Thursday, August 28, 2008

Central Tokyo

On a first trip to Tokyo (東京), visitors often look for « downtown » around the great suburban rail terminals of Shibuya (渋谷) and Shinjuku (新宿), or even in the “Foreigner Ghetto” in Roppongi (六本木). While those are lively areas, they were only recently urbanized. Akasaka would deserve more to be called “Central Tokyo”, but It is around Tokyo stations and the Imperial palace that the oldest and most prestigious areas can be found, with a wide range of atmospheres and architecture. The area deserves two visits: one when Japanese office workers are present on weekdays, and another on Sunday, when the roads are closed to traffic and given back to pedestrian and cyclists.
We will start our walk by late afternoon at Sakuradamon (桜田門) station. It is just south of the huge moats of the Imperial Palace (皇居). The pine forest can take southern Europe colors at sunset. On the other side is the administrative district of Kasumigaseki (霞ヶ関), home to the Japanese government. The old building of the Ministry of Justice (債務所) was built in 1895 by German architects (Boeckmann et Ende) and restored after the war. It is just across the crossroad from Sakuradamon and is now used as the ministry training center. There are other buildings in red brick « London Style »: Tokyo station and its «Classic Hotel» and the « Tokyo Bankers Club » (東京銀行協会) Building. The original front of the building was kept, while a modern office tower was built above. The area around the « Bankers Club » is called Otemachi (大手町). It gathers most Japanese press headquarters since 1957, where the land was freed by the government move to Kasumigaseki.
From Sakuradamon, Otemachi can be reached by crossing the Palace Outer Gardens (皇居外苑). The main luxury of this park is the indecently wide area in a town as crowded as Tokyo. It is the most impressive just before sunset. To have a complete view of parks in the area, we can also walk through the Hibiya Park (日比谷公園), a miniature of New York Central Park, also surrounded by high buildings.
The business center of Marunochi is located north of the Hibiya Park and south of Otemachi. The word means “inside the castle fortifications”, and is used to designate areas in most town that possessed a castle. Many banks and traditional Japanese companies are headquartered in this Tokyo district. It is the area downtown with the best access to public transport: 11 out of 14 subway lines in Tokyo have a station in the areas described in this story, all enclosed in a square kilometer, there are also very convenient connections to the northern, southern and western suburbs, and fast transport links to Tokyo two commercial airports. Architecture is uncluttered, and square: Neon light and billboards, so common in other districts, are completely missing here. The atmosphere is definitely snobbish; there is even an expression for the female office employees of the area, famous for their classical and elegant style: “Marunouchi OL”. “OL” or “Office Ladies” are the female employees performing clerical work, with sometimes much more responsibility than their title imply.
If the district was the most distinguished address for an office in the city, it had a quaint and boring image and until the mid 90s. Since a revitalization plan was launched in 1996, new buildings such as the “Marunouchi Building », nicknamed « Marubiru » (丸ビル) were launched. Similarly to all new towers built in Tokyo, they gather office space, restaurants and shops. So the streets are not anymore the realm of « salarymen », male japanese employees of large established companies usually wearing a dark suit, a white shirt and a necktime with colors that can go as exuberant as marine blue or grey : their skin sometimes has a tan called sakeyake (酒焼け), meaning « alcohol-tanned », a consequence of decades of after-work drinking with colleagues.
Most lively areas in Toyko have their International Top-End Hotel, from the « Park-Hyatt » Hotel in Shinjuku that got famous thanks to « Lost in Translation » to the « Ritz-Carton Tokyo » in the brand new « Tokyo Mid Town » Tower in Akasaka. Marunouchi also got one recently when the “Peninsula Hotel”, the famous chain from Hong-Kong built a branch near Yurakucho. The famous « Imperial Hotel » (帝国ホテル), one amongst the three traditional great hotels in Tokyo (the others being the Okura and New Otani) is also located in Marunouchi. I personally often prefer the relaxing atmosphere of those typically Japanese establishments to their more trendy successors, especially considering the facts those traditional hotels are often much more affordable.
We will now go south of Marunouchi around the Yurakucho (有楽町) station. Tokyo International Forum (東京国際フォ-ラム) is a modern conference center, with a shape that reminds a boat hull, and is certainly worth a visit. If you wish to buy electronics, the « Big Camera » (ビックカメラ) shop nearby the station is as convenient as going to the Akihabara (秋葉原) Electric town. Yurakucho also has another face, with the small down-to-earth Yakitori (焼鳥) restaurants where skewered chicken can be enjoyed while drinking alcohol. Most of them are located under the railway archs south. The atmosphere is much warmer there than upstairs in the offices. There are also small ambulant “Oden” restaurants (a Japanese pot dish) with no more than 2 or 3 seats, and plastic sheets as walls. Office workers and bureaucrats enjoy there the contrast with their luxurious, but probably impersonal offices.
On the other side of the railway is the Ginza (銀座) “silver mint” area, a reference to mint workshops that were located there during the Edo area. This is traditionally the luxury and fashion district, with plenty of department stores. Mitsukoshi (三越) and Wako (和光) are located near the intersection of Chuo Dori (中央通り) and Arumi Dori (晴海通り). This crossing is the center of Ginza, the place where postcard pictures are taken. There are also company showrooms, Sony’s one being located near the Sukiyabashi (数奇屋橋) crossing.
After dawn, the area located nearby Shinbashi in the southern part if Ginza gathers the smartest hostesses of the city. They are easily recognized as the only ladies to be wear evening dress. Westerners do not usually understand Tokyo hostess bars, where businessmen and bureaucrats have drinks with beautiful young ladies who listen patiently and empathize with their trouble and worries, without offering more intimate services. The best hostesses take their jobs very seriously, and regularly read about finance and business to be ensure they have an interesting discussion with their guest. Discussing sub-primes or hybrid engines with a beautiful young lady is certainly a subtle pleasure worth the very expensive fees of those establishments.
Ginza is also a great place to find second hand cameras and eat sushis (寿司), as the Tsukiji (築地) fish market is only a few blocks away. Following some abusive behaviour by tourists, they cannot go freely anywhere anymore, but the atmosphere is worth getting up early. The market will move to the artificial island in Toyosu in 2012, and many people think the unique atmosphere will disappear with the old market, and certainly most of small merchants who may not afford the new fees will also do the same.
The business center of Shinbashi (新橋), south of Ginza, has developed around the oldest station in Tokyo. It had a quaint image until a fret terminal nearby was redeveloped in a modern office center called Shiodome (汐留). Some sights of this compact area could easily be recycled in a SF movie. The contrast with the old warehouses of nearby Tsukiji bursting with people is impressive. Our walk in Central Tokyo ends here. We will propose in further articles other highlights on the many interesting areas of this endless city.

Suggestions for a meal or a drink

Tsubakiya CoffeeTokyo, Chuo-ku, Ginza 7-7-11 Sugawara Denki Building 2-3F, 東京都中央区銀座7-7-11菅原電気ビル2・3F, tel : 03-3572-4949, open from 10am to 4.30am on weekdays, and from 10am to 11pm on Saturday and Sundays: a quite expensive coffee shop but one of the best places to watch people in Ginza. Coffee from Yen 880 (5.50 Euros), lunch sets from Yen 1100 (6.8 Euros). From Shinbashi, go northward on the Chuo-Dori and turn left on the first small street after crossing the elevated motorway. The shop is fifty meters away on the right side of the street(

Ginza Rengatei (煉瓦亭) 東京都中央区銀座3-5-16 Ginza, Chuo-Ku Tokyo, tel : 03-3561-7258,open from 11:15 to 14:15 (last order), and from 4:40pm à 8:30pm (last order) on weekdays, and from 11:15 to 14:15 (last order), and from 4:40pm to 8:00pm (last order) : one of the best places in Tokyo to experience Japanese “western” cuisine, including Deep Fried Pork cutlets (カツレツ from Yen 1200 – 7.50 Euros) Japanese Style steaks and Home Rice (オムライス, from Yen 1250 – 7.80 Euros). The restaurant is on a block opposite the Matsuya (松屋) department store, in a small street parallel to the Chuo Dori.

Lounge Faro ShiseidoShiseido (ファロ資生堂)  東京都中央区銀座8丁目8-3東京銀座資生堂ビル11F, Tel : 03-3572-3922, open from 11:30am 11:00pm from Monday to Saturday, and from 11:30am to 6:00pm on holidays. A trendy coffee shop with a futuristic white decoration, and a superb view on Ginza, on the last floor of the Shiseido showroom. It is a nice place for a pleasant lunch or afternoon tea (sweet and hot drink set Yen 1500 –9.30 Euros ). The Shiseido Parlour (資生堂パーラー) on the fourth floor is one of the more emblematic places in Ginza, probably the only place in the city with curry rice costing more than Yen 10.000.( Located on Chuo-Dori avenue south of Ginza near Shinbashi

Umai Sushi-Kan Kan (うまい鮨勘), Floor B2 (underground), Karetta Shiodome 1-8-2, Higashi Shinbashi, Minato-Ku, Tokyo〒105-7090 東京都 港区東新橋1-8-2 カレッタ汐留B2. This branch of the Umai Sushi-Kan chain has sushis sets from Yen 1500 (9.30 Euros) to Yen 3000 (18.60 Euros) per person. Open from 11ham to 11pm on weekdays, and from 11am to 10pm on holidays (

It is a good idea to look for a restaurant on Yahoo Gourmet or Gunavi (Japanese language site). Restaurants go quickly out of fashion in Tokyo, so it is better to get updated regularly.

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