Harmonica Yokocho in Kichijōji, located in the west of Tokyo, is a warren of narrow, roof- covered alleyways, hosting a melange of compact shops, bars and restaurants. The Yokocho gives the impression of being halfway between a bazaar and the remnants of an historic ‘Oriental’ arcade. For those travelling from the West and who are in search of that coveted experience of the Japan recorded in the ethnocentric writings of nineteenth century exoticism, this is the sort of place where you might find a version of that. The tapering side streets are densely packed with fortune tellers, bars, restaurants, boutiques, zakka stores, a florist and a fishmongers, though this list is nowhere near exhaustive. The Harmonica Yokocho (or side streets) are so-called due to their arrangement resembling the comb of a mouth organ. Originally built as flea market, legend has it that the alleyways were home to a series of black-market vendors during the early days of the post-war period. Walking the dimly lit streets today, it is easy to see how such a rumour came to be spoken, and there is likely some truth in the tales of clandestine transactions having taken place amongst the shadows here.
There are, of course, a number of obvious entry points available to those wanting to describe Harmonica Yokocho: the proximity of the old, slightly ‘shabby’ looking area appears in contrast to the sleek, ultra modern construction of Kichijōji Station and its attached shopping mall, positioned directly opposite the alley entrances; the idea that this is a genuine taste of ‘old Japan’ or ‘real Japan’, whereby one both becomes and observes ‘the other’; the myth of the black-market providing traces of a less ordered past, complicating the Western view that modern Japan is a tidy, systematic and well-ordered space; and so on and so forth. Such analyses are trite and riddled with the typical prejudices that are set up in all too many explorative writings of Japan. This is not to say that such critiques have no value, rather that as a white, male, westerner, it is difficult to get beyond representations of such encounters with the Japanese, and in many ways it is what has come to be expected: representations of the strange, the exotic, the ‘other’. And whilst there have been significant attempts to reconcile descriptions of the foreign with a sense of the familiar and recognisable quotidian in writings on other parts of the world, it remains that Japan still engenders a state of confusion amongst visitors, one whereby we might point and stare: “How strange they are!”
It is troubling.
Suffice is to say, my approach to the alleyways is, then, something I’m more comfortable with. I walk through Harmonica Yokocho every day, not some days, not the odd day, but every single day. I’ve done this since I arrived in Kichijōji last March. “Why?” you might ask, because it feels like home. Not in the way that I’m reminded of the years l lived in London – these streets do not resemble those around Covent Garden, Spitalifields or Greenwich Market – nor are the alleys reminiscent of those found in Guildford, Northampton or Norwich, of which I became well acquainted in my teens and early twenties. Rather, the feeling I get from negotiating this linear circuit of lanes is one of simultaneous belonging and distance, such that I might be able to just be in this place, becoming lost in the oscillation between familiarity and reservation.
The cries of the elderly fishmongers, a cacophony of crashing pots and hissing pans, call outs from bars, tobacco smoke, the heavy scent of baking bread, neon glare, a warm glow of faux-candlelight emitted from paper lanterns, stale liquor, disinfectant, floral perfume, creeping shadows: each instils a further sense of belonging, one that I can only assume emanates from the sensory multiplicity that is spatial awareness. memory + experience = place. It feels like the alleyways carry with them tiny pieces of all those former sites and situations I’ve once thought of as homely, familiar. The Yokocho are enchanted. Here memories of previous sounds, sights and smells forgo cognitive distillation and work to inflect my present encounter. The shimmering corpses of recently expired fish lay stretched over their ice-filled, polystyrene caskets in a a scene both grotesque and uniquely exciting to observe. The lifeless sea creatures providing a tableau of existence beneath the waves, a static glimpse into their otherwise inaccessible kingdom.
My favourite days as a child started with my mother walking me down to our town’s Friday market. She would pick me up and show me the morning’s ‘catch’, displayed on a narrow slope of ice in the open hatch of the fishmonger’s trailer. I was fascinated by the chart of fish found in British waters (including sharks) that was pinned to the back wall of the mobile store, directly behind the fishmonger – a large, beaming woman with a thick Norfolk accent. If I was especially lucky my mother would buy me a tail of smoked haddock. The substantial woman in white behind the counter patiently waited for me to select my choice of luminous, ocre stained fish. The haddock would be held before me whilst the vendor keenly awaited confirmation. Once I’d given the all clear, the fish would be wrapped in paper and handed over to me in a plastic bag, whereupon I would waste no time at all in removing the paper package and sniffing its contents.
The alley streets are dark, not gloomy but neither are they particularly inviting. They speak to me of ghosts, of those things which manifest (as real or imagined) and that work to manipulate our perception – fleeting moments of familiarity, acquaintance, confusion, disturbance. As a sort of liminal zone on the threshold of present, historic and imagined Tōkyō, the streets could be stripped right from the pages of a novel. They are at once alive and dead, seemingly frenetic, yet turn a corner and you’re all alone. There is a strange air of perseverance here- a feeling that the space and its inhabitants strive to retain and preserve a part of the local community that has existed for generations – like that presented by Natsuhiko Kyogoku in his haunting description of 1950’s Itabashi. Unlike the majority of the city, this unassuming area of Kichijōji has remained untouched by developers since the war, though many of the bars and shops are relatively new arrivals to the market. Wider, more accessible streets demarcate the alley purlieus, giving way to upmarket department stores and illuminated walkways. In this sense, then, we might consider Harmonica Yokocho to be an in-between space, annexed by the less enchanting, envelopment of gentrification that consumes much of Kichijōji and the wider Tōkyō area.
I pass through Harmonica Yokocho not because I want to but rather because I need to. The necessity is not one of material need (although I must confess the bakery is rather good), I can walk around the alleys which would perhaps be less time consuming on many occasions. The need is far more spiritual. I gain a certain satisfaction from moving in and between the alleys, finding new routes in and out of the covered streets, bowing to those shopkeepers familiar with my daily visitation to the market. Moreover, I have an opportunity to submit to nostalgia, to reminisce of a home that is, in reality, a million miles away but one I can feel seeping through these dark narrow streets without any desire to understand why. Home is in these shadows, amongst the ghosts, the shopkeepers and the fortune tellers.