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Showa Through Architecture in Tokyo

  • The Showa era means different things to different people, since this period spans 1926 all the way through to 1989, and was the most dramatically eventful in modern Japanese history. Nonetheless there is a distinct urban atmosphere that the word Showa conjures up for the Japanese: neon lights, colorful hand-painted billboards reflecting the optimism of the times; and an eclectic jumble of Western-influenced concrete and traditional wooden constructions come to mind. Traces of Showa, which saw Japan rise from post-war ruin to become an economic superpower, can still be found in present-day Tokyo.

    Showa Through Architecture in Tokyo

    Showa Through Architecture in Tokyo

    Yanesen is the nickname given to the three neighboring shitamachi (‘downtown’) districts of Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi on Tokyo’s eastern side. Combined, the trio preserves the Showa vibe at its most charming. At the heart of the area is the Yanaka Ginza shotengai, or shopping street. This is a classic example of a Showa-era shotengai, consisting of a row of small, invitingly open-fronted shops that unfolds as the narrow street winds eastwards from Shimogoinden Bridge by Nippori Station on the JR Yamanote Line.

    Showa Through Architecture in Tokyo

    Showa Through Architecture in Tokyo

    A wide selection of everyday goods, ranging from freshly-baked rice crackers to handmade paper fans, spills onto the pedestrianized street as shopkeepers cry out, with the effect being a most pleasant assault on the senses. Something ubiquitous to the Showa shotengai, and present and correct here, is the gate-like overhead signage at the street’s beginning. Look beyond the amassed merchandise and you’ll see that the premises are for the most part simple concrete blocks with ‘Japanese-style’ flourishes; look up and the futons hanging out to air reveal that these are often still places where the owner lives upstairs.

    Showa Through Architecture in Tokyo

    Showa Through Architecture in Tokyo

    Elsewhere in Yanaka, the Yanaka Beer Hall embodies Showa’s mix of Japanese tradition and western influence in a single building. Located a ten-minute walk south of Yanaka Ginza towards neighbouring Nezu, this was erected as a private residence over 80 years ago before being transformed into a specialty craft beer bar in 2015. Its concrete-walled ground floor and wooden second story make tangible the era’s dualistic approach to everyday architecture. It is also the only spot in the world where you can sample the locally-brewed Yanaka Beer.

    Showa Through Architecture in Tokyo

    Showa Through Architecture in Tokyo

    Showa was also the period when Japanese architects began to develop envelope-pushing concepts that would be influential beyond their nation’s own borders. The home-grown Metabolism school of architecture, which emerged in the late 1950s, fused the notion of organic biological growth with that of architectural megastructures, in which an entire city exists within a single building. The concept is illustrated well by the Nakagin Capsule Hotel in Tokyo’s Shimbashi district, one of the few extant examples of Metabolist architecture. Designed by Kisho Kurokawa and completed in 1972, here two interconnected towers hold 140 self-contained prefabricated cubes, usable as both residences and workplaces, all of uniform size and with a single circular window at one end. Though intended as a modular structure to which further cubes could later be added, this was never pursued and so the Nakagin lingers as a vision of a hive-like future society which never came to pass.

    Showa Through Architecture in Tokyo

    Showa Through Architecture in Tokyo

    The Showa sensibility also has a grittier side, one that comes to the fore after dark in certain other Tokyo neighborhoods. One of the best places to experience this is Shinjuku’s Golden Gai. Here six narrow alleyways, sandwiched between Kabukicho and Hanazono Jinja shrine, house around 200 tiny, ramshackle bars, with many having just enough space for a counter and a few barstools.

    Showa Through Architecture in Tokyo

    Showa Through Architecture in Tokyo

    Originally thrown up in the late 1940s (developed would be too grand a word!), the Golden Gai retains the atmosphere of the 1950s and ’60s when it was notorious as the playground of artists, actors, novelists and other bohemian types. Again these are all concrete constructions, but that is where any consistency ends. Both inside and out each bar is an intimate reflection of the personality and tastes of its owner, with the rows of highly individual facades and signboards making the Golden Gai a virtual gallery of post-war Japanese obsessions.

    Taninakaginzashotengai
    Address
    Tokyo Taitou-ku Yanaka 3-chome
    Phone
    中銀本社ビル中銀カプセルタワービル
    Address
    東京都中央区銀座8丁目
    Phone
  • Shinjuku Golden Machi
    Address
    Tokyo Shinjuku-ku Kabukichou 1-chome 2
    Phone
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