Tokyobling's Blog

Mihara Kouji – Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin in Ginza

Posted in People, Places by tokyobling on March 25, 2014

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)!























9 Responses

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  1. Shelli@howsitgoingeh? said, on March 25, 2014 at 4:54 am

    I love the hidden alleys of Japan!!! I’ve always been too shy to venture in any of the shops. Jane Birkin pregnant + in heeled boots walking around Tokyo! I give her a lot of credit!!!


    • tokyobling said, on March 26, 2014 at 1:06 am

      Indeed! And she must have been highly pregnant as Charlotte was born the following month! (^-^)


  2. Mustang.Koji said, on March 25, 2014 at 6:39 am

    Interesting story! I am astonished a part of Ginza had actually survived the firebombing. My mother’s home during her early years was just a stone throw away in Shimbashi and nothing had remained of it.

    I took a peek at the link and while not fluent, I got the gist.

    Your mention of rice… Did you know that Japan was unable to produce enough rice to feed their own people until just before the 1964 Olympics? Yes, the war had a tremendous impact but the shortage had plagued Japan since the 1800’s.

    …and I want to eat at Mihara, the ramen shop!


    • tokyobling said, on March 26, 2014 at 1:23 am

      There are photos of fire fighters saving a few buildings from total destruction. I will never understand bombing of civilian targets in any conflicts but it seems to be a national sport in some countries. The first bombing raid in Ginza was on January 27th where one of the targets was an elementary school, killing several teachers. The buildings that survived the January raid was destroyed in the raids in March and for some pointless reason the ruins were bombed again on May 25th when nothing remained anyway. You can read the stomach turning story of pointless violence at this page:

      Incidentally, one of the thousands of civilians killed in that May 25th raid was the sculptor Teru Ando (安藤照) who created the statues of Saigo in Ueno and Hachiko in front of Shibuya station, arguably the two most famous statues in Tokyo. Another famous artist casualty was the painter Masamu Yanase (柳瀬正夢) who was just about to board the Chuo line night train in Shinjuku to go visit his daughter’s office (she was working at the meteorological society of Japan) who had been evacuated to Nagano. It took his family four days to find his body which had been dragged out from a subway station entrance at Shinjuku Station West exit. A piece of shrapnel had hit him in the stomach and although they started looking at all the morgues and hospitals they found him in the Yodobashi Police Station.

      I am huge fan of agricultural history so I know all about the lack of rice! It is a staple of Japanese literature from the 16th century to the Olympics, in almost every work from that era there are people talking about the lack of good rice. Still to this day I wouldn’t dream of leaving a single grain of rice in front of any senior Japanese citizen. It is worse even than walking into their house with your shoes on. (^-^) I am not a big fan of ramen but someday I will have to go to that little ramen. It seems to be very popular indeed! (^-^)


      • Mustang.Koji said, on March 28, 2014 at 6:21 pm

        Although tragic, thank you for the history on the artists… I don’t know how many times I’ve met people by Hachiko when I was young…


        • tokyobling said, on March 31, 2014 at 12:31 am

          Me too! It is such an iconic statue here in Tokyo, still no-one knows about what happened to the man that created it.


  3. schronienie said, on March 31, 2014 at 3:01 pm

    love it! I’m reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle now and am imagining the streets of Tokyo as he walks through the city. your pics are very useful! 😉


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