downtown living

meiji03It took a while to make the connection, but this blog, misebiraki, and this real estate site, RealTokyoEstate, are discussing the same place.

Misebiraki is a blog for the times: Its writer travels all around Tokyo looking for those hand-written notices shopkeepers put up when they go out of business. There are lots of them now, all over town.

RealTokyoEstate specializes in odd, interesting or otherwise different places that you can rent or buy.

This place in Iriya, somewhere north of Ueno, dates from the Meiji Era and was once a shop specializing in kamaboko (pureed seafood stuff made into a loaf). Supposedly the owner of the apartment building in the background paid a lot of money to buy this building because he wanted to preserve it. That’s very unusual in Tokyo.  The first floor is now a gallery (could it be this place?). The second floor is for rent for 220,000 yen a month.

an old building in the Ginza

okuno04-320There’s a special sort of groove to Tokyo’s Ginza area. It’s luxury brand shops in posh new buildings and the sort of people who spend hours in them. You get the idea. It’s not the sort of place you’d expect to run into a mini-bohemia.

But just step a couple of streets back from the main Chuo Dori, and you’ll find a corner that seems to be the antithesis to everything Ginza A bit shabby, a bit dark and shaking from the construction of a designer furniture outlet next door (word has it that it’s an IDC Otsuka–yuck) the venerable Okuno Building is Ginza’s inner Montmartre, packed into a seven-story brick building.

With its distinctly art-deco flourishes–think round windows–the structure is a magnet for the art crowd. Chockablock with architecture offices, design firms and antique shops, it’s also home to least 20 art galleries. Here’s a blog with lots of photos of the place.

“There are certain people who appreciate the building for what it is,” explains owner and manager Tsuguo Okuno (that’s him in the photo at top, with two clocks inhis office). His grandfather put up the building in 1932. “There’s a long list of people waiting to move in,” he says, to any one of its 69 units.

Although it is not registered as a landmark, the Okuno Building is a rare, fairly unretouched reminder of the modern Tokyo of the prewar years.

Originally known as the Ginza Apartment, the building was a sister design to the Dojunkai Apartment building in Harajuku that was, despite much protest, destroyed  a couple of years back to make way for the Omotesando Hills shopping mall designed by Tadao Ando (yuck again).

The Ginza Apartment building was more upscale than its twin: It offered both heating and an elevator (unusual at that time for a residence) and sheltered the glitterati of the time, among them a Kabuki actor, according to Okuno.

After World War II the apartments were converted to offices. Almost 20 years ago, the first gallery, Kobo, moved in. The last original tenant passed away this Spring.

“This place is unique. It’s right in the middle of the Ginza but represents a totally different mindset,” says Akio Moriyama, operator of the Gallery Platform Studio in room 505. “Ginza is busy making money, but here there’s a sense of things moving more slowly.”okuno03-320

The number of galleries in the building keeps changing, he says. They all operate at their own pace and he’s never once seen them all open at the same time.

Moriyama says the management is likewise loose: In his case, he took over a former single-bedroom unit 10 years ago, only to spend half a year renovating it while holding down a day job as an architect and museum exhibition designer.

“I never got a bill (for the rent) all during that time,” he says, “which is amazing for the Ginza. Here personal relationships are more important. There’s a sense that people in this building are working together to make something.”

That sentiment is echoed by Ken Sawada, whose illustrations of mechanical fish were hanging in Gallery Seika (which also functions as an order-made hat shop on Thursdays) in room 312.

“It’s inspiring to be here,” he says, because of the building’s constant flow of creators and visitors. “It puts me in touch with artists–especially younger ones–that I probably wouldn’t meet in a stand-alone venue.”

Oddly, owner Okuno claims no interest in art: He almost never steps into the galleries. He does, however, know a thing or two about what sells in the Ginza area.

“This is a prime location, and I could tear this place down and put up a new office or commercial building,” he says.

“But look at what’s happening now. There are lots of new buildings in the area that can’t attract new tenants because there’s nothing that sets them apart,” he adds.

“Here there’s always people waiting to move in because there aren’t many buildings like this one left.”


Okuno Building is located at Ginza 1-9-8 (two blocks behind the Matsuya Ginza department store away on a side street parallel to Chuo Dori). If you go also visit the Henri Charpentier cafe in the nearby Yonei Building (it’s a landmark) for the orange-flavored hot chocolate (yum!).

landscape change: ueno

céline clanet Une mélodie japonaiseThis building at left, taken from Céline Clanet’s photo series Une mélodie japonaise, no longer exists. I am not sure exactly when it disappeared, but its destruction was decided long ago. For as long as I’ve been in Tokyo, it feels, the space it occupied was held behind a shroud — first as the old building was being pulled down, later as a new one went up in its place.

Looking like the prow of an old ocean liner, it was one of the last really old western buildings left standing in Ueno, most of which was destroyed in the war. It was art deco showpiece in its day, with its big porthole windows, so it’s sad no one protested it’s demise. But then again, who would have? Ueno is in decline and welcome to any new business.

Seeing this postcard, I realize it was once a hotel. What has taken it’s place is big-box Yodobashi Camera —here— shaped liked a cheese wedge like its predecessor. Somewhere inside the new shell is an echo of the past.