Shibuya (渋谷) is one of Tokyo’s 23 special wards, and the name of a municipality and the large transit hub within that ward. But the area it most commonly denotes is the pumping commercial heart fanning out up the slope to the northwest side of the station. A map will tell you this consists of Maruyama-chō, Dogenzaka, Udagawa-chō and Jinnan municipalities, but to every visitor who has ever snapped a picture of the famous scramble crossing and neon lights—perhaps the closest analog to Times Square in all of Japan—it always has been and always will be, Shibuya.
Locals and old Japan hands may find these images represent some of the most clichéd of all foreigners’ impressions of what Tokyo and, by extension, Japan look like. I wouldn’t disagree, but it’s my humble hope that you’ll indulge me as I retrace my steps in one of the places that was most responsible for my interest in urbanism and transit oriented development. Shibuya was the first of the big Tokyo stations that I encountered. Tokyu Food Show, the depachika under the station and Tokyu Department Store, was where I made a weekly grocery run for the things I couldn’t find in my own neighborhood. Kamukura in the pedestrian street Center Gai was where I had my first experience of real ramen. Among the many department stores and fashion boutiques, for the first time in my life I was able to find cosmopolitan attire that fit off the rack (I’m not a big guy). On occasions that I didn’t have anywhere specific to be or things to do I would often end up in ekimae, the large square on the north side of the station that looked out at the crossing, just to sit and take it all in.
Before coming here I hadn’t realized it was possible to fit so much to see and do above, below and around a train station. There isn’t really anything in America that is comparable. Moreover, the commercial district differs from a place like Times Square in that it hasn’t been packaged up and handed over to tourists. Traffic and people co-exist through an elaborate web of roads, wide sidewalks, pedestrian streets, pedestrian overcrossings and, of course, the giant crossing in front of the station that halts traffic in all directions while the intersection fills with bodies. Beyond the neon, high intensity retail district and colorful (in more than one sense) love hotels of Dogenzaka, side streets and alleys host plenty of izakaya and other fixtures of nightlife, before turning over to Yoyogi Park to the north and residential neighborhoods to the west. There is something here for everyone, which is probably why on evenings and weekends it can seem as if everyone in Tokyo is here.
This post is part of The Tokyo Project. Click here to go to the introduction and table of contents.