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Putting on the Street in Tokyo

Notes from Robert Ivy, FAIA

Like any tourist, I took a few pictures in Japan this week, and, like most, someone took mine. The spot chosen to commemorate the journey, to fix it beyond my own frail memory, would probably not be on your itinerary or list of venerable sites. Naomi Pollock —our correspondent—and I had called on an architect whose studio lay outside the center of Tokyo adjacent to a residential area, and following the visit, had ambled down a lane that curved with the contours of the topography. The winter sun had warmed the air to maritime freshness; plum blossoms were trying to pop. The clean street was filled with mothers and babies and grandparents and kids, headed to the pharmacy or the market for a treat, or simply visiting. Beneath the four story buildings, storefronts beamed their offerings: here, a cacophony of neon pink toys and candy; next door, the smoky depths of an antique store, beside an open stall where a woman minded display cases filled with pungent fish and prepackaged sushi. At a fork in the street before pots of sticky-sweet flowers, I stopped and Naomi snapped pictures. Here beat the civilized heart of Japan.


In this multi-layered country, mountain wilderness rolls down to cities that, in their historic antecedents such as Kyoto, constantly unfolded inwardly from walled street to courtyard to flowing interior space to inner courtyard, where wrapping became artful for objects and people (think of the kimono, with its under and outer garments). While the late 20th century reconstruction of cities brought astonishing modernity and a stylistic polyglot to the entire country, the home still lies under a protective veil; entertaining occurs in restaurants, bars, or other public places, or in members-only clubs. The street represents Japan’s contemporary face, the visible, animated component of the whole organism.

Asian street vitality is nothing new. At Asakusa, the riverine precinct near the heart of ancient Edo east of downtown Tokyo, the market stalls crowd the procession way toward the Senjii shrine, the oldest temple site in the city, and hawkers call out above the crowds in voices indistinguishable from those in Hong Kong or Bangkok. Jump downtown for the contemporary equivalent, where street activity reaches fever pitch on the Ginza on a Sunday evening, blue and red and white vertically lighted signs ablaze and all doors open. Shoppers four abreast buzz through the Matsuya department store, examining the contemporary pottery or perambulating casually through Hermes, designed by Renzo Piano. How many scarves could they buy, after all? The brand matters, whatever the brand might be.

And what do you do on a street? Move. You walk, ride, pause, and then walk again, taking the measure of time and place in one meter increments, the width of the human stride. In essence, on the street in Tokyo or in Milan, whether Japanese or New Yorkers, we are living, not passively by sitting, but by moving and seeing, watching and talking—sometimes buying. Social activity, yes, but also something more. To see this urban vitality as simply commerce misses part of the point, I think, as well. What I saw in Tokyo on the street has more to do with a kind of unfolding, if you will, for people whose lives are circumscribed by other physical and social layers. On the street, we put on a new set of garments—broader, open to the sky, filled with infinite possibilities—asserting our humanity, which consists not only of mind, but also of body. In Tokyo, we put on the street.

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