TOKYO (TR) – The historic Jinsei Yokocho entertainment area, a block of restaurants and bars located outside the East Exit of Ikebukuro Station, will see its last remaining establishments shutter their doors later this month.
On Saturday evening, a few regulars bid the area goodbye at Genki, a standing bar with shelves containing bottles of shochu and a photograph of author Yukio Mishima, in a nearly naked pose, above the bathroom sink.
After working in the business for decades, the gray-whiskered proprietor, Ryuzi Tsunozi, decided he wanted his own bar three and a half years ago. “This place was simple, nostalgic, and lacked competition,” says the 56-year-old Tsunozi, who came to Tokyo from Kagoshima over three decades ago, of his motive for establishing Genki. “When I opened it was not popular. But slowly more and more places started opening around me.”
Constructed in the early ’50s, the one- or two-floor wood structures in the triangular-shaped district house small family-run standing bars and eateries. Of the 40 establishments, each capable of holding four or five customers, only a half-dozen are open today. Plywood covers the windows and doors of the others.
The charm of Jinsei Yokocho is gained from a coziness that lingers from an earlier time. Most of the structures are rickety and have received little (if any) maintenance since being established. The script for the word “snack” on the awning above one bar is hardly legible through the layers of encrusted dirt.
In the years following the end of World War II, the surrounding area was used as a gathering point for a black market. It was later known as a pioneering quarter for gay bars in Japan.
The Jinsei Yokocho shopkeeper’s association was formed in 1999. Among its tasks was the installation of chochin lanterns along its pathways.
Tsunozi, who each morning makes a trek to the fish market at Tsukiji to stock his fish case with only the freshest tuna and octopus, hopes to move to a new bar in Ikebukuro on December 8th of this year, the four-year anniversary of the opening of Genki. Most of his customers are “simple” people transiting home through Ikebukuro to Saitama Prefecture.
Surrounded by chain restaurants and in the shadow of the Sunshine City development, the area is rumored to be the target location for an office or housing complex. The Shinjuku area of Golden Gai, an equally nostalgic eating and drinking area, has been the subject of similar rumors in recent years.
It is no secret that Tokyo has been undergoing a construction boom. Since 2003, many mixed-use office complexes, like Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Midtown, have opened to great fanfare throughout the central wards of Tokyo. That year, 33 buildings over 99 meters – both commercial and residential – were completed with last year seeing a similar number. By comparison, only eight were constructed in 1993.
Kazuo Yamaguchi, 51, a regular at Genki feels that the continual chase of fast cash will have its repercussions. “The culture will be erased,” he says.
Tsunozi sees the gap between rich and poor increasing in Japan, and he further thinks that there is a lack of foresight in Tokyo’s continual push upward into the skies, especially considering that the effects of a declining birthrate are looming.
“They might be able to enjoy it for now,” the proprietor believes of those who frequent the new developments, “but Tokyo will be a ghost town in the future.”
On its last day of operation, August 17th, Genki will have live music in the area outside its door.