Much of The Tokyo Project has been delineated in terms of defined places with boundaries. But often just as interesting as A and B is the path between them. Since a big piece of this project is about collecting examples of ways to make cities and suburbs more walkable, I thought it would be good to include a set of just that, walking. Steve Mouzon talks about the concept of walk appeal, how our willingness to walk is substantially influenced by how much we can see and do along a potential route. We’ll gladly walk miles and miles in a dense European city, but struggle to make it the few hundred feet from the parking lot of big box Retailer 1 to that of Retailer 2. Like those European cities, Tokyo helps show how this dynamic works.
Urban aesthetics in Japan tend to be polarizing. Some see only garish, omnipresent advertisement and endless concrete and steel beating away any semblance of a natural environment. I’m at the other extreme. I can’t get enough of it. I can walk for kilometers at a time in Tokyo (helpful when you miss the last train) because I find the built environment so varied and interesting. The more kanji I learn, the easier it is to get lost in trying to decipher signage. We have to acknowledge that the world continues to become more urban every day, and if this means that we reduce our impact on the broader natural environment by concentrating the human footprint in places that have the scale and density to capitalize on transit and walking, then all the better.
There are many things that can be done to make a street more aesthetically interesting and pleasing, not least among them the presence of retail and food, but it also helps to be open to the idea that there is already beauty to be found in the ordinary things already there, if one knows where to look. This is what brought me to Waseda Street early on a Sunday morning.
Waseda-dōri (早稲田通り) is an arterial road that begins at the Tayasu Gate on the north side of the Imperial Palace, running more or less west for about 16 kilometers until it peters out around Kichijoji. The portion I walked was the closest third to the palace. It just touches the southern edge of the Waseda University campus.
The trek begins at Takadanobaba Station on the JR Yamanote Line.
Anyone with a more than passing interest in manga or anime ought to know what’s so special about Takadanobaba (高田馬場). This is the fictional birthplace of Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy), and the real life birthplace of his creator Osamu Tezuka, widely considered the father of manga. The wall under the train trestle is covered with a mural of Tezuka’s characters and the train station arrival chime is the Astro Boy theme song. How’s that for making transit lovable?
The Takadanobaba Big Box. At least they call a spade a spade. This is actually a multi-use retail, dining and entertainment complex attached to JR Takadanobaba Station. So, actually, it’s nothing at all like this.
Four or five dollars for a hot and mostly balanced breakfast? Yes, please.
This elementary school borrowed Tetsuwan Atomu in its hand painted sign.
This part of Waseda Street has four lanes of traffic, but one rarely feels out of place as a pedestrian. I’ve stayed in Takadanobaba before, so I’ve observed at various times of day. Cars for the most part observe the 30 or 40 kmh limit, which helps keep noise down and people safe. The wide sidewalks are well maintained and protected with sturdy trees and the decorative railings that are ubiquitous in cities here.
This is the Takadanobaba branch of the Ippudo ramen chain from Hakata. Refreshingly low key compared with the satellite New York City location.
This neighborhood shrine is so little it didn’t even get a point on the map. A quick turn to stop for a moment of reflection is a small joy only possible while on foot.
If you have time, you can read some of the ema, small wooden plaques onto which worshipers have written prayers.
Having accumulated too much change in my pocket, it was a good time to make a deposit in the saisenbako.
Back out on the street, something like a flea market was underway.
Large negi goes great with ramen, as well as Hatsune Miku cosplay.
Once you see willow trees, you’ve about arrived at the high point of the slope that comprises Kagurazaka (神楽坂).
Passing through this recently built torii would lead you to the new location of Akagi Shrine (赤城神社), which was moved from elsewhere in Kagurazaka and incorporated into a new apartment complex in 2010.
Kagurazaka has been a center of sophisticated cuisine and entertainment since the Edo period (1603-1868), much of which continues today in geisha houses and ultra exclusive ryōtei. While neither of these kinds of establishments were within your photographer’s means, financial or otherwise, Kagurazaka is still a great place just to take a stroll.
Before I had my daughter I was decidedly not a morning person. That hasn’t really changed—in spirit, at least—but I have come to appreciate the sensation of being out and about when the day is still beginning. A place like Kagurazaka definitely makes it worth your while.
The Kimuraya grocery does a great job of attracting activity. Even if you’re not in shopping mode, it’s hard to walk past without stopping to take a look.
More footfall inducing food
Zenkoku Temple (善國寺) was hosting what seemed to be an art fair.
I was able to get these standing in the middle of the road shots because it was early and traffic still light. Kagurazaka does completely close the main street to vehicle traffic from 12:00pm to 1:00pm everyday, and from 12:00pm to 7:00pm on Sundays and holidays, in a practice called hokōsha tengoku (歩行者天国), which translates literally as pedestrian paradise.
Wagashi shop, traditional Japanese confections. Anyone have a hankering for some mame-daifuku?
That intersection ahead is right against what had been the outer moat of Edo Castle. Shopping and dining continues for a little way along Waseda Street on the other side, but this is the edge of Kagurazaka.
To go from Takadanobaba Station to Iidabashi Station at the bottom of Kagurazaka would have taken seven minutes by the Tokyo Metro Tōzai Line. Walking took me two and a half hours, including generous helpings of taking my time, but it meant that I got to see all of these things. I occasionally get recommendations from friends for attractions like museums or exhibits when I travel. I try my best to smile and conceal something between indifference and aversion. Preserving priceless pieces in hermetically sealed buildings has its place, but I’d much rather walk through the living history at my feet.
This post is part of The Tokyo Project. Click here to go to the introduction and table of contents.