Kinshichō (錦糸町) is a large commercial node centered around Kinshichō Station in Sumida Ward, deep into the Shitamachi area on the east side of Tokyo. Largely absent are the bright neon, super high density and narrow, winding streets found in the central and western, more affluent parts of town. This is middle class and blue collar Tokyo, and more representative of both the greater Tokyo area and urban/suburban communities throughout Japan.
This was my first visit to the neighborhood, so I planned for just a brisk walk around the block to kick off the morning and get a feel for what was there. It turned out to be a good thing that I hadn’t had higher ambitions, as things are quite a bit more dispersed compared with central Tokyo and it took a while just to complete a circuit around the station.
Looking south from the platform, you can see big, boxy retail and wide arterial roads surrounding the large plaza outside the station. Even from here, you can get a sense that the station is somewhat of an island, limited from tight integration with the neighborhood, at least to the south.
In the event that you’re so hungry that you can’t wait for the time it takes to go through the exit gates and walk to someplace to eat, Kinshichō has you covered with this soba and curry stand right on the platform.
The original station was just a stop on the JR Sōbu and Chūō-Sōbu lines, but the Tokyo Metro Hanzōmon Line extension to Oshiage completed in 2003 added an interchange with the subway.
Arcakit Kinshichō, one of several large retail complexes, is visible over the north platform.
Exiting the south gates, immediately to the right is the entrance to the Pia Kinshichō Shōtengai, the only shopping street in the close vicinity of the station with obvious signage and a notable pedestrian presence in the road.
Directly above the station is the Termina shopping complex. Somewhat atypical for a JR station is that Termina is not JR Group affiliated retail, but an independent operator that manages two other buildings in Sumida.
The plaza contains a large bus and taxi rotary with several covered boarding platforms. Beyond it, arterial road Keiyō-dōro divides Kinshichō into north and south halves.
One of the Hanzōmon Line underground station exits is located in the plaza.
Beyond the Kinshichō branch of Marui, the south side of the road is known mostly for the Japan Racing Association, a horse racing betting agency, as well as love hotels and hostess clubs, earning this part of town a somewhat unwholesome reputation. The areas I was most interested to see were up around the station, particularly the north side, so we’ll save gambling for another day.
I tried to trace the ownership history of LIVIN stores and gave myself a good headache. As best as I can tell, it was the result of rebranding some Seibu department stores during a massive restructuring of the relevant parent groups after the economic collapse in the 1990s. At the top of the pile is The Seiyu, Ltd., which encompasses and holds final sway over retail and real estate operations of the Seiyu Group. As of 2008, Seiyu Group was 100% owned by Wal-Mart, so I’m not quite clear on who calls the shots. Furthermore, there is a relationship with the Seibu Railway, which operates tourism and real estate assess in addition to trains and stations. Take all of this as a best guess based on the evidence I could find. The specifics of these relationships are notoriously difficult to understand clearly. Many department stores in Japan have their roots in railways, which are largely permitted to utilize the property associated with stations and right-of-way for other operations. Ownership generally takes the form of either a shell parent with a portfolio consisting of multiple industries, or convoluted cross ownership. While it leads to interesting combinations of rail and land use, strategy can become muddled and competency spread too thin. I’m very interested in this phenomenon, but my American MBA curriculum left me woefully unprepared to understand capitalism as practiced in Japan.
Turning away from the towering buildings and busy thoroughfare, the Pia Kinshichō Shōtengai is a welcome escape back to human scale enclosure, even if not that inspiring in and of itself.
When you get to the end of the shōtengai, follow Tokyo Skytree under the rail viaduct to the north side.
Wow, so much better! This part of the station periphery feels much more inviting, and it’s not by coincidence. This section of the neighborhood recently underwent significant street level renewal as part of a larger effort to establish Kinshichō as an international business hub in the city. Many of the recently built or renovated retail, office and residential buildings are also part of this plan. While the larger towers look impressive from a distance, at street level they tend to limit the amount of texture with which pedestrians can interact. As you walk along the north side of the station, you can see the contrast between the steel, glass and granite towers on south side of the street, with the little shops and restaurants on the north.
Mismatch notwithstanding, they’ve still done a very nice job at giving this main street a decent sense of place, with wide sidewalks and tree shade canopy.
Most of the streets running north into the residential area are lined with more stores and restaurants on the ground level, with apartments above.
Large artwork is installed in the middle of the bus and taxi rotary outside the north entrance of the station. Artist Loren Madsen created Echo to symbolize Sumida’s relationship to music. Sumida Triphony Hall, the home of the New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra, is a short walk west from the station. The suspended ring is an interpretation of bass clefs from music notation and the names and dates of musicians from the last five centuries are inscribed on the pillars.
In the distance, behind Kinshi Park is Olinas, a multi-use complex and one of the showcase pieces of the recent redevelopment. Olinas is owned and operated by CapitaMalls Asia Limited, a Singapore-based developer that frequently includes proximity to public transit as a key feature of projects in its portfolio.
And with that, we’re back to roughly where we started. My initial reaction is that there are plenty of things to like, especially on the north side, but that the overall scale makes it difficult to really create a strong sense of place. Ikebukuro, which has a somewhat similar makeup, has a much stronger identity, the result of a bit more density and much more texture at street level. The large access roads, huge plazas and rotaries that isolate the station from the neighborhood surrounding it are features, not bugs, of more recently developed or redeveloped parts of the city, and are often required by policy. This optimizes vehicle flow to and around stations, but at the expense of walkability and character, which are part and parcel of rail oriented neighborhoods in older parts of town. Given the opportunity, even a city like Tokyo struggles to balance these needs and preserve the practices which made it so successful in developing ubiquitous transit infrastructure.
This post is part of The Tokyo Project, Volume 2. Click here to go to the introduction and table of contents.