Since emigrating to Japan I have learned to love the humble Japanese convenience store. These little beacons of light and civilization are everywhere in Japan, from the loneliest Okinawan island to the busiest Tokyo high rise. You can book tickets, pay bills, do your banking, pick up and send packages, buy cell phones, get your beer, order food, buy ready made lunch boxes or lottery tickets or just browse the huge numbers of magazines. Sometimes you can even borrow their restrooms. Some convenience stores have a seating area with free hot water pots. They are open 24 hours a day, usually never close and the staff is amazingly service minded. During the trouble up north in March and Aril 2011 the convenience stores were a lifeline: they had the most advanced distribution network in the country, a perfectly streamlined inventory system and were able to get fresh food into the damaged areas before anyone else. Over a thousand convenience stores had to close due to the earthquake and Seven-Eleven alone saw 41 factories unable to operate. But they had 128 others spread out around the country that could pick up and keep supplies and food streaming into the damaged areas. For me the convenience stores of Japan are heroes, and I have quite a collection of these kind of “portraits” of lonely convenience stores at dusk or sunset.
I took the photos of a Lawson and Three-F store just next to Yuighama beach in Kamakura City, south of Tokyo.
Yesterday I posted about the old Masneibashi station, as it looked about 7 months ago. Today the station platform, the old surviving hulk of a brick building sitting in the middle of some very nice real estate in Tokyo, looks quite different. I visited a few weeks after opening to check it out and I must say that I like what they have done with it. While a lot of it has been gutted out and renovated with chic stores, cafes and galleries, they have also kept surprisingly much of the original grime and gore of the old station platform, including the red brick exterior, pockmarked from fire damage, bomb shrapnel and almost a century of pollution. The stairwells leading up the old platform are left almost as they were found, without any of the retro upgrade you often find in this kind of reconstruction, complete with mildew damage, leaking pipes and even some very old signage. Although it is winter now, I can imagine the outside boardwalk becoming very popular in the spring. Perhaps the influence of the masses of young shoppers will push the owners of the property on the other side of the river bank to do something to revitalize their buildings as well.
Although the new Manseibashi Station is suffering from the same “lack of place” that drove the old station to extinction, stuck as it is between Ochanomizu, Kanda and Akihabara stations, I have a feeling it will do well. Even if you are not into shopping, there is a great “mini-museum” with a model of the old station and the surrounding area, as well as art and books associated with trains, Tokyo during the first half of the last century and art of the period. Of course the real treat of the place is the platform top, but that will be the subject of another blog post this week. This one is already too long with 22 photos!
Having been cancelled due to the 3/11 earthquake, the Omotesando Illuminations are back in force this year. All of the famous zelkova trees on Omotesando boulevard has been wrapped in lights. At night the whole place is lit up and to avoid dangerous crowds forming on the pedestrian overpasses these have been shut off for public use. I still managed to sneak a few photos at the street crossing despite the guards urging crowds not to stop for too long and hold up traffic. The illuminations are scheduled to last until January 5th, and is lit until 2100 every night (with an exception off the 21st to 25th when it stays on until 2200).
Omotesando is not only flagship stores but also the home for several very high end shopping “clusters”, like the Omotesando Hills, that flaunted building rules by digging down instead of building up. There are more sub-floors than top floors and it is a must for people interested in modern architecture. As you can see though, the building doesn’t look like much from the outside. I don’t blog about it because photography is not allowed inside (for some reason). For kids (with well off parents) or people who still like to see fun/cool/strange/high end toys, the famous Kiddyland store is a must. It celebrates 60 years in business this year! Very close to Kiddyland is one of the few stores that virtually everyone I know visit at least once, Oriental Bazaar. It has a huge range of fake-traditional to genuinely traditional craft, art and souvenirs, and the prices are about as fair as anywhere in Japan. It has everything from the tackiest plastic samurai swords for kids to real antique kimono. A lot of people I know go there once, to check out the souvenirs and get an idea of prices, and then again before they go home to fill up on any gifts and souvenirs they missed (and I missed getting a photo of the place). You can miss Kiddyland and Oriental Bazaar as they are pretty close, on the right hand side if you come from Harajuku station and walk towards Omotesando street crossing. Omotesando Hills is on the opposite side.
For touristy eating there is also the rather good (for a conveyor belt sushi restaurant) Heiroku Sushi (the photos on their site are old, it looks much better these days). They have proper English menu and a huge variety of sushi, fish and otherwise: a great place to challenge your conceptions about raw food. If you are more into burger chains Wendy’s also has a nice shop just off Omotesando street just near the Sushi place, it is a little tricky to find. Of course there are hundreds of other restaurants, but for the casual tourist with not too much time or money on hand these might be a good start.
Apart from Omotesando Hills there is also the newish Tokyu Plaza, or the Omahara Plaza as some cool cats say (Omotsando + Harajuku = Omahara) with some very peculiar architecture, especially at the entrance. This place is more like a proper department store, with lots of different shops and restaurants, including off course a more stylish mini-Tokyu Hands. Also good for souvenirs.
Few areas of Tokyo are as famous as Omotesando, the 1100m long street leading up to the huge Meiji Grand Shrine. Officially Omotesando street is known as Route 413 but in common use the name refers to the street and the immediate surroundings. The Omotesando Boulevad begins in Minato Ward but ends in Shibuya Ward. Since Omotesando is quite possibly the most fashionable address in Japan shops will use the name even if they are not on the street itself. The street is home to several high brand flagship stores and to have a shop on Omotesando is generally regarded as the ultimate in the Asian fashion world. Naturally, the rents here are astronomical.
In a country of ancients Omotesando itself is a mere baby, having been inaugurated in 1919 together with the Meiji Grand Shrine. The boulevard is lined by zelkova trees, 163 of them, all but 11 of which were planted in 1950 to replace the ones that perished in the American air raids 1944-1945. The prewar trees are marked out with special plaques if you are interested in some serious tree spotting (look for them near Omotesando Hills)! The alignment of the street is calculated to correspond perfectly with the winter solstice. On that morning, the sun will rise exactly above the street. Up until 2003 there were also a few buildings left from the first western style public housing project in Japan, the Dojunkai council houses. Most of them survived the war but very little remain today. I remember the absolute contrast in architecural style (as well as pricing in rents!) from the old concrete council estate on the right side of the street and the massive luxury brand stores on the right! After the war, and during the Korean war, a large US Air Force Base (Washington Heights, of which today there is only one building left) was housed in nearby Yoyogi and Omotesando prospered as a shopping street. The area became even more famous during the 1964 Tokyo olympics and in 1972 the subway station on the other end, Meijijingumae Station, opened (Omotesando station opened in 1938).
Since 2009 Omotesando has been illuminated during December, giving extra strength to the nickname of “the Champs Aliases of Tokyo”. I’ll blog about the illuminations later this week!
You can use the tag “Omotesando” to see all posts about this area.