I often forget just how strange (or interesting maybe) ordinary Japanese cities can look to foreigners, so sometimes I like to play tourist and just walk around with my camera and try to see the streets with new eyes, like this are, the Yagenbori (薬研掘) district of Naka Ward, pretty much in the center of the large city of Hiroshima. Yagenbori got its name from the outer castle moat of the old feudal castle. There are many kinds of moats in Japan but this one got its name from the similarity in shape with the tool knowns as yagen, which is a v shaped trough where you roll a wheel to crush herbs for medicine. Think of it as a wheeled mortar and trestle. Usually moats have flat bottoms but the yagebori is V shaped.
Today Yagenbori is the red light district of Hiroshima, and one of the biggest red light districts of western Japan. I deliberately avoided taking photos of the seediest establishments but you can still get a feel for the area from the photos I think. During the daytime (when I was visiting) the place is almost deserted but at night it comes alive with huge crowds looking for fun or food and drink, neon signs and taxis ferrying people back and forth. One of the main thoroughfares into the Yagen district is the Nagarekawa (流川) street which is named after the river that flowed here, almost exactly 100 years ago.
One “feature” of the Yagenbori is the Poplar (ポプラ) convenience store which was born in 1974 when an old family owned liquor store decided to refocus. It is now one of the smallest but still nationwide, convenience store chains of Japan, and the only one originating in Hiroshima. It has 655 stores all over the country, 102 of which are in Hiroshima prefecture and 98 are in Tokyo. If you look hard you will find the original, first, Poplar store in one of these photos.
Yagenbori is one of those places I wish I knew more about, there are tons of sites and books dedicated to the history and back alleys of this neighborhood! In Tokyo the comparable neighborhood would be Kabukicho.
Since emigrating to Japan I have learned to love the humble Japanese convenience store. These little beacons of light and civilization are everywhere in Japan, from the loneliest Okinawan island to the busiest Tokyo high rise. You can book tickets, pay bills, do your banking, pick up and send packages, buy cell phones, get your beer, order food, buy ready made lunch boxes or lottery tickets or just browse the huge numbers of magazines. Sometimes you can even borrow their restrooms. Some convenience stores have a seating area with free hot water pots. They are open 24 hours a day, usually never close and the staff is amazingly service minded. During the trouble up north in March and Aril 2011 the convenience stores were a lifeline: they had the most advanced distribution network in the country, a perfectly streamlined inventory system and were able to get fresh food into the damaged areas before anyone else. Over a thousand convenience stores had to close due to the earthquake and Seven-Eleven alone saw 41 factories unable to operate. But they had 128 others spread out around the country that could pick up and keep supplies and food streaming into the damaged areas. For me the convenience stores of Japan are heroes, and I have quite a collection of these kind of “portraits” of lonely convenience stores at dusk or sunset.
I took the photos of a Lawson and Three-F store just next to Yuighama beach in Kamakura City, south of Tokyo.
Passing through a convenience store I noticed this rather impressive collection of power drinks, energy drinks, vitamin drinks etc. I know Japanese love these drinks, but it seems to just grow and grow! Most of these are only around for a couple of months before disappearing in obscurity, with the exception of a very few select long runners. I love trying new stuff but I haven’t sampled one tenth of these so far!