Close your eyes and visualise Tokyo; that image is Ginza. As a Gaijin (foreigner), walking in Ginza is reassuring. It provides western familiarity in a completely alien setting. It's an upmarket district of Tokyo containing the most expensive real estate in Japan (one million yen (£4300)/ meter square), strewn with shopping boutiques and familiar names. All who reside here are housed in buildings of remarkable architectural design. It is exclusive, expensive and full of neon. It is home to clubs and infamous hostess bars frequented by salary men where a bottle of wine can set you back 100,000 yen (£430). To get to Ginza, take the orange Tokyo Metro Ginza line from Shibuya station (21 minutes).
How it started
The name Ginza means gin, silver and za, mint. This was the second home of the silver mint. It was moved from Shizuoka city in 1612 at the beginning of the Edo (or Tokugawa) period, by the first Edo Shogunate Tokugawa Ieyasu. It was this period of Tokugawa rule that brought 250 years of stability to Japan. The area, Edo, later became known as Tokyo. Ginza was not officially given its name until 1869. It has always been cutting edge; the first area to display both western architecture and western imports.
It makes sense that it is home to the Sony building; a visit on Harumi Dori is not for the fainthearted technophobe. It is packed with the latest gadgets, not yet on the shelves in Japan; eight floors and three basements of showrooms to delight those remotely interested in technology. From mobiles to cinema systems, exhibiting quality to be experienced by the west; it is easy for time to evaporate here.
After negotiating Ginza’s wide glamorous streets in the distance, they narrow; wisps of smoke coil upward. A small old redbrick street beneath the Yamanote railway line is home to rows of tiny Japanese Yakitori restaurants (bars serving mainly grilled chicken), nestled beneath the arches affectionately named by gaijin as Yakitori Alley. Despite the modern, vibrant nature of Japanese cities, none have lost these traditional streets. Counter bars where businessmen gather and drink late into the night are characterised among the high rise steel and neon by their tiny wooden sliding doors with a noren, (curtain over the front).
Culture in the traditional restaurants
As a gaijin, and particular as a female, opening that door is often daunting. The peace of the streets is temporarily interrupted by raucous alcoholic laughter of the salary men unwinding from a long, stressful day. The younger men woo their superior colleagues and keep up with them, drink for drink (often with interesting results). The concern of the gaijin female is of becoming the evening's entertainment. Of course, this is Japan and the Japanese, even in drunkenness, are far to wary of the unpredictable gaijin to interfere.
You have ways to communicate your order in these traditional restaurants. After expertly reading the katakana (Japanese script which translates words borrowed from other languages), I shouted in true Japanese style, Sumimase, excuse me. The waiter, a tiny and ancient Japanese man, instantly arrives beaming from ear to ear. He bows and takes my order. I am proud of my fluency in Japanese. I order a Shochu and Hoppy; an old fashioned traditional drink only served at a few traditional restaurants. The Hoppy, a sparkling non-alcoholic drink, softens the Shochu, a strong clear liquor – similar to whiskey, but alcohol free. It's an appearance, not a fact, as discovered by consuming a second one.
Using Japanese with confidence is often a mistake. The Japanese assume far more knowledge than you actually have. They bow to your superior Japanese (which is very little), and are reluctant to use their inferior English (which is often fluent or nearly so); such are the traits of the Japanese – shy, retiring and lacking confidence. My food order brought me the delights of grilled chicken skin, hearts and liver, ordered (apparently) with and without sho-yu (soy sauce). I am not a big offal eater, but if you are going to eat it, Japan is the place. The Japanese use and eat all parts of the animal. They know how to cook it too.
After filling up on yakitori and several Shochu or Hoppy’s, and enjoying the shaky atmosphere beneath the train tracks, I stagger out into the dark smokey street that time appears to have left behind. I notice I am better off than the young salarymen lining the pavements, head in their hands.