Rethinking what it means to develop the perfect neighborhood
‘Scrap and build’ has been a long favored concept for Japan’s post-war urban development. It has
been especially evident in architecture, as Japanese housing in 1993 had an average life of only 30
years, while American housing had 103 years and British housing had 141 years; a statistic that
showed how short Japanese houses last compared to other developed countries.
After the financial bubble burst in the 1990’s, the trend to attain new things took a halt and the
concept of renovation took over. After ‘American casual’ fashion boomed among the young generation
in the late 1980’s, second-hand clothing and flea markets became popular. Along with that trend,
the concept of renovating and modernizing old housing complexes and residential buildings took off.
Kawagoe in Saitama prefecture is a 30 minute train ride from Tokyo’s Ikebukuro station and known as
a warehouse district. The area took a pioneering approach by taking the old buildings and making them
into a tourist destination. In 1893, one third of Kawagoe city was lost to a massive fire. As
a countermeasure, merchants lined the streets in warehouses which were architecturally the
most fireproof during that time. The impressive warehouses were not able to keep up with the
modernization trend and many were demolished post-war. A Kawagoe community group was
set-up in 1983, and managed to end further demolishment. Many new shops have found a way
to fit in the warehouse structure, providing a nostalgic scene of the Edo period for both Japanese
and overseas tourists to enjoy.
Many areas have managed to retain their charm while opening new stores. In June, Starbucks Coffee
Japan opened “Starbucks Coffee Kyoto Ninenzaka Yasaka Tea Parlor”, a new location along the
historic Ninenzaka which leads directly to Kiyomizu-dera, a world heritage temple in Kyoto. The
coffee shop is located inside a 100-year old traditional Japanese townhouse, where every effort to
retain its charm of the historic structure was taken during renovations. It is a new kind of atmosphere
that mixes historic Kyoto with the Starbucks coffee culture.
In the same Kyoto city, luxury brand “Hermès” opened a pop-up shop “Hermès Gion” (open until July
31) in a renovated traditional machiya townhouse. The shop, which beautifully blends eastern and
western cultures in Kyoto’s streetscape, is truly one-of-a kind and has been a highlight for many
tourists from around the world.
The busy chaos of certain areas in Japan have at times been considered a cultural heritage, but
more recently a line has been drawn to differentiate the chaotic from the more sophisticated areas.
While Shinjuku Kabukichō’s bawdy style still entertains many overseas tourists, areas such as
Omotesando and Kyoto have been able to retain their sophisticated feel as more shops have put
effort into complimenting these scenic neighborhoods. By maintaining the charm of both types of
areas, we should see a growth in overseas tourists while the Japanese will also benefit in keeping
these areas differentiated.