Tokyobling's Blog

Ichigayakameokahachimangu – Ichigaya Shrine

Posted in Places by tokyobling on April 21, 2014

If you are in the market to visit minor shrines and temple while visiting Tokyo I can recommend trying to find the Ichigayakameokahachimangu (市谷亀岡八幡宮) near Ichigaya Station in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward. This shrine was established as one of the guardian shrines of the Tokyo castle in 1479 and move to its present location outside the moat in 1636 after the moat had been completed. Like most buildings in Tokyo the shrine itself was destroyed in the air raids of May 25th, 1945, but it was rebuilt in 1962. On the shrine grounds you will also find the smaller but more popular Chanokiinarijinja (茶ノ木稲荷神社), that is renowned for being the place to go if you are suffering from eye diseases. It also seems to be a very popular shrine with pet owners who often come here to pray for the health or souls of their pets. There are monthly rituals where you can bring you pet to have it blessed by one of the priests. You would not know from the location but all the building behind and to the left belongs to the Japanese ministry of defense, making it one of the best protected shrines in the country. The shrine’s official festival seems to be in September every year but I have never seen it myself!

I visited a few days before the sakura but the shrine grounds looked much better after they were in full bloom. The shrine’s official site is here and they have a Facebook page here.

The last image is not one of mine, but a print from the hands of the famous Utagawa Hiroshige, showing what the shrine looked like in 1858.

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More Shinjuku Golden Gai

Posted in Places by tokyobling on March 18, 2014

In yesterday’s post I promised to tell a little bit more about the history of Shinjuku’s famous Golden Gai (新宿ゴールデン街). On August the 15th 1945 a black market was opened on the firebombed fields east of Shinjuku train station. The organizers were a quick to take advantage of a the chaos of war and the lack of civil jurisdiction in the midst of the hand over from a wartime government to the incoming occupational forces of the Allied Countries under General McArthur. Food, clothes and goods were all heavily rationed by the government and the only way for some people to survive was to rely on these unregulated black markets. The market was located in the spot where the Zara main store in Shinjuku is these days, about 100 meters to the east of Shinjuku station. In 1949 the GHQ (the military occupational government) ordered all the black markets away from the major stations and the gangsters who ran the “Shinjuku Market” had to move a few hundred meters to the old town of Sankochou (三光町) that lay just to the east of the old Street Car Train line. The town had been almost completely destroyed in the firebombings a few years earlier and there was noone around to enforce building regulations, zoning laws or even to draw up proper streets. The black market quickly morphed into a series of stalls serving food and drink. One of the few remaining pre-war streets in this area is the tree lined alley that you could see in the first photo of yesterday’s post, it used to be where the train line ran.

The police and the military drew a red line on the maps around the areas where they would not tolerate black markets and so the area of what would become Golden Gai became known as a “red line area”. The market and food stalls changed into a red light district and brothels sprung up and prospered, not least because of the close proximity to the large U.S. Air Force barracks in what is now nearby Yoyogi Park. Still the area could not be regulated and people had taken it into their own hands to build rows of narrow houses. In 1958 police added a second line to their maps, a blue line within which prostitution would not be tolerated and so the nature of Golden Gai changed again, and the present day area was finally formed as a place of bars, drinking and loud music but absolutely no prostitution. The name Golden Gai was set in 1960.

Today there are two merchants associations in the Golden Gai. The North consists mainly of bars that are 2.5 meters times 2.5 meters. The south association consists mostly of even smaller bars that are no wider or longer than 1.7 meters! There is a long waiting list to be allowed to operate any of the bars here and every year between 5 and 10 bars close and new ones take their place. The oldest bars have been in the owner’s family for at least three generations! Legally Golden Gai is not quite a autonomous free town, but it is pretty close to being independent. Naturally, this legal limbo is not very popular with city officials and the last few years the Tokyo Mayor has been very outspoken in his dislike of the area. Right now there are not unfounded fears that the city government will order a crackdown on Golden Gai to coincide with the Tokyo Olympics 2020. Naturally it would be a massive loss to Tokyo and to the world if Golden Gai were to be abolished. I sincerely hope that no Tokyo politician will be so foolish as to destroy this fantastic piece of Tokyo living history.

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Shinjuku Golden Gai

Posted in Places, Shops by tokyobling on March 17, 2014

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!

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Snowy Shrine – Akagi Jinja

Posted in Places by tokyobling on February 13, 2014

On the beautiful Sunday morning walk through the northwestern end of Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward I visited Akagi Shrine, in the famous Kagurazaka district. I have blogged about this beautiful and very modern looking shrine before, but this is the first time I have seen it covered in snow. I have also visited it just before dawn on the New Year’s Day of 2013, and I have several posts about the fabulous Akagi Shrine festival held in September every year (here, here, here, here and a gorgeous shrine dancer here).

This branch shrine here in Kagurazaka is a tributary of the three main Akagi Shrines in Gunma Prefecture’s Akagiyama. It was originally constructed in 1300 in modern day Ushigome, just a short distance from where it was transferred to in 1555. The original 1300 building burned down in 1842 and the reconstructed shrine was again destroyed in the bombing raids of 1945. It was rebuilt again in 1951, as a kindergarten which was closed in 2009 and the task or redesigning the shrine minus the kindergarten but with attached apartments and a cafe gallery went to the famous architect Kengo Kuma in 2010. The level of the shrine was raised drastically in the 2010 rebuilding and now it has a set of very impressive stone stairs leading up the smaller shrine building. Underneath this are storage areas, garages and offices. Even before 2010 the shrine was located right on top of Kagurazaka hill but now it stands even higher.

As I walked up the steep stairs I could already see people busy shoveling snow from the shrine grounds, and people were again busy in the street leading up the front of the shrine. The white of the snow, the red of the shrine and the blue of the skies made it a wonderfully beautiful sight!

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