The city within

They can raze Old Edo's remnants, but they can't take away that Shitamachi spirit


There are three things that stir the heart of every true Tokyoite: sento (public baths), mazelike roji (alleys) and matsuri (festivals). Over the last couple of decades, all three have been gradually fading from the city scene, though there are still pockets in the megalopolis where they can be found in traditional harmony.

These are called shitamachi (old downtown) and are the cause of big smiles, nostalgic sighs and feelings of inner satisfaction that Tokyo still has a little of its “true self” left.

The term “shitamachi” was first coined in the mid-18th century for the areas of Old Edo where the merchants and artisan classes lived — nowadays covered by Fukagawa, Asakusa, Kanda, Nihonbashi, Hamacho, Tsukiji, Honjo, Mukojima and Ryogoku. The samurai, meanwhile, lived (as elites the world over tend to do) on the surrounding hills, here called yamanote — specifically Hongo, Kagurazaka, Ichigaya, Yotsuya, Akasaka, Azabu, Shiba, Shirogane, Aoyama and Harajuku.

In those days, when Edo (literally, “River Gate”) was perhaps the biggest city in the world, with more than 1 million inhabitants, “shitamachi” was also a byword for liberalism, freedom and good times. In those areas, where population density far exceeded 60,000 per square kilometer, shops, teahouses, theaters and brothels crowded the main streets, while day-laborers lived hugger-mugger in labyrinthine alleyways.

Tiny wooden houses that stood in rows like teeth were called nagaya (long roof), and in them lived dashing young fishmongers, sandal and toothpick makers, spunky single women who gave shamisen lessons and the rest of the feudal city’s patchwork quilt of humanity. All availed themselves, too, of more than 600 public baths (which were only segregated, by order of the shogunate, in 1791).

In summer, wind-chime sellers peddled their wares from alley to alley. In the winter, noodle stalls operated round the clock, catering at night to people who needed something hot and nourishing after a late night out. Seasonal festivals and events held at neighborhood shrines governed the pattern of shitamachi days. On the streets, things were always happening: fighting, impromptu crap games, loud bursts of laughter from barbers and public baths where men hung out all day long, smoking and trading stories.

Predictably enough, though, much of the shitamachi lifestyle began to die with the onset of modernization. Many of the artisans were replaced by people working in small factory workshops, and many teahouses were transformed into cafes. Still, the shitamachi psyche remained: indomitably optimistic and totally self-sufficient.

Up until World War II, shitamachi folk carried on the great tradition of “not giving a damn about tomorrow,” with their maxim “never carry cash to tide you over the night” considered the height of chic. Even as recently as the 1940s, many older people would proudly declare they had never gone further than 100 meters out of the neighborhood. As 82-year-old Yasue Sato, a lifelong Fukagawa resident, recalls, “Our world began with the grocers’ in the morning and ended with the theater at night, or perhaps a good old gossip with friends from next door.” During the long summer nights, she says, everyone sat on little bamboo benches that once stood outside every nagaya doorway, as smoke from mosquito coils curled into the air.

The American bombing of Tokyo on March 10, 1945, hit shitamachi hardest, wiping out 100,000 lives. The bridges crossing creeks and rivers flowing through the network of downtown districts were obliterated, canals were choked with corpses, houses were blown apart and fires raged everywhere. Novelist Kafu Nagai wrote of hurrying down to Fukagawa at that time to inquire after a friend. But when he got there, he said, he was “standing before a huge, flattened and burned-out wilderness. Nothing was left. It was just blackened earth, as far as my eyes could see.”

True to its inhabitants’ indomitable spirit, though, shitamachi was also the place where black-market stalls first went up, providing for many the very means of survival — even if it may have cost a cherished family heirloom to buy a bag of rice. To this day, Ameyoko in Ueno retains the chaotic fervor of that time.

Just as shitamachi bore the brunt of Tokyo’s destruction, they were also where the recovery started. In the fall following Japan’s surrender, Nagai wrote that a stall in Tsukiji was selling deep-fried fish — that at a time when oil was worth its weight in gold. The sight was so amazing, he likened the experience to “hallucinations in a desert.”

Toughness and pragmatism defined shitamachi, but later these virtues proved to be their undoing. The Tokyo Olympics in 1964 and the subsequent period of rapid growth helped to destroy many of the shitamachi values. Alleyways and canals came to be seen as unsanitary sources of disease, while the narrow streets were unsuited to trucks and cars. Of course the bamboo benches disappeared as well, since who in Japan Inc. had time to sit around on a summer night and gossip?

Through the ’60s and ’70s, most of the canals were drained and filled in to make way for the metropolitan expressway, while the few that remained became so polluted they emitted bubbles of methane. To cut the odors and prevent people from getting dangerously close, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government built “razor walls” — narrow slabs of concrete all along the banks of the Sumida River and its tributaries. This was a crippling blow to the shitamachi lifestyle, as water had not only been the main source of transportation but also of entertainment and solace. Deprived of the river ways and choked by fumes, shitamachi as its people knew them died. Shop owners moved out to the suburbs and commuted to their workplaces, which became simply that: workplaces.

By the mid-’80s even these shitamachi workplaces began to disappear. With land prices soaring virtually by the week, real-estate developers moved in to buy up property after property, leaving in their wake a trail of small dirt lots that looked from above like cavities in a mouth. Sento closed down, cafes were converted into pachinko parlors, and it seemed as though the sound of bulldozers never stopped. High-rises went up, followed by shopping complexes and corporate buildings. The development was heaviest in historical places like Kanda, Tsukiji and Ginza, where entire neighborhoods were razed to make way for new buildings and parking lots. The money flowed in, land prices continued climbing, and analysts predicted that by 2001 shitamachi would have been swallowed up in a dazzling, sci-fi cityscape.

When the bubble burst in 1991, there were two dramatic effects on shitamachi: First, it froze the developers in their Caterpillar tracks; then it spurred spending on public works. The result was that neighborhoods that had been mapped out for destruction remained intact, and the razor walls that separated Tokyoites from the Sumida finally came down, replaced by parks and low fences. In the mid-’90s, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government moved to clean up the river, and polluted sludge was shoveled up from the waters and carted away.

As more fish returned, so did the fishermen, and on weekends people were again able to cast their lines and picnic on the banks — a practice once considered impossible to revive. And as the river began to live again, picturesque yakata boats became popular for parties and gatherings, ferries began operating between Asakusa and Hamamatsucho and the number of shoreside fireworks festivals soared.

Despite these developments, though, Tokyo’s shitamachi areas are now no longer a reality but a concept. Physically and geographically, they don’t exist on anything like their previous scale, though here and there you can catch the flavor of times gone by in a small network of alleys, a corner tofu shop that dates back generations, camellias sprouting out of a plastic bucket in front of a rickety wooden house whose genkan opens straight out onto the street.

In some cases, sadly, shitamachi has also become something deliberately re-enacted — as in Shibamata, the real-life hometown of the fictional movie character Tora-san, played by the late Kiyoshi Atsumi. Geographically speaking, Shibamata is a Tokyo suburb, not true shitamachi, but, marching in step with Tora-san nostalgia, it now shows the world a perfectly preserved shitamachi-like townscape that draws on a fantasy while living the actuality of a tourist town. People pour into Shibamata intent on getting a whiff of the long-lost past. Admittedly, the whiff has a bit of cardboard about it — like the carefully constructed movie set of a box-office hit. And, just as in a movie set, most of the restaurants display antiquated wooden storefronts, but inside it’s all plastic chairs and tables, with customers placing their orders at vending machines.

If anything is worth preserving, it is probably the shitamachi mind-set: a happy-go-lucky attitude married to a fiery temper . . . plus resignation. Shitamachi times are always tough one way or another, and the important thing is to live in the moment: tonight’s igo game, tomorrow’s festival, the passage of the seasons.

Shitamachi people are quick to anger, but quick to cool off: Grudges, long-lasting emotions, too much passion — these are considered tacky and not urbane. And the unwritten shitamachi rule holds that to hang on to something, whether it’s a house, a neighborhood or a way of life, is useless. Things will happen the way they happen, and there’s little to be done except let the river carry everything away, gather up your resources and start over again.

Shitamachi folk are generous, unexacting and sentimental by repute. Ask them for a drink of water, and they’ll brew you some tea. Ask them for a meal, and they’ll offer you a place for the night. Take them to a sad play, and they’ll cry their eyes out; then show them a comedy, and they’ll roll about with laughter. So goes a line from a shitamachi folktale, and it is this spirit that Tokyoites like to boast about.

But this spirit, too, along with the physical shitamachi, is on the brink of extinction. Tokyo has become too vast, too uniform, moving ever forward in a quest for what? Vastness? Sameness?

In the meantime, shitamachi has become more and more like a tourist attraction, re-created and re-enacted in designated places like Asakusa and Tsukishima, with souvenir shops selling the usual shitamachi gimmicks of towels, sandals and toothpicks. Which is fun, in an easily accessible, theme-park kind of way. As for the real thing, the corner tofu shop (the stuff in the supermarket tastes better and is organic) or the odd remaining neighborhood sento (full of old people in foul moods) probably offer the closest approximation.

The choice is yours.