Sunday 26 May 2024

Skywalking in Ginza: Towards a New Greener, People-centric Tokyo

It's warming up rapidly here in Japan and the humidity is already stifling - I dread to think what the summer holds for us (last summer, as I've mentioned before, was the hottest on record). Even, Golden Week - a series of four public holidays over a seven-day period from April 29th to May 6th was unusually hot. Many Japanese see Golden Week as a chance to take an extended break, some jetting off to Hawaii or other foreign destinations, others just enjoying domestic tourism. Needless to say, it's crowded and expensive everywhere during Golden Week, so BritishProf usually stays home, but I did venture out to explore the Ginza skyline after getting tickets for a special event called the "Ginza Sky Walk 2024".

Ginza (銀座), made up of the characters for "silver" and "place," (following the establishment of a silver-coin mint in 1612) is famous for being one of the most pricey, elegant, and luxurious districts in the world thanks to its many upscale shops and restaurants (it has the highest concentration of western stores in Tokyo). At the same time, it is deeply rooted in history, forming part of the traditional downtown (shitamachi) centre of the old Edo capital (see here and here for my two-part take on Tokyo's old town). Walking north past the department stores and designer boutiques you eventually hit Nihonbashi and here you can find the true centre of Tokyo, the bridge marking the terminus of the roads which ran between Edo and Kyoto: as I show here, the zero milestone plaque known in Japanese as Nihon Kokudō Genpyō (日本国道元標) can still be seen on the bridge and it is from this spot that distances to Tokyo are calculated. The bridge itself though is overshadowed by a massive expressway running right over the top which was built in the rush to get ready for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and is typical of the maze of highways scarring the Tokyo skyline. Fortunately, change is afoot and the Ginza Sky Walk 2024 marks the beginning of that change.

Ginza Sky Walk 2024 (map here) was the first chance to preview a new development project known as the KK Line Regeneration Project, "a future walkable urban development that aims to connect people with the city and the environment" that may begin to open in the 2020s but won't be finished until the 2030s or even 2040s. KK Line (KK線)is an abbreviation for the Tokyo Expressway Network (東京高速道路) and the project envisages a green pedestrian/cyclist space above the streets somewhat similar to the New York High Line. The three-day event allowed 15,000 people to take the 1.8km walk from Shimbashi to Kyobashi on the car-free elevated highway.

This push to create network of pedestrian walkways and cycle paths throughout Tokyo and introduce more green and recreational spaces is welcome. Despite the stereotype of Japanese as being "in harmony with nature," Japanese city-scapes are blighted by utility poles and wires running above ground and even the countryside is covered in concrete. Indeed, Alex Kerr's Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan starts with a chapter on Japan's "construction state" and the author argues that Japan "has become arguably the world's ugliest country." Let's hope the Ginza Sky Walk marks the beginning of a face-lift for the capital, a move from a car-centric to a people-centric metropolis.

As a final aside let me introduce an upcoming comedy show in Ginza at the Hakuhinkan Theatre (銀座博品館劇場) , a 381-seat auditorium located on the 8th floor of the Hakuhinkan Toy Park, a lovely building chock full of toys, stuffed animals, games, dolls, variety goods and souvenirs. The Newspaper (ザ・ニューズペーパ)are a Japanese comedy troupe with a 35-year history who bill themselves as a ‘social satirical comedy group' (社会風刺コント集団). In a country where political comedy is almost entirely absent in the mainstream media (mostly due to the reluctance of sponsors to offend the powers that be - see here for a detailed paper), their sharp commentary on current affairs is a breath of fresh air. The show I saw had an incredible variety of comedy techniques, and included members imitating political figures, like Kishida and Trump, as well as celebrities, such as the baseball player Shohei Otani and shogi champion Shota Fujii. To my surprise, there was even a skit centred around the Japanese imperial family, something which is usually taboo here in Japan. Highly recommended! If you're feeling peckish after the show, I would recommend Ginza's  Sukiyabashi Jiro (すきやばし次郎), the only sushi restaurant ever to get three Michelin stars. Unfortunately, reservations have to be made months in advance and, as with most places in Ginza, it costs an arm and a leg. The Netflix documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" (二郎は鮨の夢を見る) may be as close as you ever get! COMMENTS as always are most welcome!

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