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.
Many cities around the world are fortunate enough to be equipped with a subway system. The smallest city with a subway system is Rennes in France, but the largest is Tokyo. In fact, we have two subway systems here! The biggest of the two is Tokyo Metro with 9 lines and 176 station, a private company owned by the Tokyo government and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. The smaller company with only 4 lines and 99 stations is the Toei Subway, owned by the Tokyo Metropolitan Bureau of Transportation. Both systems cover most of Tokyo with the notable exception of the two southernmost wards, Ota and Setagaya which relies almost only on the Toei Subway lines.
The latest addition to the Toei Subway lines was the 2000 Toei Oedo Line that runs almost in a circular loop (with a long tail), completely underground and also the deepest of all Tokyo subway lines: it is 48 meters underground at some points, and tunnels under large rivers three times. When the line was constructed in the 1990s it was decided that all the stations would have an architect and an artist responsible for the look and feel of each station. Although quite toned down, some stations do indeed feel a little “wacky modern”, like the Oedo line Iidabashi station which has a biological theme. Kachidoki Station is the most heavily trafficked single line station in Tokyo with over 82 000 passengers per day. The number has grown so rapidly that new exits has been added and there are plans to extend the Yurikamome line to Kachidoki to coincide with the Tokyo Olympics 2020. The artistic theme of the station was decided by the architect to be “out of the ocean”, to keep with the artificial island nature of Kachidoki itself and the colors of the station and the platform is a green-blue palette. I recently passed the station and had my camera with to take a photo of the rather unusual art piece decorating the ticket gate hall, a huge mural in the style of a classic Italian painting! A rich underground world inhabited by mythical mermaids and Gods looking up at the high-rise buildings towering above the water.
I have always loved this mural and I recognized the style from somewhere, the soft colors, the near perfect representation of an italian tromp Trompe-l’œil renaissance work of art, reminding me of Giulio Quaglio or Andrea Pozzo or even Michelangelo. So I finally checked who the artist was and found it was none other than the famous mural painter Masao Hanawa (塙雅夫)! One of the most famous window dressers in Japan he has won many awards for his work he is also the creator of several murals in everything from museums to hotels both in Japan and abroad, churces and even Disney Sea here in Japan! It is funny how your eyes and heart knows art that your mind can’t even remember sometimes.
I talked to the station manager for a bit and it seems I am not the only one stop and wonder about this mural. He told me it is the most talked about artwork in all the Toei Oedo Line stations. No wonder, it is easily the best, despite the humbleness and “not quite so modern” theme. It also seems like Mr. Hanawa is a graduate of the fantastic Zokei University of Arts (that I have blogged many times about before).
One of my favorite places in Tokyo was always the Manseibashi Station platform that spent a large chunk of both the last and this century in slumber – one of Tokyo’s few remaining ghost stations. Last year however it was finally revived with a great looking shopping arcade, balcony overlooking a canal and a fantastic cafe up on top between the tracks of the central Chuou Line train. I blogged about it last year after the renovation was complete and I still love going here every now and then, although I am not the only one – that cafe I mentioned earlier actually sells out of food most nights! Last time I went there they said the only thing we have left is black coffee, so if you go, go early!
A few days ago I passed the station just after the sun had set and the last light of the day was almost gone. The old platform looks even better at night. There is something special about red bricks that you just can’t translate into concrete. They feel alive, and their strength and longevity means that they can last for hundreds of years, accumulating raw history – the wrinkles and spotches of red bricks in old Tokyo buildings have everything from bomb shrapnel holes to modern signs. The special look and feel of red brick, or akarenga, as they are known in Japan, gets even further enhanced because there are so few of them. Red brick walls are incredibly difficult to earthquake proof and even the ancient romans solved the problem by adding copious amounts of reinforced concrete to the core of their brick structures (I am sure the Manseibashi platform also has a concrete heart but at least the cladding is the original red bricks). In fact the first architect to finally solve the problem of building with red brick walls in earthquake countries was Josiah Conder (1852-1920) by using reinforced metal bands embedded in the mortar between the bricks, effectively tying the walls together. You can see an example of this in the fantastic Mitsubishi Ichigokan building in Tokyo’s Marunouchi district. The Manseibashi station platform building is a perfect example of a building that is valuable, lovable and useful, so much that it survived Earthquakes, bombing raids, urban development and modernist architectural fads. It is not a mere space to which people adapt but an organically and historically evolved living building. I am sure it will be around for the future generations to come many centuries from now.
As a contrast, the last photo shows the totally utalitarian and disposable modern Akihabara on the other side of the canal, that represents a different form of beauty, where the brutalist architecture of concrete were unable to withstand the pure commercial and creative onslaught of unabashed humanity. You can see the signs of human activity literally crowding out every inch of ugly bare concrete helplessly drowned in a sea of humanity.
Sorry for this public love letter to a city – I just had to get it out!
Most people who visit the beautiful city of Matsue in Shimane Prefecture on the north coast of Japan make sure to check out the famous Matsue Castle. The castle is one of the more beautiful wood and stone castles in Japan and the black building contrasts beautifully with the green of the garden and the blue sky. It also contrasts beautifully with another of Matsue’s famous buildings, the splendid white Kounkaku (興雲閣), also knowns by the locals as the Russian Palace when it was built in 1903. Local business worked together to raise money for the building, which in those days cost 13 489 yen, or 10 million yen in today’s value which must be exceptionally good value. The hope was to have a building grand enough to welcome the Emperor during his visit to Matsue but unfortunately his visit was stopped due to the outbreak of the war with Russia in 1905. However the locals got nearly the same honor in 1907 when the then Crown Prince Yoshihito visited (the soon to be Emperor Taisho).
The building itself is an important example of the uniquely Japanese style of architecture called Gyofu Architecture, that was common in Japan between 1869 and 1905. It is in essence buildings made by Japanese carpenters to imitate the style of western buildings they had only seen in drawings, plans and photographs. Many of the layouts, details and all the construction techniques are made in pure Japanese style, but in a way that looks foreign. The term Gyofu is today considered very negative and many architects prefer to call it Early Meiji Period Style, not as descriptive but more neutral. For a long time these buildings were considered naive and embarrassing even though they were usually very popular with locals who saw them as a sign of modernity and prosperity. Many government offices, police stations, hospitals and schools were built in this style until the early 20th century when western and western trained architects and engineers started constructing properly western buildings in the western manner. Personally though I love this style of architecture, it is informed, it is local, it is vernacular and a very attractive combination between east and west. Although proper western architecture also has some shining examples in Japan (like the Mitsubishi Ichigokan in Tokyo), these Gyofu buildings have so much more heart. And above all, they are in every case deeply loved by the people who live near them, and that is one of the pillars of an ethical and ecological society. Here is another example of perhaps the most famous Gyoufu building in Japan, the Kaichi Gakkou in Nagano Prefecture’s Matsumoto City.
Inside the building there are a few modern pieces of artwork reflecting the history of Matsue City, for example the grand portrait of the Daimyo (lord of a province) Horio Yoshiharu (堀尾吉晴 1542–1611) who was one of the most famous Samurai in Japanese history. You can’t tell from the portrait but he had quite a life! As a young man he caught a wild boar with his bare hands and this brought him to the attention of the most powerful lord in Japan who was interested in what the young warrior would become. In battle after battle he proved his strength and cunning both as a warrior and as a leader. In 1599, at just the perfect moment, he switches sides in the great civil war that was raging in Japan at that time, to the side of the eventual winner, Tokuhawa Ieayasu (the first Shogun ruler of Japan). As a reward he was appointed the first head of the noble family that would rule modern day Shimane prefecture.