More photos from the Kawagoe Harumatsuri (Kawagoe City Spring Festival) in Saitama prefecture. Kawagoe is a great tourist destination if you want to get a short break from Tokyo. It is only 32km (about 20 miles) from central Tokyo and there’s just about enough attractions to make any day trip worthwhile. I prefer to visit during festivals, as my favorite streets are usually blocked out for traffic and you are free to wander around the beautiful main street and take in the atmosphere of little Edo. Plenty of local bars and cafes serve the best local brewery in Japan, the Coedo Beer and you could have a complete dinner by just moving from store to store having a little something at each one. Recently Kawagoe has ramped up the Showa nostalgia scenery and shops and the many old stores along the main street are happily showing of even their most antiquated merchandise (how about the vending machine selling realistic smoking cigarettes for children?).
Kawagoe being north of Tokyo also means that the Sakura season is slower by a week or so which gave me the chance to do some early sakura blossom viewing that I missed totally in Tokyo. The second wave of sakura blossoms should be peaking in Kawagoe now so if you just arrived to Tokyo as a tourist, head north! You might catch it yet.
In Ginza you’ll find this very cute store full of nice stuff for the tea lover in your life. I am not a big fan of shopping or tea but this store is too sweet to miss. It’s not even Japanese, but Japanese people really love French things! The store is excellently decorated inside and outside. Go have a look the next time you are window shopping in Ginza!
On Friday last week I visited the Coredo Muromachi center opening in Tokyo’s central Nihonbashi district. The latest of seemingly never ending stream of new commercial developments in central Tokyo (look back through this blog and you’ll find dozens of them!). The new Coredo Muromachi consists of three buildings connected by underground and overground walking passages, tunnels and bridges. Physically it is located in the middle of the long underground subway tunnels of the Mitsukoshimae Station on the Ginza line. It is quite possible that many weary commuters will be lured off their long walk in the underground to the glittering stores, cinemas and restaurants above and around them (this last sentence doesn’t make sense unless you have had the experience of changing lines at the Mitsukoshimae Station, from the Ginza to the Tozai line, but if you have, you will get it).
Nihonbashi is the old heart of the old Edo, the capital of the shogunate until the start of the modern era of Japan in the 1860s. The area of Nihonbashi and Muromachi was the place to go shopping in old Japan as stores, markets and entertainment buildings of all kinds lined the streets from east to west towards the entrance of (the now destroyed) Edo Castle. This absolutely does not make sense when you actually walk around in the area, as all the streets are aligned north to south, and all the old established old-fashioned stores are located on the much smaller east-to-west streets in the back streets. The reason behind this peculiarity is that in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 many of the buildings in the area was destroyed and when the area was re-built in 1932 it was decided to realign the streets and readjust the addresses and town names. Hence you’ll find old tucked away stores that used to be on the main street but is now hidden on a back street with an address that is several hundreds of meters incorrect. It is an interesting mental exercise to walk these streets and imagine that the back streets are the main streets and vice-versa! Not all is lost though, in the last photo you can see a shop surviving from the old days, a bonito store, with its short side towards the new north-west main street, absolutely dwarfed by the nearby Coredo buildings.
There is a famous saying about this area that has survived to the present day, “一日に三千両の落ちどころ”, Ichinichi ni sansenryo no ochidokoro, in English losely translated as “3000 ryo (old Japanese currency) place”, or a 30 000 dollar a day town. Why three? Well, in the morning Muromachi was a lively fish market that sold the catching from as far as Shizuoka in the west and Fukushima in the north-east, in the afternoons it was an entertainment town with many theaters of all kinds and at night it transformed into a massive red light district with all sorts of prostitution and gambling. If you were lucky enough to own a storefront in here in the 17th century, you (and all your family) could make massive profits. Many a fortune was made in this area and many of the rich elite of Japan today still have their roots in the merchant classes of Muromachi. Today the fish market has moved to Tsukiji, the entertainment to Shinjuku or Ginza and the red light district to Kabukicho.
The connection beteen fish market and entertainment might seem a little vague, but we have to remember that fishing in those days was a heavily regulated industry with clans and powerful feudal lords lobbying for rights and favors with the ruling elite, hence the need to entertain, wine and dine these shogun bureaucrats. When the shogunate fell so did the importance of entertainment in this part of the city and it was only ranked fourth in a famous list of red light districts in 1885 with a mere 89 geisha! Another guidebook of Tokyo written in the same period mentions that Nihonbashi and Muromachi is hopelessly old fashioned with “no western style modern buildings from Kyobashi all the way to Manseibashi”.
Coredo is a development of the Mitsui group, one of the old zaibatsu or trading houses that dominated all of Japanese industry and finance from the 19th century to 1945. Although they were broken up by the occupation government after the war they are still immensely powerful and one of the biggest, Mitsui, had their origins in Muromachi.
Fans of Japanese history will also note that in 1600, the English navigator from Gillingham, Kent, a Mr. William Adams lived here in Muromachi while teaching gunnery and shipbuilding to the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. His Japanese name was Miura Anjin and the observant foreigner can still find a few places and streets named after this man in the area. His story was made famous in the book and TV series Shogun by James Clavell.
One of the most poorly kept secrets of Tokyo and one of the most interesting places in the city is without a doubt the Shinjuku Golden Gai (新宿ゴールデン街), a miniature city within the city. The Golden Gai is the remnant of a peculiar mix of shady businesses, black marketeers and lack of urban planning. Despite the area being only about 2500 square meters (the six tiny streets and a dozen tiny alleys making up the Golden Gai can be placed inside a square with sides barely 50 meters long), there are about 140 bars, many of which are have just enough room for a bartender, a counter and a handful of barstools. Many travel guides gives the higher number of around 200 bars but I believe this is outdated information as some bars have more or less permanently closed while others have merged to make enough space for slightly bigger businesses. It is still a wonderful rambling mess of old wooden houses and a complete disregard for building codes, rules and regulations.
According to aficionados, there are ten “classes” of bars in the Golden Gai: Orthodox (regular bars), Eateries, New Wave Bars, Shot Bars, Music Bars, Movie Bars, Russian Bars (vodka bars), Gay Bars (mostly for men, cross-dressers and transsexuals), Horse Racing Fan Bars, and Mystery Bars (bars with an occult or philosophical non-conformist theme). If you want to go drinking here though, you need to throw all your preconceptions and notions about right and wrong, morals and manners out the window. Being admitted to any bar here is a privilege and absolutely not a right. Some bars love foreigners, others are not interested at all in serving foreigners. Some bars are only for female customers and will charge high entrance fees to keep male customers away. Other bars are invitation only and a few other bars might be hiding something completely different from what you see on the surface. You enter this area at your own risk. Almost all bars also have “service charges” or “table charges”, ranging from a couple of hundred yen to several thousand yen for the most exclusive establishments. Usually these charges are posted outside the bars but if not you should always ask before being seated.
In the Shinjuku Golden Gai there is a strict hierarchy where the owners and staff are on the top, regular customers come second, known faces third and drop in tourists last. Since seats are limited, even empty looking bars might prefer to keep seats and places for regulars they know are coming so don’t be too upset if you are not invited to sit down even in an empty bar! It is a place to visit for the atmosphere at least as much as for the food and drink.
Having written all these warnings, I can still recommend taking a walk through this area. There are places that are very welcoming to occasional tourists and a normal dose of common sense and humility should see you safely through an evening drinking here. Thanks to modern technology you can even see inside quite a few of the bars using Google Street View! You are most likely to enjoy the experience of drinking here if you are invited by a friend who knows the barkeeps, but even on your own it could be an interesting experience. For the beginner and the tourist, I’d say that the by Golden Gai standards massive Albatross G bar might be the safest and most cost effective bet. The bar has three floors and could probably cram in about 20 customers in a pinch. The cover charge is very cheap (less than the price of a drink) and the bartenders have always been very welcoming when I brought in foreign friends from all over.
I’ll write a little bit more about the history of Golden Gai in tomorrow’s post, complete with plenty more photos and directions. Stay tuned!