Day and night: beauty falls on Tokyo (Marugen, Ginza)

It’s not uncommon to hear people complain about Tokyo’s lack of beauty. Especially tourists. I’ve heard many say “Tokyo was OK, but I LOVED Kyoto. It’s so charming.”

No argument here. Kyoto is charming. And, yes, Tokyo can be ugly and visually monotonous, depending on where you look.

One particularly gray day, I took a photograph of a medium-sized building in Ginza. It was remarkably unimpressive: about 9 stories, with a white/grey exterior, and a bunch of wires and air conditioners stuck onto the side of the building. Not much to look at.

A month later I passed by the same building at night. The neon signs, which had been turned off during the day, were a gorgeous green and red. The English letters ‘MARUGEN’ were displayed vertically a typeface reminiscent of Bauhaus. The contrast between these two views was literally night and day.

Nighttime is when Tokyo becomes beautiful. It’s also the time when I notice just how many ‘Marugen’ signs there are in Ginza. During the day I’ve unintentionally taken pictures of Marugen buildings while photographing something else. For example, Marugen 54 is hardly noticeable during the day, which is adjacent to the building with a spherical top. Yet at night, the Marugen building is quite pleasing because of it’s luminous signs.

(The cylindrical-topped building is the Shizuoka Press and Broadcasting Center 静岡新聞・静岡放送東京支社ビル, a work of architectural significance; map)

Marugen 24 hides in the distance in this picture from lunch-hour, but at dusk the neon lights really pop:

What is ‘Marugen’?  There is a helpful response on a forum:

“As you know, the word “Maru” means “circle” in Japanese and “Gen” stands for “Gensiro Kawamoto,” a Japanese billionaire who has made his fortune in real estate and owns 57 buildings in Tokyo’s Ginza, Akasaka, and Roppongi entertainment districts. In 1987, the Japan Economic Journal called Kawamoto the sixth richest man in Japan. His worth was last estimated at $2.7 billion, and the most amazing thing is that he is a debt-free billionaire, preferring to make most of his transactions in cash. He was once quoted in the Hawaii newspapers as saying that he considers $85 million “pocket change.” (I wish my pocket change was like that!) I know of Gensiro Kawamoto because he used to be my landlord here in California for six years.”

The English Wikipedia entry on Gensiro Kawamoto 川本源司郎 paints him as an unpredictable landlord and predatory neighbor. The Japanese Wikipedia entry is not as negative, but it does reference his 2013 arrest for tax evasion. News of his arrest was met with joy by many in Hawaii, where he owned many dilapidated properties. Most of the properties have since been sold, which was described in the Honolulu Magazine article “The Worst Neighbor on the Block: Genshiro Kawamoto

Genshiro Kawamoto 川本源司郎 (source)

Genshiro Kawamoto

Before reading these articles, I had something of an affinity for the Marugen buildings. At night they were iconic, classic symbols of Ginza. Simple. Now, having read about Kawamoto, darkness has lifted. Are they as beautiful now? Of course not. Nothing in Tokyo is beautiful in the light of day.

At least, that’s what the tourists say.

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