I love looking at old maps and photos of Japan and especially of Tokyo. The other day I found an interesting photo of French legendary singer, poet and bad boy Serge Gainsbourg and almost equally legendary singer Jane Birkin, having fun in Japan. There was no information on the photos but looking at signs in the background and searching for similar photos I found that they were indeed taken in Tokyo and more specifically in Ginza, although the two most interesting photos were taken in a Ginza that I had never seen, it looked more like old Kyoto than modern Tokyo! Finally I narrowed the spots where they were photographed. In one, Serge Gainsbourg is getting his shoes polished in front of the Matsuzakaya department store which was closed for good last year (you can see photos of it here, but when I walked past a couple of days ago it was all torn down in a mountain of concrete and rubble). In two photos, Serge and Jane are have been taken to an area that must have been considered cool and old fashioned even back when the photos were taken (most likely in May 22nd 1971, a few hours before the Sylvie Vartan concert in Shinjuku). You can see that Jane is quite pregnant, expecting the couple’s daughter Charlotte. It turned out that they were visiting the Mihara Kouji (三原小路), which was a couple of alleyways on a corner of Ginza that somehow survived the firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945. Naturally, I had to go there to investigate if there was anything left of this historic little spot!
Today Mihara Kouji (which used to be similar to Shinjkuku’s Golden Gai that I blogged about a few days ago) is very much reduced, and only a few buildings remain, but they look exactly like the Shinjuku Golden Gai buildings and the construction is identical, one set of four connected two story buildings of wooden frame structures with a plaster rendering and many decades of dust, soot and urban grime. None of the original bars or restaurants seems to have survived but a few old timers still cling to this urban relic, a ramen shop that was quite crowded, a couple of bars and some companies. Most of the street has been given a facelift and there are now a few posher restaurants that looks quite interesting as well.
At the entrance of the first alley, where the only surviving 1940s buildings are located, I noticed a peculiar little torii attached to the wall, about 20cm tall. These mini-torii are originally from the Kansai area and is really interesting enough for their own blog post but I’ll give you the story now anyway! In the old Edo period of Japan (1600-1868), human waste was a very valuable ingredient in farming. In order to feed a relatively huge population of about 30 million people on very limited land and no artificial fertilizer, Japan had to use every little scrap of nutrition it had. Excrement was valuable and people would sell the contents of their toilets to nightsoilmen who would pay with fresh food from the farmers. It was perfect system of recycling nutrition from the farm to the city and back again. Nothing was wasted. However, when Japan was opened to the outside world in the Meiji period, this recycling system was seen as something negative and unnecessary. Where every city block had numerous public toilets installed to catch the valuable excrements, landlords now started getting rid of them. But people still needed to go and they would just do their business on the old spots where the toilets used to be. Signs prohibiting public urination didn’t work so instead the people of Kyoto started putting up miniature torii, like the sacred gates to their shrines. Even the basest of drunk brutes would think twice before lifting his kimono over a sacred torii! Slowly this habit spread around the country and you can now see these miniature torii all over. In Kyoto they are common just about anwhere people would stop for a piss, and in the countryside bigger mini torii are used to stop illegal dumping of garbage. There are a few in Tokyo but still very very rare. I was lucky to spot this one! If you can read Japanese, here’s an interesting article about the phenomena, and some good photos.
On the end of the second alley, you’ll find a very small inari shrine, called by the locals the Azuma Inari Daimyojin. This shrine miraculously survived the fires after the war and so became the unofficial protector of the neighborhood. Even today once a year the locals come to pray at the shrine in order to stop burglary and fires from happening in the local area. As usual, the story is very complicated and I am had no one to ask about it but I think I got the gist of it.
The last few photos of the this blog post are the original photos from 1971 that started my interest in this historic hidden gem of Ginza. They were taken by French Photographer Bertrand Laforet, but I haven’t been able to find any information about him. If anyone reading this now any more about the visit of Serge and Jane to Ginza, or Bertrand Laforet, I’d be happy to hear about it! The concert that I believe the happy couple were on their way to attend was recorded and released on album, you can listen to the concert and the lovely chit chat of the singer with her audience here, Sylvie Vartan live in Tokyo. And just while I am on the subject of Serge Gainsbourg and music, here is a special bonus – France Gall singing her Serge penned mega hit Poupée de cire, poupée de son in fluent Japanese (夢見るシャンソン人形)!
One of the most famous streetcrossings in a city full of famous streetcrossings is the Sukiyabashi in Tokyo’s famous Ginza district, Chuo Ward. The history of this place and its name starts in 1629 when a stone bridge was built over the outer moat of the Imperial palaces. While the palace remains, the moat was refilled in 1929, three hundred years later, and the bridge was dismantled. Most of the material used in the bridge ended up on another bridge several hundred meters away in Harumi Street but the place name lived on, even though there was now no water nor any bridge. The old moat now serves as the border between Chuo Wards and Chiyoda Wards. Due to the exciting location between the Imperial power to one side of the bridge and the modern entertainment district of Ginza on the other side, the place became famous among Tokyo people. Several department stores and newspaper offices also moved to the location and after the war it was the rallying point of right wing politicians, especially the famous Satoshi Akao who used to give daily soap box speeches on the street corners in Sukiyabashi for several years after the war.
Today the area is more well known being the starting point of many visits to Ginza, and for the shopping that can be found there. I especially recommend the corner shop selling photographic equipment (with a focus on Nikon lenses), easily one of the most well stocked lens stores in the country and popular with locals and tourists alike. Many of the photos on this blog has been take with equipment from that store!
In 1982 Sukiyabashi got a new landmark, when the pointed roof brick building housing a police box was unveiled. People usually notice the strange roof decoration, noticing the likeness between it and a sewing pin! The story goes that when the design street crossing was handed in, the architect had forgotten to pull the pin that stuck the roof to the building on the little paper model, and by the time the model got officially approved it was too late to change the model and resubmit it, so the construction had include the pin on the roof and there it remains to this day. I rejected the story as an urban myth when I first saw the building many years ago, but know that I know more about Japanese bureaucracy I tend to believe it. The story is also mentioned on Wikipedia and has been the subject of many a dropped jaw on TV quiz shows. The official name of the Koban (Police Box) is rather long, 築地警察署数寄屋橋交番, or Tsukijikeisatsushosukiyabashikouban, but we usually just call it Sukiyabashi Koban or Machibarkoban (Dressmakingpin Koban). Still, it is only the second most famous Koban in Tokyo!
In the last photo you can see the void that was left after they tore down the 56 year old Mosaic Ginza Hankyu department store. It is quite a treat to see the other side of the block, where the older buildings of Hibiya can be glimpsed for the first time in many years! Right now there are several older tall buildings being torn down in Ginza, opening up new vistas and views that exists in the space of a few months before being filled again. Take the chance to see this Ginza while you have the chance!
When you mention the name Ginza the first thing that comes to mind certainly isn’t cheap fashion, but times and economy changes and these days it isn’t hard to find plenty of dirt cheap fashion stores in the chic Ginza district of Tokyo. Leading the charge is Gu, but coming up close behind is the Uniqlo flagship store with its revolving mannequins in the giant show windows. Gu and Uniqlo are actually the same company, and both are the biggest names in budget clothing here in Japan, very affordable. Happy shopping!
Having never been a tourist in Tokyo myself I don’t have a lot of the common points of information that many people often ask me – where are the cheapest hotels? What kind of train ticket packages do you recommend? What kind of cell phone coverage can I expect in Japan? Where do I withdraw cash from international ATM machines? …and so on. But the one thing I has managed to gather is that a lot of foreign tourists visit the Softbank store in Ginza to get Internet access to their cell phones for the duration of their visit to Japan. The Softbank store (It’s one of the biggest cell phone service providers in Japan) in Ginza makes creative use of a statue of their main spokesperson, a white dog starring in a long running series of commercials where he plays the father of a family (I don’t know the story so don’t ask!). At first I thought it was a real and very well behaved dog that was sitting there at the back entrance of the Softbank store in Ginza. There is another one at the front.
If you need phone access, you can do worse than visiting this store, and there’s lot of stuff to see in the neighborhood as well! Softbank’s English website is here, although I have never met a foreigner who could interpret their maps so I include a proper map you can print out and show the locals should you need to find the store on your first day in Tokyo!