The remains of Old Tokyo – but how long can they remain?
For a long time I have enjoyed exploring Tokyo’s shitamachi (下町) – forgotten neighbourhoods in the east of the city that have managed to maintain their own sense of character while the rest of the city rises upwards with skyscrapers and neon. For me, shitamachi neighbourhoods are the embodiment of two Japanese terms that cannot directly be translated into English: wabi-sabi (侘寂) which talks about the peaceful acceptance of imperfection; and mono no aware (物の哀れ) which relates to the gentle sadness one feels when things go away, especially since nothing lasts forever.
Tateishi is a perfect example of a neighbourhood clinging to the past – embracing its slow decay and showing no desire to join modern Tokyo. I find areas like this beautiful, but there is also a sadness that comes from walking around these quiet streets and shopping arcades. Japan is moving into unknown demographic terrain as its population, already the world’s oldest, simultaneously ages and shrinks. While walking around Tateishi, I’d say 80% of the people I saw were over 65 with not many under the age of 20. It makes me wonder, when the older generation passes, and there isn’t a younger one to replace it, what will happen to Tateishi, and indeed Japan?
Really interesting post – I have only been to Tokyo once and I hope to return. All of it was interesting but the contrast between different areas was striking. Your post underscores what I believe to be the best way to see Tokyo which is to travel to a station and just walk around. Even now, almost eight months after I was there, I look at the photos I took and I scratch my head at the range of things that I saw, from spectacular wealth and daring, bold architecture to areas where there was a small village feel in well worn areas such as you show here. And I have only scratched the surface. Thanks for posting this article. It whets my appetite to return to Japan.
Hi Alex, thanks so much for commenting. This is exactly why I blog, and it is nice to receive the odd comment now and again that reaffirms why I do it. You are totally right – just getting off at a random station, getting lost down an alleyway and exploring is 100% the best way to enjoy Tokyo. I’m glad you understand what makes Tokyo so special.
These photos are very similar to what I’ve been seeing in the Chinatown here in Vancouver. Here, gentrification is creeping in, and in place of the mom and pop shops, hipsters have been creeping in with their versions of noodles that cost 3 times as much, but don’t taste nearly as good. It’s a bit of a struggle, particularly in our city, where rents are skyrocketing and people are looking for relevancy in current times, but still doing what they can to somehow pay homage to the past.
However, in Japan, it doesn’t look like the new shoots are taking up the same way they are here in Vancouver. I was in a shitamachi part of Osaka, near Abenobashi, and instead of hip little places (with their promises and ills), little foreign-owned bars were popping up. Your photos illustrate this gap, between the struggle for the younger generation to find a place, and the older generation passing on.
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