Editor-in-chief Gordon Price spent part of yesterday on a guided tour of Kagurazaka, a traditional, prominent Tokyo neighbourhood, by local architect Shunji.
“The town is the stage” notes Gordon from the tour, an allusion perhaps to Kagurazaka’s history, which spans back at least to the 15th century when Edo Castle was built, as a roji community. Roji is the name for the characteristically narrow alleys tucked throughout the enclave; in this neighbourhood, roji are also closely associated with ryōtei — luxurious traditional Japanese restaurants — and the geisha who, at one time, served their patrons within.
Such a stage doesn’t quite exist as it used to, as recent decades have seen the infiltration of French restaurants, among other foreign intrusions. Kagurazaka street itself is seen as “iki” — chic, cool, stylish.
As such, efforts are being made by the city and residents of Kagurazaka to maintain this community’s roots by way of a planning concept that will be very familiar to readers in its approach, if not by its name — Machizukuri. “Machi” can mean community, or even ‘small area’; “Zukuri” is making or planning. In the context of Japan’s urbanism movement, machizukuri is recognized as the attempt to involve the local residents in community planning, to improve it, and perhaps also to sustain elements of traditional life.
While the width of roji were once measured in actual feet (ie. human steps — ten, to be precise), today the rules say roads have to be wider than 4m, which of course would kill the unique qualities of roji, and encourage bigger development.
Kagurazaka all but burned down in World War II; somehow the roji survived. What will happen to this neighbourhood in the coming decades?
Tokyo scale. Nope, not pretty. But there’s a lot of it, and they build it fast. Housing prices in Tokyo are flat or slowly rising (we heard both opinions). Other factors: dropping population, though Tokyo is growing and attracting young people, particularly into the centre. They have a long-standing government support, and planning and development agencies for housing. (The constitution guarantees basic needs – consequently almost no apparent homelessness) and a society of trust which makes complicated land assembly and community consultation much easier.
The subway system in Tokyo is one of the world’s biggest – 13 lines operated by two companies, serving about 10 million people a day, still only 22 percent of all forms of transit in the region. (They could move everyone in Canada, plus several million more.) So clear way-finding signage is essential, even for those who don’t read Japanese. The circle on the screen tells riders they’re on the red line – M for Marunouchi. More importantly they’re heading for station 12 (out of 28). There will be a voice prompt as well, and on some cars a lighted bar to indicate which side to exit. The 6 on the graphic designates the car you’re on, helpful to know depending on which exit of many may be closest to your destination.
I have a hunch (obliquely confirmed by a few sources) that even as they construct new housing where demand exists, and replace that which has deteriorated, particularly the stock from the post-war decades, they will actually start to demolish viable housing to keep it off the market and prevent excessive deflation. One planner just shook his downcast head when contemplating the population crash in coming decades. “I don’t know what we’ll do.”
If you were following the explanation of way-finding on the subway, you can see the importance of knowing your destination station number. You can tell at a glance which side of the platform to be on for the right direction. No need to know the names of the final stations typically used to label the two directions on one line.