Yesterday was primarily spent exploring the Akihabara neighbirhood of Tokyo. This place is the center of electronic supplies and video game culture in the city. There are many small through block arcades selling everything from CPUs to terabyte external hard drives as well as tools and chips. You can shop around market style for about seven square blocks and walk away with a computer.
The arcades, alleys, underside of train viaducts, and extremely narrow “pencil” buildings contain shops, arcades, and restaurants in every floor and basement. These myriad pencil buildings, ubiquitous through the major cities in the country, are apparently the result
of a hefty property tax placed upon those inheriting land. It makes more sense financially to most to split their land into a number of parcels for development, warranting the extra thin profile. I saw a hair salon and spa yesterday that was recently completed and maybe ten feet wide!
I finished the day by revisiting golden gai in kabukicho to see what the upstairs bars were like in these tiny two story buildings to be surprised by greatly efficient spaces like a submarine. I measured a plan for one with the gracious owner who was very curious about my “rare” interest in Roji (alley) spaces.
After a stroll around ginza, I explored a less classy side of Tokyo, that of kabukicho in shinjuku. This area has been tokyos redlight district since world war 2, and after meeting a Haitian businessman in the district, it became very clear how it thrives. The area is open 24 7 and takes in cash from every type if visitor to the city seeking seedier fun. This area was full of alleys bathed in neon containing all kinds of bars and clubs imaginable at every floor level imaginable up to 8 floors and down 2.
I then headed to my final destination,golden gai, the some 200 closet sized bars of every obscure theme imaginable where I made the acquaintances of a hair product magnate and a travel agent and was given a history in one of tokyos most hidden and notorious alley networks. The area continues to.operate under a majority if Japanese business owners, but due to its shed like construction and property values may not survive the next decade.
Tokyo is amazing. I have only seen a sliver of it, but it is like New York City, but encrusted with programs, primarily food and drink. Every alley, train viaduct, or blank wall for that matter, have some program. The train system here is far more advanced than new York or most anywhere, you cab get to many main things in 6 minutes which is remarkable for a city of this scale and magnitude.
Last night, after visiting the awesome notorious diagonal Shibuya intersection, I met up with my thesis professor from Oregon, Hajo Neis, and we were given a great tour and evening in Shimokitazawa, a neighbirhood full of alleys, energy, and activity, but threatened by a massive arterial road that could soon divide it. We were taken to a local karaoke bar the size of a small closet in a very interesting building that housed a public theater on top and about 15 of these tiny individual bars all around the bottom, it was a fantastic hybrid!
After exploring the arcades, streets, and public spaces of gray and commercial Osaka, I realized it too was at once the capital of Japan. It was once a porous city sliced by canals and moats in grid patterns about the city like a super Venice.
The astounding amount of neon at night in any alley, small street, arcade, or even under raised train tracks is testament to supply meeting demand. After a rooftop view, Osaka is endless and dense, yet the population supports its’ maximization. Perhaps koolhaas should have wrote delirious Osaka or delirious Tokyo with a cut through many parts of the city showing buildings with tiny footprints and a lift having different businesses on every floor even if it is 15 feet wide and ten storeys.
In the polar opposition to this cultural phenomena, my good friend, Masaru Sunagawa and I made a pilgrimage into the mountains east of Kyoto to see Ise, the resting place of the oldest religious building in Japan, and the birthplace of Japan shintoism. You can only approach the first gate and the second if you are the president or a vip. The shrine is rebuilt every twenty years, the time it takes for trees to grow and new skilled workers to be trained. The buildings have no nails and float sturdily above the moisture laden forest floor. The roof is made up of hollow straws laid over one another functioning as insulation, a slick surface for shedding water (due to the latent moisture in straw), and an escape for the smoke burned within that protects from mosquitos.
I am now off to my hotels public bath in Tokyo looking like Bill Murray in lost in translation due to my way too tiny bath slippers and kimono.
A day spent in the alleys and canal edges of Gion, the old entertainment district of Kyoto, where retail has compacted the storefront into a three foot deep experience that typically would require twelve in the west. Shades, screening, gardens, drainage, and displays are integrated in a tight unison. The thickness of the wall is the journey from the realm of the city to the realm of the merchant.
After an interesting trip in the dark from kansai to kyoto and a semi direction less walk through turn of the century kyoto row houses, I was able to find my lodgings on the second floor of an old michayi house where tatami lines the floor and most doors slide in ways you couldn’t imagine at 3am when trying to locate the toilet.
I began my day walking through the nishiki market, a 5 block long alley of sorts that carries a colorful glass cap hung from a large truss that carries electrical along with structural services. This market has every kind of food imaginable from pickled goods to octopus head.
The next destination was the much anticipated pontocho street, a 10 foot wide pedestrian path that has housed shops, restaurants and the geisha quarter for hundreds of years. The old screened, and tiled roofs along here coalesce with modern neon signs hanging everywhere advertising the various places to eat that are tucked into every vacant space facing the street.
After walking the pontocho, I moved one block east to the refreshing kama, the cascading canal like river that splits kyoto east ave west. People gather on the bank to relax and enjoy the water.
After suvset, I walked the pontocho again studying the effect of the neon and lanterns on the tough facade surfaces. Also the presence of business people and tourists here after dark transforms it into a hustling and bustling space of the senses with the heightened ability to smell the cooking in trapped air, the sounds with the lack of traffic noise, and heat off backs of kitchens with the occasional gust off the river at a view point that breaks the street wall. Tomorrow, I will explore the gion quarter.
Beginning this Tuesday, November 9th, I will embark on my last fellowship trip to Japan. I will be visiting Kyoto first, then Tokyo via Osaka and the Ise shrine. My journey will last two weeks, please find my itineraries below and email me with any additional places you think I should see. Stay tuned for what should be the greatest alley adventure yet!
Also, the application deadline for the upcoming 2011 emerging professional travelling fellowship is December 15. Feel free to contact me regarding the application or anything else.
From the graffiti-lined AC/DC Lane, to the retaraunts of China Town, and the shopping streets of Degraves Lane, to the hangout of Centre Place, Melbourne was an incredible city of alleys and public space in general. This type of urbanism is not attainable without prolific planning, policy, and organic development. This network of alleys is a model city for any flatiron grid city seeking to re-invigorate their back-alleys and side streets.