Culture and commerce thrive under Japan’s elevated train tracks

by

Special To The Japan Times

At dusk, the bars and restaurants that crowd the underside of the tracks at Yurakucho Station come alive.

Lanterns flicker on, sign boards are propped up on the sidewalk, and charcoal grills are lit.

The patrons stream in from every direction. Dark-suited professionals arrive from the office blocks to the north and west alongside curators of fashion and culture from Ginza to the south, and workers from the last of the mom and pop operations in Hatchobori join from the east. Even executives from Marunouchi, who could easily afford a high-end sushi dinner, often opt for a weak plastic stool, a mug of beer and a plate of something cheap under the tracks.

Drinking under the tracks near Yurakucho Station has been the unofficial neighborhood pastime since the 1950s, when a thriving postwar black market helped draw shoppers to the area. These days, the informal atmosphere unites people from across the social spectrum in raucous celebration of the completion of another day’s work. It is the perfect antidote to hours of keeping up appearances for clients and customers.

Yurakucho is not unique — it is just the apex of a phenomenon seen throughout Japan. Lively clusters of shops and restaurants can be found under elevated train tracks across Tokyo, from Koenji to Ryogoku. But for the most part, these spaces are holdovers from an earlier era. Most newer station developments follow a different model, typically involving a glitzy mall and a charmless bus plaza.

Recently, though, developments under rail lines have been making a comeback, taking inspiration from Yurakucho and its ilk. One example is mAAch ecute, a cluster of shops under the Chuo Line tracks near Kanda Station. The complex is built in the shell of the former Manseibashi train station, which operated from 1912 to 1943. The wide brick arches and granite cornerstones that support the elevated train platform are nearly identical to those in Yurakucho. The design of mAAch ecute, however, exposes and celebrates the architecture rather than cluttering it with haphazard additions and signage.

Smooth new concrete walls reinforce the brick arches of mAAch ecute, creating a bright, modern enclosure for the shops inside. The majority of the continuous space is taken up with an eclectic, design-oriented market where a brewery, a clothing store, a furniture showroom, a stationery shop and a cafe all mingle together.

There is also an event space that hosts a changing lineup of crafts classes, pop-up stores and workshops. On my last visit, the space was filled by a weeklong pop-up shop put on by Neko, a magazine for cat lovers. In addition to their magazine, they offered toys, treats and many volumes detailing the finer points of cat ownership. I pretended to peruse these items while observing a class on embroidery.

About 15 people had gathered to try their hand at cat portraiture, each carefully stitching the face of their pet onto a piece of cloth, which could then be transferred to a shirt or pillow.

MAAch ecute also includes a number of small, independent shops such as Obscura, a coffee roaster from Hiroshima that has set up a Tokyo outpost. The shop has made a name for itself by stocking a variety of single-origin beans, and by offering free tastings before you buy. The coffee is a welcome companion while wandering through the complex, which includes a meticulously detailed model of the station and its surroundings circa the Taisho Era (1912-1926).

MAAch ecute is also a good place to take in the surroundings. The main shopping area opens onto a long outdoor terrace that hangs over the Kanda River. From here, one can lounge and watch people, trains and even the occasional boat go by. A staircase inside leads to an upper-level cafe that sits between two sections of active rail track, with trains passing within a meter or so of the glassed-in dining area.

Meanwhile, Koganecho, a gritty neighborhood a few train stops west of downtown Yokohama, provides an entirely different spin on what is possible under the tracks. The bars of Yurakucho and the shops of mAAch ecute both rely on atmospheric architecture and a central location to attract visitors, but Koganecho is attempting to build a reputation as a vibrant cultural center in its own right.

For years, the small shops near Koganecho Station were centers for drug trafficking and prostitution, blighting the area and drawing it into decline. As recently as 2004, some 200 illegal businesses operated in Koganecho, but efforts by the local community have transformed the district over the past decade into a hub of the Yokohama art scene.

New galleries, art studios, public spaces and shops have been constructed piecemeal under the tracks, part of a slow but steady revitalization that will take years to complete. Several community groups stage events and shows in the flexible spaces, sometimes in collaboration with the Yokohama College of Art and Design. There are also several small live/work studios that host a mix of Japanese and international artists in residence. Their work is often on view in the small venues that dot the neighborhood.

The Koganecho Art Book Bazaar, a bookstore in a sleek glass box tucked under the tracks, is a standout. The warm wood interior is filled to bursting with artist monographs, magazines and works of art history. The shop also stocks old maps, advertisements, prints, VHS tapes and a seemingly random assortment of other knickknacks. It is easy to lose track of time here, leafing through rare books on 1960s Japanese avant-garde performers or 19th-century European landscape painting. The staff don’t seem to mind if you make the shop your home for an hour or two, which fits the laid-back atmosphere of the area.

The revitalization of Koganecho has begun to spread out from the train tracks, transforming small buildings nearby. Formerly vacant storefronts are now filling with coffee houses, cafes and crafts shops. For now, at least, some of the older watering holes and dive restaurants remain. These elements of the district’s seedy past mix pleasantly with the newcomers, creating a unique texture.

Nakameguro Koukashita, on the other hand, is decidedly upscale. Koukashita, in the popular Tokyo neighborhood of Nakameguro, is the most recent example of the under-the-tracks revitalization trend. Like Koganecho, Nakameguro was once a down-and-out district that in recent years has seen successive waves of gentrification. The area is home to luxury clothing stores, pricey bars and a cafe specializing in French toast and champagne. Koganecho might look something like this in a decade or two.

But not everything at Koukashita requires a big budget. Samon, a well known Nagoya oden hot pot restaurant, has opened a location here. You can choose from between 20 to 30 reasonably priced items that simmer in their massive, meter-wide vat of broth. And a stylish new branch of Tsutaya, the bookstore chain, is open daily until 1 a.m., making it a pleasant place to lounge after touring the row of shops and eateries that rambles on for the better part of a kilometer, almost as long as its cousin in Yurakucho.

Spending time under the train tracks cannot be called a “traditional” Japanese activity, but in some ways the practice is more socially relevant than neighborhood festivals or fireworks shows. Unconscious daily rituals are what hold cultures together, and life under the tracks is tied intimately to routine. In a city where roughly half of commuters travel by train, the community and commerce that develop around stations take on a special importance. These areas are well worth exploring, whether in Yurakucho or Nakameguro, Tokyo or Yokohama.

Personally, I most often find myself in Yurakucho. When I’m in the neighborhood, I usually head a few blocks south of the station to Motsuyaki Fuji, a bargain-basement izakaya bar where everything is coated in a thin film of something else. A sticky countertop, a dusty jar of dried squid, a damp forehead, a sopping skewer of chicken, and a floor caked in ash and dried liquor. The air itself is laced with smoke, distorting vision in a way that complements the effects of alcohol. The beer flows, the people come and go, the trains rattle overhead, and I am always sad to leave at closing time.

Getting there: MAAch ecute is within walking distance of Akihabara and Kanda stations, among others. Visit www.maach-ecute.jp.e.of.hp.transer.com/access.html for more information. Others areas of interest can be found under the tracks of Yurakucho, Nakameguro and Koganecho stations.