Hidden behind the capital’s glassy high-rises and bustling shopping streets are dusty remnants of red-light districts and smoky bar alleys preserving traces of an older Tokyo — pockets of history Hisaki Kurosawa explores to catch glimpses of the other, more textured face of the slickly modern metropolis.
The 57-year-old author and editor of “Tokyo Deep Tour,” a book comprising a series of photo essays guiding readers to forgotten monuments and overlooked corners of the city, says visiting these neighborhoods provides a window into the transformation Tokyo underwent from the Edo Period (1603-1868) to the Showa Era (1926-1989) and beyond, when it rose from the ashes of disaster and war into the sprawling megalopolis it is today.
The transient nature of the city also means its old-school landscape is prone to gentrification, and even more so as the capital undergoes an infrastructure drive ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Games. That may be one reason why there appears to be renewed interest in its lesser-known areas and time-worn architectural offerings.
“The city is in a perpetual cycle of ‘scrap and build,’ where structures are constantly demolished and then rebuilt,” Kurosawa says. “That’s why I feel relieved when I wander into narrow streets and find old wooden barrack-like housing or run-down dives that somehow survived the postwar construction boom. It’s a cheap and fun way to appreciate a different side of Tokyo that may soon be gone.”
Airbnb Experiences, the American lodgings giant’s activities service designed by local hosts, provides numerous bar hopping, eating and city walking tours in and around Tokyo.
But in terms of variety, it’s still no match for Tabica, a similar Japanese service run by technology firm Gaiax Co. that lists hundreds of day trips organized by hosts with diverse backgrounds, many of them leading participants to places off the well-trodden path.
“Popular plans include trips to Yoshiwara, Tokyo’s oldest red-light district. More offbeat events include tours to the city’s many pedestrian bridges,” says Konatsu Wakiya, a Gaiax spokeswoman.
Go Watanabe, an owner of a bookstore specializing in publications on the country’s pre-modern yūkaku (licensed prostitution quarters) and postwar akasen (red-line) brothels, hosts female-friendly — and safe — tours of Yoshiwara, which is now a haven for erotic bathhouses called soaplands that offer sexual services to customers.
Architect Norihisa Minagawa, meanwhile, takes people on three-hour walks explaining some of the capital’s unusual topographical features, including roads and paths following the routes of old rivers and streams.
Kurosawa himself has led outings in the city for Tabica and Tokyo Wonder Club — another activities provider — to places like the reclaimed island of Tsukishima in Chuo Ward, where skyscrapers and wooden nagaya (row houses) coexist. A walk down the streets of Fukagawa, a traditional shitamachi (downtown) area in Koto Ward, allows strollers to observe the antique residences and apartments constructed in the years following the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake that burned large swaths of the capital to the ground. Such excursions usually finish with Kurosawa and participants winding down over drinks at local izakaya (traditional-style pubs).
“It’s like the mille-feuille,” Kurosawa says, referring to the multilayered French pastry. “Peel back its surface and you find a Tokyo you haven’t noticed before.”
For those interested in learning about the seedier, darker side of Tokyo life, there’s Tokyo Deep Info, a website run by Masayoshi Osaka, whose acid-tongued travelogues of Tokyo and its outskirts — from what he describes as the pachinko parlor and sex club-infested Takenotsuka district in Adachi Ward to the snobbish and pretentious Jiyugaoka neighborhood in Meguro Ward — has drawn a devoted following.
An edited, digested version of the site’s content was published last year as a 500-page book titled “Places In Greater Tokyo You Don’t Want To Live.” Despite being region-specific, it became a surprise hit and is in its 6th print run with 36,000 copies in circulation.
Employing a unique scoring system that measures levels of poverty, sleaziness or “DQN” — a derogatory internet slang, pronounced dokyun, that refers to uncultured, uneducated people — the book ridicules nearly every community in and around Tokyo and their residents to the delight of readers tired of pretty travel guides.
Shigenori Sugiyama, an editor at the book’s publisher, Komakusa Publishing, says his family happened to be looking to buy an apartment when he was working on the book with Osaka, who couldn’t be reached for this article.
With a limited budget, most affordable properties with decent floor space and access to public transportation were in the more unpopular areas close to adult entertainment quarters or with grim reputations as former execution grounds.
“I would talk with my wife about how we wouldn’t want to live in those places,” he says. “But there’s something strangely attractive about those shadier locales. We ended up going out drinking at some of those districts, and they usually have the best cheap bars and restaurants.”
Considering the scarcity of literature on Tokyo’s grittier enclaves — be it home to religious cult compounds, yakuza offices or marginalized communities — Sugiyama says he sensed an underlying demand for Osaka’s down-to-earth, unflinching guide to the city.
“I absolutely love it,” says Takemi Yoshizumi, a 38-year-old Tokyo office worker who checks Osaka’s website when exploring the capital or going on private or business trips to other regions of Japan.
Yoshizumi says his interest in sleepy back streets and forlorn buildings traces back to memories of his childhood neighborhood in Tokyo with old-fashioned mom and pop shops and retro drinking alleys — some of which have since been razed to make way for characterless residential towers.
“There’s a surreal joy in discovering parts of town that have survived redevelopment,” he says.
“It’s about searching for nostalgia.”