To celebrate the opening of the new Coredo building in Nihonbashi Muromachi the other week there is a special pink cherry blossom themed light up taking place right now. The light up covers the sandstone colored Mitsukoshi department store, the brown black and steel colored Coredo Muromachi and also the granite grey Sumitomo Mitsui Bank and unexpectedly perhaps especially the bank looks fantastic in pink! There is something special about the austere classic architecture of the bank lit up by bright pink! I think they should make the light up permanent. It is on everyday between 18:30 and 23:00 finishing on April 6th. An already quite pretty part of Tokyo will be even prettier, for a short while.
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.
Nihonbashi, the bridge and the area, has been on this blog before, but there are still a bit to be told about this fascinating area in the middle of Tokyo that is more famous for its department stores than anything else these days. The real claim to fame for this area is the Point Zero of Japan! In 1603 when the first bridge was built on the orders of the Edo shogunate it was also decided that this would be the point zero of the new Japanese road system and of all maps and distance calculations of Japan. In Europe was say that all roads lead to Rome, in Japan they say that all roads lead to Nihonbashi! The present bridge was built in 1911 and the historical road marker was moved to the side of the bridge and is now marked by a monument (third photo). Can you spot the sign on the bridge with the three characters 日本橋 on the fourth picture? It is based on the actual handwriting of the last ever shogun of Japan, Yoshinobu Tokugawa (born in Mito, Ibarakai prefecture, 1827-1913) who only spent a few months as a shogun before the shogunate was discontinued, he never even lived in his own castle and spent the better part of his life as an honorary prince in Tokyo’s Bunyko ward with his many children. Apparently he was a rather good photographer. There’s a funny story how he lived in a quiet area in Sugamo but he was irritated by the noise of the new Yamanote line that was built very close to his house so in 1901 he moved to a much more quiet spot in what is now Kasuga Nichome. Some of his children and grandchildren later married into the royal family and the Tokugawa family is still very active as architects and businesspeople.
One of the classically Japanese things or concepts that you don’t see too often these days are armored samurai warriors on the streets of Tokyo! These men had just come from a firing a salute at the opening of the Nihonbashi 100 year Anniversary festival here in central Tokyo. In Japanese these suits of armor are called yoroi, and it’s easy to see where the influence for some of the armors worn in the Star Wars movies came from. The first photo is my favorite, you can see his match cord, use to ignite the powder that fires the rifle, is still lit and smoking! These matchlock rifles are called Tanegashima from the name of the island where they were first introduced in 1510 by ship wrecked Portuguese. Like in Europe, they changed the nature of war forever when it suddenly became much too dangerous for the rich and noble to fight among themselves: a peasant boy could be trained in a day to kill off a samurai or a knight who had spent a lifetime training and preparing his horse, sword and armor. As cool as these guys look, I’m glad we live in a more peaceful world now!