The Meiji Milk Shop
A local gem disappears while its pieces survive to see another day
The Meiji Milk Shop at Azuma-Nishi occupied a prominent corner in Kyojima, a maze-like residential neighborhood on the east bank of Tokyo’s Sumida River, not far downstream from where it turns southward at Senju. Like innumerable other shops in 20th century Tokyo, it sat along a commercial street of one- and two-story shophouses that ran through a web of narrow alleys and wooden tenements. Its signboard facade extended ten meters high, with the name proudly displayed at the top in rounded characters carved in wood. For the local community, it was a part of the infrastructure of everyday life alongside other specialized shops selling tofu, sweets, fish, meat, rice, liquor, dashi, stationary, transistor radios and TVs.
The milk shop was built in 1960. Perhaps back then, customers dropped by in the early evening on their way home from a day’s work at one of the small factories nearby, or after an outing across the river to the department store in Asakusa. A young woman from the snowy mountains of Niigata who married into the family soon thereafter spent much of her time upstairs in the six-mat living room that overlooked the bustle below, with a scroll hung in the black-walled alcove and a window at the top of the stairs adorned with flirting songbirds. The elegant home was a mark of pride, and a step up from the family’s old living quarters in the smaller house across the alley, which they still used to store their wares and dispatch deliveries. A row of tall glass doors faced the street, flooding the white-tiled shop space in bright light. They sold their goods out of a walk-in cold room that was covered floor, ceiling and walls in small tiles, looking like a treasure vault for a commodity that was surely more precious in the days before rapid logistics and ubiquitous refrigeration. Children were constantly playing in the dirt alleyways; on a lucky day they might get to stop by the dagashi candy shop on the way to the local bathhouse.
I first saw the milk shop in April, when my Sento & Neighborhood colleagues and I went to visit Denki-yu, the bathhouse that our member Katsu runs down the street. It’s the sort of bath where the stools are always full of regulars chit-chatting while they wash, everyone seemingly familiar to everyone. Perhaps there’s a correlation between the frequency of bathhouse conversations and the narrowness of a neighborhood’s alleys. Kyojima has one of Tokyo’s densest webs of pathways among its wooden residences, where one is always brushing shoulders with others.
Katsu took us on a walk through the neighborhood while we waited for the baths to open at three. We enjoyed the Tokyo pastime of street observation as we walked, pointing out the jerry-rigged rooftop laundry platforms, the clever and mysterious ad-hoc adaptations to life in cramped alleyway quarters, and the exquisite lived-in-ness of some of the prewar tenement structures. The milk shop appeared at the end of a curvy lane that emptied onto the Main Street. It presented modestly towards the alleyway, notwithstanding the artistically crafted copper rain gutters. Then we walked around front to admire its tall cinderblock facade and signboard. “What a beauty!” Amid so much bricolage, built with expediency and utility in mind, here was a building that reflected the more aspirational and elegant side of Tokyo’s architectural vernacular.
The milk shop was no doubt part of Tokyo’s last generation of great shophouse architecture. It was built just a few years after the end of postwar material shortages, when high growth promised a brighter, richer future and a shopkeeper might spend a little extra on flourishes. More importantly, the skilled craftsman trained before the war were still active, and the widespread use of concrete, steel, and aluminum fittings was still a decade or so away.
A white demolition notice had been tacked to the side of the building. Katsu told us that a beloved sweets shop across the way was also in the process of closing down, soon to be destroyed by Sumida Ward to make way for a wider road, originally drawn up in 1946. Postwar planners wanted to rebuild the leveled city around a rational network of boulevards. Kyojima escaped the firebombing, but even in places that were a blank slate, the postwar city mostly reemerged along old lines before the administrators had a chance to muster their resources. Ever since, they’ve been trying to carve automotive routes through the unruly tangle of human-scale streets, even now when the city’s transit network is complete.
In Tokyo’s “wooden belt” of older residential neighborhoods that encircle the urban core, the construction of these wider roads lined by incombustible concrete structures is known as funenka jigyo, or “fireproofing projects.” Perhaps these efforts are necessary—I’m sure they appear so to the administrators who make estimates of the expected deaths-by-fire (around 16,000) the next time a big quake hits Tokyo. Yet to make a city impervious to flame, you must denude it of organic materials—a process that means tearing out the remaining threads of wood-and-paper buildings that once stitched together its organic social fabric along its old commercial streets.
Perhaps we might at least document the building before it’s gone. Katsu is a muscular guy with a teddy-bear smile and a bushy beard, unusually tall by Japanese standards and unusually young (27) by bathhouse proprietor standards. He quit a job at the UN to take over his family’s sento, feeling his energy was better turned towards local activism than intractable global problems. He slid open the residence door and called out into the house. A few moments later out came the young woman from Niigata, now an elderly grandmother, not more than five feet tall and slightly hunched, looking up with a quizzical expression at the group of young people gawking at her home. Katsu played his secret card, introducing himself as the owner of Denki-yu. “Ah, you’re the son of the bathhouse,” she nodded approvingly, relaxing her guard. The milk shop had long since ceased operation, but pain crossed the woman’s face when we asked about the demolition. “It’s such a shame...it’s really a wonderful house,” she lamented. “So well built. It came through the earthquake in 2011 just fine, save this little crack on the side.”
She agreed to let Katsu and my other colleagues visit again once the house had been cleaned up a bit to take architectural measurements and pictures, and search for clues about its history. At that point, she graciously invited us to take anything that we might be able to use before it was destroyed.
In late June, on the day before demolition was to begin, Katsu, a few neighborhood friends, and I show up with a small truck to see what we can save. Granny is puttering around with her daughter, sorting through what remains of a lifetime of accumulated things. They welcome us warmly. Stepping inside for the first time, I realize the house is a treasure trove of windows, doors, and fittings, many made from elegant cypress wood.
I quickly take stock: everything in remarkably good condition, and exactly the right size and number for replacing the damaged doors and windows at the nagaya restoration project we’re working on at Inari-yu. Japanese traditional architecture is all built according to standardized lengths, mostly multiples of the basic length of 303 mm known as a shaku, so fittings are largely interchangeable (a tatami mat is 3 x 6 shaku, and rooms are multiples of tatamis). I want to save everything, but we’ll need more tools. I make a run to the home center to buy a car jack and a sturdy pole, and some extra hammers and crowbars.
We start by slipping sliding doors out of their tracks, carrying them downstairs and loading them, wrapped in blankets, onto the flatbed of the truck. When its full, Katsu’s friends drive it down the street to a nearby nagaya space that they rent as a hangout. As we move around the second floor living room jiggling doors, Granny follows, eagerly pointing out the quirks she knows intimately. “You’ll never get this one out!” she says of one stubborn door. I saw my pole to the right length and use it with the car jack to lift the upper track and un-pinch the door. Granny is pleased that we are taking so much, but she runs her hand along the smooth, shiny surface of the columns. “It’s such a waste, it’s so well built. I wish you could take the columns as well.” She’s right—it could easily stand for another half-century or more.
The veranda doors and windows along the perimeter of the building are particularly stuck, and my measly two-tonne jack keeps buckling as I try to crank it up further. We try to jimmy the wheels off the rails with crowbars but can’t finesse it, worried that applying too much pressure will shatter the panes of glass. I need these doors—they’re perfect for the engawa we’re going to build. “Hold on, I’ll be back!” Granny says. She returns a few minutes later with a carpenter who looks to be around 80 and lives around the corner. He carries an ancient screw-style jack and a pole of his own. I defer to the elder. He takes his crowbar and pries about twice as hard as I had dared. Clearly, he knows how much a window can handle. The doors are freed. We all move around the rest of the second floor, a couple of youngins and a pair of septuagenarians, and pop another six windows out of their frames.
Next, we go downstairs and remove the tall doors and windows in the facade. I get greedy and want to wrestle out the enormous four meter-long beam above the doors. I am able to cut it from the wall on one side, but it is suspended from the ceiling in the middle by a vertical post that is slotted into the beam and held in place with a wooden pin. I’m up on the top of a step ladder hammering away at it and quickly losing steam. The elderly carpenter asks me to move aside. Terrified, I shimmy into position behind to catch him if he falls. He’s a stubborn guy, and we take turns attacking the pin for twenty minutes before it finally comes loose and we can call it a day as the sky starts to dim. We stand around outside, basking in the white glow of the store on its final night as purple lights orbit around the Tokyo SkyTree to the south. The two old people stand together, perhaps thinking back on the neighborhood that once was, until more timely concerns come to mind. “You get your jab yet?” Granny asks.
The next day, Katsu and I return when the demolition crew arrives soon after 8 AM. The supervisor had agreed in advance to let us salvage what we could. The two grizzled guys actually tasked with bringing the building down appear to be around 50 and approach their work with brutal efficiency. In short order, the cozy house of yesterday becomes a danger zone, as swings of crowbars bring shelves crashing down and a mountain of debris begins to grow at the center of the kitchen floor. A lot of demolition work in Tokyo is now handled by immigrants, often Kurds, but these guys are old-school tobi, the nimble men who scramble up scaffoldings and were admired in Edo as one of the three proudest trades, along with carpenters and plasterers. These two wear the baggy-legged pants synched at the ankle, and don’t engage in superfluous chit chat. They look askance upon the day’s interlopers, me in jeans and a t-shirt, and Katsu in shorts and looking ready for summer vacation. We start working upstairs, where we pry loose the floorboards and cut out the top and bottom tracks for the sliding doors, causing the dirt walls to crumble. We do our best to tread carefully as we ferry things downstairs; I apologize to the guys when I climb across their debris hill to snatch a few windows out of the back of the kitchen.
Tokyo in late June feels like a mushi-buro steam bath, and we down bottles of sports drink that sweat straight through our clothes. We make a mid-day run with the truck to the storage space, the long beam from above the facade doors battened down over the cabin. We’re running on full adrenaline. By mid-afternoon, the demolition crew moves to the second floor and starts tossing things from the veranda directly into the bed of their truck. Doors, books, chests, and houseplants pile up in a macabre display of beauty being reduced to rubble. As we stand outside, Katsu spots a small potted ginkgo tree minding its business on the corner of the balcony as the ruckus moves closer. When another pot comes crashing down with a shatter, he dashes inside like a man trying to save a baby from approaching flames, reemerging a few moments later and setting the tree down on the asphalt outside. Granny soon appears from the next-door house where she’s moved. “Ah, this one,” she says, crouching down. “It’s been here for about 70 years. Turns a loverly color in the autumn. Just keep it outside and it’ll do fine without watering.” Seventy years! Nearly snuffed out along with everything else in the maw of the truck.
By mid-afternoon, the window of opportunity is closing. The crew will wrap up by early evening and I’ll need to return our little truck. I try in vain to save a few of the tiles in the storefront hand-painted with the characters for Meiji Milk, and the dour supervisor frowns upon my request to salvage the final floorboards from the second floor. You win some and lose some, but I had grown attached, and it’s hard to let go. I went back the next two days with my tools in my backpack and loitered outside at the end of the workday just to see if he might have a change of heart. In the end, we settle for saving the last sliding door tracks and furniture on the first floor. Just as I am cutting out the frame from above the residence door, Granny emerges again from the door across the alley. She watches for ten seconds as the saw whines and another piece of her beloved home crashes to the ground. I look at her, and she lets out a hearty laugh. “You’re taking everything!” she chirps.
The demo guys had started to warm up after they saw that we weren’t complete bumbling idiots. One of the them watches as I use my multitool to make an incision into the side of a door track. “You don’t need that! Just see which way the groove is pointing,” he points to the slotted sockets of the frame, “and smack it from the other side with a hammer!” I move onto another one and start hitting the side with my hammer. It hardly budges. “My god, this is pathetic!” says my unforgiving sensei, “give me the damn hammer and I’ll show you how its done.” He starts walloping the frame, enough to make the tiles on the wall below crumble into a pile on the floor, and after ten whacks or so the track pops out. The apprentice bows in reverence. “Where ya from?” he finally asks, and we talk a bit about America. Tomorrow they’ll start putting up the scaffolding so they can take down the roof tiles, and next week the heavy equipment comes and it’ll be history. “You should come check it out, that part’s fun,” my teacher says. As they start tidying up for the day, we drive the last pieces over to the nagaya for storage, and take in our haul. About 20 sliding doors, 20 windows, dozens of tracks, furniture, and many little pieces of mid-century Tokyo life. The spirit of the milk shop will live on in our new community space.
As the day comes to an end, Katsu and I want to give the guys something as thanks for putting up with us. We head over to the 7/11 to grab some cans of Boss coffee, the go-to palm grease on Japanese construction sites. Then I realize there’s a much better option. Katsu runs back to Denki-yu to grab a basket of the signature bathhouse beverage instead. What could be a more fitting drink to bid adieu to this place than some bottles of Meiji milk?
Glad I finally sent this story (written in September) out. The fittings are now being installed at Inari-yu, and those songbird windows have a new home in Onomichi. I’ve been busy and burnt out with non-stop construction and work since November and kind of hit a low point this month. But I hope to start writing again soon. Until then!