Preserving the Spirit of Nihombashi
As regular readers of this site can attest, the Nihombashi area is a thriving city within a city, a microcosm of the many masks Tokyo at large can wear, at one a home of culture, cuisine and the arts, as well as the economic powerhouse that supports it. However, even as interest in Japan and visitor numbers to Tokyo in particular soar to record levels despite the Olympics still being very much on the horizon, many guidebooks aimed at tourists fail to give Nihombashi its dues, and even the occasional Tokyoite not even knowing it is the literal centre of the city they call home. It is a situation all the more surprising for those of us fortunate enough to get to know the area for ourselves as outsiders, won over instantly by the same hospitality that has greeted customers since ancient Edo as you part the curtain of a restaurant, or the assured enthusiasm of the craftsman whose skill reaches back generations.
At the fore of the movement to ensure Nihombashi gets the audience it deserves is Taneo Nakamura, head of the Nihombashi Preservation Society, a group committed to seeing Nihombashi recognized as the heart of Tokyo as it was in Edo. "The main issue is the spread of information" says Nakamura, "we sit in a triangle in East Tokyo of Otemachi, Nihombashi and Ginza, with the business hub of Otemachi bordering the Imperial Palace, and Ginza becoming more of a fashion hub as it developed more recently than Nihombashi in the Meiji era. All three areas are notable, and we want visitors to visit them all, but information doesn't move freely and neither does transports with it difficult to even take the but from Otemachi to Ginza. Ultimately we are stronger cooperating together, and we have to think what needs to be done so visitors see the authentic Tokyo".
Taneo Nakamura sees himself as a Nihombashi denizen in all regards, "I try to look at Nihombashi as a tourist might, what would they want to do, where would they eat and so on, and sometimes I realise that what is obvious for locals is disorganized for a visitor. Nihombashi is packed with culture and the DNA of the Edo-era visible at every turn, and yet people don't know where to look. We need to spread that information, and it is not good enough to just create categories as simple as say 'sushi', visitors these days are much more discerning. It is the same as the Nihombashi bridge itself, it is not good enough to simply say when it was built and by whom, there are far more important stories that deserve to be told."
Beyond the bridge there are six sites that now hold Important Cultural Property status, and a huge number of merchants who can lay claim to 300 years of history, but Nakamura is quick to stress that Nihombashi is also a city of the future, "of course there are some parts of an area that stay the same, but others will develop and new parts will be added in time, but a believe the mix of old and new is only possible if you stay true to your heritage. This contrast is particularly attractive to Japanese youth and that is why they visit the area, for the generation who have lived here for most of our lives we take great pride in that."
Beyond the mixture of old and new, Nihombashi is a place where Japan meets the West as Nakamura explains, "the eclecticism of culture is palpable here, but that is actually quite hard to explain to first-time visitors especially when there is so much tradition on these streets. Perhaps it is best explained by the fact that we are are very open to outsiders, we accept everyone here and welcome modern developments. Any international person is welcome to start their business here, become members of the council and build up their own store. Nihombashi was born by attracting diverse groups of people to Edo, they in turn built guilds and a distinctive urban chic iki culture was born, and we haven't forgotten that. Sometimes it takes the open spirit of a matsuri festival to let people know they are welcome, and that is why I am making a matsuri calendar to experience Nihombashi culture in its most direct form. I also believe that people want that authenticity, you see people wearing yukata or kimono in other areas and it looks staged, in Nihombashi this is a living breathing part of our culture."
The Preservation Council's most prominent public activity is the cleaning of the Nihombashi bridge by local residents, merchants and workers, "we are also cleaning the river so that people can enjoy sailing the rivers of Tokyo as in Edo, but the heart of this project is preserving and maintaining the bridge itself" says Nakamura. "The fact that we built a highway over the symbol of the area itself in the run-up to the previous Tokyo Olympics was a by-product of the time, but now we are rethinking what is important to us now. We now see young Japanese people becoming drawn to the Nihombashi bridge and wanting to reclaim it and return it to its former glory." We may not witness the values of our own era see the highway diverted by the next Olympics in 2020, but it is an important point in time as Nakamura explains, "we can't stop thinking at the Olympics, we must think longterm. The Olympics will bring many people to Nihombashi, they will will pass that experience on to other people and so on. Tokyo as a whole is behind Kyoto in this regard, and while we have the same welcoming attitude, Tokyo requires subtlety to communicate. In the case of Nihombashi cleaning the roads and the bridge as a community may look strange to a viewer from abroad, but it sums up the spirit of Nihombashi. We clean the public spaces and bridge as a family cleans its home."
It is this passion for community that we see reflected in the core of Japanese omotenashi hospitality, "I like spontaneous behavior" enthuses Nakamura, "and omotenashi hinges on people responding directly to each others needs. Likewise Nihombashi is always responding to an evolving situation and you get this sense of passion as with omotenashi."
The face of Nihombashi may change with the times, but the enduring spirit of the area remains one you can always experience for yourself, and once you do, you too may well find yourself playing your part in making sure every visitor to Tokyo discovers the real heart of city.