Walking and the pedestrian environment
November 24, 2006
Aesthetics of Street Rises (Tokyo)

Translation of the foreword and afterword to Tamori's 2004 book "An Introduction to the Aesthetics of Tokyo Street Rises" (タモリのTOKYO坂道美学入門).

This article is an appendix to the special feature Akasaka on the Rise. In that series, I profiled the named, often historic hillsides of Tokyo's Akasaka neighborhood.


Capitol of Hilly Streets, Tokyo's Charm

When I came to Tokyo for the first time, I thought there were really a lot of hills. If you draw a line at the Keinhin Touhoku Line, the west is land filled with plateaus and valleys, and of course the roads that connect them are street rises.

If you look at Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto or Nagoya on a map, they're just filled with brown and green, drawn with no sense of height. All of these cities except Tokyo are pretty much flatland. Since Tokyo is drawn the same way, I assumed Tokyo was flat as well. But when I finally came here I found drastic differences in height, and astoundingly steep hills right in the middle of the city. Tokyo's the only city like this. And the Edo Period names and provenance of the rises is quite clear.

The town of Edo was built with purposeful planning. If you divide it very simply, east of Keihin Touhoku Line was Shitamachi (lowtown), and like a Go board the roads ran north-south and east-west, home to commoners. To the west then was the Yamanote (foothills), a land of plateaus and valleys, arranged with east-west ridge-running roads lined with warlord estates, and townspeople down in the valleys. Apparently it was such a beautiful town that visitors from Europe said it was more pretty than Venice. The roads of Shitamachi today are more or less all the same as those of Edo, but Yamanote has been altered by redevelopment since the Meiji Period, and it's difficult to recognize the roads of Edo. However, street rises are still just as they were, with only their surroundings changed.

To think that just 180 years ago, bushi (warriors) and commoners walked up and down these street rises, it's something to spark the imagination. The roads of Edo's Yamanote were curvaceous to a seemingly unnecessary extent, and street rises are the same. It brings them a sense of elegance, and is another nice aspect. So here are my areas of appreciation – and how I score – street rises:

(1) How steep is it
(2) How curvaceous is it
(3) Is there something that produces the atmosphere of Edo
(4) Is there a history or provenance behind the rise's name

You know, of all the people I've ever talked to about this, there's only been one who was really interested.
{explained in the afterword}

The Boy on the Hill; and the Ideology of Inclines and Ideology of Flatland

The house where I was born and raised was in the middle of a long hill leading down into town. People would come uphill to visit us, and disappear back downhill. I lived there until I graduated from high school. This story is about when I was just old enough to go to kindergarten. Suddenly I was ordered by my parents, and I went off on my own to see what kindergarten was all about. My eyes partook a scene of the pupils playing this game where they would sing a dumb song while waving their hands around. It seemed so embarrassing, so silly, I went home and begged my parents to not make me go back there. At the time there wasn't really any pressure for academic success, so surprisingly my dad agreed. I was relieved at first, but I'd regret it soon. There weren't many kids my age in the neighborhood to begin with, and now they were all going to school each day. I was left alone. I had no one to play with. Every day, after I finished my early breakfast with my grandparents, hours of listlessness awaited me.

Neighborhood Steps, Koenji, TokyoAt that time, the household was centered on adults, and children had to live on the fringes of the family. The family's bill of rights, administrative policy, the basic shape of the family, new rules for mahjong, they were all decided by the adults, only to be told to you at some later date. Generally you'd never find out what the real rules were. At that time, there was no real communication between parents and children. I was never asked what do you want to eat, what happened at school today, you seem to be doing a lot better recently aren't you, I wonder what kind of a man MacArthur is, or anything like that. I had two bored grandparents in my house, but they never really talked with me. Day after day I was at a loss what to do. So since I really had nothing to do, I'd lean against the stone wall outside of our front door, and do some people watching of the folks going up and down the hill on their day off. Over time I was able to tell who belonged to which house, and if there was someone I didn't know, I'd follow them and determine what house they went into, and then talk to my grandparents to find out who is in the family, and what relationships they have to other people in town. I would speak very politely to my grandparents about this, and listen carefully to their answer. So I built up a map of the neighborhood in my head of each house and its residents. Every day, rain or snow, the boy stood on the hill. Gradually the boy earned a reputation. Eventually people began greeting him as they went by, and asking him how he was, but the boy would never reply. The boy looked like he was in pursuit of some knowledge, or standing guard over his home. He was a fool on the hill.

Several years passed. One day in early spring, he stood with both feet even like always, both hands folded in front like always, both eyes lightly closed like always, in the same spot just like always, when suddenly there was the sound of a bicycle's brakes, and when he lifted his eyelids enough he saw a mailman in front of him. "Are you Morita Kazuyoshi?" he asked, and the boy answered "Yes, sir" and was handed an envelope. When my grandmother opened it for me, I found that it was my notice of admittance to elementary school. It's finally over. Those never-ending days of listlessness have finally ended. School starts next month. School life is so busy, thank god. After that I learned the joys of being part of a group, and after that I never really confronted myself or took myself too seriously.

Recently I was drinking at one of my regular spots, and I realized that the person next to me was a certain famous author. I thought I'd like to talk about something with him, so I introduced myself and asked where he lived, and he cheerfully responded. That spot was one I know well, and on a hill. Since I get full of myself when I'm drunk, I turned to the professor and took up the conversation with earnest. You can split the thoughts and ideas of people into two broad categories: inclined ideology and level ideology. The level ideology of flatlanders is that of Heidegger (it's off-topic, but recently found out about buses called High-deckers, but I think these just put out a lot of exhaust {hai = exhaust}).

Edge of the Precipice, Sutton, IrelandKirkegaard said it in his book. People are consciousness. Consciousness allows freedom. Freedom causes anxiety. Kirkegaard describes the anxiety of consciousness, the anxiety of freedom like this. When you stand at the edge of a high precipice and look down, you can project that if you were to jump you would certainly die. To jump or not to jump is up to your own free will. If you take one step off the cliff there is a certainty of death. This is because of the potential energy stored in the person on the edge. Potential energy is what transforms the forgettable stone on flatland, when dropped from the height of 30 meters, into something with tremendous destructive power. So, high places have a massive stored energy in them. People who live on hill slopes, or climb up them, have an unconscious recognition of this energy of place, and in the imagination of those people, there is always the anxiety of their freedom.

According to this, flatlanders are represented by the ideology of Heidegger's flatland "Schwarzwald" (Black Forest), and as he puts it in his book "Being and Existance", in the continuity of plane time, and being-here becomes the pursuit of some idea (when I was a student I read this once, but since it was too complex I actually threw the thing across the room. I didn't understand it a bit.). I took a look at one of the books the professor had written (I hadn't read one before), and we talked about how he apparently agrees with Kirkegaard's view of things. A few days later I met up with someone who had been watching us from nearby, and I guess we made quite a scene. A couple of months passed, and I heard from my manager that that author would like to meet to talk some more about inclines, and I was so embarrassed I thought my face would erupt in flames. I told him to say whatever he wants, but decline politely.

A half year later, there was a three night special on NHK focusing on the correspondence of Heidegger and Jaspers, about their philosophy, friendship, and separation, and I watched it with great interest. At the end, the narrator said this: "Heidegger developed and wrote his main work 'Being and Time' at his home in Schwarzwald, which was on a very steep mountain." I saw this and had a very long laugh. My mouth is the source of my misfortune, but I can't stop my love for quibbling over small points.

Temple Steps, Hajioji, JapanAfterword

The chair of the Slope Society of Japan was pivotal in helping release this book (I'm the vice chair). While working for a publishing company he has a great love for street rises, and believes strongly that there are others out there who do as well.

Several years ago, at a bar that I frequent in Ginza, there was a guy talking very loudly about street rises. That was him.

There was a young woman, and two men who seemed like his subordinates, and he had them trapped in a long monologue about street rises, which they obviously wanted to get out of any way possible. There was a definite air that they were just fulfilling their duty, and would rather find a more enjoyable way to have their drinks, but he didn't notice at all. From what I caught, he was telling the history of street rises, and episodes from people of the Edo and Meiji periods, and despite what those three young people thought, it was a theme I really enjoy.

I finally decided that I really needed to join the conversation, and went over and stood next to his chair and said out to him, "Excuse me, I'm very interested in street rises as well."

Suddenly his focus shifted to me. He came over to sit with me with a big smile on his face, and we had a long chat. The three young people looked really relieved.

Old Steps, Hajioji, JapanAfter that, every time we ran into each other at the watering hole we'd talk about hills, and at some point we started the Slope Society of Japan. It's a stupendous society, discussing the vagaries and intimate details of street rises, but there are still just the two members.

So with his help I started the series "Introduction to the Aesthetics of Tokyo Street Rises". It started as a single page feature, but spread to two with the support of the editorial staff. After a year and a half taking pictures of street rises, it's now turned into this book.

Posted by Rob Ketcherside at November 24, 2006 11:00 PM
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