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Life

Tokyo: Views from the other side

Photographs highlight change and disappearing tradition in 'lower city' of a seething metropolis

Single-story row-house, Higashimukojima. Window baffles and hinged fanlight provide privacy and ventilation. This structure is in disrepair yet somehow fits organically with the neighborhood and the newer but still modest small homes around it. Many similar old residences are fixed up and carry on. The car park in the background was likely another house, with the landowner waiting for the right conditions to build again.

TOKYO -- I began taking photographs of my east Tokyo neighborhood of Asakusa and the Sumida River about eight years ago, initially to record the changes occurring and the lives of ordinary people in the shitamachi (or "lower city") district.

I had started a blog I named Ginzaline, after Asia's oldest subway, which from 1927 connected the short distance between Ueno and Asakusa. I figured anywhere within walking distance of these two stations, four stops apart, was fertile ground for my research. The district is a low-lying delta where zoning conventions blur. Small factories stand beside mama-san "snack" bars; narrow lanes branch into labyrinths off major roads; family homes of corrugated steel or aged wood jostle with schools, new high-rise condominiums or food stores.

Recent upheavals in the streetscapes have become more pronounced. Demolition and redevelopment claim block after block. The old homes and shophouses are replaced by pay-parking sites and high-density apartments. I thought I knew the narrow lanes, but construction hoardings, razed lots and brand-new hotels often blank out memories. What used to stand here?

After what seemed like a peaceful hiatus due to the coronavirus, construction is now getting back to speed. I can barely walk down the block without encountering another wrecking site in progress.

People are being replaced too. Walking-frames are common street furniture. The elderly tread carefully, assisting others even older -- most likely their parents. At the same time, there are morning and afternoon rush hours of young mothers on bicycles with child seats; often the woman has another baby slung off her back or chest. The lower-rent neighborhoods are attracting new families.

I try to look at it without sentimentality. Rather, I carry a feeling of awe at the inhabitants' survival. The 20th century inflicted on Tokyo the 1923 earthquake and the 1945 U.S. napalm bombing, both of which especially devastated the city's east. From the ashes rose the hope and energy of the 1950s boom years, and the extensive public works ahead of the 1964 Olympics. Much of the small industry and labor was rooted in this district. Indeed, people of the lower city drove the creation of modern Japan.

 

Close to the 17th-century pleasure quarters of Yoshiwara (still a brothel district) stands this postwar two-story nagaya (longhouse) tenement. The residential form first emerged in the Edo period (1603-1867) as a single-story dwelling for multiple families. Each had its own entrance but common walls and other features such as a shared well (although bathing was at a communal bathhouse) required daily cooperation among neighbors and shaped people's sensibilities. This building is of mixed commercial and residential use. A ramen restaurant has recently appeared in the building on the right.

 

Flowing south (right to left) beyond the baseball field is the 173-km-long Arakawa River, forming one artery of a delta with the Sumida River further beyond, near the Tokyo Skytree. Before the construction of extensive water gates and drainage canals, floods were common in the "lower city" of the delta (higher classes lived at higher elevations). The river bank is thoroughly utilized as a public space, for baseball and soccer practice, some semi-legal garden allotments and a cycle path that stretches for 80 km to the next prefecture of Saitama.

 

Walking the dog in the district surrounding Asakusa's Sensoji temple and its famed approach through Kaminarimon ("Thunder Gate").

 

Bank of the Arakawa River. A pile of mud remains on the soccer pitch a week or so after Typhoon Hagibis of October 2019, the most powerful storm to hit the mainland in decades. The man pictured is one of the homeless who lives nearby, a former fisherman from the deep north of Tohoku. He evacuated, leaving his cats on the roof of his tarpaulin hut -- the animals and shelter somehow survived.

 

Renovations in Ueno. A commonly held image of Tokyo is of a city slathered in concrete and asphalt, but people of the lower city create their green spaces anywhere they can, and many households display potted gardens spilling onto the roads.

 

Pedestrian bridge over the railway at Horikiri Station. The bridge overlooks a flood canal connecting the Arakawa and Sumida rivers, and two sections of the Shuto Metropolitan Expressway network, started in 1962 in the lead-up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

 

Generations meet. Kaminarimon, top, and Asakusa, bottom. Walking around the shitamachi district, it is easy to get the impression families stick together, from the elderly to the very young, in line with tradition.

 

Kaminarimon district. Paved-over streets with their many shadows that shift through the day sometimes appear to me like waterways. This may be more than mere fancy as the district was heavily threaded with now-covered-over and filled-in canals (indeed the number of place names in Tokyo that end in "bashi," or bridge, is testimony to how the metropolis was sometimes referred to as a "Venice of the East."

 

Kaminarimon district. Destruction of buildings reveals adjacent walls and windows that have seen no sunlight for decades. This site recently housed a cafe adjacent to a reggae bar operated by young men who would barbecue jerk chicken on the street. The district is becoming gentrified and while the reggae boys have relocated nearby, they can no longer operate their outdoor grill.

 

Calling from the concourse. Despite the relatively loose use of space in the shitamachi districts, car parking remains at a premium and vertical carousels are common, such as this one near the Sumida River at Komagata, with its turntable on a concrete driveway.

 

Miyuki Ramen, Horikiri. I used to make a pilgrimage here until I turned up one day in 2020 and the shop was shuttered, with a sign on the door saying only, "Thank you for your long patronage." I asked one of the builders, who said the elderly master had fallen ill and closed down, but would live there after he returned from hospital. His older sister who also worked there told me that after the war, children would play in the adjacent drainage canal, and also upriver in the U.S. bomb craters when they filled with water in the rain.

 

Sumida River looking upriver from the train. The bridge for the Tobu Skytree line also carries trains to the hot spring resort town of Nikko. This photograph was taken in spring 2019, with a yakatabune "pleasure boat" and cherry trees in bloom along the bank to the right, as well as the foot of the Skytree tower.

 

The main avenue of Kokusaidori in 2019. Police often wait on this street, which separates central and west Asakusa, to catch bicycle-rule violators. It's possible they have little better to do as crime remains low, despite Asakusa's reputation (now largely undeserved) as a rough district. Past trouble with yakuza has led shrines to make efforts to rein in territorial violence, which was not uncommon at major events such as the May Sanja Festival, and west Asakusa has seen gang shootings. The pharmacy pictured here has now been torn down for a large commercial and residential development.

 

A "recycle store," Asakusa. Secondhand shops were rare in Tokyo a few decades ago, as the goods were considered shabby, but young renters attracted by Asakusa's lower costs can now set up house with everything from toaster ovens to leather jackets to bicycles. There's also enough sidewalk for display space.

These images were shot on film with panorama and other cameras. The exhibition (with book) "Tokyo Shores: 36 Views from the Other Side," runs until July 12 at Tamanoi Cafe, 5-27-4 Higashimukojima, Sumida-ku Tokyo; tel. +81 (0)80-2107-1016 [in Japanese].

Mark Robinson is a Tokyo-based writer and photographer; for more shitamachi stories see www.ginzaline.com.

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