow us yet? Check our page here and keep your eyes peeled!


Support Freund’s new project on Kickstarter here. Also join him at a special 2-day exhibition near Mejiro Station this weekend.