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MINATO WARD

Where ambitions have long soared

by Kit Nagamura

First of two parts

Minato Ward’s northern half is a Valhalla of ambitions. Towering skyscrapers, pinnacle purveyors of fashion and food, as well as top (and sometimes topless) entertainments all aspire to grandeur here.

Newest in the latest Tokyo trend toward the vertical is Mitsui Fudosan’s Midtown complex, which boasts the tallest building in the Tokyo metropolitan area. The 2007 Midtown Tower’s 248 meters — whose upper reaches are leased to Ritz-Carlton — trumps all others in the altitude stakes.

Similarly, the high hopes of tycoon developer Minoru Mori are writ large in his massive Hills developments, eight of which are situated in Minato Ward. Roppongi Hills, the biggest to date, hosts exhibitions of high art, high up. The 53rd-floor Mori Art Museum’s current exhibition (through Jan. 14) “Roppongi Crossing 2007; Future Beats in Japanese Contemporary Art” is rivaled only by the bird’s-eye view visitors get of Roppongi — Minato Ward’s famed nightclub district.

“Sure, there’s a lot going on in Roppongi at night, but we’ve got business during the day as well,” pipes up an employee at U. Goto Florist. Opened in its current location near Roppongi Crossing in 1892 by Umanosuke Goto, the shop was the first in Japan to sell Western-style floral arrangements. Now its name is sometimes misread by foreign tourists as the command “You! Go to florist!”

Foreigners and military orders both have a history in Roppongi. From 1858, when Japan opened its borders to diplomatic missions, the first legations — including the British, American, Dutch and French — initiated a foreign presence in the area.

As for the military element, troops have trained and been based in Roppongi’s valley since the Edo Period (1603-1867), eventually becoming forces of the Imperial Japanese Army under Emperor Meiji in 1890. Then, after the end of World War II, U.S. Army and Allied officials occupied their former enemy’s quarters, bringing to Roppongi yet another installment of military testosterone to line the pockets of nightlife entrepreneurs, party girls and yakuza gangsters.

Recent crackdowns on risky businesses with restrictions on opening times, raids and security cameras — as well as the influx of upscale developments — have led to rumors that Roppongi is cleaning up its act; insiders insist, however, that while the stages may change, the dance goes on.

Meanwhile, northern Minato Ward’s most distinctive skyline feature is Tokyo Tower — and when the sun sets, “T²” blows away its lofty glass-and-steel competition. The brilliant-orange broadcasting spire is radiant against a winter backdrop, and effervesces on misty, violet-hued nights. Adorned in plain white lights until 1989, when orange floodlights perked things up, today the tower blushes various hues to mark special days and events: pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Week, blue to mark National Diabetes Day, and green on St. Patrick’s Day.

Symbolizing a postwar renaissance for Tokyo, the tower was assembled using steel made from U.S. tanks destroyed in the Korean War of 1950-53. Though blatantly derivative of the 324-meter Eiffel Tower in Paris, Tokyo’s perpendicular pride stands taller, at 333 meters, and weighs less by 3,000 tons (mon Dieu!) than the Parisian beauty.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the completion of this highest self-supporting steel tower in the world. It is perhaps that milestone — plus anticipation of a new tower in Sumida Ward slated to be almost twice as high — that may have put the orange spire firmly in the framework of current nostalgia for all things from the Showa Period (1926-1989).

A 2007 TV series based on Lily Franky’s autobiographical novel “Tokyo Tower — Okan to Boku to Tokidoki Oton (Tokyo Tower — Mom, Me and Sometimes Dad)” features the tower as a 1970s dream destination. Meanwhile, a superb collection of memoirs published last year by the Minato Ward office offers dizzying snapshots of steel erectors posing on some of the tower’s topmost girders with no safety equipment at all.

In contrast to these warm glows of nostalgia, director Takashi Yamazaki’s popular movies “Always — 3-chome no Yuhi (Always — Sunset on Third Street)” and its sequel two years later in 2007, paint a rather sanitized version of the hardtack life in early Showa Era Minato Ward.

“We were here during that time,” says 80-year-old Fumiko Hayato, the oldest of three generations of women managing Sowa, a homemade ice-cream store opened 53 years ago near Kamiyacho Station, “but ice cream and good luck keep me looking young.”

Fumiko’s daughter, Keiko, 59, served me a tantalizing tower of homemade cinnamon ice cream, along with tales of how Sowa made a name for itself delivering orders of “exotic” ice cream to fancy hotels and restaurants. Meanwhile, regulars drifted in and out, trading gossip, evoking precisely the community warmth and humor that might well someday become people’s nostalgia for this current Heisei Era.

From Sowa, climbing behind the NHK Broadcasting complex, there’s a little-traveled route up the highest peak in any of Tokyo’s 23 wards — Atago-yama. En route, before you see it, you can smell the cheese shop Fermier, one of Tokyo’s best, and at the apogee, a heady 26 meters above sea level, the breathless climber is rewarded with Atago Jinja, a tranquil Inari shrine dating from 1603. The summit Shangri-La includes a pond with a decorative skiff, carp, and a carpet of little maple leaves in season — as well as a serene place to enjoy slow food at Restaurant T.

The proper entrance to Atago Shrine is the Shussei no Issidan (Stairway to Success), 86 stones set at a treacherous 40-degree slope. There’s a more gradual stairway off to the right, and an elevator to the left, but challenging the main steps certainly fuels appreciation of the feat said to have been accomplished by a 17th-century samurai named Magaki Heikuro — that of riding a horse to the top. Once there, he helped himself to a branch of plum blossoms for his Shogun, Iemitsu Tokugawa, and then (more difficult still) rode down to deliver the tribute. Simply making it to the top on foot is said to bestow success on the average traveler.

While hardly an average traveler, Zojoji Temple (1393) did make a journey from its original site in Kanda to Shiba Park in Minato Ward in 1598, shortly after Ieyasu Tokugawa set up a provincial government in Edo (present-day Tokyo). Many times rebuilt and often photographed with Tokyo Tower in the background, the temple features the original 1622 main gates, dusty and protected by antipigeon nets, with a tinge of the original vermilion lacquer still visible on the majestic woodwork. The temple’s bell tower barely contains its single, 15-ton bell known as the Daibonsho. One of the three largest bells in Edo, the Daibonsho was cast from metal donated to the shogun, among which were numerous kanzashi (ladies’ hair ornaments).

One wonders what could be built from the hair ornaments of today’s fashion followers, many of whom flock to Aoyama, home to peak designer brands such as Prada and Issey Miyake. Pedestrian-friendly storefronts cozy up all too close to Yoku Moku, the 1948 patisserie and tearoom specializing in chemical-free butter cookies shaped like cigars and wafer-thin biscuits coated in chocolate.

After researching Minato Ward’s treats, I made a New Year’s resolution to get some exercise on Icho-Namiki, the promenade off Route 246 (known as Aoyama Avenue here) that leads to the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery. Flanked with 146 magnificent ginkgo-tree pinnacles in rows on either side, the avenue is paved with golden leaves each fall, but is lovely in any season.

Landscape architect Yoshinobu Orishimo (1881-1966) used Western- inspired techniques in linear perspective to achieve a trompe l’oeil; trees were planted in size gradation so the memorial appears further away than it is.

After a hike through Aoyama Cemetery, Tokyo’s largest burial ground, I met Tomoko Mizutani, who has lived all her 82 years in a quiet cul-de-sac just off Route 246.

“My family were shoemakers,” she said, “and I recall mounted troops parading on Aoyama Avenue. People would dash out and collect the horse dung, so the road wouldn’t get too slippery.” Hard to top that tidbit of history.