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One-of-a-kind dolls in a one-of-a-kind shop

STORY & PHOTOGRAPHS by Carina Woudenberg

He’s been a San Francisco resident for more than 30 years, but Jiro Nakamura still makes a yearly trek home to Japan to search for treasures for his shop on Fillmore Street.

The treasures include dolls — crafted hundreds of years earlier in many cases — and puppets, tea ceremony gear and kimonos fit for all occasions. They are offered at Narumi, a tiny shop at 1902 Fillmore that Nakamura named for a bakery his parents started in Japan.

He says he prefers antique Japanese dolls because they contain far more detail, especially in the hands and faces. “In old times, they had more time to make each piece,” Nakamura says.

Shortly after settling into the city decades ago, Nakamura, now 61, studied fine art at San Francisco’s Academy of Art.

Previously home to a furniture store and a record shop, the space on Fillmore was transformed when Nakamura took it over in 1981 and gave it his own flair. He painted the portrait of the elegant Japanese woman who stands in the front entrance. He sews the decorative obi fabric constructions used as wall art and in some of his displays. And he makes the stained glass creations that playfully reflect the light in the shop’s front window.

“I wanted to put something I made in my store,” he says.

In addition, Nakamura also cleans and makes any necessary repairs on the dolls he sells and — when he’s not in the shop — leads classes in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony from his home a few blocks away.

Three nights a week a small group of students take part in an elaborate three-hour lesson in how to prepare both the thick and thin Matcha tea traditionally used in the ceremony.

Students also learn how to make flower arrangements, to put the required utensils together properly and to perform all the cere-monial rituals.

Jay Cowan and Kotaro Sugimoto, owners of Kohshi, a shop specializing in aromatherapy and essential oils in Japantown, are both Nakamura’s students. Cowan says it was curiosity and appreciation for the culture that brought him to the tea ceremony classes. “I’ve been to Asia many times, but never got the chance to involve myself in the tea ceremonies,” he says.

As a former member of the military, Cowan says he appreciates the structure as well as the beauty in the event. “Like military marching, there’s a right way to do it,” Cowan says. “When the teacher shows the right way to do it — oh, that is so cool. And when you get the right Matcha tea, your senses really prick up.”

Nakamura gets the tea, and the sweets served with it, from Japan.

Sugimoto also looks forward to the one or two nights he spends at Nakamura’s tea ceremonies each week. Having studied with Nakamura for four years, he often helps assist the newer students, yet he says he still learns from the process himself.

Sugimoto and Cowan say their teacher’s home resembles his store, with Japanese antiques sprinkled throughout.

It can be hard to part with some of the great things he finds, Nakamura admits, especially since Japan is running out of its greatest gems. “So much went all over the world,” Nakamura says.

The same is true in the neighborhood, Nakamura says. He has watched as Japanese-owned businesses have disappeared from the neighborhood over the years as their owners retire. Where there was once a fish market, a bakery, a butcher shop and a sushi to-go restaurant, among others, now it’s just him and his antiques.