Playing word association with the names of the stations along the Yamanote Line is, for the most part, quite a simple task. Akihabara — electrical goods; Ueno — bullet train and animals; Shibuya — teenage fashion.
Now try Otsuka.
For the past few decades, Otsuka has lived under the shadow of booming neighbor Ikebukuro, and those alighting at the station will more often than not receive a dumbfounded stare from the majority who stay on board.
What’s more, “Otsuka” wasn’t even the name of the area in which the station was originally built — it was pinched from a town located in neighboring Bunkyo Ward.
It wasn’t always this way. In fact, before World War II, Otsuka was today’s Ikebukuro, and Ikebukuro was a, well, present-day Otsuka.
A major influence on the area’s destiny was the creation of two railway stations at the turn of the century.
The first, in 1903, was one of the earliest stops on what was to become known as the Yamanote Line. A few years later, Otsuka became the terminal for the newly laid Ojidenki Kido Line, now known in its significantly extended form as the Toden Arakawa Line, Tokyo’s last remaining tram line.
The area around the stations was then called West Sugamo; it was decades later, in 1969, that the districts either side of the Yamanote Line tracks were renamed South and North Otsuka, said Megumi Yokoyama of the Toshima Historical Museum.
Soon factories set up near the stations, and entertainment spots opened to satisfy the tradesmen. Cinemas and “rakugo” comedy theaters flourished. At its peak in the mid-1920s, it is said there were over 200 geisha working in the 85 eateries lining the Sangyo entertainment district, which still exists today.
Yet, while Otsuka was then a flourishing tradesman’s district and a convenient spot for transportation around the city, its status plummeted after the war, when local residents objected to the building of a subway station.
As a consequence, high-rise development and shoppers headed for Ikebukuro, and Otsuka maintained its “shitamachi” charms, said Yumiko Ukon of food stall Bongo.
Bongo has been serving up freshly made “onigiri” rice balls for almost 40 years, offering a welcome alternative to a traditional Japanese snack that is often seen as a symbol of convenience store sterility.
Ukon insists Bongo has never competed with convenience store culture. “We never had to. After 40 years, you build up a faithful following,” she said.
In recent years, a younger clientele has also started frequenting the eatery, prompting a change in the menu.
Alongside the traditional standards of salmon and “aoshiso,” favorites with the older crowd, are stacked cheese, mayonnaise and curry varieties.
In total, there are 43 varieties on offer, and daily output is over 1,000, Ukon said.
“I can’t count the number of customers who drop by here on their way to or from work,” Ukon said. “They have no other business here and don’t even work in the area.”
Which might explain the crowds alighting at little-noticed Otsuka Station.
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