Japan: Debating the fate of Shimokitazawa

Tokyo has no lack of small, winding streets. Shibuya has its maze of criss-crossing shōtengai, Roppongi its club-lined back alleyways, Ueno its open-air street markets. But no neighborhood in Tokyo packs more complexity per square foot than Shimokitazawa, a neighborhood whose layout bears closer resemblance to a ball of thread than to anything an urban planner would come up with.

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Shimokitazawa's spaghetti-like mess of streets and train lines evoke passion among some, frustration among others. The area has earned a name for itself as a breeding ground for creative young artists with its dozens of small theaters, art galleries and music venues. While eccentric characters like Rikimaru Toho fit perfectly into this urban environment, others see the maze of narrow streets as a dangerous fire hazard and a giant urban congestion knot in need of unwinding.

Planned route through Shimokitazawa (Urban Plan Subsidiary Route 54)

Planned route through Shimokitazawa (Subsidiary Route 54)

The entire area happens to lie in the path of a would-be thoroughfare running through Shimokitazawa to Shibuya, originally set forth in a “War damage revival plan” drafted all the way back in 1946. After several changes, that plan was brought back to life in 2003 and demolition and construction work has been slated to start in 2010. Should it be executed, the plan will split Shimokitazawa apart with a 26-meter wide expressway, Subsidiary Route 54 (補助54号線).

While the basic shape of those redevelopment plans had been known for some time, it was only a few weeks ago that the first glimpses of the new design finally emerged on the blog of Kuniyoshi Yoshida, a local landowner and head of the Shimokitazawa South [ja] shopowners’ union. Comments which began to appear on the blog, blasting the new design for its failure to respect the Shimokitazawa atmosphere, were swiftly deleted, but hostility against the plans only grew.

New shimokitazawa station design

New Shimokitazawa Station design

In a blog entry [ja] that drew a large response [ja], blogger and writer Hideaki Matsunaga [ja] explained why:


A great number of people who love the Shimokita culture and streets, starting with Lily Franky and including both residents and non-residents, have voiced their opposition to the Shimokitazawa redevelopment project. What I want to do here is to outline the details of what is going on right now in Shimokitazawa, and why there has been such opposition to this design.

The blog entry starts with a bit of history:


Shimokitazawa is located at an X-shaped intersection. One of the lines in this X is the Odakyu line from Shinjuku, the other is the Keio Inokashira line stretching from Shibuya to Kichijōji. So Shimokitazawa is at an intersection connecting Shinjuku, Shibuya, Kichijoji, as well as places such as the Toho Studios in Seijo and the former headquarters of Tsuburaya Productions in Soshigaya.

Shimokitazawa (photo by Hideaki Matsunaga)

Shimokitazawa (photo by Hideaki Matsunaga)

Shimokitazawa (photo by Hideaki Matsunaga)

(Note: all photos of Shimokitazawa reproduced with permission from the blog of Hideaki Matsunaga.)

かつて農村地帯だった駅周辺は次第に郊外の宅地化していった。やがて、横光利一、東郷青児、宇野千代、萩原朔太郎、斎藤茂吉らが住み、「下北沢文士町」という要素も持つようになっていく。萩原朔太郎の『猫町』も下北沢地域を舞台としている。この街と切り離せない作家として、森茉莉らもいる。(→萩原朔太郎 猫町 散文詩風な小説)



Once a farming district, the area around the station gradually transformed into a residential area. Before long, it had taken on the character of “Literary Shimokitazawa”, home of the likes of Riichi Yokomitsu (横光利一), Seiji Tōgō (東郷青児), Chiyo Uno (宇野千代), Sakutarō Hagiwara (萩原朔太郎) and Mokichi Saitō (斎藤茂吉). The Shimokitazawa region is also a stage for Sakutarō Hagiwara's “Nekomachi” (猫町). Another group of writers inseparable from Shimokitazawa are Mari Mori (森茉莉) and company.

After the post-war black market era, Shimokitazawa developed from a residential era into a shopping district. Starting with the Honda Gekijo, small theaters and music venues started appearing, and Shimokitazawa became a city of theater, music and subculture, and a gathering place for young people with an interest in theater and music.

The market in front of the station, which embodies the memory of the black market era, soon gave rise to a boom in “America stores” selling clothing, and this memory has been kept alive in the used clothing stores and small fashion shops that can be seen all around Shimokitazawa.



Shimokitazawa is like a labyrinth. Tangled in complicated ways, its jumble of narrow alleyways conveys a sense of disorder, but one that is walkable by foot. It this atmosphere that people are so fond of.

This neighborhood, Shimokitazawa, is on course to be drastically transformed. And there are a large number of people — both local residents and people who have come from other places — who feel that this transformation will destroy Shimokitazawa. (On the other hand, there are also shop owners who welcome this transformation.)

In the next section, Matsunaga points out that there are actually two parts to the redevelopment plans for Shimokitazawa. The first part, which he does not personally oppose, is already underway and focuses on expanding the number of tracks on the Odakyu line and burying them to reduce the number of crosswalks.

New Shimokitazawa Station design

New Shimokitazawa Station design

New Shimokitazawa Station design

The second set of redevelopment plans are of a different kind:

さて、この小田急線地下化工事はすでに始まっているが、一方でこれとセットのようにして進められているのが「都市計画道路補助54号線(以下、補助 54号線)」という26メートル幅道路の建設計画、ならびに下北沢駅前にバスロータリーを造るという計画(世田谷区画街路10号線)である。この道路・バスロータリーが、下北沢の街を根底から破壊するものとして反対されている。そして、小田急線地下化と道路事業がセットで行なわれることで世田谷区は補助金をせしめたと考える人たちもいる。

Now, this construction work on burying Odakyu Line has already started, but they are also pursuing plans for a 26-meter wide road referred to as the “Urban Strategy for Subsidiary Route 54 (Sub-Road 54 below)”, along with a plan to construct a bus roundabout in front of Shimokitazawa station (Setagaya District Street 10). The road and bus roundabout are being opposed on the grounds that the project will destroy the city of Shimokitazawa from its very foundations. Some even believe that Setagaya Ward may have packaged the burying of Odakyu line tracks and the road construction plans together as a way to wrangle more subsidies.


Sub-Road 54 is envisioned in plans as coming from behind to crush the Suzunari, an area of Shimokitazawa which might be called the birthplace of the local theater culture, carving through the north side of Kitazawa town hall to flatten all of Honda Studio, and then running through the middle of the area around the north entrance of Shimokitazawa station, dividing and destroying the city with an expressway as wide as Kan-nana [Tokyo's No. 7 ring road]. The new road would thus connect Kan-nana to the urban center.


Also, a road stretching from Sub-Road 54, along the site of the former Odakyu line tracks, to the north entrance of Shimokitazawa station, will connect to a bus roundabout to be built in front of the station, sweeping away the disorderly atmosphere of the current station-front market.

In the next section of the blog entry, Matsunaga points out some implications of the redevelopment project:


With the completion of the station-front roundabout, it has been suggested that the height limitation imposed on tall buildings could be considerably relaxed. There are a lot of low-rise buildings in the Shimokitazawa area, and these buildings lend themselves to creating a pedestrian-friendly environment; this may all at once be replaced by a city of high-rise buildings.

And he explains:


Of course, there are also locals who welcome the redevelopment (with Kuniyoshi Yoshida being first on this list). When I last checked the positions of every [political] camp prior to the lower house elections, the LDP [Liberal Democratic Party] was completely in favor of the redevelopment, arguing that it would rejuvenate the local area. The DPJ [Democratic Party of Japan] position was that if a re-examination of the plans found that the road was nonessential and not urgent, then they would review the current plan, and thus the DPJ is not firmly in either camp (of course the aim is to eliminate wastefulness, but they have not expressed a clear position in they way that they did when they halted the Yanba Dam project. One DPJ Diet member has in fact indicated their support for redevelopment, [on the grounds that] “roads that are too small for fire trucks are a fire hazard”.) Your Party [Min'na no Tō] have not elaborated their position on Shimokitazawa, but their position has been that they want to protect the old city atmosphere. Let's put that aside for now.


In short, those who welcome the redevelopment plans are the same people who hate the messy Shimokitazawa of the past and present. They cannot accept that the market by the north exit, which carries on in the tradition of the old black market, has survived to this day. They feel that development and progress are being hampered by the lack of car access to this area.

Shimokitazawa Market (photo by Hideaki Matsunaga)

Shimokitazawa Market (photo by Hideaki Matsunaga)

Returning to the original topic of the design for the new Shimokitazawa station, Matsunaga writes:


The things which symbolize Shimokitazawa, the Suzunari, the shops by the station entrance, the alleys that create the area's pedestrian atmosphere and which cars cannot navigate (and even taxis have a difficult time navigating) — all of this is to be literally flattened by bulldozers under the plan to create Sub-Road 54 and the station-front roundabout.


And then, of all things to come after this, they present this picture as a proposal for the new station design. What is it about this glassed-in geometric (in other words dehumanized) thing that is “befitting of Shimokitazawa”? What in the world does this clean and neat, linear, immaculate, bright station building have to do with the jumbled, meandering, zig-zagging little neighborhood around Shimokitazawa, chaotic but also full of life.


It is by no means an accident that so many of Shimokitazawa's hardcore fans [“Shimokita freaks”] have reacted with such knee-jerk revulsion to this proposal. What it is, in fact, is an indication that the image of “Shimokitazawa of past and present” (i.e. the way that people who are trying to protect Shimokitazawa see the neighborhood), and the image envisioned by those who want to create a “new Shimokitazawa” thoroughly different from what came before it, are in complete and total opposition to each other, at polar oppose extremes.

Reflecting on his own relation to Shimokitazawa, he continues:



It's not that I was born and brought up in Shimokitazawa, but as someone who has enjoyed and become very fond of the neighborhood's atmosphere, I feel sentimental and nostalgic about the area. And there are people in the area who share this feeling, as well as people who are not from the area, who are from outside.

The Shimokitazawa redevelopment problem is not at all a battle of “locals” versus “outsiders” (like in the case of the Yanba Dam problem). It's an opposition between visions of what a neighborhood is, and of what neighborhood development is.

(In response to many bookmark comments, Matsunaga wrote a follow-up post [ja] in which he clarified his position on a number of points. In particular, he emphasized that while he is personally against the Sub-Road 54 plans, he is not against the expansion/burying of Odakyu line tracks. He also responded to many comments claiming that the redevelopment is necessary for safety reasons.)

Update (Nov. 7)

Some more pictures of Shimokitazawa:

The Suzunari theater in Shimokitazawa (photo by mamacharikinoko)

The Suzunari theater in Shimokitazawa (photo by mamacharikinoko)

Building in Shimokitazawa (photo by mamacharikinoko)

Building in Shimokitazawa (photo by mamacharikinoko)

Cafe in Shimokitazawa (photo by mamacharikinoko)

Cafe in Shimokitazawa (photo by mamacharikinoko)


  • RMilner

    I know the area myself; it’s a great place to wander around without the sense of sleaze you get in Kabukicho.

    Tokyo has plenty of glass, steel and concrete towers. It doesn’t need more. It needs to preserve a few areas which are urban (shopping, restaurants, and so on) and built on a human scale.

  • Shimokitazawa: End of an era?…

    Tokyo’s neighborhood of Shimokitazawa faces some big changes: redevelopment plans will completely transform the area, running a 26-meter-wide thoroughfare through its center and connecting it directly to Shibuya and the Kan’nana ring road. Work will …

  • Em

    Lovely post, thank you. It’s a shame that what looks inevitable is happening to Shimokitazawa and especially I think in an age when other countries are beginning to nurture and protect these artist havens and historical neighborhoods Japan still hasn’t been able to grasp that.

  • I will miss that man who reads the books aloud by the station.

  • Rob

    This is horrible. I can’t comprehend what it will be like with this planned redevelopment.
    In Shimo-Kitazawa I played pachinko for the first time, went on my first date in Japan, and had tons of other fun experiences. The street artists, musicians and oldschool bars and shops in Shimo-Kitazawa just can’t be found many other places in Tokyo. The energy and endless holes in the wall to be explored are vastly more valuable than any ‘modern,’ ‘efficient’ or ‘progressive’ chop job dictated by top-down administrative assholes.
    I sincerely hope the people of Shimo-Kitazawa are successful in resisting this.

  • Tokyo will be much poorer without shimokitazawa. I hope they will change the plan.

  • @Em

    Glad you liked the post!

    It’s not a done deal though, these things can make a sudden turn as happened with the central post office at Tokyo station:


    I think as you say we’re just on the cusp of a change in attitude about neighbourhoods like Shimokitazawa — all the more reason to stop or at least stall the redevelopment plans.


    That guy who reads manga is Rikimaru Toho, Scilla did an article on him (linked to above): http://globalvoicesonline.org/2008/10/10/rikimaru-toho-the-first-manga-narrating-cantastoria/

    @Rob @Giacomo

    I agree this would be a sad “development” if it actually happened.

    There’s a group opposing the redevelopment called Save the Shimokitazawa:


    I’m sure they can use all the support they can get!

  • Its a shame to see such a historic area being destroyed, but this happens in all major cities. While tokyo has great public transportation it is a growing city, and changes need to be made to modernize and increase the flow of traffic.

    I know that the same problem has happened in my old city of Milwaukee. Everyone is for a rail system, but no one wants it in their back yard. Thus its been on hold for 20 years while downtown is clogged with ever increasing traffic.

  • Thank you very much for taking the time to translate the whole blog entry.

    I live 10 minutes walk from Shimo and I’ve been following the progress of the railway construction for the past two years: It’s lucky that Matsunaga-san is not against the railway redevelopment as that part is very well advanced and will it make a significant improvement with the removal of eight or nine level crossings and much bigger station.

    The Odakyu has rebuilt a number of other stations further west on the line and results are fairly bland and un-interesting. While this new station is different and maybe it will look out of place initially, I think it will ehance the appeal of the area.

    However the plans for the road building show the classic signs of a pork barrel project: wanting money for a shiny new road and bulldoze the messy bits.
    I hope it does not come to pass . Bigger roads just encourage more traffic so any reduction in congestion will soon disappear.

    There are some more artists impressions of the station on
    http://www.shimochika-navi.com/ too.

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