Friday, July 18, 2014

Nihonbashi to Ningyocho: Business in the Shitamachi

In preparation for the Olympics, Tokyo is getting major face-lifts. Nihonbashi, which used to be a shabby but well-beloved shitamachi haunt has now been invaded by the Coredo shopping centres. While they are tastefully wa, and house some interesting traditional shops (for example crafts made using gold leaf from Kanazawa), this is not the Nihonbashi I remember.
Much of the shitamachi is home to traditional Japanese industry. By this I don't just mean artistic crafts (old style umbrellas, lacquerware, wood working) but also businesses that cater exclusively to the Japanese market. Walking from Nihonbashi to Ningyocho you find purveyors of those iconic OL uniforms, small workshops manufacturing a very specific part for kotatsu heaters, printers of promotional uchiwa fans.

The longer I live and work in Japan, the more I have come to realize that there are two business models that do very well here: either be extremely local or go completely global. The interesting thing is that the actual size of the business is irrelevant. Companies that deal with business globally are usually thought of being ginormous corporations... and yet there are tiny 3D printing specialists or app creators in Tokyo that have dedicated customers on every continent. On the other hand Japan Rail, the queen of the 'super local', is massive.

The old and the new coexist peacefully. Although I am often annoyed and flummoxed by how slow business can be here, it comes with some benefits. People will hang on to traditions for dear life, even if they are the last ones chugging along. Even when it is not profitable. Companies are often loath to leave their suppliers, who they have known for decades, in the lurch. While business-wise I fully understand this does not make sense, on a human level it is kind. 
Sometimes I think resistance to change, in Japan, can be a strategy of its own.

In Ningyocho there is a traditional sweets parlor called Hatsune. It has stood in the same spot since 1837, purveying old fashioned anko and jelly desserts, along with traditional kakigori (the type topped with green tea and red beans, or syrupy preserved apricots). They make tea in a cast iron tea urn, which is both time consuming and easy to burn oneself on while bustling past, just because it tastes a bit better.

Time does not stand entirely still at Hatsune, but their dedication to the old has served them well, as the competition for seats is fierce. Well-to-do ladies in expensive summer kimono (obviously regulars, from the chit-chat) smile benevolently at younger customers and the unusual Japanese/foreign couple at the table next to them.

The global and the local sit companionably side-by-side, over ice and tea.

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