text and photo by
Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Those who know something about Tokyo and about my preference for the eastern wards, the old “shitamachi”, will probably not be surprised to hear my distaste for Roppongi; the Japanese on the other hand are often baffled, believing that being a foreigner that would be the exact place I should feel at home: the area that took its name from six big keyaki/zelkova or gingo trees –no one knows for sure any more since the last was burned in the bombings of 1945- was international already at the time of the Emperor Taisho (1912-1926) because of the foreign countries’ embassies and later during the time of his son, the Showa Emperor (1926-1989) because of the same soldiers who, together with the big tree burned not just Roppongi but the rest of Tokyo as well. Especially after the American occupation, the area established its name as Tokyo’s cosmopolitan center with restaurants from dozens of foreign cuisines and clubs and bars of every conceivable style frequented every day and every night by thousands of non-Japanese and by the Japanese who want to associate with them.
But this is exactly where my problem lies: all the above give Roppongi an unnatural tint, as if it isn’t an area of Tokyo but a piece of Hong-Kong that was transplanted at the south of and between the Imperial gardens and the Meiji Jingu Shrine. And that, so as to avoid getting lost under the elevated Shuto highway leading to the south and shading its illustrious crossing that even the Japanese refer to using the English word, it needed a landmark of 54 floors and 781 feet: the “Roppongi Hills”, created by Japan’s most ambitious building tycoon, Minoru Mori, a model for 21st century Tokyo and a fishbowl were 2000 residents and 20,000 workers live and work under the gazes of about 100.000 visitors who pass from there every day to shop in its expensive stores, eat in one of its many restaurants, watch a movie at the Toho cinemas or visit an exhibition at the Mori Museum.
Minoru Mori’s vision was to redefine the Tokyo way of life creating a self-sufficient complex of life, work and pleasure gathering everything in the same 27 acres and reminding at the same time that the crisis following the 1980s bubble was over and that Japan has gotten in a new orbit. And perhaps “Roppongi Hills” does indeed function this way for the employees of Google, Ferrari, Goldman Sachs or the rest of the companies who are housed in it and live in its buildings –I can’t say for sure but I suspect so every time I see the smug way these people, Japanese and foreigners alike, act. To my eyes though, the mega-complex is exactly what Tokyo isn’t: an inorganic and soulless monument of vanity of both its creators and those who are wandering every day in its irrationally designed corridors, willingly imprisoned in the confines of an amusement park. The Ginza is just 15 minutes away by train –I wonder why no one turned to it for an idea of how modern Tokyo could actually be?
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.