Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Islands of Old in Oceans of New


I want to keep this precious old house just as it was," says Kikuo Hotta, the proprietor of a two-story wooden sweetshop that evokes the Tokyo of at least a century ago. "Thanks to customers who come a long way to visit our place, this business has been successful."

Nonetheless, it's not long before the amiable Mr. Hotta mutters a complaint or two. The young women who work in the shop can't manage the old-fashioned sliding wooden shutters, he says. And upstairs, where he and his family live, "it's not very comfortable."

About these ads

Hotta's ambivalence illustrates a paradox of Japan. It is essentially a conservative society, where most changes occur with what seems to foreigners like maddening gradualism. But it is a place where many old things, especially buildings, are routinely discarded in favor of something new.

The sprawling metropolis that surrounds Hotta's sweetshop, for instance, has few buildings of any age. The earthquake and fires of 1923 and the Allied bombing of 1945 did much to efface Tokyo's architectural history. But the owners of old structures have also had to contend with a cultural insistence on destroying the old for the new, and, in recent decades, with intense pressures to redevelop caused by rising land prices.

In the eastern part of the Japanese capital, in an area called shitamachi, or "the low city," it's possible to come across an old house or business that preserves a sense of what Tokyo was like in the days immediately following World War II, and even before. One shitamachi neighborhood is called Kanda, known in the last century for its huge produce market and to this day as the center of Tokyo's book-selling industry.

Hotta's shop, called Takemura, is in Kanda, and he presumes that its wartime survival is due to the proximity of a 19th-century Russian cathedral that the bombs missed. More recently, Hotta has had to dodge financial bombshells in order to keep making his rice- and red-bean-based confections.

In 1989, at the peak of Japan's asset-inflated "bubble" economy, Hotta's 20-year property lease expired. The management company wanted to increase his renewal fee from 900,000 yen (about $8,000 in today's dollars) to 44 million yen, he says. He refused, insisted on a more reasonable price, and eventually stopped paying any rent at all. Years later, the company relented, and renegotiated the fee at 16 million yen. "We were proud of doing business here for so many years," Hotta explains.

In the early 1950s, Ineko Matsuzawa and her husband opened the Japanese equivalent of a diner in Kanda. The area was different then: no tall buildings, only a few restaurants, and military barracks left over from the war.

Mrs. Matsuzawa and her family still serve simple meals at reasonable prices in a big room with a tile floor and no-frills tables and chairs. The building dates from before World War II - there is a bomb shelter downstairs - and conveys the austerity of the war and its aftermath. So does Matsuzawa's attitude. "We don't have a television because people just stay around and watch."

About these ads

Even so, Matsuzawa is friendly with her customers and seems fond of the students and cab drivers who come in for a meal of rice, miso soup, and slices of raw fish or a deep-fried pork cutlet. "She's so nice," says Rikiya Yamada, a young man who had just finished a late lunch the other day. "We have every kind of restaurant in Japan - Italian, Chinese, American - but this is very rare."

At nearby Meiji University, a 120-year-old institution named for an era when Japan strove to emulate and learn from the West, Takanori Satoh, a student, practices a trombone in a hallway that can only be described as decrepit. Paint flakes off the walls and parts of a piano are held together with tape.

The university recently destroyed a large building next door, a notable dent in Kanda's already limited architectural patrimony. The building where Mr. Satoh and other Meiji students practice and attend class is typical of the Western-influenced architecture of the 19th century.

But Yasufumi Kai, a composer and conductor who advises the university's mandolin club, isn't impressed. The semicircular classroom where the club rehearses has a terrible sound, he says: "People feel nostalgia for this old building, but I think it's better to have a more functional structure."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.