Ginza is perhaps Tokyo’s most prestigious shopping district, known mostly for its high-end department stores, galleries and luxury boutiques. There's no shortage of art galleries in Tokyo, but in upscale old-school Ginza, there's one that goes back, waaaaaaaaay back.
On a recent visit, I happened upon the Okuno Building, a former apartment building that was built in 1930s. The Okuno building has somehow survived not only the ravages of World War II, but also the wrecking balls of development through the boom years thereafter. It is now home to numerous art galleries, shops for artisans and design collectives.
Looking rather like a mini Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong, the Okuno Building stands in complete contrast to its modern Ginza surroundings, almost as if it were a piece of art itself. Unlike restoration or revitalisation projects in Hong Kong, the Okuno building looks and feels basically the same as it did decades ago. There are no fancy makeovers or upgrades. The floorings have been untouched since the building was designed over 80 years ago. The interior matches the exterior perfectly and is wonderfully old, rusty and worn down. Flaking paint, bent railings, deep ruts worn into the concrete floor, it looks more like an abandoned ghost complex than a working building. The art inside is constantly evolving, with many exhibitions lasting mere days, but just walking around in the building is fun in itself. While appearing haunting to enter, I strongly urge you to experience its narrow corridors and short ceilings, poking into gallery after gallery, getting lost in its gloomy corridors and wondering if you are going to fall through the floorboards.
On the right side of the first floor of the building is a store with a traditionally designed sign that says “UNION WORKS". It is a shoe store that mainly repairs shoes, the store first opened in Sakuragaoka in Shibuya and came to Ginza four years ago. Inside the small store, is a collection of fine shoes selected by the owner with a taste for British fashion.
The Y's ARTS antiques & art gallery is also located at the ground level with symbolic big circular window.
The tiled exterior walls, balconies, and the round window on the 1F give the building an old-time feel.
Even the elevator is an original working antique and manually operated meaning that you have to close and open the doors by yourself. The Okuno building is said to be the first Japanese apartment building with an elevator. There are stern warnings to not forget to close the doors after you leave. You don’t see many elevators like this any more and most people I saw entering the building took one look at it and then opted for the stairs. Me included.
There are small galleries on every floor, displaying paintings, sculptures, and even clothing. All of them have a historical atmosphere. There are many detailed designs that you are sure to want to take photographs of.
I learned that there was a project underway to preserve and maintain Room 306 to preserve the old atmosphere. The original resident of apartment 306 was a woman named Suda Yoshi. She had a beauty salon in an apartment in the Okuno Building, where she cut and combed the hair of a steady clientele. In the late 1970s, she closed the business and turned the salon into her personal residence. For that reason, Suda Yoshi became the last private resident of the Okuno Building after it became a leased commercial space. She died there in 2009, at the age of 100.
Considerable effort has been put into the interior decoration of apartment 306. In apartment 306 you can feel the remnants of the beauty salon as its mirrors are still hanging on the wall, and the telephone stand is still in place and there are posters and posters.
I used low light photography for most of the photos taken in Okuno building. Low light photography is not necessarily just night photography, as many people assume. There could be different amounts of light coming from various sources and whatever is less than daytime light outside, I consider low-light. Indoors photography without much ambient light (as in many of our homes) as well as the light that is barely visible to our eyes at night, is also considered to be low-light. Low light photography is something that we all must deal with as photographers.
During weekdays and weekends there is a steady stream of people coming in and out of the building. With so many galleries there is an opening almost every day and new and old artists mix and meet in the narrow corridors. Weaving in and out of rooms, as you are invited to do, art history in all its breadth and complexity is brought before you: oil paintings and antiques in one room blend seamlessly with ultra-contemporary conceptual work in the next, creating a visitor experience that can be found in few other places. Of all Tokyo’s many art galleries, I think the Okuno Building is perhaps its most inimitable and one of its most fascinating.
I asked a few gallery owners why they chose this location, and they told me that they fancied the idea of being in a classical building in the back of Ginza. Some artists said that they refused to hold their exhibitions at any other place.
With its mixture of many cultures, walking through Ginza is like visiting a museum. Why not take a stroll through Ginza with a slightly different perspective? Whether you love art, antiques, or taking photographs of historic breathtaking buildings, the Okuno Building itself is a work of art, along with the other works displayed in the galleries. It is worth the time to visit the building. It's the perfect way to find unique buildings shining with personality.
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