Everybody in Japan has heard of Roppongi, the legendary entertainment quarter sandwiched, like a juicy filling, between Akasaka in the north and Azabu in the south. But not many people, apart from the regulars, really know much about the place.
To most Japanese, however, Roppongi is a dark and dangerous place, despite the glaring neon, inhabited and frequented by foreigners or denizens of the fringe underworld of sordid sex and crime. There are Nigerian touts that harass passers-by into following them into clubs where they will be ripped off; Chinese hookers offering a “massage”; furtive men from the middle east selling trips to heaven (or hell); transvestites and transsexuals preying on drunks whose powers of observation have been diminished by alcohol; gangsters openly exercising their rights to behave in any way they want to; and a doctor on a mission to help young girls in need of treatment or counseling for sexually transmitted diseases.
When Shogun Tokugawa Iesu made the village of Edo (present-day Tokyo) his capital, Roppongi was a rustic idyll of rolling hills covered with pine trees, which provided local farmers with all the firewood they needed. Although there is not much greenery left in the area, the hills are still there and some of their names bear testament to their rustic past. There are names such as Enoki-zaka (Chinese hackberry hill), Tanuki-zaka (racoon dog hill), Itachi-zaka (weasel hill), Nezumi-zaka (rat or mouse hill), Ueki-zaka (plant hill) and the fabulously-named Imoarai-zaka (potato washing hill).
Roppongi’s first claim to fame came about in 1626, when Shogun Hidetada chose it as the site for his wife’s cremation. After the cremation, the remains were carried to Zozoji Temple in Shiba (just below Tokyo Tower) in a spectacular procession consisting of all the nobles of Edo and their samurai retainers, all in ceremonial costume. Although the area appears to have prospered after the funeral, not much was recorded about it until around 1660, when name “Roppongi,” which means “six trees,” was first used.
There is much argument about how the name evolved. One legend is that Roppongi was after for six ancient ginko trees that used to dominate the landscape around the present Roppongi Crossing. Another says that Roppongi was named because six Daimyo whose estates were located in the hills of Roppongi had names that ended with the word for tree. Whatever the origin of the name, life must have been idyllic for the nobles in those days. From their villas they could look out across Tokyo Bay or enjoy splendid views of Mt. Fuji to the south. The whole area was lush green, and the air would have been pure, not the caustic, biting pollution that passes for fresh air nowadays.
Roppongi was still little more that a village when, in the 1790s, it was incorporated into the municipality of Edo. And it remained this way until after the Meiji Restoration (1868). The situation changed drastically after the Third Division of the Imperial Guard moved to new barracks in Roppongi. Soon after the soldiers arrived, new businesses opened up and Roppongi started growing. Naturally businesses that catered for the tastes of military men were particularly prominent in the area, and Roppongi soon acquired a reputation that has stood the test of time.
Like the rest of Tokyo, Roppongi has been plagued by fires over the centuries. The first major conflagration was recorded in 1668 and the last one in 1945, when the American B-29 bombers scorched Roppongi—as well as the rest of Tokyo—with their incendiary devices. Strangely enough, however, Roppongi was one of the few areas of Tokyo spared from the fires that accompanied the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.
When the war ended, there was very little left of Roppongi, and it had to rebuild itself from scratch. Again, it was the military that contributed to the growth of the area—this time the Americans. Roppongi housed a large portion of the American soldiers stationed in Tokyo, which greatly contributed to the rapid growth of Roppongi nightlife. Western-style bars and restaurants as well as houses of ill-repute catering to foreigners sprang up.
Roppongi took another great leap forward in 1964, when the Hibiya-sen opened up to improve transportation for the Tokyo Olympics. A number of discos and clubs opened up, attracting crowds of young Japanese and foreigners, mainly Westerners, of all ages. It reached its zenith in the 1980s with the ever-expanding bubble economy that fooled everyone into thinking that the money would keep flowing forever. Reality struck in 1989, however, when the bubble burst. Practically overnight, many of the discos and clubs disappeared.
Things started to look up again in the mid-1990s, and many of the foreign-themed establishments—English and Irish pubs; sports, shot and cigar bars; and salsa clubs—opened up. The variety of foreign restaurants also increased dramatically. Now just about every cuisine on earth is represented somewhere in Roppongi—even on the streets. Late at night the mobile food vendors appear offering a selection of goodies that include, doner kebabs, grilled chicken and Thai or Indian curries.
Two huge complexes—one finished and operational, the other to open later this year—are changing the face of Roppongi. The first, Roppongi Hills, which covers an area of 109,000 m², is practically a city in itself. Right in the center of the complex stands the 54-storey Mori Tower that houses restaurants and high-class shops on the first six floors and the Mori Art Center and Art Museum as well as an observation deck on the top six floors. The other floors are occupied by offices.The Grand Hyatt Tokyo occupies one corner of Roppongi Hills and TV Asahi occupies another. In between there are gardens, an arena, more luxury brand shops, restaurants, cafes, and the Virgin Cinemas complex. The other huge complex, Tokyo Midtown Project, is situated on the former site of the Japanese Defense Agency, less than 1 kilometer away from Roppongi Hills. The Midtown Tower, which soars up to 248 meters, will be the tallest building in Tokyo, and it will house offices and residences as well as the Ritz Carlton on the top floors.
Forty percent of the total area of Tokyo Midtown Project will consist of greenery and parks, and it will be home to the Suntory Museum of Art. There will also be restaurants representing a wide variation of global cuisine, cafes, luxury brand shops, and a 24-hour upscale food market.
Where Roppongi goes from here is anybody’s guess. One thing is, however, certain. Now that the new and glamorous complexes are here, the rest of Roppongi will eventually follow, and the old, dirty and seedy buildings will disappear and be replaced by something else. It is just a question of when.
© 2007 Charles R. Pringle
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