Downtown Tokyo: Hibiya area

The other day, we had to run some errands in the city center, so we decided to head towards the Diet building on the way. Surprisingly, after 4 years in Japan I still haven’t been to the location where all important national decisions are taken.

Contrary to the Greek parliamentary building in Athens, which is located in front of Syntagma square and is surrounded by shopping streets and nightlife, the neighborhood of the Diet in Tokyo is as quiet as it can be. Security was ultra-tight with dozens of police vans and guards at every corner, which seemed overboard even for someone accustomed to large police presence in Athens after years of turmoil. I failed in seeing the Diet building – I went to the backside, so I missed the impressive front, and there is nothing else around apart from ministry buildings. There is one exception though, one place that seems interesting enough; Hie shrine (日枝神社).

As I passed the white torii gate and started heading up, I saw a huge crowd. It struck me that it was the weekend of Shichi-go-san, a celebration for 3 and 7 year old girls and 5 year old boys. Odd numbers are supposedly lucky, so families dressed up their children in colorful kimonos, brought them to the shrine for a shinto ritual and basically prepared for a full scale photo-shoot to commemorate the day.

Young miko in orange and priests in blue hakama were running around the shrine grounds like crazy. Too many families waiting in line, too many arrangements to be made. I also saw at least one wedding happening at the same time in the middle of the commotion.

Hie shrine has a fancy title for it is designated as a First Class Government Shrine. The enshrined god is Oyamakui-no-kami, a mountain god from Shiga prefecture in Kansai, and was supposed to be a guardian god of the Edo castle and consequently Edo (old Tokyo). The shrine was moved, burnt-down, bombed and re-built a couple of times.

The statues at the entrance have the shape of monkeys. Some of them look like mothers holding a newbord with affection. The shrine is popular for prayers regarding fertility and safe birth. The wooden prayer boards also show monkey mamas with their babies. Maybe that is the reason why Hie shrine is so popular for a children’s ritual.

The highlight of the shrine is that it includes a complex of gardens and a row of red toriis similar to the ones in Nezu shrine and Fushimi Inari shrine. Again, I failed, it was too crowded, there is a virus around, so I quietly headed out without seeing a single red gate.

We headed towards Hibiya park to grab something to eat there. Hibiya square is dominated by Toho cinemas, and together with Toho cinemas comes a Godzilla statue. Don’t be fooled by the perspective. The statue is 2 meters tall.

I especially like the building of 魚○本店 (Sakanamaru honten), a 3-level wooden structure opposite to Toho Chanter cinema. I’ve never tried the fish cuisine of the restaurant, but usually a ‘Hokkaido’ logo is quality guarantee for food. The building emits vibes of both old Japan and films of Hayao Miyazaki.

The area is interesting not only because of the park or Godzilla square, but mainly because of the train tunnels. There are so many trains at 3-4 meters above ground in Tokyo, which leaves plenty of space underneath the tracks. This resulted in endless long corridors hosting shops, restaurants and bars. Some parts of the corridor are old and filthy. Some, like this part close to Ginza, are renovated recently and look modern, with black and white contrasts being the design highlight.

Some parts of the corridors are painted white, but some retain the original red brick surface. The arches make a nice shape for shop fronts. With 4 commuter train lines and the shinkansen bullet train passing above, there is more than enough space for shops on both sides of the corridor.

As you continue straight south, crossing Ginza, the restaurants give their place to bars. I am pretty sure that this is the place that some girl friends warned me about in the past. This nightlife area is considered as a nanpa-jo, a place where guys are waiting to hit on girls, which usually exceeds the limits of casual flirting. As long as you make sure not to end up there drunk and alone, it is quite a fun area to explore.

Last but not least, I quickly tweaked the contrast in the picture of Sakanamaru and it looks pretty fitting for an animation film. This speaks volumes about the devotion of anime artists to depict buildings with as much realism as possible, including all elements of normal life, from fire signs to curtains waving in the air. Too bad, Tokyo is investing on soulless glass buildings instead of incorporating the warm colors of wood and brick in modern architecture.

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