Before Tokyo was a city of trains and subways, and crazy rush hour scenes, it was a city of boats and water. Ironically it was at Shimbashi that both of these sides of the city come together.
Tokyo’s (and Japan’s) railway history begins here, when the first train line opened in 1872, taking people to Yokohama. But the privatization and breakup of JR in the Eighties entailed the selling off of some of the railway giant’s land, including in Shiodome, the area next to Shimbashi. This means Shiodome has become a massive development with huge architectural spectacles such as the Richard Rogers Nippon Television Headquarters, Jean Novel’s Dentsu tower, and the Shiodome City Center. It is also now the gateway to the bay developments in Odaiba, where Tokyo’s identity as a water city is finding a new life.
Shiodome’s radical re-imagining has created a world of underground passageways and bridges connecting the various corporate castles. There is little life happening at street level. For that you need to go over to the other side of JR Shimbashi Station, which almost feels like a journey back in time.
Shimbashi was once the site of a postwar black market and you can still sense some of the hustle and bustle in the area. It’s not always clean but it’s certainly busy, with salarymen (and women) coming and going from the station to the various offices and shops.
In front of the station is SL Square, where you have the new and the old. The other side of Shimbashi/Shiodome is visible, looming over everyone from the other side of the raised railway tracks. The plaza is a higgledy-piggledy sort of place — complete with a large old train to commemorate Shimbashi’s railway history and odd nude statues — and always loud with its deafening electronic screens shouting advertising at commuters.
Bordering SL Square is the New Shimbashi Building. Hardly huge by any city’s standards, the compact building has a rather funky white latticed exterior that masks a miniature market place-like atmosphere.
In the same way that the Roppongi Hills are meant to be a whole city in one complex, and one that you get lost walking around (and then discover new parts), so too is the New Shimbashi Building almost like a mini city under one roof, albeit an often bewildering and labyrinthine one that defies easy labels.
Let’s step inside…
The first floor is one of the noisiest, with several shops selling suits, fortune-tellers, pachinko, cafes and discount ticket stands — to name just a few! There is even a super cheap vending machine offering drinks for a mere ¥50, less than half the regular price.
Be sure to search for the game centers, where there are some older games, plus slot machines and claw crane games with unusual prizes. Actually there are these game centers on almost every floor.
The basement floor is lined with izakaya and eateries, and only really comes to life at night.
Things take an “adult” turn when you head upstairs to the second floor and so we have restrained our photography a little. This floor is filled mostly with massage parlors, many of which are staffed by Chinese women who call out to you as you pass by. Yes, while many (or even most) of the places may be genuine shiatsu or massage parlors, there is something a bit unsavory about the atmosphere of the corridors, the more so because it is inside.
There are also several stores selling pornography and adult toys, plus Peyton Place, a tiny shop selling adult DVDs and libido boosters, and with a peculiar character standing outside. Oh, and a very select number of video cassette tapes on sale.
But this is all part of the bricolage of the New Shimbashi Building. There are coffee shops in the old kissaten style, plus everything from medical clinics to pharmacies, a fishing gear store, a picture frame shop, a post office, travel agencies, a recruitment agency, tax accountants’ and other offices, a dentist’s, and even a shop selling train memorabilia.
It’s not all retro and nostalgic, though. Concent Cafe, with its free wi-fi and hip interior (“Cafe. Lounge. Work space. Books”), seems to be new and superficially appears more like a place you might find in Shibuya than Shimbashi. New Shimbashi Building is evolving.
We also love the many places selling DVDs and computer games that resemble more overflowing stalls and booths than shops.
And this game center has an incredible “entrance” — you go in by squeezing between two vending machines.
In our photos have you spotted these? It’s the “street markings” on all the floors, which lend a kind of computer game “2D” look to the corridors.
The escalators are also very narrow and would no doubt be loved by Miha Tamura.
You might turn a corner and find a kind of “forgotten” space. Some corridors bustle and others are quieter with clinics and offices, and some, like here, are just sort of “leftover” spots…
Actually, although the overall layout of the building is pretty simple (basically a square), the simultaneously similar but dissimilar look of the long corridors and the lighting can make navigating the floors disorientating. How do I get to that cafe again? Haven’t I already passed this massage parlor?
You may want to consult the maps and signs on the walls showing the layout of each floor.
All in all, if you’re looking for an indoor head trip of a building — a veritable micro city under one roof — then a visit to the New Shimbashi Building will never stop surprising you.