Heart of darkness: Nostalgic Tokyo disappearing amid construction boom

With the number of new development projects in Tokyo increasing in the runup to the 2020 Olympics, we revisit some older neighborhoods in the capital that are feeling the squeeze


Staff Writer

The Shinagawa neighborhood of Musashi-Koyama — a vibrant maze of tiny alleyways that once housed dozens of small eateries, tapas restaurants and bars — is now a virtual ghost town.

Just a few months ago, regulars would have struggled to squeeze into the myriad watering holes that filled the neighborhood on any given night after work. It wouldn’t have been unusual to see groups spilling out onto the street, reaching across each other to pick up drinks that were resting on a table inside.

Like several other neighborhoods in Tokyo, the bars and restaurants located east of Musashi-Koyama Station are scheduled for demolition. In their place, a 40-story apartment complex, complete with shops, will be built.

With the 2020 Olympics looming large in the distance, older areas of the capital are now being targeted for redevelopment.

Toshiko Watabe’s Shiro, a small bar in Musashi-Koyama, closed its doors for good on Oct. 30. Immaculately dressed in a russet brown-colored kimono with a hint of red showing from under the sleeves, Watabe says she is sad to see her 42-year legacy in the neighborhood end.

“I never thought it would all end with me,” says Watabe, 73. “I had always thought that one of my children would eventually take over someday. Shiro was all I had and I was planning to continue for as long as I lived.”

Watabe took over Shiro from her aunt when she was still in her 20s. Back then, she recalls, the atmosphere of the neighborhood was very different. Fistfights would regularly break out in the street and yakuza gangsters were a constant presence on corners.

Locals referred to the neighborhood as the “underworld” due to its menacing black-market atmosphere in the postwar years.

“I started this place out of necessity to survive and, I have to admit, I was pretty scared at first,” Watabe says.

“This neighborhood wasn’t as open back then as it is now. This was a part of the city known for its nightlife, and discrimination was still strong against people in the ‘water business,'” she says, using a colloquial term for the hospitality industry.

Musashi-Koyama has since blossomed into a dynamic and spirited neighborhood. The area became so popular that celebrities and presidents regularly stopped in at Shiro, passing on tips about running the business before staggering off into the night. More recently, Watabe was more likely to serve a younger generation of customers, who would stop in to seek advice on relationships and life.

“Each person who has been here has helped me through all of these times,” Watabe says with tears in her eyes. “The power of everyone’s kindness is amazing and I will never forget that. At this time in my life, I’m at an age where I have something to offer younger customers.”

Watabe says many of her neighbors are also getting on in their years, making it difficult for them to unite and keep property developers at bay.

“I broke down in tears and appealed directly to the property developers, but the company is simply too big and there was no way I could ever win,” Watabe says. “There was nothing more I could do but give up. I’m filled with tremendous sadness and disappointment.”

Human perspective

Manjo Shimahara, head of a think tank called Home’s Research Institute, is disappointed to see nostalgic Tokyo neighborhoods such as Musashi-Koyama being demolished and turned into anonymous skyscrapers.

Perhaps not surprisingly, he is also a fan of the Meguro Line station.

“So many neighborhoods in Tokyo are undergoing redevelopment at the moment,” Shimahara says. “They might be newer and cleaner, but are they interesting? There is a clear gap between neighborhoods that are believed to be worth a lot of money from a planning and investment perspective, and areas that are actually enjoyable and interesting.”

Magazines such as Toyo Keizai typically list areas like Chiba Prefecture’s Inzai at the top of annual lifestyle rankings based on access and convenience. Indeed, Inzai has topped the magazine’s rankings for the past four years in a row.

By comparison, Home’s Research Institute, operated by IT firm Next Co., which manages a sizable real-estate database, published a new list based on “sensuosity” in September that puts quality of life above the potential for investment return. Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward topped the list, with many noting that the local community shared a sense of proximity.

“I wanted to rank cities from a human perspective,” Shimahara says. “The list examines how people feel using their five senses because that reflects how people live.”

Shimahara turns conversation toward the 1922 Ville Contemporaine, an unrealized project to house 3 million inhabitants that was created by Swiss-French designer Le Corbusier, one of the pioneers of modern architecture.

Similar development projects were being planned in the United States and many parts of Europe at that time but many were later abandoned after influential writer Jane Jacobs criticized urban development.

“From city to city, the architects’ sketches conjure up the same dreary scene; here is no hint of individuality or whim or surprise, no hint that here is a city with a tradition and flavor all its own,” Jacobs wrote in a 1958 Fortune magazine article titled “Downtown is for People.” “These projects will not revitalize downtown; they will deaden it.”

Japan, however, seems only quite happy to continue investing in such projects.

“In terms of urban planning, Japan has definitely fallen behind (Western nations),” Shimahara says. “Eventually, this type of development is going to reach its limits.”

Battle over Moon Road

In front of Higashi-Nakano Station, a four-minute train ride from Shinjuku Station, is a small crescent-shaped alley called Moon Road.

About 30 small bars, restaurants and a mahjong shop line both sides of the alley, and walking through this neighborhood is akin to stepping back in time to Showa Era Japan (1926-89) — so much so, that it is regularly used as a location for movies and TV shows depicting days gone by.

Ma-Yan, a chanson bar that has been run by Keiko Higashida for 42 years, sits right in the middle of the narrow alley. Every weekday, Higashida serves customers — both young newcomers and regulars who have been coming for decades — from behind an old-fashioned wooden counter.

Like Musashi-Koyama, Higashi-Nakano is also caught in the middle of a redevelopment dispute.

“Redevelopment isn’t just about Higashi-Nakano — it’s a social issue that is affecting many areas,” Higashida says. “The word ‘redevelopment’ sounds trendy but, in truth, the agency just wants this property to make money off of it.”

A real-estate agency that purchased some of the property along Moon Road filed a lawsuit against Higashida and three other proprietors in April, calling for a court order that would compel them to vacate their premises to allow a 26-story apartment complex to be constructed. Two of the bar owners have decided to accept an out-of-court settlement, but Higashida plans to oppose the project for as long as she can.

“It was like (the real-estate agency) traipsed into my home with their shoes on,” Higashida says. “The bond I have with this bar and my customers is stronger than family.”

Married to an actor and having studied performing arts, Higashida opened Ma-Yan in 1973, taking over a 17-year-old bar from a friend who was also involved in theater.

The interior of Ma-Yan is like a library of memories. An upright piano sits in the back of the dimly lit room next to shelves lined with sheet music and CDs. The main feature of the room, of course, is the wide counter over which Higashida engages her customers. It definitely has a Showa Era feel to it.

“There is no place like Ma-Yan,” Higashida says. “People come in search of something unique and interesting.”

Ma-Yan is also more than just a bar, with Higashida occasionally hosting rakugo storytelling evenings, one-man theater performances and even opera. On regular nights, customers are encouraged to sing accompanied by live piano, with tunes ranging from chanson and jazz to bossa nova and J-pop.

A number of high-profile fans of Moon Road were equally outraged when they heard about the eviction lawsuit, forming a support group that aims to prevent the neighborhood from being turned into an apartment complex. More than 20 people showed up in support of Higashida’s first appearance at the Tokyo District Court in September, flooding the hearing.

“The bar is popular with people from all walks of life,” Higashida says. “Once you enter those doors, we are all friends. We are like family and it doesn’t matter whether or not you are famous. I won’t think about the possibility of losing (the lawsuit) because I have absolutely no intention of moving.”

Winds of change

It’s certainly hard to walk around Tokyo at present without coming across a construction site. The Marunouchi/Yurakucho district, for instance, has undergone some kaleidoscopic changes in recent years. Aside from a few exceptions — such as the retro Marunouchi part of Tokyo Station, which was preserved and renovated — property developers are constructing skyscrapers almost everywhere you look.

On the corner of Sukiyabashi Crossing is a new massive shopping complex featuring Edo Period (1603-1868) kiriko glass motifs on its exterior. It is expected to open next spring. Earlier this year, the building hosting the New Tokyo beer hall — a sort of historical landmark — was demolished and the site is slated to be turned into a 14-story commercial building and hotel.

Just a block away, under the shinkansen tracks, is an area famous for eateries serving yakitori. While the interiors of many of these eateries have seen better years, they’re extremely popular with locals and tourists alike.

Yukihisa Ota, owner of Matsuso in Yurakucho, is dismayed by how commercialized the area has become. “Both locals and tourists come here because of the unique character of the area,” Ota says. “They wouldn’t come if these bars were just like any other chain store. It’s sad to see the area changing so drastically.”

The construction site on which the New Tokyo beer hall once stood is clearly visible from Matsuso. Ota says some of the yakitori shop owners in the area are struggling and some of his neighbors have gone out of business in recent years.

East Japan Railway Co., which owns the property on which Matsuso sits, has yet to announce a plan to redevelop the area, but Ota says he is feeling threatened in other ways. He says the Chiyoda Ward Office began to regulate the area more strictly last year, with officials and police officers making regular rounds to ensure the watering holes are not seating customers on the road from June.

However, Ota says, it was precisely this lively atmosphere that first attracted him to the area to set up Matsuso 17 years ago.

“This is a part of postwar culture the area has established,” Ota says. “It is absolutely ridiculous for the authorities to say our establishments are interfering with the ward’s beauty and atmosphere. Without the seats outside, this place looks like a ghost town.”

Ota’s life has been anything but ordinary. An Akita Prefecture native, Ota came to Tokyo to get a job in his early 20s. After working for a company that made faux leather for a few years, he left to open his own interior renovation firm and, later, moved into real estate. His business successes over the years have come hand in hand with drastic failures. At one point, he recalls, he was in so much debt that he “was just one step away from hell.”

Matsuso was Ota’s last chance at success. With help from his cousin, who had experience working in a restaurant, he carefully created each item on the menu. Everything is cooked by hand in Matsuso, and his employees spend hours preparing the dishes before opening.

At 72, however, he expresses some concern over Matsuso’s future. His daughter and her husband have offered to take over eventually but Ota isn’t sure that can happen. “It’s a pretty stressful job and it’s possible Matsuso will end with me,” Ota says. “Fortunately, I haven’t suffered any major illness so far and I plan to continue as long as I can.”

Pump up the volume

Back in Musashi-Koyama, Scott Barclay’s Bar Rhythm is one of the last bars standing. Barclay is planning to throw a massive three-day party before closing for good on Nov. 15.

With its sleek black interior, massive flat-screen TV and stereo that pumps out a wide variety of music, Bar Rhythm definitely stands out from other watering holes in Musashi-Koyama.

“This is my life,” Barclay says. “These (customers) are my friends. … Bar Rhythm is my baby, my family, my everything and to lose that is the worst.

Developers and the authorities, he says, “don’t care about people or the heart. At the end of the day, it’s all about money.”

Bar Rhythm, which opened in 2003, is the third bar Barclay has run in Musashi-Koyama. Barclay’s career in the neighborhood began with a bar called Snack Aloha 18 years ago before he moved on to open another place called Snack Waikiki.

Barclay was one of the very few non-Japanese bar owners in the area and says it took a long time before people in the neighborhood finally accepted him.

“You have to earn people’s trust,” Barclay says. “I was respectful to the community … and took care of my area, which was a way of saying, ‘Hey, I am a part of you guys. Maybe my skin (color) is different but we are a community, so let’s work together.'”

Bar Rhythm’s clientele is predominantly Japanese, which customers say is largely a result of Barclay’s relationship with them.

Nobuyoshi Nakabayashi, a 65-year-old Musashi-Koyama native and representative director of Nakaya Panko Kojo, a breadcrumbs factory, has been coming to Bar Rhythm for about 11 years.

Nakabayashi notes that after the March 11, 2011, disaster in Tohoku, neighborhoods such as Musashi-Koyama have been pressured into abandoning their businesses in the name of disaster prevention. “Turning neighborhoods such as this into concrete in order to prevent fire makes it easier for the authorities to protect communities from danger,” Nakabayashi says. “They will continue to destroy the history and culture (of such places) because it takes too much effort to try and preserve them.”

After taking time to create his own community in Musashi-Koyama for almost two decades, Barclay says he still can’t get over the shock of losing his bar.

He plans to try working for someone else for the first time in another restaurant but eventually hopes to find another neighborhood in Musashi-Koyama where he can open a reincarnation of Bar Rhythm.

“I can understand there is concern over safety because it’s true that the buildings are old … but Musashi-Koyama is going to look like everywhere else,” Barclay says. “I know that development needs to happen, but not like this. We need these small (bars and restaurants) to keep the community together.”

It won’t be long before the web of alleyways east of Musashi-Koyama Station will be ripped up and turned into a nondescript apartment complex. But the alleyways won’t be forgotten and those who enjoyed what once stood in their place will remember the nostalgic atmosphere that once defined the neighborhood.

  • Pedro

    I was so fortunate to live in Tokyo years ago when it was much more interesting. Each return trip now is shorter as Tokyo becomes less interesting as unique architecture and neighborhoods are demolished. San Francisco did the same with its Jazz District. Decades later, nostalgic SF city leaders tried to rebuild the district, but it failed. You cannot re-create a culture. I think Tokyo will wake up in a decade and ask themselves “what did we do?”.

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  • zer0_0zor0

    You used to be able to get a feel for the lay of the land, the natural geography, now it’s all becoming an abstraction.

  • Blether

    “only quite happy to…” is original and quaintly beautiful. Good job!

    It’s faintly unsettling to hear Japan referred to as a Western nation, mind you.

  • Blether

    “only quite happy to…” is original and quaintly beautiful. Good job!

    It’s faintly unsettling to hear Japan referred to as a Western nation, mind you.

  • Editor_in_Charge

    I am happy to say I was in Tokyo at the best time.
    Yay, Japan is the best, I know they will do better than Beijing or Shanghai where all the tradition has gone.

  • samm bennett

    Happening all over Tokyo. Very shortsighted, too, because as much as Tokyo is really starting to take off as a tourist destination, they are rapidly wiping out exactly the kind of charm and “local color” that savvy tourists want. Another ten years and it’ll be nothing but GAP and UNIQLO and Starbucks and high-rise apartment buildings and nothing particularly colorful or unique for tourists to see. Or for Toktyo residents to enjoy in the old ways. Very lamentable situation.

    • Squidhead

      LOL. So it’s becoming New York City.

      • samm bennett

        Actually, NYC actually has a *bit* more protection in place for, at least, certain old buildings, under some of the historic preservation laws and guidelines. Tokyo has virtually none of that. Outside of certain temples and shrines, you can knock down ANYTHING in Tokyo, and there are no community groups, historical preservation boards or any suchlike to prevent it, in any way.

        But, yeah, NYC has lost so much of its unique cultural heritage (mom and pop stores, etc) over the past 20 years, that the comparison is certainly valid.

    • Squidhead

      LOL. So it’s becoming New York City.

  • https://www.youtube.com/user/salondesimone Macarons & Sakura Tea

    Very sad news. Ulltra-modern and old-fashioned at the same time is one of the reasons as to why I fell for Tokyo. Shinjuku is my second home where the vibrant modernity can at times be extremely suffocating.

  • Tickedofftaxpayer

    I too remember the old Tokyo. All I can say, is while I’m willing to spend tourist dollars to enjoy places I love, I’ve got zero interest in visiting urban renewal projects. Perhaps they can cultivate the mainland Chinese tourist market.

  • sam sunoo

    I do not understand why the city is allowing developers to create those awful and uninteresting structures. The little alleys and shops are so intriguing and exiting to discover. They are the charming and unique parts of Tokyo. Who wants to come visit a city that looks like any airport shopping mall in the world.