Ginza is known for money, riches, luxury brands and high fashion, it is a city in the city for people who have wealth or who like to spend it. Ginza has always been associated with money, even the name Ginza comes from licensed coin minting operation in the area back in the Edo period of Japan (in this case it was established in 1612). In the 1870a Ginza was one of the first areas of Japan to get western style brick buildings as a way of attracting investment and showing of Japan’s newfound sense of modernity. But what happens when former luxury houses grow old? As times and fashions move on the buildings remain standing and although most of them are torn down, the second oldest building in Ginza, the Okuno Building remains standing. Constructed in 1932 as a luxury apartment complex the building survived World War II and the building boom of the 1980s it is now one of the oldest apartment buildings in the country, the oldest in Ginza and the second oldest building in Ginza overall (the oldest is the Daiichi Ginza Biru, 第一銀緑ビル, constructed in 1924). Up until a few years ago there were almost identical buildings in Harajuku and Ueno but they have gone under the wrecking ball. In 1932 it was still extremely unusual to have people living in western style concrete buildings. These days the former apartments and shops have been converted to about 50 working galleries, artist’s studios and small artisan shops.
The interior matches the exterior perfectly and is wonderfully old, rusty and worn down. Flaking paint, bent railings, deep ruts worn into the concrete floor, it looks more like an abandoned ghost complex than a working building. During weekdays and weekends there’s a steady stream of people coming in and out of the building. With so many galleries there is an opening almost every day and new and old artists mix and meet in the narrow corridors. Some galleries are modern and ultra-hip, using high tech and the showing the latest fashions, others look more like your old Granny’s collection of antique toys. You are never likely to be able to visit all the galleries but there’s always enough of them open to make it worthwhile to visit the building.
Even the elevator is an original working antique and manually operated meaning that you have to close and open the doors by yourself. There are stern warnings to not forget to close the doors after you leave. You don’t see many elevators like this any more and most people I saw entering the building took one look at it and then opted for the stairs. Me included.
I hope to go back soon and get better photos, but for now, here are the (scary looking) interior corridors and stairs. It feels like going on urban ruin safari even though the building is still functioning and in the middle of the most expensive shopping district in the world! I would love to meet someone who actually experienced living in this building! The address to this building is Ginza 1−9−8 and the best subway exit is Ginza Itchome Station, Exit 10.
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.