text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Like anyone who has ever visited Shibuya I know its station’s exit leading to the statue of Japan’s most famous dog as “Hachiko Exit”; writing this letter I realized not only my ignorance on whether this exit is the east or the north but the general confusion regarding its direction. And the above led me to think once again how this inability to orientate is indicative of the area: with tens of small hills and valleys justifying (in theory) its name (“ya”/谷in “Shibuya”/渋谷means “valley”) this most famous among Tokyo’s famous areas is also one of the hardest to navigate. And consequently how its literal labyrinth-like structure could be seen as a metaphor for its overall image: if there is a word that springs to the mind of anyone stepping their foot in Shibuya for the first time, this word will most probably be “chaos”.
Shibuya is one of those places that are primarily responsible for the idea most people have about Tokyo: enormous buildings with giant screens, hundreds of clothing stores, clubs that stay open all night, hotels where residence is charged not by the night but by the hour, thousands of young people dressed as dictated by the eccentricities of the latest fashion and a station-hub of eight lines from four different companies in its turn a maze of passages, exits, elevators and escalators leading to the street, to the inside of stores, to pedestrian bridges and, occasionally to landmarks like Hachiko, “Moyai” (a statue that looks like it has escaped from Easter Island and also functions as a rendezvous spot for those who want more discreetness and quiet) or the illustrious scramble crossing, the biggest and busiest of its kind in the world.
Lost behind the 24-hour long buzz is Shibuya’s history, a story of almost one thousand years starting with the castle of the family of feudal lords with the same name, passing from the infamous highwayman Owada Dogen, still living in the name of Dogen-zaka (aka “Love Hotel Hill”) and the Sagami Kaido road that connected Edo castle’s Akasaka Gate to Kanagawa to end in the development of Tokyo in the Meiji Era, the area’s destruction during the 1945 bombings and its reemergence as capital of Japan’s hip culture and symbol of the rise of the local IT scene in the 1990s, when Japanese computer geeks thought that their valley could stand next to that of California’s most celebrated one. As for the pandemonium resulting from this blend of images from the past and the present, it comes in complete contrast to the meaning implied inadvertently in the other character comprising its name: shibui (渋い) is literally the bitter, astringent taste of the kaki persimmon and metaphorically anything restrained and subtle –if you stand next to Hachiko and take in what’s happening around you, you will certainly appreciate the irony.
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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