Shibuya's got glamour, and more

by Kit Nagamura

Anyone with more than a week in Tokyo has spent some time with Shibuya’s mascot, Hachiko, waiting and watching thousands of individuals merge on cue into a tsunami of mass determination and consumerism, a scramble of humanity.

Life’s big questions can surface at such a crossing. In Hachiko Time, there are no answers, there is only waiting. Hachiko, the faithful Akita pooch, spent only one year in the care of Tokyo University Professor Hidesaburo Ueno, but quickly learned to meet his master at the end of each day outside Shibuya station.

When Ueno died suddenly in 1925, Hachiko was left out of the loop. The dog spent the next 11 years returning each day in hopes that Ueno would reappear.

Some thought Hachiko a nuisance, others fed him bits of yakitori (chicken on sticks), but when one of Ueno’s equally faithful students brought Hachiko to the attention of the media, Japanese people found him the perfect example of familial loyalty. By 1934, the first little statue was in place, only to be melted down for the war effort and replaced by a second statue in 1947. People have joined him at the station, waiting for loved ones, ever since.

The happening hub of Shibuya funnels moneyed youth in exhibitionist fashions through its clubs and movie theaters, its thousands of eateries, and a plethora of emporiums such as Loft, Tokyu Hands, Tower Records, and Parco.

This mecca of merchandising didn’t happen by accident. Shibuya, Japanese for “Bitter Valley,” was already a stop on the Shinagawa Line (precursor of the Yamanote) by 1885. The area remained relatively rural until the 1920s and 30s, when aggressive magnate Keita Guto (1882-1959) acquired many of the railroads west of Shibuya, and consolidated his holdings into what would later become the Tokyu Corporation. Guto bought up and developed land around his railroads, and then hit on the brainstorm of setting up stores around the stations, to maximize financial gain.

“He brought people who had already bought his housing projects into the city on his trains to spend even more money in his stores, and here we are,” says Shibuya Ward cultural historian Tsuyoshi Yamada with a wry smile.

Since then, nonstop urbanization seems to have buried the river, known both as the Shibuya or the Furukawa River, as well as the valley it carved. However, the city’s oldest subway, the Ginza line, pops out of the earth where the gorge is deepest, and the river, a bare slug trail of its former self, still runs in obscurity beneath the JR lines and south along Meiji-dori, to where it splits the neighborhoods of Ebisu and Hiroo.

Though somewhat scruffy around the edges, there’s a lot of love in Shibuya. The 109 complex, a vertical mall generally known by the Japanese pronunciation of its last two numbers, maru-kyu, is a magnet for the pink lipstick crowd, and it’s a short shake from Koibumi Yokocho (Love Letter Alley) where post World War II lovelorn locals took their missives to be translated into English, hoping to win the hearts of withdrawing Occupation troops. A short skip uphill, between the Dogenzaka drag and the cultural bastion of Bunkamura, is a famous haven of love hotels.

Cooler passions reign in the neighboring residential area of Shoto, once covered with fields of tea tended by the Nabeshima family. Nabeshima Shoto Park, the former tea garden of the Kyushu-based clan, is the jewel centered in a crown of luxury estates. Nearby, the spacious Shoto Museum and Toguri Museum of Art both hold works from the kilns of Nabeshima that are considered to be some of the best porcelain pottery ever produced in Japan.

Among the many museums in Shibuya Ward, two focus on health concerns. The Salt and Tobacco museum smokes out tobacco’s route from Latin America to Tokyo and shows how salt is produced in Japan’s tricky, often humid, climate, while the Sword Museum in Yoyogi displays magnificent samurai weapons.

At NHK Hall, kiseru (traditional Japanese pipes) and katana (swords) come together as props on live studio sets during the filming of historical dramas. Visitors can take a peek at the action, view cutting-edge broadcast technology, and try their skills at playing newscaster, with a real teleprompter, cues and intro music.

Neighboring Harajuku is as famous for its graceful boulevard as it is for expensive shops and cutting-edge designer haunts behind the scenes. Meant to serve as the main approach to Meiji Jingu, and planted with graceful zelkovas (Shibuya’s official tree), Omotesando-dori was completed in 1920. During the American Occupation, the area was built up with Central Apartment housing (where Gap stands now) and other facilities under the temporarily moniker of Washington Heights. Kiddy Land and the Oriental Bazaar catered to the foreign presence in the 1950s, lending a unique pizzaz to the area then as now.

The 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo gave rise to architect Kenzo Tange’s startling dinosaur-backed gymnasium complex in Yoyogi, and put a stamp of finality on the war years. Fashionistas poured in to revamp Harajuku, today epitomized by the ultracool aqua facade of Omotesando Hills.

But Meiji Jingu, which enshrines the souls of both the former Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken, in a black-green cloak of foliage, is a firmly set Shibuya gem. You may not notice that there are 365 species of trees, but the sheer volume of forest (120,000 trees) creates a muffled atmosphere of reverence that the city cannot touch, and in which your own footsteps crunching gravel are nearly obtrusive.

In the northwest corner of Meiji Jingu, you’ll find the Imperial Treasure House (only open weekends) with a little-known but spacious and immaculately maintained lawn that appears to have been lifted from a British postcard. Nearby and just inside the grounds of central Tokyo’s largest park and ex-military training ground, Yoyogi Koen, are the only horse-riding stables within the 23 wards. After an equestrian lesson or two, it’s possible (perhaps) to hobble south to the Yoyogi Hachiman, along Yamate-dori, currently torn to shreds with highway construction.

Sendagaya nestles in another corner of Shibuya. Sports arenas, the Shogi Kaikan and fashion sweatshops can be seen here, but Gaien Nishi-dori, otherwise known as “Killer Avenue” (no one seems to know why!) has become a favorite stop of mine. On Sundays, just below the Watari-Um Museum of Contemporary Art there’s a shop that offers a mind-blowing collection of postcards and notebooks. When I passed by, the museum was showing “Bye Bye, Nam June Paik,” a tribute to the late Korean video artist who once proclaimed, “The future is now.”

Hachiko might have appreciated that sentiment.