Mixed Signals
A special feature
Merchants of Koenji

Koenji (高円寺, Kouenji; High Ring Temple) is a neighborhood in Suginami Ward (杉並区, Suginami ku) in western Tokyo. It was just a small farming town along the Ome Highway (青梅街道, Oume Kaido) until the early 1920s, previously best known as the relocated home of temples from central Tokyo in the first decade of the 1900s.

Following the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, merchants, craftsmen, and "blue collar" workers fled the burned-out shitamachi of central Tokyo, and headed in large numbers to Koenji. In the previous two years, Koenji Station had been newly opened on the JR Central Line (中央線, Chuo sen) and a new streetcar was completed between Ogikubo (荻窪) and Shinjuku (新宿) with a half-dozen stops in the Koenji area.

In reaction to the crushing demand, farmers subdivided their property and threw up quick housing to rent out. Merchants created open air markets near trolley stops, and new businesses appeared along routes leading between the two transit lines, serving grilled food and cheap drinks or selling wares and goods to neighborhood families. The population exploded and it was a time of great change and community building.

Koenji continued to grow. In the 50s it became known for tea and coffee shops (喫茶店, kissaten) and for a yearly Awa dance festival (阿波踊り, awa odori). In the 70s, Koenji and Nakano were the center of a Japanese youth music movement, bringing musicians and music halls.

It's still a neighborhood of youth. In addition to a continuing energetic music scene, it's one of the top destinations for vintage clothing shopping in Tokyo. There are still countless watering holes and (some) good, (mostly) cheap restaurants. Customers walk the shopping districts of Koenji nearly 24 hours a day.

Koenji Pal 2007 02 12
The vibrant, fresh south side of Koenji....
Top five shopping districts in Japan, based on number of times showcased on TV....
Yanaka Street 2007 01 27
Yanaka Street Shopping District, fading away between JR Koenji and Nakano stations....
Koenji Look 2007 01 02
Profile of "Look", the shopping street running north from Shin-Koenji Station....

Check out my book Lost Seattle for more explorations of history and urbanism.