Monday, 27 May 2013

Some more images of Yanesen in 1987-88

Here are some more comparison photos of lost Yanaka and Nezu, "then and now".

Over the years I experienced a lot of things in Japan, many of them amazing, and occasionally disturbing. There have been a few things that truly shocked me, but the destruction of the old buildings of Yanesen is really heartbreaking

Nezu 2-chome 10 banchi in 1987

Nezu 2-chome 10 banchi today (Google Street view)
Yanesen was not like other areas, it was a survivor, with a culture and charm of it's own. Because the district was so untouched, every old building had a value to the town beyond it's own land price. Each one that is pulled down now is a destruction not only of the property, but of the heritage of the area. In a few years Yanesen will be just another faceless Tokyo suburb in the urban sprawl.

And what are these old buildings being replaced by? Often it's very little, and sometimes it's nothing at all!

Ueno Sakuragi 1-11-12 in 1987. Chinese restaurant Kyoya
the same location today (Google)

Why is this? It's all to do with land taxes - people inherit these properties and find they simply can't afford to pay the property taxes to maintain them, so they're torn down and replaced by car parks, or cheap prefab storage units, or the land is simply left bare.

Yanaka 1-2 in 1987, the entrance to Tengenji Temple on Kototoi-dori and Morita Electricals shop, which stood just a couple of doors along from Shin-Fuji Soba

Morita Electricals was demolished in 2003 and replaced by this structure (Google)

Nezu 2 chome 21 banchi in 1987....
.... and the same location as a car park today (Google)

Nezu 2-chome 31 banchi in 1987
today only the centre structure survives (Google)

One of the most saddening locations for me is the little crossroads between 2-33 Nezu and 2-3 and 2-4 Yanaka.  In my last post I showed a snapshot from 1987 showing a line of lost buildings at 2-33 Nezu, here's another photo of the same buildings.
Nezu 2-chome 33 banchi in 1987

If you turned and walked right at the crossing you would soon find on the left hand side Yoshinoya Sake-ten...
Nezu 2-chome 33 banch, Yoshinoya Sake-ten (1987)

Right next to Yoshinoya was this building...

Nezu 2-chome 33 banchi (1987)

So there was a long continuation of wooden traditional buildings that wrapped around the corner and stretched all the way along the block. Now all of this is gone. The buildings above have been pulled down and been replaced by a large modern 'mansion' condominium...

Nezu 2-chome 33 banchi today, Sunrise Nezu Apartment Block (Google)

Not all is lost just yet however. Back at the crossing the line of buildings at 2-33 Nezu continued over to the Shi gen'nagaya tenement at 2-4 Yanaka.

Yanaka 2-chome 4 banchi, Shi gen'nagaya tenement, 1987

Today this still stands,  a solitary reminder of former times.

Yanaka 2-chome 4 banchi, Shi gen'nagaya tenement, today

Walking from the crossing in the opposite direction from Yoshinoya towards Kototoi-dori, we can still find the traditional indigo dye shop Chojiya. Thank goodness not all is lost!

Nezu 2-chome 32 banchi, Chojiya
This is a beautiful, well preserved building, only a few years ago much of the surrounding neighbourhood was the same.

In some cases the building still exists but has been given a modern make-over...

Yanaka 7-17-11, snapped in 1987

Today the building has evolved into the Italian restaurant Osteria Yanaka no Tramonto

Nezu 2-21, Yoshino Sushi (1987)

Nezu 2-21, Yoshino Sushi (1987)

Nezu 2-21, Yoshino Sushi (2013, Google)
Finally, ending on a positive note, it's not all bad news, there are still many old buildings that survive remarkably unchanged. Rather than posting more photos here, a good web search for Yanesen, Yanaka and Nezu will show a lot of these, some are notable traditional businesses and thus hopefully will be preserved. I'll just end my little tour of lost Yanesen with a couple of well known surviving properties I was very familiar with, right around the corner from my old apartment....

Yanaka 6-chome 1 bancho, Kayaba Coffee Shop in 1987

and on the other side of the junction, the Shitamachi Fuzoku Shiryokan Museum

Though the structures next to the coffee shop have all gone, these two buildings still stand proudly today.

Yanaka 6-chome 1 bancho today (Google)
At least some of my old memories survive! And long may they remain.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Memories of Yanesen

My fascination with Japan originally stemmed from a love of Ukiyo-e woodblock prints and the history of old Tokyo, which soon expanded into a wider appreciation of the country. So when in the new year of 1987 I eventually set off to Japan I was determined to live in an area with historical connections to "old Edo" (Edo is the old name for the city).
A forgotten corner of Yanaka or Nezu in 1987

This actually proved more difficult than I'd imagined, as my very first residence, provided by my erstwhile sponsor, was right out on the very edge of Tokyo in a new town that was even younger than me. It took a few months before I could eventually find a place of my own choosing, by which time I'd had plenty of time to explore the old districts of the city. From the moment I first walked around Yanaka I fell in love with the area and knew this was where I wanted to live.

A typical scene in Yanaka in the 1980's. What is it like today I wonder?
The three districts of Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi span the borders of Taito-ku and Bunkyo-ku wards, and together are known as the Yanesen district. Though part of the old city of Edo, Yanesen was always distinguished as a separate town of temples and shrines. Crucially, it was untouched by the 1923 earthquake and wartime bombing, so still retained much of it's ancient character, with numerous traditional wooden houses dispersed amongst the popular religious locations in the area. More residential and altogether more serene than the noisier jumble of other shitamachi (downtown) areas like Asakusa, Yanesen seems an oasis, full of  cultural charm, surrounded by, but somewhat apart from the modern city, a bridge between old Edo and modern Tokyo, with a large number of traditional shops and businesses surviving. Or at least, so it was when I moved there in the Spring of 1987.
A favorite shop of mine, Isetatsu in Sendagi, famous as a specialist in Japanese paper. The shop is virtually unchanged today.
Memorial to one of my favorite Ukiyo-e woodblock print masters, Suzuki Harunobu (1725-70), and his muse Kasamori Osen (1751-1827), in Dai'enji Temple, Sendagi

Finding a place to live there was difficult though, because many rental real estate offices simply would not deal with foreigners, claiming they "had nothing available" before I'd even told them what I was looking for, or "the owners would not be comfortable". One even suggested I "try Roppongi". The fact was, few Westerners lived in the area and that's the way they wanted to keep it. Nevertheless I persevered, and eventually found an apartment in Ueno-Sakuragi, just off Kototoi-dori near Yanaka Cemetery, not an old traditional house as I'd hoped, but it was at least in the right region. I was a few minutes walk from Geidai and Ueno Park, Yanaka and Nezu were my local areas.

Stray cat in Nezu Shrine, which was (and probably still is) teaming with feral cats

I lived in the apartment for just one year, soaking in the history and aesthetic culture of Yanesen. During that time I photographed, painted and drew the buildings (most of the artwork now unfortunately lost), studied Japanese and worked on adapting my illustration portfolio for the Japanese market.
The view from my window towards Ueno, with Jomyoin Hakaen in the centre, top right can be seen the roof of the Kaneiji Temple

Yanesen was the perfect place for inspiration, I loved it to bits and would have stayed longer. However things were moving rapidly for me, and eventually escalating illustration commissions, relationships and other factors persuaded me very reluctantly to move uptown to the other side of the city. And there I stayed, much to my regret.

Very close to my apartment was the shop of a famous brushmaker
Yanaka 1Chome, 6 Banchi
Through the following years in Japan I moved home several times, but never went back to shitamachi to live. However, a couple of years after leaving the area I had the opportunity to once more walk around Yanesen. It was just two years since I'd lived there, but the change over that time was simply shocking. Several of the old wooden buildings I'd recorded had been torn down, replaced with ugly shoe-box buildings, or temporary car parks. A glaring 7-11 convenience store had opened on the top of Kototoi-dori. I was stunned - the character of the town was being torn apart.

3rd generation Shin Fuji Soba restaurant, which stood close to Nezu Station on Kototoi-dori.
Watercolour sketch, Spring 1988
A photo I took of the same location in 1987
The same view today (from Google street view). The restaurant is still there (much spruced up!) but everything else around has changed.
On my most recent trip back to Tokyo this spring I had the chance to once more see a little of Nezu and Yanaka, 25 years after I lived there. It's still an attractive area, important buildings are just as I remember them, but so much of the rest has changed now the town was barely recognisable. This was one of the main reasons I never moved back to the region - the wanton destruction of the old architecture was just too sad to witness. I understand that wooden buildings were difficult to live in, many were inefficient and rundown, but it is possible to preserve the facade while renewing interiors.
Kawasaki Shoten on Kototoi Dori, 1-15 Yanaka, in 1987
The same location today

It's not all bad news though, Yanaka and Sendagi attracts tourists, buildings are being saved by people dedicated to preserving something of the old town's atmosphere, Yanesen has become a haven for artists and others looking for a lost part of Japanese culture. Many of these artists are people from outside the area, including foreigners - it's ironic that the very people who 25 years ago would have found difficulty moving into the area are now those who are safeguarding it's old buildings.
Nezu 2-Chome 33 Banchi in 1987 (my photo)
And the same location now (Google). Where's it gone!

Here I've posted some of my old photos from 1987-88, compared to Google street views of the same locations today. I've many more photos of the area, but virtually all my sketches from the period have been lost. If I find anything though I'll post it!

You can find more 'then and now' photos of the  area by others comparing to the 1980's in this Japanese language blog.