SOUTHWEST (Shinagawa to Yoyogi)
1. Archives and Embassies
I can’t quite believe how lucky I have been with the weather; it is already sunny, there is just a light pleasant breeze and a high of 18 degrees is forecast. I couldn’t wish for better conditions to walk in, especially in the middle of March.
It is 9:30am and I am standing in front of my hotel directly across the street from my ultimate destination: Shinagawa Station. Despite it being almost the tail end of rush hour there is a constant stream of people pouring out of the station and onto the crossing in front of me.
Behind me there is a small shrine that seems to have been left amongst all the modern buildings almost by mistake. It is a scene that is by no means unique in Tokyo but it is fascinating nonetheless.
I sit for a while watching the scene whilst eating a breakfast of two donuts, one curry and one chocolate, and drinking a can of hot black coffee bought from a vending machine.
Then at exactly 9:40am I am off. The Yamanote line itself heads south from Shinagawa before turning sharply back towards the north. I am taking a short cut across the top of this curve.
I walk south alongside the busy Route 15 for a few minutes and then turn right into a narrow residential street and head up a hill. Suddenly I am alone. I meet no one as I climb, and on this whole first section I only encounter a lady on a bike, three workers building a house, a few cars and a taxi.
Although Tokyo retains much of its ancient street pattern and is a maze of narrow twisting roads, the buildings that line the streets are constantly being rebuilt. In this part of the city they are all of very modern concrete construction and I see very few that could be more than 20 years old.
This area is home to quite a lot of the embassies of smaller nations; I skirt around the back of the Irish Embassy and then pass directly in front of the big white walls that surround the residence of the Ambassador of Brunei. At the brow of the hill I turn left and head down another narrow street past a large modern building which houses the archives and museum of the Sony Corporation.
After a few more minutes I come to Yamate Dori. This is one of Tokyo’s arterial roads and it heads south to north; most of the time it is west of the Yamanote line itself. The road is busy but there is a pedestrian crossing and soon I am across.
The area here has been extensively redeveloped and features nothing but tall modern buildings. I eventually emerge into Osaki New City, a complex of housing and shops which was built at the turn of the twenty first century. It looks pretty drab and featureless.
I cross another busy road to reach Osaki station. It seems to be quite well hidden in amongst a lot of construction. I take the photograph of the entrance sign. One down and just twenty eight to go!
2. Royal Wednesday
Now I turn north and then, after darting a few blocks east, I walk alongside the Meguro River. It is lovely and peaceful here and, again, there is hardly anyone around; I meet a mother with her two toddlers standing on a bridge but that it is it.
As I turn away from the river and head into Gotanda, I pass the Haruyama “Mens & Ladies” clothes shop. Two employees are just putting the final racks of clothes out on to the pavement along with signs that say “Half Price Event”. They smile and say good morning in Japanese as I walk past. I have noticed that in contrast to when I first arrived in the city 32 years ago, local people are now a lot more used to foreigners speaking in Japanese and are therefore usually more willing to engage with them. It is a positive development I think.
To reach the station I thread through streets that contain quite a few establishments that cater to the sex trade. There are girl bars and love hotels (offering the chance to stay and rest) lining the streets here. The sign above the Lios Hotel III says “Welcome to sweet hotel”.
At 10am there is definitely a “morning after” feel here; street cleaners are busy cleaning the pavements and almost everywhere is closed. One of the bars has a sign inviting customers to enjoy “Royal Wednesday”. I wonder what exactly that is, but as there is another sign that says “Japanese Only” I don’t think I will ever get the chance to find out.
I emerge from this mini-red light district, climb a pedestrian foot bridge and then see Gotanda Station is directly across from me. It is also under construction. I guess this is all part of a plan to spruce up the Yamanote line stations before the 2020 Olympic Games.
3. Slow Crossing
I am already conscious that I am taking longer than I had expected to go between the stations. As I stand at a pedestrian crossing next to the station I realise one of the reasons why. The traffic lights here seem to take much longer to go to green than in the UK. Maybe this is just an illusion but I seem to be standing for more than three minutes.
It is doubly frustrating as even though the light is red, the road is quiet and clear. In London it would be legal to just run across, but here people wait obediently even though there is not a car in sight. I am conscious not to break any rules so I wait with them.
After I finally cross the road I walk, for the first time, with the railway next to me. I follow a narrow road just to the right of the tracks with the Yamanote trains passing every three or four minutes to the left of me.
I continue along this little road as it curves to the right all the way to the next station. I stop to inspect a community bulletin board that offers details of local events “March in Shinagawa” and I greet some workers who are digging up the carriageway.
When I reach Meguro station I am surprised how developed it is. I spent time working in this area back in 1991 and I remember it being a lot smaller station then. Subway lines arrived here in the early 2000s and the station seems to have been extensively rebuilt back then.
4. Garden Place
As I navigate through the area above the station I find myself outside the Yamanote loop for the first time. There is a view down to the tracks, now on my right, and a young mother is standing there introducing her son to the world of trains. Be careful, I think to myself, it can be addictive!
I continue north along the main road and walk past a row of shops and restaurants. There is a Mos Burger (the Japanese burger chain), a Korean-style barbecue place and a Yanaka Coffee shop. When I first lived in Tokyo in the 80s the city was filled with traditional family-run kissaten (Japanese-style coffee shops) where coffee was expensive but you could linger in comfortable surroundings for however long you wanted. Now Starbucks and Japanese imitations like Yanaka seem to have completely taken over.
I dart off the main road to the right, pass through some alleyways and find the tracks again. These streets are, unusually for Tokyo, covered in a fair bit of graffiti. The Yamanote line is now directly in front of me and there are a lot of tower blocks behind it. I descend a little slope and come to a level crossing.
The level crossing takes me across the freight lines and then an underpass, decorated by balloons, bunny rabbits and rainbows, takes me underneath the Yamanote line itself. I am back inside the loop. After a short walk along a very nice tree-lined street with a huge retaining wall to one side, I come to the southern entrance of Ebisu Garden Place.
This area of the city takes its name from an old brewing company “Yebisu” which was itself named after a Buddhist god of fortune “Ebisu” (with or without the Y – the pronunciation is the same). The company was taken over by rival Sapporo some years ago but the name has been retained as a sub-brand.
Built on the site of the old Yebisu brewery, the Ebisu Garden Place is a vast complex of housing, retail outlets and offices. It contains the Tokyo Photography Museum, cinemas, a Mitsukoshi Department Store and the headquarters of Sapporo beer.
I head through the beautifully clean and well-lit passageways of the complex to emerge at an attractive courtyard with an impressive overall roof. It is almost reminiscent of a Victorian railway station roof. I sit for a short while with a can of coffee and then make my way down more corridors and along a travelling walkway which is decorated, not surprisingly, with lots of “Yebisu Beer” adverts.
I finally emerge directly in front of Ebisu Station.
5. Going to the Dog
Just opposite this exit of the station there is a little part of Ebisu that the developers haven’t touched yet. There are a couple of shops selling Japanese “hanko” (the little stamps used instead of signature) and an old florists shop.
There is a Spanish-Italian restaurant that has a sign offering “as much as you can eat pasta or pizza with salad and bread”. The deal is written in big red letters, but smaller ones suggest it is only available on weekends and holidays. Next door there is a tiny sashimi restaurant with a chef already busy at work slicing up fish.
I head north once again with the railway still running parallel alongside to my left. There are now tall buildings on each side of the tracks. They are mostly flats but I encounter a few music shops, a ballet studio and a big orange sign advertising a tango school.
I cross the railway on a pedestrian footbridge and find myself outside the loop once again. This area of southeast Shibuya was where my first Japanese teacher had his flat back in 1987. I am curious to see if I can remember anything of the area so I am making a little diversion.
I wander down a few of the narrow streets and just as I think I have located the little café where I used to wait before the lesson, I start to wonder if it really is the same one. There is a lot of construction going on here too and I am forced to divert around roads that are closed.
I pass the “Japanese Society for the Advancement of Inventions” and eventually emerge next to a huge display of pink lanterns just in front of the south side of Shibuya Station: the world’s second busiest.
I walk around to the statue of Hachiko the dog which sits in a square between the station and the famous “scramble” crossing. The real dog existed in the 1920s and was famously loyal; waiting outside the station for his owner to come back from work every day and then for nine years after his master’s death. The story has spurned a Japanese film and there is even an American version starring Richard Gere.
Hachiko is perhaps the most famous meeting place in Japan. The little square in front of the dog is often crowded with young people amongst whom Shibuya is popular as a fashion spot. I watch a few people taking pictures of the dog before taking one myself.
6. Olympic City
Leaving Hachiko, I pass underneath the railway and back inside the Yamanote line. It is very crowded here; the busiest street I have experienced so far.
There is a guy selling the Big Issue newspaper at the entrance to the subway station. I buy a copy from him, walk towards Meiji Dori, another one of Tokyo’s arterial roads, and then turn left onto it heading north.
There is a branch of Bic Camera, one of Tokyo’s largest electronics stores, and then further along a cinema with a sign advertising that it is currently showing Aquaman.
After a few hundred metres, I go under the Yamanote tracks once more and soon find myself opposite the Yoyogi National Gymnasium. The stadium (1961-4) was used for the swimming and diving events in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. It is currently being refurbished so that it can host the handball competitions at the forthcoming 2020 games.
I notice an old lady and a young man standing together admiring the work; I wonder if she is remembering the 1964 games and he is looking forward to 2020. Most of the events for 2020 will take place far from here, but as I cross back over the Yamanote line on the Gorinbashi (5 rings bridge) I am reminded that Tokyo’s first Olympics were concentrated around this area.
The area just across the bridge is close to the main entrance of the famous Meiji Shrine. From here the tree-lined Omotesando boulevard stretches down towards Aoyama. It is one of Tokyo’s most pleasant streets and is lined with boutiques and cafes. The atmosphere here is often compared to Paris but today everywhere is decorated with Irish flags in honour of St Patrick’s Day.
In front of me is a branch of the Israeli cosmetics chain Laline and next door is “Oriental Traffic” who are offering 50% off ladies shoes but stressing the offer is limited to this store. A few doors down “Cow Cow Kitchen” are selling milk cheese products. There is also a little park with a sign that pleads with the public not to feed the mice. I don’t see any mice but there are certainly a lot of young people around here shopping.
This area is well known for its role in young people’s fashion culture. From the 90s “Harajuku style” grew from the quirky little shops located around here to become the symbol of Japanese youth around the world.
Fashion houses would often test their products in this area before releasing them more generally. They say that Harajuku’s influence is waning now though.
I walk a few metres north and soon arrive at Harajuku Station. In my opinion, it has the prettiest station building in Tokyo and resembles an English Victorian country station straight out of an Agatha Christie novel.
7. Belle Epoque
I head north from Harajuku with the Yamanote line to my left and the vast Meiji Jingu Shrine park beyond it. I pass the Tokyo Design Academy, The Belle Epoque College of Beauty, several hairdressers and a couple of clothing design schools.
It is obvious that the area around here is heavily linked to the fashion industry. As I go north the narrow streets become quieter but they are lined by expensive looking residences. This is undoubtedly quite an expensive part of the city.
There is hardly anyone around here. I come across a delivery driver who has stopped his truck outside one of the buildings and is sitting in the cab reading a Haruki Murakami novel in English. I pass a business man texting while walking and I see an old lady who is wandering around. I meet no one else.
I emerge from this little area near the Kita Sando Metro Station and then dart back under the Yamanote line near the northern entrance of the Meiji Shrine.
There is a narrow alley down the left side of the train tracks here and I take it. Across the tracks I can see the enormous Times Square Skyscraper. It is modelled on the Empire State Building and sits atop of the massive Times Square shopping and leisure complex in South Shinjuku.
Another few hundred metres walk leads me directly to the southern entrance of Yoyogi Station.