Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
It will probably sound like blasphemy to all those marvelous cliché: the snow-topped Fuji, the blossoming cherry trees, the suggestive smile of a geisha behind a paper umbrella in Asakusa, the psychedelic neon that lights up the nights of Ginza or Akihabara, the wooden red tiny bridges of Kyoto or the temples in Kamakura with their gates blackened from the centuries. For me, and this certainly says more about where I come from, the most characteristic image of Japan, the image ilustrating in the best way the liveliness of this country and the unique way it combines elements from all the periods of its history are the shoten-gai (商店街), the commercial streets that can be found in all the neighborhoods of all the cities, invariably close to the train stations or, if the city is really old, near its older temples.
I have yet to find a reliable source recounting the origin of the shoten-gai but their positioning, which in most cases remains the same until today evidences that they were built around spots that where already gathering considerable traffic –hence what I wrote before about stations and temples. It’s also safe to suggest that they grew during the Edo period, when the merchants and the craftsmen started becoming more important than the samurai in a society that had stopped worrying about the Medieval wars and was going through its own, unique, Renaissance. Taking advantage of the stations at the old national roads (who were then transformed to train stations) and the temples, the artisans set up their workshops and the merchants their stores and with time created hubs that became the central neighborhoods we see today.
Restaurants and taverns, groceries and supermarkets, bookstores, shops selling clothes, workshops, cleaners, barbershops and hair-salons, café and almost anything else people might need make the shoten-gai bustling with life while the game-centers and the pachinko parlors extend this life well beyond the last train as happens in the other neighborhoods. It is in there, like in the souks and the bazaars of Cairo, Dhaka and Damascus that you get to see the people of this country –the sarariman and the office-redy, the housewives, the pensioners, the schoolboys and girls and the college students and the homeless and the idlers- as they really are: communicating, laughing, trying and tasting and taking care of all those trivial things that make up the boring everyday life with its small joys, its small emotions and its small dramas. And where you get to realize that there is nothing more exotic, more beautiful and more interesting than that –in Athens, Tokyo or anywhere else.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.
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