In Ginza, it seems almost as if Japan tucks its true self out of view. Sure, the row of colorful, vertical signs advertising the largely upscale shops and services along the district’s main drags echo similar scenes all over the country, but the façades (and often stores) they’re attached to are too cold and modern — too standoffishly minimalist — to really reflect the soul of the country in which they’re located.
It’s not surprising, perhaps, that the area would turn out this way. Once a city of half-timbered matchstick homes, Tokyo began, in the wake of several disastrous early Meiji-era fires, experimenting with brick as a building material. Ginza was an early adopter of the new medium, along with Victorian building styles favored in the West. British architect and engineer Thomas Waters designed a made-over Ginza, completed in 1877, that was known as Renga-gai (“brick street” or “bricktown”). Only the kanji and katakana on its signs would have distinguished it from major commercial districts in North America or Australia.
Renga-gai literally bit the dust in 1923, when it was leveled by the Great Kanto Earthquake, but American bombers probably would have reduced it to rubble anyway. In its current incarnation, Ginza bears more than a passing resemblance to plenty of other anonymous shopping zones across East Asia. Its backstreets, though, tell a slightly different story about the neighborhood.
The new Ginza was built to Waters’ design as a showpiece of Japanese “civilization and enlightenment” for international visitors, but it initially left both them and locals cold. In the early years of the development, many Tokyoites looked upon it as an alien landscape, uncomfortable and strange: “everyone,” a period writer observed, “wanted to look at it, but not many wanted to live in it”. Eventually, shops took root on its principal avenues, but the backstreets remained vacant, or else the “temporary home of sideshows and transients”. Intriguingly, this part of Renga-gai was considered enough of a failure that it even, in some cases, “reverted back to traditional architectural forms”.
Contemporary Ginza’s little, quasi-pedestrianized alleyways where Marunochi’s cube farmers lunch and shop during their minimal daytime off hours may occasionally seem, in comparison to the busy boulevards mere blocks away, as sleepy as provincial Sendai or Suzaka. But, as they did during the Renga-gai period, the backstreets also reflect elements of such places’ unimpeachably Japanese quirk and charm.
And it’s only because Tokyo’s main streets have long since moved on to asphalt that part of the the backstreets’ current quaintness stems from the ironic fact that many of them are actually paved with brick. Here, paper lanterns sometimes light the lanes, traditional eateries seem to abound more than in the other centers of the metropolis, and at least one gallery revels in the pop kitsch of the giant robots and monsters that once dominated Japanese horror films — perhaps because the creatures prefer to prey on more built-up and showy parts of the city.
Tags: Exploring the City, Japan, Streetlife, Then and Now, Tokyo