& TOKYO/CELLPHONE (walking tour of the city / with low quality cellphone pictures) 2016-02-10 --

A walk west, first, along the Toden Arakawa Line, turning somewhere around the Arakawa Line main station, where the trains turn off for the night. Not sure where I was going but through Horifune's tight blocks of low-tech factories and twisting residential streets, popping up on Meiji Dori, headed toward Ikebukuro. And up through through Oji and Toshima Chuo Dori Shotengai (豊島中央通り商店街). Always stumbling on these shotengai-- you can attempt to diagnose the vibrancy of the neighborhood by these shopping streets: this one is mostly shuttered on a Wednesday around noon, but it's apparently lively later in the day and scheduled events on the weekend. The area north of the shotengai is fresh development and wide streets that gives it the feeling of the Kanagawa suburbs, but the neighborhood is old and behind the midrise blocks, there are still narrow shitamachi streets. Headed east again, there are corporate towers and housing blocks leading to the Sumida and the riverside given over to parkland or zones of factories and warehouses. And across the bridge and the blob of land between the Arakawa and Sumida rivers and over Sumida again to backtrack through Old Odai Dori (旧小台通り) and Odai Ginza (小台銀座)-- vibrancy: smaller but livelier than the Toshima Chuo Dori Shotengai, at least, located between Toden Arakawa Line stations, lots of foot traffic. I went for a walk through the narrow alleys around Odai and then back along the Toden Arakawa Line.  


& TOKYO/CELLPHONE (walking tour of the city / with low quality cellphone pictures) 2016-02-02 --

A trip from Oku to Asakusa, crossing at Kototoi Bridge, walking north and through Mukojima and back across at Shirahige Bridge and along Meiji Dori to Minowa.

I believe I came across Nagai Kafu for the first time while reading a biography of Yu Dafu, who spent years in Japan and published his most important work there. It's hard to say if the two men ever met, but it's likely Yu Dafu would have read his work (Guo Moruo at least thought Nagai Kafu was shit-- he hated most contemporary Japanese literature: "bourgeois literature" that was infected with "absorption in sensual pursuits of the demimonde"). There were translations into Chinese of Nagai Kafu's work and they share many themes. I was in Guangzhou at the time and tracked down an English language anthology of modern Japanese literature. Not much stood out for me, but I liked Nagai Kafu's work, the tattered episodes of strolls around the neighborhoods along the Sumida, the tension between the high and the low city, the modern streets and the ruins, and the dreary greyness of the stories. Reading Nagai Kafu's fiction and diaries now, there's another attraction: I can retrace his steps.

I wish I could come up with a clean statement on the why it's rewarding to retrace literary footsteps. Something about context, though. If we read to experience the world through another set of eyes and ears, this intensifies it.

"September 7. Already in the morning, the temperature was above ninety. In the evening I went walking in Sumida Park. ... I crossed Kototoi Bridge and took a bus to Tamanoi. I have been coming, since March or April, on repeated trips to investigate the quarter, and I have found by chance a house that is most convenient for resting. It contains but one lady, and her keeper never puts in an appearance. There was a maid when I first started visiting the place, and one or two have since followed her, but now there is none. The woman says that she was once a courtesan in Suzaki. She would appear to be approaching her mid-twenties. Although she has a north-country accent, her face is round, her eyes are large and her mouth is firm, and one feels that she could find a better place to work." From Nagai Kafu's diary, quoted in Kafu the Scribbler.

With that passage in mind, I thought about taking a walk through the same territory. There would be another day to dig deeper into the neighborhood, but I at least wanted to take Kototoi over to the area of Tamanoi. I took the bus from Oku Station, the 草64, which runs from Ikebukuro to Kaminarimon. I got off somewhere around Asakusa 7-chome. I walked across Kototoi Bridge.

"Currents in the Sumida River are yellow where the sun hits them, mud-colored where the sun is hidden by clouds. But since Kototoi Bridge has no steel structures except for its comb-like handrails and its pencil-like light posts, it has all the cheerfulness of a single, strong, simple, straight line of steel. Though the air is rarely clear enough to see as far as Mount Tsukuba, let along Mount Fuji, standing on the bridge from out of nowhere, the wideness of the Kanto Plain seems to flow around you." From Kawabata Yasunari's The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa, translated by Donald Richie, who notes elsewhere that he lived not far away, west on Kototoi Dori. That's one of many descriptions of Kototoi Bridge in The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa. Other notes: the bridge was a refuge during air raids, when most of the surrounding area was destroyed.

I had walked across the bridge before today but was distracted by the Skytree, which rises almost directly in front of you when crossing. When I lived in Kanagawa, the range of mountains to the west were a good way to navigate. The Skytree serves that purpose when I walk around Arakawa and Taito and along the Sumida.

It's like entering another part of Tokyo, around Asakusa and the base of the Skytree. All of a sudden, busloads of Chinese tourists following flags, Australians taking pictures of each other and their giant backpacks. As I walked toward the Skytree, a woman standing outside a temple waved for me to come over and said: "Buddhist temple. Come and see. Buddhist temple." Okay. The area around the bottom of the Skytree is heavily developed, a complete contrast to most of the surrounding area on the right bank of the river.

When I lived in Guangzhou, I often found myself at the base of the Canton Tower, an area completely different from the base of the Skytree. In Guangzhou, the area around the tower built on land that had not been previously developed. Most of the surrounding development, including the sci-fi metal and glass structures and fancy hotels across the river in Zhujiang New Town dates back only to the 1990s and heavier development only began in the 2000s, when the local government pushed hard to drive building and investment. But the Skytree feels odd, where it is, in the middle of a district that's far from the core of the city and has been built up for a century or so. Walking north from the Skytree, the area is split between narrow, crooked streets with the traditional homes and lowrise buildings typical in the low city but also tidy new homes with European cars parked out front.

I walked north, toward Higashi-Mukojima Station, cutting through sections of Kyojima. There seemed to be a harmony, maybe, between the piecemeal gentrification and the old city: a boutique handmade wool hats, a row of shops mostly not functioning anymore and the doors showing austere homes, and a line of freshly built homes with parking spaces, and a crumbling lowrise apartment block, and the mostly older and mostly female citizens of the old city pushing shopping carts down streets with the children of the new arrivals sweeping past on scooters and electric bikes. I'm not sure how the two worlds mix, really, but the character of Kyojima and Mukojima is different from my neighborhood in Arakawa, which has very little of the small scale gentrification and tidy new houses occupying the tiny original lots.

I had thought about tracking through Tamanoi. It's no longer on maps but I had a rough idea of where it was and had looked at a map in a book of walking trips through former akasen areas. Around Higashi-Mukojima, I crossed through a section of what had once been Tamanoi but did not go deeper and found nothing of note in the area. In Nagai Kafu's diary, he returns in the late-1940s and walks through "the ruins of Tamanoi."

A note about Tamanoi from Tokyo Vernacular:

Beginning in the late 1990s, the district became the venue for international symposia on town planning and for an art festival in which artists worked in and around surviving nagaya tenements. Some artists set up permanent ateliers in them. The arrival of artists renting or buying local property suggests the early stage of the bohemian-led gentrification patterns seen in cities in Europe and the United States since the 1960s. In Higashi Mukojima, however, the artists came following an official cleaning up of the area's image, beginning with the place name itself. Formerly known as Tamanoi or Terashima-cho, it had been the home of an illegal prostitution district from World War I until the 1950s. Terashima-cho was renamed Higashi Mukojima as part of the citywide revision of postal addresses in 1970. Tamanoi Station became Higashi Mukojima in 1987. This erasure of the old prostitution district from the map accorded with the broader "de-classification" of Shitamachi memory. Promoting links to the Edo past helped culture bureaucrats in the ward government bypass a socially undesirable modern history. The artists also came through the efforts of local government, and their focus on the physical environment of the alleys and row houses helped recast the area as a typical Shitamachi neighborhood, rather than a place of clandestine activities.
North of Higashi-Mukojima, I headed west and across Shirahige Bridge. With the Skytree looming to the south, the neighborhoods of gentrified alleys and clean shotengai and European cars and boutiques completely disappeared. Shirahige leads into the industrial margins of Hashiba. On Meiji Dori, approaching the area of Sanya, I watched a man in a phone booth piss into a phone book.

I walked west and through the Joyful Minowa shotengai and took the Toden Arakawa home.


& TOKYO/CELLPHONE (walking exploration of the city) 2016-01-31 --

Another dull outing. A walk in Bunkyo Ward. Not much to say.

Unless you're heading to a very obscure corner of the city--and even then-- there are multiple transit routes to get where you're going. Today, heading to Edogawabashi Station, I noted that I could take the Utsunomiya Line from Oku Station to Akabane Station and the Saikyo Line to Ikebukuro Station and then, finally, the Yurakucho Line to Edogawabashi. There was also the option of taking the Toden Arakawa Line to Higashi Ikebukuro Yonchome and walking down to Higashi Ikebukuro and taking the Yurakucho Line.

The first option involves several transfers, but it's relatively painless and it's mostly on JR East lines until the transfer to Tokyo Metro's Yurakucho Line. Edogawabashi exits under the Shuto Expressway, which runs a few dozen feet above the streets below. The area across Kanda River and directly below the expressway recall the row housing in my Arakawa neighborhood. The area below the expressway has been turned into a shaded parks connected by a walking and bike path, with bike parking and public washrooms and seating areas. The path under the expressway connects to streets with shops and the various parks along the Kanda. Beyond the expressway, the hills are home to luxury apartment complexes with French names and polished marble gates.

I walked up to St. Mary's Cathedral, a building that looks like the year it was built-- 1964-- a silver spaceship of a building by the same architect that designed the Yoyogi National Gymnasium (both completed the same year). I walked inside and sat for a while in a pew, looking up at the grey-silver walls. It was cold. Outside, a few foreign tourists were taking pictures of the cathedral. A flea market was set up on the sidewalk beside the entrance. The area is quiet and the cathedral is surrounded by gardens, hotels, luxury developments.

I crossed the river and walked up Shin Mejiro Dori to Waseda Station on the Toden Arakawa Line and took the streetcar home.

& TOKYO/CELLPHONE (walking exploration of the city) 2016-01-30 --

Connecting out of my neighborhood in Arakawa to the major transit hubs on the Yamanote Line, there are three simple methods by train:

-- Walk to Oku Station and take the Tokyo-Ueno Line to Ueno or Tokyo Station.
-- Walk to Oku Station and take the Utsunomiya Line to Akabane and the Saikyo Line to Shinjuku Station.
-- Take the Toden Arakawa Line to Otsuka-Ekimae Station and walk across to Otsuka Station on the Yamanote Line.

Machiya-Ekimae Station is also on the Arakawa Line, where you can connect to the Keisei Line (and get all the way out to Narita) and the Chiyoda Line. Riding the Toden Arakawa Line, it seems that most of the passengers are making local trips, or are riding it to take pictures of the last streetcar in Tokyo (sometimes it feel as if more than half of passengers are tourists), but it's actually a very good way to connect beyond the neighborhoods it runs through, once you know how to use it. Apart from the connections above, the Arakawa Line also makes it possible to connect to the Hibiya Line, Nippori-Toneri Liner, Namboku Line, Toei Mita Line, Yurakucho Line, Fukutoshin Line, and Tozai Line.

Yesterday, I took the train to Minowabashi and Joyful Minowa Shotengai. After a lunch of tempura and a bowl of soba, I headed east again on the Arakawa Line to Otsuka-Ekimae. I had a stop to make somewhere in Minami-Otsuka, somewhere in the middle of a triangle of Otsuka Station, Sugamo Station and Shin-Otsuka Station.

The area around Otsuka Station is not particularly noteworthy and on the walk south, I was mostly in a valley of anonymous early-'90s development. Again, noticing the various expat populations in Tokyo, there were a number of curry restaurants that, judging by English signage, seemed to be run by Pakistanis. I noticed signs posted outside them for the All Japan Quran Competition at the Masjid Otsuka-- first place prize: Umrah tickets! I walked back to Otsuka Station through back streets.

I have nothing in particular to report, but I will take a more careful stroll the next time I am in the neighborhood.


& TOKYO/CELLPHONE (walking exploration of the city) 2016-01-29 --

Hungover. Rain swept in overnight. I dragged on my coat and and took the walk to Family Mart for a pack of cigarettes, a bottle of Pepsi Strong Zero, and mentaiko mayo onigiri. The neighborhood was quieter than usual, all the work sites shut down or the workers moved off the scaffolding and deeper inside. Instead of heading back home, I went north to Oku Station and took the Utsunomiya Line toward Ueno. Along the edges of the wide railway canyon between Nishi-Nippori and Ueno, the countless love hotels and pachinko towers. At Ueno, I ate a bowl of soba at a stall on the platform. I'd never noticed it before. The trains rattling along the dozens of lines going through Ueno made the counter vibrate and the walls creak. I went out of the Iriya Gate and walked out onto the elevated walkways over Showa Dori. Maybe Ueno was a better comparison for those railway slums I compared Sanya to yesterday.

Ueno was the final destination for trains from the north and looking past the grey towers, the area is riddled with mazelike alleys, including Ameyokocho and its crowded lanes and its shops selling hand fans and Kit-Kats and Mt. Fuji underwear, and Fujianese men selling bundles of dried noodles and counterfeit coins, and the holdout shops selling kamaboko and wristwatches, and all the tourists dragging plastic suitcases. Ueno Park is home to most of the homeless in the city-- or maybe it's Yoyogi? There are blocks of girl bars and hostess clubs and microbrothels and massage joints. It's a grim neighborhood, especially on a dark day at the end of January, when the tourists are mostly gone. I went south from the station and dropped off a few rolls of film to be developed.  

I wanted to take a different route home and rode the Yamanote Line. The Yamanote Line follows the same railway canyon as the Utsunomiya, stopping at Uguisudani, Nippori, Nishi-Nippori, but then angling around to hit Tabata, the last stop before the ring route takes its sharp left turn toward Komagome and Sugamo. Tabata is the closest Yamanote Line station to home and it looked like about a twenty minute walk. I exited the south gate and began to get lost.

I walked west, crossed the Yamanote Line. The rain had slowed. The neighborhood west of Tabata seemed abandoned. Most shop windows had their metal shutters pulled down. The occasional restaurant was shut, even when the hours on the sign told me they should be open. The few shops open were mostly selling padded jackets, quilts, orthopedic leather shoes. But toward Hongo Dori, whole blocks were being redeveloped, mid-rise apartment blocks being renovated, restaurants open and busy. At Hongo Dori, I crossed the elevated walkway to Kyu-Furukawa Gardens and walked for a while in the on the grounds, where a Meiji bureaucrat died of tuberculosis after a career that included negotiating the Treaty of Shimonoseki. The garden was empty. The rain began falling again and I left. I finally turned north and crossed over the Tohoku-Joetsu Shinkansen. Walking west along the railyard, the city felt even more abandoned. A few factories and parking lots were still in use but the buildings along the rail line were mostly dark. Near the crossover of the Tohoku Main Line and the Tohoku-Joetsu Shinkansen track, there was a crumbling danchi block, which must have once housed workers from the nearby factories. A heavy fence had been put up around it and the windows of the lower floors were boarded up. When I saw the signs for Sakaecho, I realized I'd gone too far west. I took the Toden Arakawa Line east and home.


& TOKYO/CELLPHONE (walking exploration of the city) 2016-01-27 --

A walk that includes Irohakai Shotengai, Joyful Minowa Shotengai and a trip on the Toden Arakawa Line.

I can hear the plum plum plum of the Arakawa Line crossing's chimes right now and the cars mostly shift down the line quietly enough that I strain to hear them unless the windows are open. It's only when one of the older cars goes past that I can hear the grinding down the rail.
I took the Arakawa Line east to Minowabashi and the went south to Meiji Dori, where the cluttered alleys gave way to eight lanes of traffic, pachinko towers, men in grey suits smoking cigarettes outside of Doutour. The pedestrian flow, busy in the laneways spread across the wide sidewalks. A concrete valley through the old city. I walked west on Meiji Dori and turned south again and west again and south again. I was lost. I stopped and bought onigiri and a can of Sapporo. I'd planned to head east all along, toward Sanya. I tracked through the empty streets lined with bathroom tile midrises and rollup factories and convenience stores, trying to find a landmark, and ended up in Higashi Nippori, turning away from my march toward Yanesen's belt of love hotels and scenic shotengai only when I reached Otake-bashi Dori and its banners promoting: Fabric Town / Fabric Street-- I've gone too far. I looked at the map, finally, too late, and began a slow trip back to the east, through Negishi.

Even this far north and east from Nippori I felt the cleansweep of gentrification. Approaching Showa Dori from the east, the light industry and shuttered shops and battered apartment blocks were mostly gone and were replaced with apartment towers with French names. I followed a group of elementary school students in sailor hats, five girls and one boy, and one of their mothers, perhaps, tailing them, all speaking in crisp clean Modern Standard Mandarin. And the girl slowly pedaling her bike beside her boyfriend, further up the road, teasing each other in a dialect that might have been Minnan. Most of the younger faces in the neighborhood were Chinese.

Crossing Kokusai Dori, I noticed the Skytree rising in the south, across kilometers of grey and brown apartment blocks and the Sumida River. I checked the map for the location of Irohakai Shotengai and saw that should be directly south. The map showed me that I was in Nihonzutsumi 1-chome or 2-chome. I found the entrance to the shotengai eventually. Compared to Joyful Minowa Shotengai, where I had walked from, the covered shopping street here was mostly empty. A shop here selling men's clothing and a shop there selling shoes and a narrow shop at the exit of the street selling udon. There was soft jazz playing loudly from hidden speakers and  Ashita no Joe banners (boxing manga, centered on the misadventures of a young man that runs from an orphanage to the slums of Tokyo, trains as a boxer and eventually dies in the ring-- and the central feature of the Irohakai Shotengai's revitalization campaign). The shotengai was lined with bicycles.

Around the east gate of Irohakai Shotengai, men were seated on sheets of cardboard. I lit a cigarette and stood for a while there. A man with grey hair approached me and greeted me and stood beside me and waited for me to speak. I stood silently. The man left and became engage again in conversation with the other men lined up along the wall of the Irohakai Shotengai gate. I left and walked back . I noticed the storefront missions and the shops selling work clothes and visibility vests and measuring tapes and hammers. This was Sanya, which is no longer on maps of Tokyo. Beyond the shotengai, the narrow streets were empty. Night was falling.

In function and appearance, it seemed to be similar to the neighborhoods tucked around Chinese railway stations: an older neighborhood often constructed on the periphery of the central city, catering to day workers and migrants, and old, crumbling homes. The difference that stands out most is that those railway neighborhoods in China are centers of vice, but in Sanya, the atmosphere was sleepy, with streets mostly empty, and no evidence of anything beyond drinking to excess. Even those railway neighborhoods have changed over the last decade. Returning to cities like Xuzhou or Zhengzhou or Datong, the first thing I noticed is that the concrete barbershops and their pink and blue lights and the young, rural women working in them were gone, and the creaky business hotels advertised by migrant women touting at the station gates were replaced by chain hotels. I've heard some similar gentrification may be happening in Sanya and there were several teams working on demolishing skinny buildings that may have once held short term dormitories or flophouses. Sanya is many years away from looking like the vibrant neighborhood to the west at Minowabashi or the touristy shotengai at Yanaka Ginza, right below Nippori Station. Demographics would seem to suggest that gentrification in other areas of Tokyo could continue but... there just aren't enough young people to go around, are there? In other neighborhoods, new apartment blocks and highrises have gone up around transit hotspots, while also mostly maintaining the character of the neighborhood. But it appears that many of the people moving into this neighborhood are arriving from Fujian, Changsha, Huizhou, Chengdu.... I don't know enough about Tokyo to answer my own questions about Sanya.

I went back up Route 464, which was once known as Kotsu Dori and which was once an exhibit of the severed heads produced by the Kozukappara execution grounds to the north. The execution grounds have been covered by a railway yard. I didn't bother making the trip north to look through the chainlink. I backtracked to Meiji Dori and walked toward Minowa Station.

At the intersection of Meiji Dori and Showa Dori, I stood outside a convenience store and smoked a cigarette. The gloom of Sanya was replaced with the neon and dusk crowds outside the station, businessmen hunched over curry rice and newspapers in warm windows. I went through Joyful Minowa Shotengai and the sparse crowds of older shoppers buying meals of rice and pork cutlet, onigiri, potato salad. I caught the Arakawa Line at Arakawa-Icchumae.

Further reading: http://nerorism.rojo.jp/sanyanow-h1.html /// http://blog.goo.ne.jp/fuw6606/e/0440ed067865ccb36393c38530998fb5 ///  http://likeafishinwater.com/2014/08/15/irohakai-shotengai-in-sanya /// http://blogos.com/article/103813/