Ginza: How money changed hands on Tokyo's most expensive strip

Ginza: How money changed hands on Tokyo's most expensive strip

A Tokyo resident charts the fortunes of the Japanese capital's best-known street
Ginza, luxury, Japanese economy, Paris
So-called "pedestrian paradise" campaign in Ginza.

Pleasure-seeking in Ginza -- and then complaining about it -- used to be a Tokyo privilege, a little game of metropolitan elitism.

From novelists and artists to business tycoons and sumo wrestlers, everyone loved basking in the Ginza atmosphere: a particular blend of glitter, snobbism and a tradition-entrenched, mercenary snideness. But after a night on the town, regret would rear its sorry head.

Ginza -- an irresistable woman? 

Ginza, Japanese economy, luxury, ParisWako Building symbolizes the start of your thrilling expedition to Ginza.

The Ginza experience always felt like the sum on the bill never justified the degree of delight. Back in 1938, novelist and French culture connoisseur Nagai Kafu wrote about his hate-hate relationship with Ginza -- and how he couldn't help going back to it, comparing the town to "a dark, mean, ugly woman [who is] inexplicably wondrous in bed."

As a matter of course, she was and still is, very pricey. In the late 1980s, Ginza real estate was the most expensive on the planet -- the Wako Building was then said to be worth over ¥90 billion.

It was a monument to conspicuous consumption -- the management once openly declared it was only interested in customers who rang up a million yen at a time -- so the news last year that Wako was wallowing in debt to the tune of ¥1.7 billion took the public by surprise.

A district that caters to money

Ginza, Japanese economy, luxury, ParisWatch out! The ad girl is trying to seduce you.

Wako isn't the only Ginza icon whose glory days are over. Over the past 10 years, establishment after establishment has sold out, closed down and disappeared from the prestigious Ginza Dori strip, once a metaphor for the ever-expanding Japanese economy.

Some of the sheen remains -- three major department stores preside over a mere 800 meters or so of Ginza Dori sidewalk, while small shops specializing in Japanese sweets, fans, washi paper and the like stand as sentries to the memory of better times.

The less prestigious end of the strip is dedicated to alleyways crammed with impossibly narrow buildings mindful of skinny beehives that house innumerable hostess bars and clubs.

Bonanza for businessmen

It has always been an accepted slice of Japanese adult life that in Ginza, women go shopping and frequent French restaurants while men sneak over to see their favorite hostesses working in any of the 800-plus drinking holes.

Back in the day when company expense accounts had the elasticity of hot caramel, businessmen entertained their clients in Ginza and the customary course went from swank bar to swank sushi restaurant and ended with a two-hour drinking session presided over by hostesses in low-cut evening gowns.

The tab could run up to ¥300,000 per head depending on the liquor flow.

Two decades ago, Ginza Dori was crammed with limousines and taxis waiting to pick up men after a night of delight, and paparazzi hung around hoping for a shot of celebrity sumo wrestlers or politicians being bowed out by their hostess beauties.

Ginza, Japanese economy, luxury, ParisAs random as Shibuya or Roppongi.

When the party's over

The Ginza logic that charged people ¥1,000 for coffee and ¥30,000 just for a hostess to greet a client at the door has changed to fit the times.

After the demise of many old-guard retailers, the discount merchants moved in. The beef bowl empire Yoshinoya opened its Ginza shop in 1994.

Rival gyudon chain Sukiya opened about 900 meters down the street. Uniqlo put up its shop on a prime spot on the Ginza Dori in 2005 and, four years later, doubled the floor space.

Uniqlo Ginza is now a landmark institution and a must-visit store for tourists from mainland China, as demonstrated by the in-store signs in Chinese.

But, don't think that discount has become the name of the game here. It's just that the baton of luxury has passed into foreign hands.

Prada, Lanvin, Tiffany's, Harry Winston, Burberry and Adidas stores all face Ginza Dori. On a slightly different note, Japan's first Abercrombie & Fitch opened its doors on the strip in 2010, boasting a snazzy building that sprays cologne onto the street.

Clearly, the laws of money and prestige have been rewritten, and though some die-hard Ginza fans mourn the days when wealth was clenched tightly in the fists of old Japanese companies, still even they have to agree that if it weren't for the foreign luxury brands, the town would have lost much of its cachet, never mind its charm.

Ginza, Japanese economy, luxury, ParisGinza is full of buildings aesthetically pleasing to your eyes.

Behind the scenes

Ginza enthusiasts unite in the knowledge that the best of the district is tucked away from the strip and its crowds.

"Just as the Japanese avoided the Wako Building during the American Occupation, those of us who live and work in the Ginza area stay away from Ginza Dori," says Mitsuko Kaneshiro, an editor at Ginza-based publishing company Magazine House.

"We have our little secret getaways, favorite restaurants and reasonably priced cafes for chilling out. The more you delve into the side streets, the more likely you are to run into a personal favorite. The trick is to use your feet, hone your sensitivities, and not give into the convenience of the big chain stores or Starbucks."

Indeed, generations of writers and artists have compared Ginza to Paris, prowling the alleys to savor the elusive Ginza experience that doesn't necessarily come with a price tag.

Out on the strip, tourists sigh and complain about the prices, but in a quiet side street on a sunny afternoon, apprentice sushi chefs chill out with their iPods and hang their laundry out to dry, a more fitting symbol of the Ginza's current persona.