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Language: English / Japanese
Issue Eight / Essay
“I had only imperfect memory and unreliable landmarks, such as noodle shops and pachinko parlors, to navigate by”

Building Blocks

Words by Richard Aslan Photographs by We Are the Rhoads

The architecture of Tokyo is changing so fast it’s hard to keep track. Here, a writer remembers the time he called the city home and notes the changes to his old stomping ground.

Tokyo is huge, washing from horizon to horizon like a great, gray tide; the Greater Tokyo area houses a population almost as big as Canada’s. In the five and a half years I lived there, a decade ago, I never got high enough to get a real sense of its size. Despite this enormity, Tokyo is largely low-rise and low-tech; many of its buildings have a simplicity reminiscent of postwar British prefabs or American shotgun houses. Most apartments I lived in were in small, two-story blocks built of wood, a flexible material ideal for building on constantly shifting (occasionally heaving) land. Fire threatens any wooden metropolis with buildings so closely packed that their eaves touch, so when the air is dangerously dry, volunteers take to the streets, knocking wooden blocks together. Their tok tok tok reminds residents to be vigilant about stray sparks or popping coals.

These wooden buildings are thrown up or torn down in the space of days, but even more substantial high-rise districts shimmer and reinvent themselves in witness to impermanence. Omotesandō, the city’s premier boulevard, is a eulogy to commerce in glass and steel. Dior, Vuitton, Prada, Miyake—each has its temple, but not one of them would be old enough to attend high school. The newest of these epoch-making commercial complexes, Omotesandō Hills, was built in the dust of an ivy-covered, Bauhaus-inspired apartment block. The Dōjunkai Architecture Firm built 16 such iconic apartment complexes in the 1920s and ’30s. All survived WWII bombings, but today only one remains, eluding the wrecking ball.

Renewal doesn’t always bring about destruction, however. The elegant wooden shrine at Ise, the most sacred site of Shintō, Japan’s indigenous religion, is demolished every two decades, its relics moved to an identical replica on an adjacent plot. This year sees the construction and consecration of its 62nd incarnation, faithful in every detail to the original, built 1,220 years ago.

My favorite Tokyo home was a makeshift wooden house in Shirokanedai. I could touch the front and back walls simultaneously, with arms outstretched. The lane it stood on wasn’t much wider. I could only fit up the stairs sideways, and the bathroom was the size of a coffin. It was a simple two up, two down; downstairs to the left was the kitchen, to the right my dressmaker landlady’s lounge-cum-bedroom. Upstairs on the left, her workroom was piled high with bolts of cloth, while my room was to the right. All my belongings were stowed behind a curtain and the remaining tatami-matted space was just big enough to roll out a futon. Sometimes I invited friends over one at a time. Our knees touched over cups of tea. Lost items were easily found as the house tilted backward: anything that could roll or slide gathered along one wall.

Recently, I searched for the house on Google Street View. With no record of the address, I had only imperfect memory and unreliable landmarks, such as noodle shops and pachinko parlors, to navigate by. I thought I located where it once stood, now a bijou parking lot, and then promptly lost my bearings in the warren of narrow streets. I clicked past a fishmonger and tofu kiosk, and there it was, planks peeling, awkward sliding door still unreplaced. I kept the page open on my laptop for days, in case I was unable to find the house again, but eventually lost it to an uncharged battery.

Tokyo is a city where whole blocks disappear overnight and entire neighborhoods change character like an actor switching costumes. My Tokyo has been all but erased in the years since I left, with favorite haunts giving way to convenience stores and office blocks. That my simple little wooden house endures seems nothing short of miraculous.

Richard Aslan is a writer and editor who’s interested in how people live, the languages they speak and the food they eat. He’s currently based in Bristol, UK, but has also lived in Egypt, Japan, Ecuador and Spain. 

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