Update 2: In the neighbourhood

Tokyo, March 8, 2009

And the newspaper sleeping bags
Blow down the lane
And that goddamn flatbed’s
Got me pinned in again

“In the neighborhood”, Tom Waits

Of course, you don’t have to go all the way to the wilds of Gunma to sniff out decay; 
plenty is available within a 300m radius of home, which is where all the following photos 
were taken. Just a little context: to the north and east of where I live in Akebonobashi lie 
some of the most expensive residences in Shinjuku Ward, which while being more prole 
than say Minato Ward, is mostly middle class with patches of seediness thrown in for 
good measure, as you’ll perhaps recall. To the south and west, on the way to Yotsuya 
3-chome station, where the first quartet of these photos were taken, are some pricey 
apartment blocks mingling in with some less pricey ones of the 1R (one-room) variety.

Having been in the neighbourhood for nigh on eight years now and as a (very) small 
business proprietor myself, I’m sensitive (I like to think) to changes in the urban furniture. 
Our first photo is of Nonki, a purveyor of motsuyaki, or as the online dictionaries have it, 
”roast giblets”. I think I would refer to it as grilled organ meat, but either way you get the 
picture. No, I have never darkened the door of a motsuyaki restaurant, nor do I plan to. 
This location is an interesting one; for many years it was a convenience store, then for a 
couple of years a Y100 shop, and for the last year a motsuyaki joint. The reason it appears here 
is that it exemplifies what I would call early post-war retro Showa chic in its determined 
attempt to take its customers back to the 50s, when times were, like now, hard, but 
at least there was hope – and Hoppy, which is being advertised in the vertical white sign 
by the door and is a bizarre only-in-Tokyo non-alcoholic beer that is also a conscious 
throwback to the early postwar years. 
Note the cushioned upturned beer crates on which customers sit in another arch statement 
of poverty chic. This place is always busy at night (and not open at Sunday lunchtime, 
when these photos were taken).

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Our second photo is of a women’s clothing store a hundred metres or so up the street – “Heiten!”, screams 
the red sign in the window, closing down on March 15. Imminent or recent closure is a fate it shares with at least half a dozen 
shops and restaurants in the immediate vicinity.

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…including this soba place opposite, which shut down a week or so ago.

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If you look below the frosted glass on the 
right, you can see, just about, that all the furniture has already been removed, as indeed has the entire kitchen-I passed by as the interior was being dismantled. This place was opened by the proprietors of the udon restaurant 
that is the single closest nosherie to my flat and it lasted a good couple of years, but somehow never caught on and 
in its last few months was largely deserted even at peak dining times, not that there was anything wrong, IMHO, with 
the quality of the food that it offered. It was difficult to walk out without spending Y3,000 a head, though, which is frankly these days beyond the reach of many people.

Next we have what is to me the single scariest photo in the collection. The Fairfax Grill has been an 
anchor in the neighbourhood ever since I arrived in it; it’s a kind of modern bistro and when 
the weather is remotely decent the wooden slatted doors are opened up and the patrons 
are treated to what is as near al fresco dining as Tokyo gets. It used to be hugely popular 
for leisurely Sunday brunches but the crowds have thinned and at some point in the 
last couple of years they introduced a downmarket prix fixe lunch menu, including a 
jarring “hamburger set” (for Y1,800) in a bid to woo back the punters. All to no avail; there 
were just four people in the place last Sunday at 12.30pm when this photo was taken.

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Back down to Akebonobashi; this is the local branch of a clone of famous barber’s shop QB House.

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QB House frequently 
gets cited in bullshit management theory books as a successful example of a “blue ocean strategy”.

http://www.unitedbit.com/how-qb-house-changed-asian-barbershop-industry-from-an-emotional-industry-to-a-highly-functional-one/

How much blue ocean there could be around if the business model can be replicated to the smallest detail baffles me. 
Y1,000 hairdressers such as Q’s are spreading fast in the land of the Y15,000, three-hour perm.

And this is the entrance to Akebonobashi’s shotengai (stationfront shopping street), replete with the 
inevitable cat’s cradle of wires.

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For a relatively prosperous district, the lack of decent restaurants 
and bars is striking. Note the Y100 shop on the left, the Y390 ramen shop on the right, and the
McDonalds on the right, all of which are doing roaring business.

While Japanese share prices have tanked over the last year, the shares of the 
ramen joint proprietor, Hiday Hidaka, of McDonald’s Japan, the sole listed Y100 store operator, Can Do (it doesn’t run the one in the picture), have held their ground or even risen.

The survival of many of the outfits that do stay in business flummox me. This place, Ciao, is directly behind my flat, and is, believe
it or not, a gay bathhouse, though you would have to find that out from indirect sources. No, I’ve never been in; anyway, it’s members
only, as an unwelcoming sign on the door informs.

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I wonder if the woman with the dog, or indeed any of the passers-by, know what they’re walking past. In the early years, I would
occasionally see someone furtively enter or leave when passing, but I haven’t for several years now.

Ciao is directly opposite the offices of Big Issue Japan; Big Issue has been 
in Japan since 2003 but only in my neighbourhood for a couple of years. Every morning on 
my way to the station I pass a clump of homeless men gathered around the bottom of the stairs 
waiting for the offices to open and exchanging cheerful small talk. With contract workers being 
thrown out of their factory accommodation in their thousands, homelessness is going to be 
a bigger issue than ever.

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I could have taken so many more photos; the restaurant just down from 
the Big Issue office that opened and closed again within the space of the last six 
months, the pharmacy nearest my flat which shut for good a couple of weeks ago, 
the florists nearby it that was an early casualty, the tea cafe that is perenially 
deserted, the kimono store whose husband and wife proprietors who are supremely talented at making themselves look busy in the absence of customers…
The odd thing is, Rehab’s not doing too badly.

7 responses to “Update 2: In the neighbourhood

  1. To put it rather indelicately, this shit scares me.

    Japan is my second home in the sense that I have no extended family in the U.S. other than our children and my aging mother. I tell the wife all the time that we won’t be able to afford to retire in the U.S. and we’ll be reclaiming an abandoned farm somewhere in the foothills in Gifu – plant our own rice and vegetables, make tsukemono, collect fire wood from the forest – you know, the typical inaka pursuits – in order to make ends meet.

    Besides the prolonged economic slump (which I don’t think is ever coming back to where it was even as of 1987), isn’t part of what were seeing across a manifestation of the population aging and declining?

  2. I’m with Jeffrey. My retirement plan is to sell Mom’s place and move back to Japan.

    But I can’t determine which national fisc is more screwed up, Japan’s or the US’s.

    Turns out when I moved to Japan in 1992 I jumped from the frying pan into the fire, recession-wise.

    Seems to me that Japan has built up a lot of assets that are liabilities of the US, and if the US goes down it’s not going to be a happy time in Nippon.

    But maybe Japan’s population decline will be a good thing. Old people don’t require much in terms of wealth consumption. Maybe a lot of labor, but that can be brought in.

  3. I’ve been reading your posts with great admiration. Each one speaks to me and brings my muddled feelings into a clearer perspective – and you write so beautifully.
    I couldn’t decide where to post a comment, but chose this page because I’ve stumbled through the Akebonobashi shotengai at regular intervals since my first job in inaka in the early 90s. At that time, I occasionally visited a friend who lived in Sumiyoshicho and we’d kick off our evenings with some beers and teba gyoza in an izakaya on that street. The neighbourhood was never up-market – I remember whistling “Dirty Old Town” as I negotiated my way past the Dai-Nihon Insatsu plant. However, I remember it as livelier than today and it had a touch of glamour, as celebs from Nihon Terebi would sometimes show up at the izakaya. I think that Nittere’s move was probably a serious blow for the area, and perhaps it’s been in a gradual decline since then.
    More recently, I lived in Ushigome and wandered through the Akebonobashi area. I couldn’t find my friend’s old flat, but I think I spotted the izakaya. I didn’t step inside for fear of spoiling the memory. I would like to think that mama-san is still wearing her angora sweaters and flirting with a full room of customers but…

    • Thank you for adding a most surprising bit of local colour, although one thing I’ve learned from Spike Japan is that wherever you are in the archipelago, no matter how remote, there’s always some foreigner who knows the area better or has deeper and longer connections with it than I do… I arrived here in late 2001, when Fuji TV (not NTV) was already long gone down to the waterfront. But the taxi drivers still know the road I live on as “mukashi no Fuji terebi dori”… Would love to know where the izakaya with the teba gyoza is–can’t think of a single obvious candidate on the shotengai, although I’m not known for venturing down there after dark… Yes, you would think the relocation of FTV would have been a blow, but their complex was replaced by a couple of mansion blocks of 30-odd stories apiece that are as expensive as any in Shinjuku, so you might have thought that their residents would have buoyed the shotengai. I think perhaps it’s more that shotengai are perceived as irreversibly baachan-tastic, which in some ways is surprising as it goes against the cult of convenience. Thinking of revisiting “In the neighbourhood”–some shocking signs of things falling apart around here over the last couple of years… Glad you’ve enjoyed the posts; “Dirty Old Town” is one of my favourite songs, although not one I would never have associated with the DNP plant!
      I met my love by the gas works wall,
      Dreamed a dream by the old canal,
      I Kissed my girl by the factory wall…

  4. Ah yes. Fuji Television. Perhaps I was confused because Nihon Television had buildings not far away in Ichigaya. It still has a small presence there, I think. At least, there was a shuttle bus for Nittere employees betweenn Ichigaya and Shiodome when I was last there.
    The DNP plant was just a wall to me in those days. I had no idea what went on behind it – It just seemed big and industrial and out of place in a residential area.

  5. Just noticed that Hoppy drink is now here in the Niigata inaka town of Muikamachi. My wife said it didn’t give one gout like real beer. She neglected to mention that it also didn’t get one drunk.

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