City Walk – Mukojima
Sometimes I like to go on extensive wanderings around Tokyo, as much for the exercise as for the joy of discovering something new in this fantastic and rather huge city. Every month I try to devote a few days to wandering through new areas as well as a few days of rediscovering areas I already know, and I like to imagine that I keep track of the ups and downs of most districts and areas of Tokyo. When I first came to Tokyo, areas like Daikanyama had already peaked, Akihabara was in the ascendancy and Shimo Kitazawa was just at its peak of popularity, while other areas were ramping up for a major commercial reconstruction, like Roppongi in 2002 and Akasaka in 2008. Some areas grow quietly, under the radar, gathering popularity among a certain group of people slowly until it gets discovered by the majority and suddenly all sorts of new shops and cafes pop up, leading to the eventual rising of property prices and the driving out of the small entrepreneurs and small businesses that made the area popular in the first place. This is natural and a common feature in all cities around the world, the only difference being the way it is really sped up here in Tokyo! Whereas an area in London (like the Brick Lane for example) can grow, peak and decline slowly over two or three decades, some areas of Tokyo go from boom to fade out in a mere decade or even less. For a long time Kagurazaka went under the radar but the area peaked, in my opinion about last autumn. Other areas that have been slowly building momentum like Koenji might never really peak but keep on attracting interesting businesses and people, while others that peaked decades ago still retain a mystical image or glamour in the eyes of people, like Azabujuban. Other areas, sadly, can get overrun by real estate developers and hype, like Akihabara and the “Urahara” parts of Harajuku.
So imagine how please I was when I finally decided to declare, at least for myself and my friends that I had found an area not yet hyped and just about ready to start a slow ascent to popularity, the Mukojima distric of Sumida Ward in the eastern parts of central Tokyo! Mukojima has a long history. It started out as an island in the mighty Sumida river upon which the ruling Tokugawa shogunate had a large R&R estate hundreds of years ago. It was just on the opposite side of the river from the big Asakusa district, and people there would refer to the shogun’s estate area as “the island in the river over yonder”, 川の向こうの島, which became shortened in the 19th century to just Mukojima, 向島, and the popular name was adapted for the whole area when Tokyo changed to its present name from the ancient name of Edo. When you have on one side of the river an aristocratic area of temples and royal compounds, and on the other side of it a huge concentration of civil servants, soldiers and militia, you tend to get a certain concentration of entertainment, and Mukojima quickly became one of the major red light districts of Tokyo, with over 100 hundred officially licensed brothels and geisha houses. This lasted until a few years after the war when most of the brothels were closed up by the US military occupation government, not least to protect the occupying forces from spending too much time (and money) in the local houses of ill repute. If you have an older relative who served in the foreign military occupying Tokyo in 1945 and 1946 you should ask them about Mukojima! After closing the red light district the whole area declined slowly but steadily over the years, until now, when local artists, businessmen and restauranteurs have just rediscovered the old charm of the almost forgotten district, where some houses built in 1945 actually still remain standing!
I am willing to stake my reputation on this: Mukojima is an undiscovered gem of Tokyo and the area will become one of the coming boom towns of downtown Tokyo! Here’s a few photos I took while wandering around in Mukojima, in the area between the heart of the district and the giant Tokyo Sky Tree to the south. I will post more photos of houses, streets and details, but please enjoy these for a start. One very very old house (remember that there was absolutely nothing in this whole area after the bombing raids of 1945 that remained, not one single brick, it all had to be rebuilt as quickly as possible) is interesting not least because of the unusual location of the water tap. Can you spot it? Can you explain it? I have no idea why they decided to put it there!