The elegant town of Ginza

Something Old, Something Borrowed. Nostalgia of “Ginbura”

27 APRIL 2013,
Yurakucho Mullion, photo by Alma Reyes
Yurakucho Mullion, photo by Alma Reyes

Here is Tokyo, the bustling city of the Orient, bursting with relentless energy, subconscious enigma, and unforthcoming contradictions. Right in its very center is the Chuo district (Chuo=central ward), and still deeper in its centrum is the elegant town of Ginza.

Literally translated as “silver seat,” Ginza was named after the silver mint that the Edo Shogunate transferred to this area from Sunpu (Shizuoka) in 1603. The gold mint, Kinza, was formerly seated in the present Bank of Japan in Nihonbashi, adjacent to Ginza. Now considered a chic metropolis for trendy window shoppers and prominent businessmen, Ginza owes its upper-class reputation primarily to the manufacture and trade exchange of silver coins in this quarter from the Edo period, which made the striving Ginza entrepreneurs quite profitable in their trading business. Other merchants in the metal industry indulged in the making of cinnabar, formed by the “Shuza” guild; casting of gold coins “Obanza,” and manufacture of measuring weights, “Fundoza.” It was no surprise; therefore, to witness circles of artisans and craftsmen nestling in old Ginza to erect all kinds of shops, from kimono, metal kitchen utensils, jewelry, old manuscripts, to books, and others.

Ginza was practically leveled to the ground during the massive fire in 1872, which triggered the Meiji government to reconstruct the illustrious town into an architectural masterpiece of the modern era. Employing the influence of Western architecture, the English architect Thomas Waters was delegated to transform this historical quarter into a dynamic stone and Bricktown. Unfortunately, faced with problems of inferior brick quality and adverse effects of humidity, not much evidence of the Bricktown remained today. Subsequently, the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake that shook Ginza further demolished the classical monuments, which only a handful has been restored for earnest admiration.

With the orchestrated beautification of Ginza after the two disasters, a symmetric grid of cherry, oak, pine and maple trees lined the streets, thereafter, artistically replaced by a picturesque array of willow trees for which Ginza had always been generously popular for. Soon, Tokyo’s celebrated landmark had become a much sought-after ideal destination for weekend strolls, called “Ginbura”,the term coined around 1920s during the Taisho period to mean cruising around, “bura,” and a shortcut for “Brazil,” taken from an anonymous anecdote about students from Keio University back then who would flock to Ginza to enjoy excellent Brazilian coffee.

To compliment the luxurious custom of ginbura, bazaars and a variety of artisan shops were set up all over Ginza, even inviting the “borrowed” outdoor café leisurely lifestyle brought in from France. And, this was no accident. Interestingly around 1911, the glorious painter Seiso returned to Japan from Paris, bringing back with him the imaginary vision of creating a European street life ambience in Tokyo. Café Printemps was opened in no time as a result of this ambitious attempt. Well known artists, theatre actors, and also the delectable Shimbashi geisha collaborated to stage such a Parisian canvas of pretty, round tables with parasols sitting on avenues. Evidently, this outdoor café parade continues to exist today when the main 4-Chome intersection of Ginza closes its roads to traffic during weekends to make ample room for coffee tables, propped up on the streets, allowing ginbura enthusiasts to participate deliberately in this novel influx of “Euro-Japonaise” lifestyle ingredients.

A potpourri of classical architecture surrounds the sophisticated town of Ginza. As a hearth for Noh theatre artists who occupied this territory prominently during, the golden days, the district will perpetually be identified with the resplendent Kabukiza theatre, built in 1887. Dedicated to the fervent revival of nationalistic ideas in fear of losing stature to the rising modernity of the country, this ancient theatre saw many brilliant performances hosted by Emperor Meiji. However, suffering grave destruction from the Tokyo great fire and earthquake, the timeless structure witnessed an inevitable series of renovations—the last, taking place in 2008, when its cherished austerity was sadly sacrificed for the infancy of a 29-story skyscraper; again, erasing gradually the subtle memoirs of Japan’s fine-grained nostalgia.

Stepping out to the main Ginza 4-Chome crossing is the absolutely denotable Neo-Renaissance styled WAKO showroom building, displaying its glitter of jewelry, porcelain, and other fashion accessories. The corner edifice formerly housed the Hattori Clock Tower, built by Kintaro Hattori, founder of Seiko Corporation, who at the young age of 13, was graciously inspired to open a clock shop, not just for sales, but also for repair. By working as an apprentice to study clock repair and merchandise, Hattori established his own K. Hattori clock shop in Kyobashi at 21 years old, before building Seikosha and a new shop in Ginza 4-Chome, where today the splendid and imposing clock tower still proudly hovers over the classic façade, built in 1881 and delicately reconstructed in the 1930s. Affluent shoppers always enjoy viewing the colorfully designed window display, which has become a secure landmark in Ginza. It was said that after WWII, this clock tower stood as a “call of departure” for drunken men, including American service men in their white sailor uniforms who were alarmed by the musical chimes of the towering clock that stroke at midnight, obliging the stores to shut down their lights and close shop.

Directly across the Wako building is Ginza’s impeccable Mitsukoshi Department Store, originally named Echigoya that has stretched its retail business since 1673 with the sale of kimonos. Reconstructed in 1930, this structural icon surpassed another major renovation in 2010, evoking the original neo-classical architecture and the ultra-modern glass and concrete framework, today occupying 36,000 square meters. Other reputable department stores blossomed around the Ginza 4-Chome intersection from the flowering of bazaars during the Meiji period, Matsuzakaya, in fact, was the first department store to emerge in this town in 1924, right after the horrendous Kanto Earthquake. With a long history from 1611, it was a birthmark of many firsts: the first store to introduce Western-style staff uniforms; the first to station elevator attendants; and the first to permit shoppers to enter the store with shoes. Matsuya followed in 1925 and primarily caters to high-end merchandise and noted design goods.

Apart from the rise of huge department stores, Ginza had also become a hub for traditional Japanese food delicacies—one of them being the well-reputed Kimuraya bakery, which has existed since 1874. The owner, Yasubei Kimura, who was a samurai, envisioned a different taste of Japanese bread, and promoted his ideas for the anpan, bread with filled beans. This bread became a steady offering to the Emperor during the Meiji period, so much so that the cheerful delight it brought the ruler has carved itself a delicious name as Japan’s most popular and loved type of bread. Standing just steps away from the main Ginza crossing, Kimuraya continues over 130 years to allure a cue of traditionalists to the fragrance and palate of its more than 140 varieties of anpan buns.

From a conservative Bricktown that painstakingly survived colossal disasters, US occupation air raids, and multiple overhauls of both modern and traditional architecture, to an avant-garde empire of brand boutiques (Hermes, Dior, Chanel, Prada, Louis Vuitton, and more), this slivery town of Ginza powerfully embraced the dark shadows of its past through the remains of Japan’s fine-spun classical architecture and immutable patterns of daily living. Reminiscing the sublime traces of something old and something borrowed make today’s ginbura just a little bit more engaging and transcendental than being just a pretty picture book.