Posts Tagged ‘Roppongi’

Blinded by the Night opens in a bar* in Roppongi. This scene was inspired by a now defunct bar which was, in its day, one of the best and most popular bars in Roppongi. Practically every night was party night. Most of the male clientele were Westerners while the females were predominantly Japanese with a preference for western men.
Bar in Roppongi

Most people probably think that the scene that greeted Toyoda as he entered the bar from the street—a bare backside—is something inverted by the author. In fact it is the kind of thing that frequently happened, especially on Fridays. A group of brokers gathered there every Friday to let off steam and one of them invariably dropped his pants every week.

That the bar no longer exists is indeed regrettable, but while it was in business it was definitely a fun place to drink in. It had a great staff, friendly and very efficient, and they kept the drinks flowing as long as people were still standing and able to enjoy the party spirit.

The only negative aspect about the bar was the fact that there was only one toilet — problematic with the amount of liquid consumed on the premises — which often called for creative solutions to the call of nature. It was not unknown for some of the clientele, usually foreign men, to relieve themselves over the balcony at the back of the bar. This occasionally caused offense to some of the more vociferous denizens of Roppongi, especially when they were the recipients of an unwelcome shower.

* The name of the bar has been changed in accordance with wishes of the original owner of the bar.


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Sumo wrestling is a traditional martial art that originated the 9th century and is closely associated with Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan. The objective of a Sumo bout is simple – the over-sized combatants aim to force their opponents out of the dohyo (ring) or onto the ground using a mixture of slapping, wrestling and shoving. Although wrestlers grasp the mawashi (loincloth ) of their opponents in an attempt to throw them, grasping the opponent’s testicles and squeezing them is frowned upon and is, in fact, a violation of the rules.

The dohyo is considered sacred ground and is blessed by a Shinto priest before every bout. When the wrestlers enter the dohyo they perform an elaborate series of Shinto rituals, starting with a foot-stomping exercise to drive away evil spirits. Foreign visitors to a sumo tournament have been known to panic when stomping starts, mistaking the mild rumblings from the dohyo for the start of an earthquake.

After the foot-stomping, the wrestlers rinse out their mouths with a ladle of chikara mizu, or “power water,” and dry them with paper tissues called chikara gami, or “power paper.” Finally, before a bout begins, the wrestlers toss a handful of salt into the dohyo to purify it. Although as a tactic throwing salt into the eyes of an opponent would certainly give a wrestler an advantage, there is no known case this ever happening.

Once the bout begins, the action can be fast and furious with the wrestlers slapping, shoving and pushing or trying to trip each other. The winner is the wrestler who forces his opponent out of the dohyo or to touch the ground with any part of his body except for the feet. A wrestler who loses his mawashi during a bout is automatically disqualified as the sight of a male sumo wrestler naked from the waist down can be a traumatic experience for those unfortunate to experience it.

The sight of a female sumo wrestler losing her mawashi during a bout, however, has never shocked anyone in Japan. Moreover, totally naked women sumo wrestlers were once revered. In times of drought, for example, naked women wrestled in shrine precincts to provoke the anger of the Gods and cause rain.

In the eighteenth century onna zumo, women’s sumo, took off as a sport in Osaka, where it was popular in the brothel quarter. As well as bouts between women, there were also bouts between women and blind men (men who could see were ineligible as it was considered that they would not be able to concentrate on the sport).

By 1744, women’s sumo bouts featured regularly at the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, Edo (now Tokyo), and they were immensely popular, especially with the owners of the nearby brothels. In 1926 the authorities eventually prohibited naked female sumo on the presumption that it promoted immorality. Female sumo did, however, manage to survive until after World War II in cabarets and beer halls, where there was no false pretense of modesty.   

In recent years sumo has been beset by scandals that have seriously damaged the reputation for sportsmanship and purity it had long enjoyed. These scandals include match-fixing, betting on baseball and golf as well as other professional sports, and drug taking. One of the top foreign wrestlers, and perhaps the greatest of his generation, Asashoryu, was forced to retire after beating up the former head of a biker gang after an argument in Roppongi. Other foreign wrestlers have been sacked for smoking marijuana.

Whether sumo recovers from the recent scandals or not is uncertain. Younger Japanese do not seem to have the spirit to put up with the rigid discipline of life in a sumo stable. There are also more attractive sporting opportunities for those with athletic ability, including careers in soccer or baseball.

One should not, however, write sumo off. As a sport, it has been around for a very long time, longer than most sports still practiced today. It is culturally ingrained in the Japanese psyche, and it has overcome crises before. Expect it to do so again.

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Recently as I have been walking home from Tsukiji to Roppongi, a distance of about 6 kilometers, I have had a feeling of déjà vu. For a few days I wracked my brains, but could not figure out where the feeling was coming from. Then, this morning, as I opened my eyes, I experienced satori.

Tokyo presently resembles Berlin of the 1970s, when the city was divided in two. I lived in the West and worked in the East. The sun shone evenly on both sides of the city; so during the day there was very little difference—except for the advertizing billboards. In the West, the glitzy billboards advertised the latest in the line of automobiles such as Mercedes and Porsche, as well global brands like Coca Cola, Channel and Gucci; in the East, the giant austere billboards hosted huge photos of the Worker of the Month and text listing the achievements of the “Working Class Hero of the Deutsche Demokratic Republik.”

But when the sun went down, the difference between the two halves of the divided city was stark. The West lit up with neon while the East disappeared in darkness. In the words of the song by the singer-songwriter Paul Joses (Scottish-born but then resident of West Berlin), the red side of the Berlin Wall was like the Dark Side of the Moon.

Tokyo is by no stretch of the imagination like East Berlin of the 1970s—quite the contrary, it is still very much a vibrant and exciting city—but there are certain similarities. There are very few flashing neon lights and store fronts are dark and the interiors are on minimum lighting. But this is because everyone understands the need to save on electricity while the country is experiencing a crisis.

Towards the end of the day, many of the shelves in convenience stores are empty of milk, bakery products and the like. Large bottles of mineral water are just not available, beer is scarce and getting scarcer, and even cans of chu-hi are in short supply. The reason for the beer shortages, we are told, is that the major domestic brewers all have breweries in the Tohoku region. I have heard no excuses yet for the shortages of chu-hi.

Nevertheless, despite the dimming down (of the nighttime skyline, I mean), and the shortages of essentials like beer and chu-hi, Tokyo is not at all in crisis; nor was East Berlin in the 1970s. The difference between the two is that the situation in Tokyo is just a temporary phenomenon, while for East Berlin it was the norm, and Tokyo will light up again soon.

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Despite the hype and the hysteria in the foreign press, Tokyo is still functioning fairly normally. It certainly is not the City of the Damned that some media are painting it. If we are to believe all we read and hear, we are just waiting for the “Big One” that will erase Tokyo from the map. And if that were not bad enough, there is supposed to be a radioactive cloud headed our way. Sure, there are a few problems like shortages of certain goods in the shops, the shutdown of elevators and escalators, a reduction in the number of trains and subways, threats of a blackout and the odd aftershock or two. But the Japanese and the foreigners who were not scared out of town as soon as the tremors died down are going about their business as usual.

According to one UK daily, on one day last week, “You could find a few die-hard Brits and other expatriates who wouldn’t leave their beers on the counter in the party-time district of Roppongi for any threatening radioactive cloud, but mostly Tokyo has become eerily quiet.” Well, I was one I was one of the die-hards drinking in Roppongi that evening and I neither saw any threatening radioactive cloud nor heard of one. Moreover, I walked to Roppongi from Tsukiji, which took about 45 minutes, and passed thousands of people walking (some fairly quickly, I admit) to the stations, but there was no sign of panic. I admit, though, that there was a heavy dust cloud hanging over the city. But that was caused by the rush to Narita as the rats scuttled away from what they thought was a sinking ship.

The biggest losers in the aftermath of the Tohoku Pacific Ocean Offshore Earthquake are going to be those foreigners who scampered away from Tokyo, their tails between their legs. None of these fleet-foots will ever be able to look a Japanese in the eye again if they come crawling back to Tokyo when the media give the all clear. None of them will ever be trusted again, and I would be very surprised if any Japanese would have anything to do with them. But who could blame them for running away? After all, the media had predicted the worst. And let’s just hope they are wrong as usual!

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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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