Gin-bura, the term tokyoites used to have for hanging out and window shopping in Ginza in the 1930s, is still possible today, thanks to a commitment among property owners and developers in the district to keep the eclectic retail mix in Tokyo’s most fashionable district.
Ginza became the most modern part of Tokyo during the Meiji period when Japan began to open up. The district was rebuilt after a fire to look like a western town—with a grid pattern of wide streets and tree-lined sidewalks, gas lamps, Tokyo’s first tram, and one of the city’s first subway lines. Ginza’s modern atmosphere, coffee shops, bars, and bazaars selling Western goods attracted Tokyo’s young and fashionable crowd.
Over the decades, though, Ginza has lost some of its luster. There are many cooler, more upscale parts of Tokyo now, but Ginza has its edge: its central location and access to transport; its compact streetscape; and a unique retail mix of old and new, high and low. All of these make Ginza ideal for hanging out, window shopping, and just strolling about—what’s called Gin-bura. It’s just as relevant today as it was a century ago when the term was first used.
2 chome 2-12 Shinkawa, Chuo-dori
In tea-drinking Japan, Ginza was where Tokyo’s first Western style coffee houses were located, and Café Paulista, founded in 1911, is the oldest remaining of its kind. Although the café has been updated through the years, and relocated to Chuo-dori, it still feels like entering a time warp—complete with vintage furnishings and a smokefilled salon that’s rare in Tokyo these days.
It’s one of a dying breed where smoking is allowed and where customers come to chat rather than bury their noses on their mobile phones and laptops. And unlike the modern coffee chains, the original Paulista was a social lounge where liquor was served and live music was played. Here, even the menu is vintage.
The café has been serving the house specialty — the Paulista no.1, a Brazilian blend — since they first opened in 1911. It was John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s favorite whenever they dropped by the café when in town. The Paulista was third wave before there was such a thing. The beans are sourced from Brazil mostly (as was the fashion in the old days), roasted to their specifications, and brewed and served pour-over style like hipsters do it today.
2 chome 7-15 Ginza, Chuo
Down the road from the Café Paulista is the giant Apple Store that’s become a popular meeting point for shoppers in the area. Tech-savvy Japanese have always been one step ahead of the world in information technology, but that doesn’t mean they’ve abandoned old-fashioned pen and ink to communicate with each other. A few steps across the Apple Store is Itoya, Tokyo’s oldest stationery and pen store.
The first shop opened in Ginza in 1904. At G Itoya, their new flagship store along Chuo-dori, half of its 12 floors is dedicated to the art and craft of writing and printing alone. Fountain pen aficionados should head straight to the third floor for the widest selection of fountain pen models and makes ever assembled in a single store. More than 2,000 pens of almost every make, price, and country of origin are sold in the salon.
Of special interest to collectors of traditional Japanese Maki-e lacquered pens are the creations of local brands like Namiki and Sailor. These exquisitely handcrafted pens hold a special place in the world of fountain pen collecting and can cost upwards of a million yen or about USD 10,000 each.
4 chome 9-8 II Ginza, Chuo
If Tokyo today is one of the world’s most forward-looking cities, Ginza was where the most modern-minded Tokyoites used to converge. It was once the playground of the moda boi and moda garu, slang for modern boys and girls who were the first to embrace Western fashion in Tokyo. The Meiji period saw the rise of Ginza as the fashion capitol of Tokyo — especially Western — style clothes.
This was the same time kimonos began to lose their appeal among the men in the fast-modernizing city. But in a street behind the main fashion avenue of Chuo-dori is a high-end kimono maker that’s making the traditional kimono fashionable again. This is where I met Koumei and Keita Motoji, the father-and-son team known in Tokyo for tailoring the most luxurious kimonos for men. Like a well-made Savile Row suit, the perfect kimono requires an experienced tailor and the best fabric money can buy.
For Motoji’s most discriminating clients, that means rare, handwoven Oshima tsumugi silk from Oshima Island. These fabrics are distinguished with the title of Important Intangible Property in Japan. A kimono using the best fabric could cost as much as 45 million yen or about USD 450,000 — a fortune — but rare fabrics and craftsmanship like theirs are reviving the bespoke kimono as an aspirational fashion staple once again.
4 chome 3-9 Ginza, Chuo
On Harumi-dori, a street perpendicular to Chuo-dori, is a specialty vintage model train shop with a niche following. Tenshodo has been selling trains to serious collectors since 1949. A rare vintage train set here costs as much as 415,000 yen or about USD 4,150. The Japanese are among the world’s most obsessive model train builders and collectors.
But there’s a deeper connection with trains than mere nerd-like fascination with them. Stay in Japan long enough and you’ll discover the people’s faith in their train system. It’s a source of national pride which began during the Meiji period when locomotives and tracks symbolized modernity and a drive to outdo the West in their own game. For the rest, however, it’s a fun distraction from the luxury shops of Ginza, and you could spend hours going through the provenance and the life-like details of each train set on display.
4-2-1 Ginza, Chuo
All over the world, niche collectors and specialty shops are slowly being replaced by online sellers, but not in Ginza. Lemonsha is one of a handful of used and vintage camera stores occupying prime retail space in the area. It’s hard not to notice the many secondhand camera shops in Ginza. The manager of Lemonsha tells me that’s because the area used to be close to where the American military was headquartered after World War II, and GIs and photojournalists found the thriving black market for PX goods in Ginza a lucrative place to unload their gear.
Lemonsha got its name from the word “lemon,” which Americans used to call something broken or unusable. However, all the vintage cameras sold here are in good working condition. Vintage Leica rangefinders and Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex cameras from Europe are their specialty, and naturally, heritage Japanese brands like Nikon which celebrated 100 years in 2017. My first serious camera was a fully manual Nikon FM SLR, so the brand has sentimental value to me. The store’s Nikon rangefinder selection is among the largest I’ve come across in Tokyo. The Nikon SP with motor drive released in time for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics is the jewel of the collection. It comes with a retail price of 5 million yen or about USD 50,000.
5 Chome 1 Ginza, Chuo
It’s amazing just how many hobby shops still operate in Ginza. Ginza Seiyudo is the largest seller of antique Japanese swords in the country with a collection ranging from the samurai of ancient times to those owned by officers of the Imperial Army. The sword or katana was more than a weapon in Japan, it was a symbol of prestige and military rank. You could tell the social status of its owner just by looking at the sharpness of his blade and the decorative details on his sword.
These days, however, swords are collected exclusively for their aesthetic beauty and cultural value. It’s now illegal to own a katana in Japan unless you have the proper government permit. Since ownership rules are more liberal outside Japan, Seiyudo has a license to ship swords to collectors overseas.
Keep it this way
Ginza’s oldest shops have survived calamities, a world war, and more recently, Japan’s bubble economy. Land prices are said to be the highest in Ginza and many establishments hardly break even because of the high cost of rent, but keep their flagship stores anyway for the prestige of having a location in Tokyo’s preeminent shopping district.
Clearly, this hasn’t stopped mom and pop shops and obscure specialty stores from thriving in Ginza. Local officials, civic leaders, and shopkeepers have come together to keep it this way. They call it the Ginza Filter: an unofficial policy that guides the retail mix in the area—ensuring that young and old, high and low, modern and traditional, are represented in the streets of Ginza. And because of that filter, the old spirit of Gin-bura remains alive today.
This article first appeared in Vault Issue #24. All photos except lead image are by David Celdran.