When Ikebukuro Station opened on the Yamanote Line in 1903, the area around it was little more than pasture and vegetable fields.
That all changed after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, when those left homeless in the temblor moved west as they found this district relatively undamaged and yet well-connected with other parts of Tokyo by the Yamanote Line.
This urbanization coincided with the rapid Westernization of lifestyles in the capital. Indeed, some of the more wealthy began building homes with Western-style living rooms.
Just about this time, several areas west of Ikebukuro found themselves home to a large concentration of young artists — mainly painters and sculptors — who would often spend time at the coffee shops and tiny bars that came to dot the western side of the station.
The influx was in part due to the construction in the area of several clusters of houses built especially to rent out to poor artists.
The houses — wooden shacks that had no running water — nevertheless had ateliers with high ceilings and skylights facing north, the direction with the least varying light, so that these artisans could work to their hearts’ desire.
Records show that the first of these “studio villages,” a group of about 10 homes, was completed around 1931. It was called Suzumegaoka (Sparrow Hill) Atelier Village because the birds seemed to be everywhere. It was later followed by similar complexes with such names as Tsutsujigaoka (Azalea Hill) and Sakuragaoka Parthenon.
Hideo Oguma, a poet and pen-and-ink artist who first moved into the area in 1929, likened it — undoubtedly with a tinge of envy — to the Bohemian artist zone of Paris and dubbed it “Ikebukuro Montparnasse.”
“Ikebukuro was a prime gathering spot for these artists since it was a cheap area in which to live, and they came in one after another,” said Kaya Kumagai, the daughter of the late artist Morikazu Kumagai.
The elder Kumagai, who was viewed as a mentor by many of the younger artists, spent the last 40 years of his life until his death at 97 near the ateliers. Kaya, herself an artist, tore down the house and built a memorial museum to show his works.
The artists’ carefree days slowly came to an end, however, as the footsteps of militarism crept ever closer to their utopia in the late 1930s. Some artists were drafted, while others left Tokyo to escape the almost incessant bombings of the city.
After the war, many of the shacks were rented out to people not pursuing art, and the flavor of Montparnasse that Oguma so prized became less and less prominent in the area.
Still, art has not deserted Ikebukuro altogether — walking out from the west exit of JR Ikebukuro Station, one will immediately see the huge glass and steel structure of the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space.
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