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  • Saturday, 12 January 2013 11:22
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A horse-drawn streetcar casually runs along an almost empty sandy road flanked with magnificent willow trees and Western-style brick buildings. How immensely different from today’s noisy and crowded Ginza.

Pointing his camera toward Kyobashi, photographer Kimbei Kusakabe stood near what we now know as Ginza Wako, a shop famous for its expensive watches, jewelry and other luxuries.

The small clock tower rising above the trees is the Ginza Branch of the Kyoya Watch Shop. The simple but elegant clock tower became the symbol of Ginza and appears in countless woodblock prints. Built in 1876, it stood until 1913 when the shop closed and the building was torn down.

Swiss trader James Favre-Brandt imported the clock in 1863 when he came to Japan on a Swiss mission for establishing trade relations with Japan. Officially, Favre-Brandt, who was 22 when he arrived in Japan, was an attaché. But in reality he came on his own account and expense.

Favre-Brandt fell in love with Japan, married a Japanese woman — almost certainly the very first Swiss citizen to do so — and never left. He became a successful trader, importing clocks, firearms and military supplies. At one time he managed to sell some 1,500 French rifles.

Today the Ginza Sanwa Building stands in the place of the Kyoya Watch Shop. Next door is Matsuya, a premier department store offering everything from foreign luxury brands like Louis Vuitton, Prada and Miu Miu to traditional Japanese handicrafts.

The Kyoya Watch Shop tower was not the only Ginza symbol memorialized in woodblock prints. Tokyo’s horse-drawn streetcars were another. They started operations in 1882 and connected Shinbashi, where the terminal of Tokyo’s rail connection with Yokohama was located, with Asakusa, at that time the city’s most popular entertainment area. The streetcars were electrified in 1903 and the horse-drawn version subsequently vanished from Tokyo’s streets forever, meaning that this view of Ginza existed for a mere two decades. Ginza got its name from a silver-coin mint (Ginza in Japanese) built in 1612. At that time, the area was called Shinryogae-cho (new money exchange district) due to a large concentration of money exchange houses. It wasn’t until 1869 that Ginza became the area’s official name.

Only three years later, the newly minted Ginza was virtually destroyed by a disastrous fire. The prefectural government decided to build fire-resistant structures and asked Irish-born architect Thomas J. Waters to design Westernstyle buildings.

He produced a large number of Georgian brick buildings that were lit up by Japan’s first gaslights, starting in 1874. Later, Japan’s first electric streetlights would also begin their spread across Japan from Ginza. Soon after Ginza Bricktown was completed in 1877 it became Tokyo’s trendiest shopping avenue. Newspaper companies and the printing industry settled here, making it Japan’s information center. Many new ideas were either born or spread from Ginza.

The 1872 fire was only one of Ginza’s disasters. The area was almost completely destroyed by the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake and then again by the US firebombing of 1945. But each time it rose from the ashes stronger than ever.

So strong that it boasts Japan’s most expensive real estate. During Japan’s bubble economy of the 1980s, Ginza real estate was the planet’s most expensive. Wako Ginza at that time was valued at over 90 billion yen (more than 1 billion US dollars). Although property values later collapsed after the bubble burst, a square meter in front of Ginza’s Kyukyodo stationery shop was still valued in 2007 at 24.96 million yen (over 300,000 US dollars). And a piece of land as small as a postcard cost a whopping 369,000 yen (4,540 US dollars).

Even so, 20 years of economic stagnation did bring some change to Ginza. Discount stores have moved in. Budget fast-food restaurant chains like Yoshinoya and Sukiya have set up shop. And even bottom-priced fashion retailer UNIQLO now has a huge store in Ginza. But Ginza still boasts the largest concentration of foreign luxury brand stores in Japan. It is a sign that the more things change, the more they stay the same. tj

This story appeared in Issue 270 of the Tokyo Journal.To order Issue 270, click here.


Written By:

Kjeld Duits

Residing in Japan for over 30 years, Dutch photojournalist Kjeld Duits is Tokyo Journal's Street Editor. In addition to managing one of the first fashion blogs on the net, and the first to cover Japanese street fashion in English, he owns a vast collection of vintage photographs, illustrations and maps of Japan between the 1860s and 1930s (Meiji, Taisho, and early Showa periods) and covers news stories and natural disasters for media organizations worldwide.


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