Sayonara, Matsuzakaya! Changing Ginza, Unchanging Ginza

Tokyo has several “downtown” centers but, as opposed to hectic Shibuya and Shinjuku et al, Ginza is an elegant district where time flows by at a more gentle pace. But that’s not to say that time stops still. Recently one of Ginza’s landmarks, the department store Matsuzakaya Ginza, closed its doors after eighty-eight years of business. They have announced plans to rebuild the department store a few years from now, but it’s beyond question that the closure is a signal that times have indeed changed.

Of course, now would be the opportunity to put together an article on “changing Ginza”, featuring some of the new glittering all-glass buildings and boutiques that have sprung up recently. But we decided to take a slightly different take on things. We wanted to search for what hasn’t changed in Ginza, even as the district undergoes transformation after transformation. These things that remain whatever the era might just reveal the real character of Ginza.

Ginza History

Let’s start with a simple look at Ginza history. The name (literary meaning “silver seat”) comes from the Ginza Yakusho, the silver-coin mint agency that used to be located in Ginza the area in the Edo period. The Ginza area at that time was where lots of different kinds of artisans lived, though there were also residences for Noh theatre actors, and other people associated with the arts like painting and Kabuki. In the same way that today the Kabuki-za theatre and countless galleries can be found in Ginza, ever since the Edo era the area has been a site for both commerce and art.

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The Ginza silver mint existed right in front of where the Tiffany store is now.

As the Edo gave way to the Meij era, two events proved the catalyst for changes in Ginza — the fires of 1869 and 1872. With Ginza completely destroyed both times, the district was redesigned, giving birth to rows of western architecture. After the first railway was then laid from nearby Shimbashi, Ginza began to develop more and more.

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A model of Ginza during the Meiji period. There were now lots of brick buildings in the western style of architecture, which were thought to be a prevention against fire.
Photo by Electroliner, via Wikimedia Commons

Entering the Taisho and Showa periods, Ginza was once again transformed, this time due to the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, which devastated much of the city. No doubt because it had already happened before, Ginza pushed ahead quickly with restoration work and now a major role was played by the department stores. Matsuya, Matsuzakaya and Mitsukoshi all opened in quick succession. With the area re-born as a shopping district, the department stores were followed by lots of cafes and bars, turning Ginza into an even more bustling place than before the earthquake.

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Ginza just after the Great Kanto Earthquake
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Matsuya Ginza. Matsuya began life as a kimono merchant in Yokohama in 1869. It opened its Ginza store in 1925. After numerous renovations, the current building is the most “contemporary”-looking among department stores in Ginza.
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Matsuzakaya, which closed its doors on June 30th, 2013. It opened the year after the Great Kanto Earthquake and was one of the symbols of Ginza for eighty-eight years.
Looking back Matsuzakaya Ginza’s history
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Ginza Wako. Wako originally opened in 1881 as a retail branch for K. Hattori (later Seiko). The Wako clock tower, another Ginza landmark, is the second version of the building, dating from 1932.

Japan then plunged into war. “Luxury is the enemy” was one of the slogans of the time and retailers faced business restrictions, as well as air raids. Besides this, Ginza also suffered a lot of damage and after the war was home to Post Exchange (PX) stores for the occupying forces. But thanks to the efforts of the retailers Ginza began to recover.

The post-war recovery was dominated by areas in Tokyo like Shibuya and Shinjuku, and young people searching for the latest products shifted more and more over to the west of the city. Ginza is now no longer a center of youth culture, but still retains its status as a place with unique flavor of luxury.

Unchanging Ginza

Due to all these fires, earthquakes and wars, there are today no longer any buildings dating back to Ginza’s origins. Even so, you can find lots of relics of different eras if you just look.

Let’s start with something you can find all over Ginza — alleyways. Although these may seem just to be gaps between buildings, in fact they are genuine roads. Ginza transformed into a district filled with rows of western-style buildings in the Meiji period, but actually was still a residential area. On the main roads Ginza was the site for all the latest fashions, the western-style stores selling imported merchandise from abroad. But behind this there were narrow alleyways where people would have their homes and go about their lives. Though they don’t give off any real vestiges of the history, these back streets themselves still exist and you can walk along them today.

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This might look like just a cranny between buildings — but actually this is an alley with real history!
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In stark contrast to the brightness of the main streets, the alleys are a bit dark and dirty.
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Though the passageways essentially run between buildings, at times they go through certain places. Here the alley we were walking along passed right through the middle of a cafe.

You can see lots of small shrines when walking in the backstreets. All are in excellent condition. The gods of Ginza are clearly still looking after everyone!

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This shrine had a sign explaining that people were stealing the offerings box, so now you should put your 10 yen into the letterbox of the shop opposite. It’s tough for the gods in the city!

It’s fun to find this “another Ginza” in these alleyways, almost the opposite of what the place usually seems like. But Ginza is also full of architecture and shops in which you can feel the weight of history. Here we’ll introduce a very select handful of ones we recommend.

Gekkoso

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This shop selling painting supplies was founded in 1917. This kind of place has been a member of the “supporting cast” for Ginza’s rich arts. It is known for its horn logo and fans can featuring the motif.

Chuo Ward Taimei Elementary School

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This elementary school was built in 1929 and is still attended by students. With its ivy-covered architecture, this is very much a stylish “Ginza”-esque school. It has been given recognition as a historical structure by the Tokyo government.

Bordeaux

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This ivy-covered bar appears out of nowhere in the middle of Ginza and first opened its doors in 1927. It has long been patronized by people from political and business circles, as well as famous artists. Isoroku Yamamoto, the wartime admiral, was said to have a favorite seat. Since we were here during the daytime we sadly weren’t able to pop in for a drink.

Yonei Building

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The Yonei Building was erected in 1930 and has also been given historical landmark status. It is still used today as the headquarters for Yonei, a company dealing with machinery.

Shiroi Bara

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This cabaret was started in 1931. Perhaps because people visit Ginza from all over Japan, the names of the hostesses are displayed on a map showing their hometowns.

Okuno Building

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Dating from 1932, this is really vintage. Packed with galleries, it is still very active as an art hub.

Kokun Building

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Kojunsha was the club for industrialists established by Yukichi Fukuzawa, the man who appears on the 10,000 yen note. The Kojun Building now occupies the site where the organization once was based. In spite of the grandeur, the present structure is actually a 2004 restoration, though some of the old architecture has been utilized so we can still get a sense of the original atmosphere.