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Sunday, Aug. 6, 2006

COUNTERPOINT

Many happy returns to my Tokyo village past and present


Special to The Japan Times

As readers of this column last week may recall, I wrote there about a period in the early 1980s when my wife and I lived in the western Tokyo suburb of Soshigaya in Setagaya Ward. Three of our four children were born in the local hospital, and we have only the fondest memories of the old neighborhood.

In 1983, I conducted a survey of all of the goods and services offered on the kilometer-long shotengai (shopping street) running from the station up to the turnoff to our little flat. I published the list of my findings -- recently unearthed from a old box in my office -- in last week's Counterpoint. Now I have gone back to resurvey the shotengai, to find out how a Tokyo neighborhood has changed over the course of a generation.

I was amazed to discover that Soshigaya had not changed much at all. There were the same number of dry cleaners, eight, as in 1983; and only two fewer beauty salons, 13. The obsession with hair and dress of the Tokyoite has not diminished. In fact, while 23 years ago there were 11 clothing stores, this time I counted 17 -- two calling themselves "boutiques." There was even a self-styled "High-Class Recycle Dressmaker." The recycling movement was in its infancy in the early '80s, when fashion-conscious Tokyoites wouldn't have been caught dead in their own old shmatas (that's not Japanese, it's Yiddish for "rags"), let alone someone else's.

While last time I counted 27 restaurants and takeaways, now there were 32, including seven that are part of chains. One restaurant offered Indian food, something very rare in the suburbs of the '80s. The old motsuyaki (broiled giblets) joint now serves "Hokkaido Genghis Khan" dishes. The legendary Mongolian may surely have ventured far and wide, but history certainly records no Hokkaido stamp in his passport. And by the by, the lamb that is the main "Genghis Khan" ingredient comes from Australia, another place unvisited by the potent Asian warrior.

Still going strong

One surprise was that there are now three very nice-looking sushi restaurants. A sushi counter did open up on the street in late 1983, just after I did my survey. But it closed a couple of years later for lack of patronage. I don't think that the tastes of Japanese people have changed. Rather, this reflects the fact that you can visit your local sushi restaurant in 2006 without it costing an arm and a leg, as it usually did in the "good old days."

The former shops which are still going strong (I even recognized some of the owners) are the two selling homemade traditional crackers, two of the four wagashi (traditional Japanese cakes) makers, the two tofu dealers and two of the three tea-and-seaweed merchants. Japanese people have not entirely lost their taste for these mainstays of their culture.

One futon dealer and one parlor for playing go and mah-jongg have disappeared, but the single pachinko parlor is still upping the decibel levels with its combination of clanking balls and kitsch marching songs.

The supermarket is still there, too, but it is no longer run by Seifu, which has seen better times, but by Ozeki; and the department store, now a discount shop, no longer carries the Nagasakiya name. The photoshops are the same, though they now develop and print snapshots in 55 minutes instead of two days. Where in 1983 there was one doctor and two dentists practicing on the street, there are now seven doctors, including a few specialists (ear, nose and throat; pediatrics) and four dentists. Assuming that people are pretty much as sick and cavitied now as in 1983, the only conclusion I can draw is that they'd rather get their prescriptions and dental x-rays close to home than travel for them. Either that, or there are a lot more doctors and dentists. The agent who used to sell life insurance on the street, however, is gone.

Where there were two tobacconists then there are now three. Add to this the fact that I counted eight cigarette vending machines on the street, two more than before, and what do you get? The number of smokers has dropped by more than one-third in a generation, yet such folk still don't have to wheeze their way far to get a fix.

Japanese people love to buy flowers, and there are now four florists where there used to be three. The liquor stores are still there, as are seven of the eight old parking lots (the one for taxis is unchanged). The ASA newspaper delivery station is where it was and so is the old electrical goods shop with its battery-vending machine outside. One real-estate agent has turned into seven, and there are now seven pharmacies where there used to be six.

Services not yet invented

Among new outlets on the street, some are offering goods and services not yet invented in 1983, including three selling cellular phones (there is now only one green pay phone, where before there were 25 in red, yellow and blue), a karaoke center and several CD and DVD rental shops. Meanwhile, there's a home-carer center, an ID-photo booth, a sound studio, a dance studio, a cram school, and an English conversation "school" -- none of which, like the two 100 yen shops and three convenience stores, was found on the street in 1983.

As for vending machines, there are about the same total number, 42, most of them selling drinks. Nowadays, however, many of them are sports drinks and bottled green tea, neither of which was purveyed back then from machines. The vending machine for rice is still there, but the one for condoms has gone the way of all flesh. This is perhaps because of the rise in "designer" prophylactics in various colors and configurations now widely available in pharmacies. In the early '80s you could also buy them in pharmacies, but they were called sakku (from the uninspiring English word "sack") and were not placed, as they are now, on shelves right under your nose.

What does all this tell us about Tokyo, the most populous urban zone in the world? It tells us that the citizens of this enormous city live in little villages centered around stations, and they cling to them for life's services. Japanese love convenience above all. People here crave the cozy and the familiar.

A good friend returned to Soshigaya after 12 years overseas. When she walked into the old fruit-and-veggie shop, the proprietor looked up and smiled, almost matter-of-factly, saying, "Oh, it's been a while. How're you?" She may as well have never left home.

Perhaps that friendliness and comfortable intimacy is what makes Tokyo the coziest little big city in the world.



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