From the opulence of world-renown Ginza emporiums, to the glittering scales on the fish auctioned from slick palettes in Tsukiji market, Chuo Ward wheels and deals precious commodities.
It’s a world of pearls and fatty tuna filets, bond trading and babes, crossings of culture and cultural cross-dressing.
Though tiny-second smallest in Tokyo — Chuo is undeniably the city’s flagship ward of finance and lavish living. “Chuo” means middle and from the Edo Period (1603-1868) on, the area has exuded a “bling it on” attitude.
Take Ginza, for example, Japan’sneon-orama of high-end retail. Takashimaya, Hankyu, Mitsukoshi, Matsuya, and Matsuzakaya department stores rub shoulders with the glitzy edifices of Mikimoto, Cartier and Chanel, among others. Swankiest of the gang, and the iconic facade most often featured in images of Ginza, is Wako. Customers are not charged to gulp down the luxurious atmosphere or admire the clock tower born in 1932, but any purchase here costs a limb or two.
Sundays find Chou Avenue, Ginza’s main thoroughfare, closed to traffic. The “walker’s paradise” allows leisurely gawking at gadgetry giants Sony and Apple, art galleries, artistic window displays, and brazen examples of architectural bravado. Spindle-legged tables set up in the middle of the street add a touch of European joie de vivre to the motif of affluence.
At dusk, when many city alleyways turn treacherous, Ginza’s fill with a different sort of touch-and-go atmosphere: sumptuously-clad women in kimono or evening dress make brief appearances, en route to a night’s work of flattering that open the city’s fattest wallets.
Upon becoming Edo’s first shogun (1603), Tokugawa Ieyasu helped Chuo strike it rich by ordering the first nationwide coinage to be hammered here — silver coins were minted in Ginza (literally “silver mint”), and gold ones in the lesser known Kinza, today site of the Bank of Japan’s Head Office, in Nihonbashi. The Currency Museum next door hoards a remarkable collection of Asian legal tender, including the oblong nuggets for which Ginza was named, and some gorgeous gold oban coins the size of rice crackers. Entrance won’t break the bank; it’s free.
Also free are tunes emanating from a little grotto beside Nihonbashi, Japan’s most famous bridge. The ad hoc concerts come courtesy of Hisashi Ozawa, Miyagi University professor of urban design, who spends his free days serenading passersby. His repertoire is golden oldies for coronet, but his agenda is all about “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Cry Me a River.”
For three years, Ozawa has set up his amp and pamphlets to garner public support to uncover Nihonbashi from the eyesore highway overhead, construction hastily designed to handle 1964 Olympics traffic.
“I play here to attract attention to the river,” Ozawa said. “I want to help people to see how we could redesign the area to restore its beauty.”
Ozawa hands out skillfully drafted sketches of Nihonbashi as it was then, as it currently is and as he envisions it in the future, with buildings set back from the river, plenty of pedestrian space, and the highway rerouted. The general idea was supported by former Prime Minister Koizumi,” Ozawa said, “but got lost in bureaucracy.” As a bystander helps Ozawa distribute his leaflets to a small crowd, the tenacious architect admits that this year will probably be his last outdoors campaign. “I need to find another approach to the problem,” he says, “but if Amsterdam, Venice and Paris can showcase their rivers, so can we.”
Tokugawa would likely have agreed. He designated the original wooden 1603 Nihonbashi the beginning and end point of all Edo’s roads. Beneath the overpass, today’s 1911 renaissance-styled bridge features dramatic dragons and lions, graceful stone arches spanning the river’s argentine surface, and at the halfway mark, a bronze plaque designating what is still considered the hub of the nation’s capital.
From this vantage point, there’s something fishy in the air. It’s not just the Mitsukoshi Department store annex emblem, a frolicking pod of gold dolphins designed by Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music Vice President Ryohei Miyata, or the statue of a maiden from the mythical underwater palace of Ryugu, backed with laughing fish and seaweed, on the northeast corner of the bridge.
Perhaps some scent remains from the days when Nihonbashi was practically seaside, and the site of the city’s original uogashi (fish market). In 1644, Tokugawa Ieyasu ordered skilled anglers from the Settsu area of Osaka to help supply Edo with much needed protein.
Settling on an offshore island, Tsukudajima, the community invented a method for preserving tiny fish, eel bits, clams and seaweed by boiling them in a pungent, sweetened soy sauce. This made good use of catch too small to peddle, and tided over families when fishing conditions were poor. To this day, tsukudani (food boiled down in soy) is sold in Nihonbashi, as well as three stores that have weathered the decades on Tsukudajima.
Walking the island, I found small enclaves of old homes tucked in eerie, quiet alleyways, like stage sets scheduled to be struck any minute and replaced with skyscrapers that now crowd the landfill-enhanced island.
More than half of Chuo Ward’s land area today is man-made. After the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the Nihonbashi uogashi was relocated to Tsukiji (meaning “reclaimed land”). The market is to be moved yet again, to Toyosu in Koto Ward, by 2012.
Claims that Toyosu is contaminated with benzene and other carcinogens may complicate the anticipated relocation, and the entire industry is facing worldwide depletion of fish stocks. Still, if you’re looking for the world’s freshest slice of sushi, Tsukiji is still the place.
Suitengu Shrine just to the north of Tsukiji is where pregnant women pray for safe childbirth, and pick up suzuno-o, or wide cotton maternity belts wrapped below the pregnancy, believed to protect and support the growing baby. Since the shrine’s powers are reputed to extend to restaurant and entertainment businesses as well, the shrine bustles with activity.
Chuo has more than its fair share of entertainment venues, including Shinbashi’s Enbujo Theater, once the stage of lavish geisha performances, and the awesome Kabuki-za, where onnagata (male actors playing female) brilliantly impersonate geisha, among other roles. Kabuki was invented by Okuni, a young Kyoto shrine maiden who combined dance and song into popular narratives, which she performed, dressed as a man. Ironically, these days only men perform.
For respite from theatrical gender-bending, the emerald garden of Hamarikyu, surrounded by a seawater moat, offers space for reflection and a hot cup of tea in its pond-perched pavilion. Originally owned by a feudal lord, the garden provided Tokugawa shogun with duck-hunting grounds. Wooden duck blinds, deep in the garden’s interior, make spooky trysting huts.
If romantic settings can be considered precious commodities, then Chuo is loaded. Here, you can have breakfast at Tiffany’s, lunch at Tsukiji, a dusk stroll along the Sumida River, and from Nov. 15, you can bundle up with your loved one under Ginza’s hundred-thousand seasonal twinkle lights. Life doesn’t get much richer than that.