Ginza: The Silver Seat of Tokyo
A relaxing stroll along the grid-layered streets of Ginza is always a welcoming pleasure for any visitor. Contrast to the high-tension, chaos-struck mazes of Shinjuku, Ikebukuro or Shibuya, Ginza is straightforward, precise and almost predictable so you would not need to worry about losing your way.
It is after all the “silver seat” of Tokyo (literal translation of its kanji) and took its name from the silver mint that the Edo Shogunate transferred to this area from Sunpu (Shizuoka) in 1603. Ginza was the center of manufacture and trade exchange of silver coins during the Edo period, and attracted entrepreneurs, artisans and craftsmen from all circles, which attributed to the town’s quite high-end reputation. Today, many of these chic shops—kimono, metal kitchen utensils, jewelry, old manuscripts, books, antiques, and art galleries still settle in this charming district.
After the colossal fire in 1872, the Meiji government reconstructed Ginza into an architectural masterpiece of brick and stone, then referred to as the Bricktown, imitating the Regency, Victorian and Georgian styles. You can find remains of classical architecture, such as the elegant Kabukiza theatre in Higashi Ginza, built in 1887. Despite a controversial renovation in 2010 that erected a 29-story skyscraper shadowing behind it, its white classic facade still shines with pride and honor. Don’t miss the spacious souvenir and Japanese food shopping down in the basement.
Walking back towards Ginza Station, certainly, you can’t miss the four landmarks on each corner of the main Ginza 4-Chome crossing. The curved Neo-Renaissance WAKO showroom building had always been a popular and favorite picture-taking spot for its creative window display, showcasing brilliant jewelry, porcelain, and other fashion accessories. Many overlook the Hattori Clock sitting above this beautiful edifice, which was installed in 1881, then reconstructed in the 1930s. After WWII, the clock was known to have been a “curfew alarm” for sailors, just about ready to put down their last bottle to drink as they walk out to the avenue of shops shutting down one by one. Opposite WAKO is the imposing Mitsukoshi Department Store, perhaps, Ginza’s most quintessential icon. Business in this high-class department store began in 1673, particularly with the sale of kimonos. Searching for Japan’s cradle of pearls? A few steps alongside the WAKO building is the headquarter building of Mikimoto Pearls. First opening shop in Ginza’s Namikidori in 1899, Mikimoto moved to the present Chuo Street in 1906. Perhaps to climb up the ladder of avant-garde design, a new Mikimoto Ginza 2 building, designed by architect Toyo Ito was erected along Namikidori. It would be impossible not to miss its Swiss cheese-like façade in stark white, and complex combination of metal and concrete. Further down the Ginza 4-Chome crossing alongside Mitsukoshi is another prominent department store, the Matsuya Ginza, which likewise claims a historical seat, having opened business in 1869, firstly as a drapery store. With its reconstruction in 1925 after the Great Kanto Earthquake, Matsuya has retained its image as a reputable establishment of design goods. Stationery and paper lovers should not miss a stop at the Ito-Ya headquarters, next to Matsuya. Ito-Ya is filled with a fine array of delicate paper craft, school and office supplies and a most amazing collection of greeting cards.
For satisfying the stomach delight, there is a mix of the old and new—both traditional delicacies and modern, trendy eateries, mostly exuding a European air, owing to the Parisian influence that swept this “silver seat” during the Taisho period when French-style cafés started to line up the streets. Start with the well-reputed Kimuraya Bakery, which has existed since 1874. The owner, Yasubei Kimura, was a samurai, and conceptualized a different idea for Japanese bread, filling it with beans, which gave rise to the anpan. Here you will get dizzy roving your eyes around delectable anpan flavors, ranging from cherry blossom, white beans, red beans, green beans, sesame and chestnut. Another favorite stop is the Manneken Belgian waffles close to the 4-Chome crossing opposite WAKO. Proud of its 26-year old history, the shop always finds a long queue of excited customers sampling its various waffle flavors: chocolate, strawberry, almond, maple, matcha and some seasonal tastes such as chocolate banana.
For the more sophisticated and fine tasters, stopping at Kyubey Sushi would be a worthy experience. Its present location at Ginza 7-Chome since 1935 has incessantly attracted avid sushi lovers, lining up until outside its entrance door. The Michelin-star choice has quite pricey courses, but each pick of neta, such as its popular uni and ikura are delicately pressed with high quality taste. For less the yen yet equally sumptuous, you can return to the main 4-Chome crossing and past Matsuya, turning right to 1-Chome where you find TOFURO, an eye-catcher traveling back to the Edo period. The interior is carefully enhanced with small bridges, stoned pathways and elevated, private seating in traditional Japanese wooden touch. There is also a robatayaki inside for your own choice of fresh fish, cooked specially by the chef before your eyes.
If simple and leisurely strolling is your cup of tea minus the sometimes tedious effort of shopping and eating, Ginza has lots to offer. The grid layout is charmingly lined with willow trees and wide sidewalks, and also closes the Chuo Street to traffic during weekends so people can sit among the outdoor chairs and parasol covered tables, again reflecting the once French-inspired atmosphere of the early 1920s when the town was commonly called “Ginbura”—“bura” meaning to stroll and the Brazilian coffee that was popularized in this district. The conspicuous array of brand boutique empires (Hermes, Dior, Chanel, Prada, Louis Vuitton, and more) may appear overwhelming at first, but discovering its pockets of small galleries, crafts shops, adorable cake shops, cozy bars, restaurants and cafés immersed in a history spanning over 100 years puts Ginza right on the dot as one of Tokyo’s most unprecedented and divine destinations.