Shibuya crossings

Tokyo's famous shopping
district evolves over time

by Masami Ito


Background visual: Shibuya crossing, the world's busiest pedestrian intersection (iStock)

The ambitious redevelopment of Shibuya is expected to create a futuristic railway station fit for the 21st century

Looking down from the 11th floor of Tokyo’s Hikarie skyscraper, the seemingly endless ebb and flow of people using Shibuya Station is hypnotic to watch.

With more than 2.8 million passengers on an average weekday, it is one of the busiest rail terminals in the country. Shibuya has continued to evolve over time, transforming from tranquil farmland in the Edo Period (1603-1868) to a colorful, vibrant district that is now home to art, fashion, theater, academia and business.

More recently, Shibuya has embarked on its most ambitious project yet, with its main station undergoing major renovations as a part of a long-term site redevelopment plan.

Shibuya Ward Mayor Ken Hasebe, who was elected in April, said in his first policy speech that he wants to turn the district into an internationally recognized name.

“Shibuya Ward has become famous for its technological advances,” Hasebe said. “I want to take it one step further and make Shibuya famous, not just domestically but also internationally. It may sound presumptuous, but I want people to think of Shibuya in the same way as they do London, Paris and New York.”

Financed by railway operators such as Tokyu Corp., East Japan Railway Co. and Tokyo Metro Co., developers are now working on four large construction sites around Shibuya Station. Work on a fifth site, the Hikarie building, which is owned by the Tokyu Group, was completed in 2012.

Kazuhiro Okuno, an official in charge of urban development in Shibuya, says some of the construction will be completed before the 2020 Olympics.

However, he says, the entire redevelopment project won’t be completed until 2027 because the plan was drafted before Tokyo won its bid to host the world’s biggest sporting event.

“This is one of the most complex construction sites in Japan and, perhaps, the world,” Okuno says. “Shibuya would constantly be under construction if we tried to redevelop all five sites one by one.”

Originally built in 1885, Shibuya Station has continued to change with the times, adding or moving platforms at various points in history in order to accommodate the eight lines it now services.

Below: An aerial view of Shibuya Station in 2012 (Courtesy of Tokyu Corp.)



Above: An artist's impression Shibuya Station in 2027 (Courtesy of Tokyu Corp.)

As a result, the connections between many of the lines are poor, making it difficult to navigate the station efficiently. Once complete, the two Yamanote Line platforms will be consolidated into a solitary “island” platform, the Saikyo Line will be moved and positioned alongside the Yamanote Line, and the Ginza Line platform will be moved about 130 meters toward the Hikarie building.

Developers have also diverted Shibuya River, which runs right under what used to be the East Exit bus terminal, so that it flows through a tunnel that is located above a passage that connects commuters to the Tokyu Line in the basement of the Hikarie building. A 4,000-ton catchment tank has also been strategically positioned to store a large volume of water in the event of heavy rain to prevent floods.

A 230-meter-tall skyscraper will be constructed next to the Yamanote and Saikyo line tracks. The 47-floor tower is to include a 3,000-sq.-meter open observation deck that will offer majestic views across Tokyo, from the scramble crossing at the foot of the building to Mount Fuji on the horizon. The new Shibuya landmark, which will include offices and a commercial complex, is expected to open in 2019 — just in time for the Tokyo Olympics.

Okuno says the overall development of Shibuya in general is being managed by the ward office, while each individual construction site has been delegated to private companies. More importantly, he says, locals have also been involved in the development process to ensure that Shibuya is not just torn down and turned into something that loses its vibrancy.

“There are areas that have aged and need to be renovated, but we must also make sure that we preserve the original culture that developed in Shibuya through its unique geographical features,” Okuno says. “We never intended to simply tear down buildings and replace them with new ones.”

Various spots around Shibuya Station and buildings that are currently under construction will have vertical structures called “urban cores,” which will help funnel pedestrians from the subway station to their desired destination.

An example of such a core is the cylinder-shaped heart of the Hikarie building, where long escalators inside an atrium-like space guide pedestrians from the basement to the street and other rail connections.

“We not only want to attract people to the station, but help them effortlessly explore the outer neighborhoods of Shibuya,” Okuno says. “The urban core will connect people from the buildings to the street.”

Below: Shibuya Station, 2015 (Yoshiaki Miura)



Above: An artist's impression of Shibuya Station in 2020 (Courtesy of Tokyu Corp.)

Shibuya, as its name reads in kanji, is a valley, the deepest point of which lies around the station. The area is made up of craggy hills, which gives nearby neighborhoods a maze-like appearance. The narrow lanes add to the sense of community, with a slew of small roadside shops generating an almost festive atmosphere.

The district, however, didn’t always have this hustle and bustle.

Mitsuyasu Tahara, curator of the Shibuya Folk and Literary Shirane Memorial Museum, says that Shibuya was, in fact, a suburban area during the Edo Period. The east side of what is now known as Shibuya Ward was closer to Edo Castle, and so the area had a few old samurai residences scattered about but not much else.

“Shibuya was basically located on the outskirts of the city of Edo, consisting largely of farmland, fields and woodland,” Tahara says. “To be frank, it was rather dull. Shibuya’s unique location played a major role in how it developed into what it is today. It acted as a connecting point between the central part of Edo and other suburban areas (in eastern Tokyo).”

Indeed, Shibuya was left out of Tokyo’s first 15 wards when the city was first founded in 1889. Rich with land, the district became known for its tea fields and dairy farms. As Shibuya was close to the center of the capital, however, the district would soon be overflowing with factories and shops.

A large number of people began to move into Shibuya, especially after the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, and residential areas grew. Shibuya officially became part of Tokyo almost a decade later, in 1932. Train lines continued to expand and when Shibuya was connected to central Tokyo via the Ginza Line, the station truly became a terminal, Tahara says.

Almost 80 percent of Shibuya Ward was destroyed in World War II, but even that failed to slow the district’s growth. “Washington Heights,” a residence complex for U.S. military officials during the Occupation, was constructed on a site encompassing Yoyogi Park, Yoyogi National Gymnasium, the NHK Broadcasting Center and other facilities, and Shibuya was thereafter closely linked to Western culture.

The district became renowned for its cross-cultural influences, an understanding best illustrated by the existence of a place called Koibumi Yokocho (Love Letter Alley), where young Japanese women would bring love letters they had written to U.S. armed forces and have them translated into English. The translations were undertaken by a store owner in the alley who is believed to have operated a clothing store.

A fire razed the neighborhood in 1965, with the investors deciding to construct the famed 109 shopping complex near the site.

“At least to some extent, the fact that the U.S. military’s residence was located in Shibuya seems to have influenced the city’s existing youth culture,” Tahara says.

The 1964 Olympics represented something of a turning point for Shibuya, especially once Washington Heights was returned to Japan to be used as the site of the athletes’ village.

“Shibuya experienced large-scale redevelopment after the Olympics,” Tahara says. “You can see the same thing happening in Shibuya now. It truly changed the city.”

Below: Shibuya Station, 1949 (Courtesy of Tokyu Corp.)



Above: An aerial view of Shibuya in 1967 (Courtesy of Tokyu Corp.)

As Shibuya continues to grow, one neighborhood has remained virtually the same for more than 60 years: Nonbei Yokocho (Drunkard’s Alley). Located alongside the JR lines, just a few minutes from the station, is a group of 36 intimate bars and eateries that almost exist in a world of their own.

Sixty-seven-year-old Shigeru Murayama, a representative of the Nonbei Yokocho cooperative, says the area began around 1950 or 1951, when the government began to strengthen regulations against food vendors that were abundant in postwar Shibuya due to sanitation problems.

Unfortunately, only five bars and eateries survive from the original neighborhood. Nonbei Yokocho, however, continues to be popular with locals and visitors alike, offering a number of different Japanese-style eateries, a French bistro and a wine bar. With orange lanterns hanging outside cozy old buildings, the neighborhood has a nostalgic atmosphere that harks back to the Showa Era (1926-89).

“We need to take active measures to maintain this culture in order to protect it from disappearing,” Murayama says. “Times may have changed, but we want to retain this Showa Era atmosphere. To date, we have been successful.”

Born and raised in Shibuya, Murayama followed in his father’s footsteps to run his family-owned yakitori eatery in Nonbei Yokocho with his younger sister and son.

As head of the neighborhood cooperative, he says he has received myriad telephone calls from developers who wish to purchase the land in order to build a skyscraper. To prevent individual owners from being bought out separately, the cooperative collectively owns the land.

Murayama acknowledges that the existing situation is far from perfect, given many of the wooden buildings in Nonbei Yokocho are between 40 and 60 years old. Although the neighborhood has a quaint appearance in the evenings, signs of aging are quite clear during daylight hours.

“Of course, we want to keep Nonbei Yokocho as it is because we created it ourselves,” Murayama says. “However, we will eventually have to consider tearing it down in order to pass on the yokocho (alley) culture to the next generation. It is our duty to rebuild a yokocho that is safe in order to preserve it for the future.”

Although renovation plans for the neighborhood have yet to be drafted, Murayama thinks the cooperative will most likely need to begin discussions when Miyashita Park goes under construction.

The neighboring park has been caught in the middle of a controversy since 2009 after Shibuya officially gave Nike Japan the naming rights to the park and ward officials began to kick out the homeless, leading to a lawsuit between activists and the ward office. Both the Tokyo district and high courts have ruled in favor of the activists.

According to Shibuya Ward, however, Mitsui Fudosan Co. has been chosen to redevelop the park on top of a three-story shopping complex, with a 17-story hotel on one side. The bid has yet to be officially approved by the ward’s assembly members, so it is unclear when construction will actually begin.

As Nonbei Yokocho sits quietly while Shibuya undergoes a major redevelopment, Murayama is hopeful of a positive outcome.

“In the long run,” he says, “I don’t think redeveloping Shibuya is a bad thing. The important thing, however, is to make sure the district maintains its diversity. Urban planning has to be multifaceted in order to attract different types of people of all ages.”

Below: Shibuya's Nonbei Yokocho bar area, 2015 (Satoko Kawasaki)

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