The Asagaya Pearl Center Shōtengai (阿佐谷パールセンター商店街) is a 650 meter covered pedestrian shopping arcade that begins just outside the south entrance to Asagaya Station and takes a serpentine route winding south through Asagaya-Minami in Suginami Ward. Its southern end opens onto Ōme Kaidō just a few steps from Minami-Asagaya Station. The combined access to the JR Chūō Line, JR Chūō-Sōbu Line and Toyko Metro Marunouchi Line—all major commuter routes—and many access points to the dense neighborhood surrounding, illustrate the close relationship between shōtengai and public transit, and their role in forming the backbones of Tokyo’s walkable neighborhoods.
A general shopping street following the current route of the arcade was in place at the time of the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake, though the road on which the arcade now sits is known to have existed as many as 800 years ago. At the time of the earthquake, many people left the debris of central Tokyo for communities like Asagaya—beyond the central nodes encircled by the Yamanote Line, but not quite out in the suburbs, either. In 1962, the shōtengai was rebuilt as a covered arcade and took on the name Pearl Center.
The Sōbu streetcar line, later becoming part of the Toden Suginami, was the predecessor to the subway Marunouchi Line. The decommissioning of the street car and opening of the subway stop in 1961 coincided with the emergence of supermarkets and large shopping centers, associated car parking, and general shifts toward car-based consumption habits. Asagaya Pearl Center is a good case study of a shōtengai that has persevered through these shifts and subsequent demographic changes over the last quarter of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
If you’ve already had a look at the first two entries of The Tokyo Project, Volume 2 you might be able to tell we’re working our way west along the Chūō Line. Though I’ve passed through the area several times en route to Kichijōji and further out, this was the first time I made a point to start at Shinjuku and stop at a handful of the communities along the line.
This is how close Asagaya Station and the arcade entrance are to each other. Here I’m looking out from the mouth of the south entrance.
The Chūō Line is grade separated from Tokyo Station all the way to Mitaka Station, so there are no fumikiri (grade level railroad crossings) out here in Asagaya.
We cross Nakasugi-dōri, a zelkova tree-lined boulevard that runs longitudinally through the center of Asagaya.
It’s a good sign that, even well after lunch time on a weekday, there are still plenty of people walking the arcade. As you approach the front entrance, you can hear the sound of voices and feet reverberating in a high ceiling enclosure with hard surfaces. It sets the mood for the whole space.
There is a high amount of interaction across the shopfront-street boundary.
Asagaya Pearl Center has what I’d call a full package, for lack of a better way to describe it. When I look at shōtengai, I’m interested in whether there is balance in the tenant mix. Ideally, it should be a cross section of all the things you find in a good neighborhood: groceries, household needs, services, dining, etc. If it’s heavily skewed to one type of offering, there should be a purpose behind it. For general neighborhoods like this, I think having a diverse selection of available goods and services, at the appropriate price and quality level, is a key issue in competing with large retailers. That’s the minimum requirement, but Asagaya Pearl Center also carefully manages the look and feel of the space, cultivating a warm and friendly aesthetic, and is a torch bearer for local culture. The orange banners and other artwork suspended throughout the arcade are promoting Asagaya Jazz Streets, an annual event that highlights the many jazz clubs throughout the neighborhood and features musicians playing both in the establishments and in special public performances. At the end of summer, the Pearl Center is known for its elaborate week long celebration of Tanabata, featuring huge papier-mâché comic book and cartoon characters handmade by shop staff each year.
Bicycle parking in the arcade
It’s quiet now, but you can make a guess from the stowed equipment that these restaurants and shops make use of the narrow side street in the evening.
A very small example of the papier-mâché handiwork that explodes in the arcade every August
This arcade seems to have good social enforcement of the rule to dismount from bicycles when passing through, at least during busy hours. Not all shōtengai have this as a given.
Hand-drawn advertising on chalkboard
From a side street, a florist’s display almost spills into the arcade.
Colorful fruit and vegetable display chews on the street
Bicycle parking next to the arcade
There are several conventional supermarkets, but they do a good job of matching the feel and scale of the rest of the arcade. This is the Peacock chainlet run by Daimaru.
Takano and several of the others look more likely to be independently operated.
The retail group Aeon does not have many fans among urbanism circles, due to its tendency to build massive shopping centers with parking lots that further entrench sprawl in exurban communities. While we’re not in central Tokyo here, space is still limited and land value high enough to push the group toward single shop retail chains. While some may still complain that this crowds out spaces for unique, independent retailers, the flip side is that it shows the big company is capable of meshing with existing neighborhood culture, rather than bulldozing over it.
At the end of the covered arcade, a separate shōtengai runs southeast as a spur down to Ōme Kaidō.
The Asagaya Pearl Center also continues as an open air shōtengai from this point, directly south to the same arterial road. Interestingly, the streetlight globes at the tail end are the only place where anything resembling a pearl is used as a motif in the arcade. The Pearl Center is the largest arcade in Asagaya, but it shares the jewelery naming convention with two nearby counterparts, Diamond-gai (ダイヤ街) and Gold-gai (ゴールド街). But Asagaya’s real treasure is more valuable than any bling.
This post is part of The Tokyo Project, Volume 2. Click here to go to the introduction and table of contents.