The Japanese TV program “BuraTamori” on June 22nd, 2019 featured the Shirokane Area of Tokyo.
In BuraTamori, the famous Japanese MC, Tamori walks places of Japan and sometimes around the world, introducing the cities with deeper insight than regular tourists.
(Bura comes from the Japanese word “Burabura”, which means “stroll around”.)
In each episode, a guide who knows the city well accompanies Tamori and the crew.
About the Shirokane Area
The Shirokane Area of Tokyo is located inside the Yamanote train line which circles the Tokyo Area.
Shirokane is known as a town where the rich of Tokyo live.
People call the residents of Shirokane as “Shiroganese”, which is a pun on Milanese, meaning residents of Milan, Italy.
In BuraTamori, it was explained why this area came to be such a luxurious residential area.
The guide of this episode is Mr. Okamoto, who is a researcher specializing in city formation of Tokyo.
Okamoto says the requirements for a high-class residential area are the following four;
- Large Mansion
- Plant life
- High ground (Hills)
- Public Security
Also, he mentions “moderate quietness” as an addition.
We will look into how each one applies to the Shirokane area.
Large Mansion: Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum
The building currently known as the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum was introduced.
This luxurious mansion was where former members of the Royal family of Japan, Asakanomiya Yasuhiko and his wife Nobuko lived in the early 1900s.
This place was also introduced in “Sekai Fushigi Hakken”, another famous TV program of Japan.
The building itself is of Western style, but in front of the entrance there are a pair of guardian lion-dogs that can be seen at entrances of Shinto Shrines of Japan.
The statues were installed at the time of construction in 1934, according to the intention of His Highness, Asakanomiya.
The designers seemed to be against it, because it certainly looks a little strange in front of a Western building, but today it is an individual characteristic of this mansion.
The craft glass that stands out on the surface were created exclusively for this palace by Rene Lalique, a French craftsman who was active in the early 20th century.
These were made by a special process of pouring glass into mold.
This building is built entirely in Art Deco style.
It is an architectural style characterized by geometric patterns that were popular in France from 1910 to 1920.
Inside, the curved ceiling of a large hall is made of plaster.
It required considerable technical skill to make the curves and steps on the ceiling with plaster which is soft and slow to dry.
In the museum, we can see a video from immediately after construction where the life of the royal family is introduced.
The many white peacocks which were kept as pets were also shown in the video.
However, this mansion had experienced danger of being lost.
After Word War II, the Royal family was made to pay taxes as normal citizens.
The Asakanomiya family was no exception and had to pay up to 79% of all assets as taxes.
This mansion was in danger of being sold, but it was protected because it was used as the official residence of the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Minister of Foreign Affairs of the time, Shigeru Yoshida, served concurrently as the Prime Minister, so the mansion was virtually the prime minister’s residence at the time.
It wasn’t sold to individuals, but became property of the government.
The study was the favorite of Shigeru Yoshida.
One of the reasons he liked it was that the visitors who came to the mansion were clearly visible from the study located on the second floor.
Plant life: Institute of Nature Study
The large forest in the middle of Shirokane is the Institute of Nature Study, which is an attached institute to the National Science Museum of Japan.
It is now a national institute, but this forest has been in danger of being lost many times in the history of Tokyo.
The crew visits a strange road outside the forest area.
There is a wide but short road that suddenly ends just under the highway.
This was once a planned route for the highway.
On this route, the highway was scheduled to run straight through the forest that is currently the Institute of Nature Study.
The Ministry of Construction wanted to construct the highway through the forest which was the shortest path, but the Ministry of Education opposed because the forest was already a national monument of nature.
This opposition was also encouraged by Shirokane residents.
As a result, the highway was changed to a route that passes outside the forest.
The strange road visited by the crew was a remnant of the non-accepted route that was already purchased and made at that time.
They also visited a place where the sidewalk on the road under the highway suddenly ends.
The Ministry of Construction tryed to make the sidewalk in addition to the highway, but because this piece of land was also a property of the forest, the Ministry of Education did not allow it, leaving the sidewalk to end abruptly.
Further back in time, there seemed to be many attempts and fortunes that protected this forest.
An unusual plant was introduced by Dr. Yano, an honorary researcher at the Institute of Nature Study.
At first glance, it is an ordinary plant, but it is actually an endangered species that originally grows in Kyushu and Shikoku, parts of Japan to the far west of Japan.
Why are these rare plants growing in the middle of Tokyo?
This is because there was a Daimyo (Samurai lord) residence of Takamatsu (region of Shikoku) in this place during the Edo period (1603-1868).
The plants that were brought to this place at that time have remained to this day.
A black pine in the garden planted in the Edo period is over 300 years old.
Going back further, during the Muromachi period (1336-1573), there were low earthen walls stretched around the forest area.
It is thought that a powerful family who ruled the area made these walls.
The walls were built to a considerable extent, indicating that this family had been quite wealthy.
They had a lot of silver. In ancient Japanese, the word for “Silver” is “Shirokane”, and this is believed to be the origin of the place name.
Next, the crew comes to a tree called “Jayanagi”, planted in the Meiji period (1868-1912).
This forest was used as a gunpowder storehouse during the Meiji period.
“Jayanagi” was suitable for making charcoal, so many were planted during this time.
In the Meiji era, the parts of the forest other than the warehouse were left untouched.
In this way, the forest of nature continued to be protected for at least 700 years.
Today, it is a place where we can observe the original nature of Tokyo.
There are many birds in this area such as kingfishers and goshawks that are said to be flying jewels.
High ground (Hills)
There is a slope called Sankozaka near Shirokane Takanawa Station.
Nearby is the Seishin Woman’s University (University of the Sacred Heart, Tokyo), where the former Empress of Japan, Michiko graduated.
From the school gate, there is a very long path to the nearest street.
This path is actually a private property of the University.
This path is a remnant of the Daimyo (Samurai lord) mansion from the Edo period.
The university is built on the former land of a strong Daimyo family.
Because the mantion was connected to the outside world by a long and narrow road, the road remains today.
In addition to the university, there are many mansions that use the land of former Daimyo residences.
A large Western-style building sometimes called a mysterious mansion.
Although it is not possible to enter, it is a mansion once owned by the founder of a famous watchmaker SEIKO.
The residential area in Shirokane have steep curves and slopes.
It seems that the land sections of Daimyo mansions were preserved because this complexity of terrain made modern development difficult.
The remaining Edo period land divisions have many dead ends and acute curves.
Such terrain seems inconvenient, but leads to the last point for a high-class residential area…
With the hills and zigzag streets full of curves and slopes, the Shirokane area is difficult for strangers to find the way.
Only residents get into the narrow streets, so it is easy to spot strangers.
Also, it is difficult for theifs to escape in steep hills.
Thus, the Shirokane area meets the 4 requirements of a high-class residential area;
Large Mansion, Plant life, High ground (Hills), and Public Security.
In the early 1900s, the rich of Tokyo build one mansion after another.
These are still used as wedding halls and hotels.
The extra point for a high-class area was “moderate silence”.
This can be seen on Platinum Street, the main street of Shirokane made in 1971.
It is a large road with two lanes on one side, but there is little traffic.
This is because it is not possible to pass through to the urban Shinagawa area because of a dead end.
It was originally planned to connect to Shinagawa Station, but the plan was abandoned due to lack of budget.
This was another coincidence that made the city relaxed with “moderate tranquility”.
However, today there seems to be a plan about resuming the construction of Platinum street that had been stopped for a long time.
Will the city change or will it be protected without change?
In any case, Shirokane is a high-class residential area that was born from a combination of fortunate coincidence.
With my budget, Shirokane is difficult to live… so someday I would like to take a slow walk around the town to know its history.