Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods (2/3)

Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. Streets in Tokyo are convoluted with abundant dead ends.
Streets in Tokyo are convoluted with abundant dead ends.
In part 1 of this series, we looked over Tokyo’s Aoyama and Ginza district. We noted the complexity of Tokyo’s urban design. What is interesting is the apparent lack of an overall plan to unify the visual and functional aspects of this grand metropolis.

Streets are convoluted, abundant with dead ends. Small ones are unnamed and devoid of house numbers to locate addresses.

Still, we have considered how this village-style organization is congruent to Japanese social value and their history of urban development. While different than Western urban arrangements, they function to better promote social integration and a sense of community.

To better understanding of those “villages,” let us continue where we have left off last time – start with Kagurazaka.

Kagurazaka

Imagine an intermarriage between Paris and Kyoto. Their offspring, possessing the charming sensibilities of both parents, would look very much like Kagurazaka. A neighbourhood with significant French presence, this quartier français de Tokyo is just north of the Imperial Palace between Waseda and Tokyo University.

Its close proximity to French schools and French eateries explains why it is an appealing choice among the French expatriates. Along the gentle slopes of its main thoroughfare, Waseda Dori, are speakers filling the street with Parisian accordion music, weaving together the memories of Auguste Escoffier and Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

Follow the offshoots of Waseda Dori leads a traveler into alleys accessible only by foot. The cobblestone alleys of this quaint enclave is littered with traces of its former self as Tokyo’s premier entertainment district. Patronized by preeminent writers, artists, and politicians of the time, Kagurazaka witnessed the flourishing of exclusive geisha houses and ryotei serving Japanese haute cuisine – the kaiseki.

Many ryotei and geisha houses that have survived to this day are by-referral only. And even at present time, Kagurazaka is still an important centre for traditional Japanese fine cuisine, as concurred by the number of Michelin Stars awarded to its establishments.

Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. Fromagerie Alpage is a local cheese shop; a favourite among the Kagurazaka residents. Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. Paul Boulangerie is a well-known bakery on Waseda Dori, Kagurazaka's main thoroughfare. Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. La Bourgogne is a local brasserie in Kagurazaka. Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. Kagurazaka offers a charming blend of traditional Japanese street with French and Italian shops. Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. Kagurazaka's Sakurasaku specializes charcoal-grilled fish and seafood on skewers. The shop features a big open kitchen and high tables with stools. Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. 神楽坂 梅花亭 is a little shop in Kagurazaka that features traditional Japanese desserts like daifuku and monaka.

Odaiba

Odaiba is a seaport district in Tokyo Bay southeast of the Imperial Palace. This district, constructed in the 1850s, is made entirely out of artificial islands. They are originally designed as fortresses for the canon batteries used to defend Edo (now Tokyo).

Recent development has witnessed its transformation into a new neighbourhood with contemporary urban layout. Odaiba is one of the only two places in Tokyo with accessible beachfront.

What is striking is how wide the streets are when compared to other parts of Tokyo. Its grid layout and the absence of dense power cables typical of Japanese streets makes it more Western than Tokyo.

Thanks to its beachfront, Odaiba is a prime destination for the locals to spend their leisure afternoons. The area is connected to Tokyo proper through the iconic Rainbow Bridge, which lights up in rainbow colour during the winter season.

Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. Odaiba's spacious beachfront layout is in stark contrast with the usually crowded Tokyo. Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. Odaiba is a seaport district made entirely out of artificial islands. Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. Rainbow Bridge is the iconic structure that connects Odaiba islands to Tokyo proper. Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. People taking photos of Odaiba's beachfront sunset.

Omotesando

After Ginza, Omotesando is next on the list for the hardcore shoppers. It is a wide, tree-lined boulevard that runs east to west from Aoyama-dori to the entrance of Meiji Shrine. Omotesando is flanked by designer labels who wish not only to set foot in the fashion capital of Asia, but to showcase their creativity through truly stunning architectural designs.
Consequently, Omotesando is not only known as Tokyo’s Champs-Élysées, but one of world’s most notable “architectural street.” Several notable designs include Herzog & de Meuron’s Prada Aoyama, SANAA’s Dior Omotesando, Toyo Ito’s Tod’s Omotesando, Norihiko Dan’s Hugo Boss, MVRDV’s Gyre, CDI’s Audi Forum Tokyo, and countless others.

Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. Omotesando's sidewalk early in the morning. Streets are filled with window-shoppers way before the opening hours at 11:00 a.m. each day. Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. On an ordinary day, shoppers waiting on the sidewalks for the stores to open. Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. Hugo Boss Omotesando is designed by Norihiko Dan in 2013. The outer shell of the structure is framed with multiple leaf-shaped concrete columns, complimenting the adjacent L-shaped glass and concrete of Toyo Ito's Tod's. Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. The building to the left is Herzog & de Meuron's design of Prada Aoyama; the right building is CDI's Audi Forum Tokyo Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. Takeo Kikuchi store by Jo Nagasaka of Schemata Architects.

Roppongi

Since the end of the Second World War, Roppongi has been known for its foreign embassies and U.S. military presence. That aside, a discussion on Roppongi almost always ends up comparing notes on which nightclubs are happening and which are to be avoided.

And just as inevitable, those comparisons would lead to one of those horror stories involving spiked drinks and stolen cash. They would also include aggressive Nigerian bouncers and severe hangovers, with victims waking up the next day remembering all too little.

Though it is difficult to assess the validity of those cautionary tales, the appearance of the neighbourhood has definitely seen better days. Aside from murky businesses, Yakuza influence and the subsequent Nigerian takeover did not improve its sleazy reputation either.

Still, since 2002, Roppongi has been undergoing a revival as high-end office and condominium projects like the Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Midtown establish themselves in the area. Today, it is fast becoming a place for luxury shopping and cultural exhibitions.

Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. Roppongi neighbourhood at night. Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. Tokyo Midtown is a high-end office and condominium project that has recently set foot in Roppongi. Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. Roppongi comes to life at night when its nightclubs and bars open their door to business.

Shibuya

Shibuya is the center of Japan’s mainstream youth culture. Major department stores, such as Seibu or Marui City, engage in ferocious competitions amid the fickleness of street fashion. Unlike the upscale Omotesando or Ginza, Shibuya’s fashion caters to teenagers and the early twentysomethings. Cheap, fast, loud is the name of the game.

One of the most iconic landmarks of Shibuya is its scramble crossing, known as the Shibuya Crossing. Shibuya Crossing is a five-way intersection where vehicles in all directions stop to allow pedestrians to cross in two-minute intervals. Featured in numerous movies (Lost in Translation and Resident Evil comes to mind), this intersection boasts a daily foot traffic of over half a million people.

Shibuya is also home to Yoyogi Park and Meiji Shrine. The vast green space (at 134 acres) of Yoyogi Park was once a training base for the Imperial Japanese Army and later the location for the opening ceremonies of 1964 Tokyo Olympics. It attracts people from all walks of life – a great place to people-watch during the weekends.

Meiji Shrine is located just above the Yoyogi Park. It is completed in 1926 and is dedicated to the spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken. The shrine was destroyed during WWII Tokyo firebombing and rebuilt in the 1958. Together, Yoyogi Park and Meiji Shrine extend eastward into Harajuku, the ground zero of Japanese visual kei culture. Read more about Shibuya here.

Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. Shibuya Crossing in the early afternoon when foot traffic has slowed down quite dramatically. Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. Shibuya is the center of Japan’s mainstream youth culture. Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. Shibuya Station is one of the busiest train station in Tokyo seeing over 2.4 million passengers on an average weekday Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. Rails leading into Shibuya Station. Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. Shibuya extends eastward into Harajuku, the ground zero of Japanese visual kei culture.

Shimbashi

Shimbashi is primarily a business district in central Tokyo. Its rugged character stands in stark contrast to the modern skyscrapers of Shiodome to the east and posh boutiques of Ginza to the north.

This down-to-earth quality is perhaps what attracts nearby office workers to eat and socialize at the numerous bars and izakayas in the area. It is also for this reason that Shimbashi is often referred to as the “salaryman district.”

Aside from entertaining drunken salarymen with bars and karaoke, Shimbashi is also one of the oldest districts and home to Japan’s first railway terminal. The Shimbashi Station that we see today was constructed in 1909 and was initially named Karasumori.

The interesting thing about the platforms are the small eateries underneath them. Along with the rusted tracks, these shops shape Shimbashi into the gritty neighbourhood it is today.

Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. On a weekend morning, Shimbashi's street is like a ghost town. Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. A street in Shimbashi known for its izakaya and other small eateries. At the background stands the modern skyscraper of nearby district Shiodome. Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. Small eateries underneath the aged railway tracks of Shimbashi. Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. A ramen vending machine underneath Shimbashi Station's train tracks. Pay for orders in advance and go in the shop from the left entrance . Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. A typical ramen shop in Shimbashi. Tokyo: 14 Neighbourhoods. Shimbashi is littered with small eateries catering to those who needs to finish a meal in a hurry.

Continued in Part 3 | Back to Part 1

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