Cafe culture started in Japan in 1911, when a few cafes opened up in Tokyo’s fashionable Ginza district. Of these the oldest still in operation is the Cafe Paulista (Paulista coming from Sao Paulo in Brazil), which opened in December 1911 operating under a peculiar 12 year contract of free shipments of coffee beans from the Brazilian government in order to spread coffee drinking in Japan. When the great earthquake of 1923 hit Tokyo and the destroyed the cafe at the same time as the free coffee agreement ended the management withdrew from the cafe business. It reopened in 1969 and moved to its present location on one of the main streets of Ginza in 1970. John Lennon and Yoko Ono both visited the cafe in 1969, according to legend. In 2003 there was a bit of flurry when records were discovered in Osaka City of a cafe having opened there in June 1911, but nothing remains of that cafe so even if Cafe Paulista wasn’t the first they certainly are the oldest.
Today the Cafe Paulista is stuck in a peculiar time warp as the building it is located in is quite new while the cafe seems not to have changed one bit since 1970, all the while they are promoting their 1911 heritage! When I visited I found the coffee to be good and the seats comfortable and I think I was lucky to get a seat at all.
Another interesting fact for fans of older literature is the word (verb) “Ginbura” (銀ブラ), which is a short combination of the two words Ginza and Brazil and came to mean “to go to a cafe”, similar as about 15 years ago the word “Sutabasuru” (スタバする) came to mean to go Starbucks. You will find the word Ginbura in books from the 1910s and 1920s. Or maybe not! See the comment section if you are a fan of etymology.
I took these while walking around in Ginza during the blue hour, just after sunset but before it gets completely dark. My favorite time of the day as a photographer! In the last few years there seems to be a lot new construction in Ginza, not least fueled by demand due to economical boost of the cheaper yen and a richer China. These days there seems to be as many Chinese tourists in Ginza as domestic tourists and locals. Ginza is also one of the least populated neighborhoods in Chuo ward, only 3523 people live on the 0.87 square kilometers with most of the area devoted to office buildings and retail.
Sometimes holes open up in the urban landscape, like in the first photo where the Nissan building used to be. Not a very old building at all, but since this street crossing is one of the most valuable real estate locations in the world it makes sense to cram as much floorspace as possible into it. It will be interesting to see what will replace it!
The last photo too is one of these holes, where the old Matsuzakaya department store used to be. I blogged about the closing in 2013.
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.
Walking around in Ginza one late afternoon I spotted this funny looking window decoration, mannequins ensnared by a chameleon! This particular street crossing is one of the most interesting for window shoppers or professional decorators everywhere, never have I seen so many and such elaborate or expensive decorations in one spot. Any designer, decorator, shop manager or merchandiser would do well to take monthly walks along this street. For more examples of window decorations in Tokyo, just use the tags at the end of the post!