“Drivers be careful of pedestrians walking or sleeping in the street.” When you read this notice, you know you have hit the infamous east Tokyo ghetto. Welcome to Sanya, where "pedestrians" sleep drunk in the street.
Sanya is not on maps, nor on tourist guides. Asking for directions doesn’t help much. Try asking if you are already in Sanya; you will get no for an answer. Most locals claim that it’s a little further away from where they live or do business. In the hotel industry, the “north of Asakusa” response is strongly preferred. Minami-Senju on the Hibiya subway line is the closest station.
Sanya officially disappeared around 40 years ago. The district’s name was taken off maps in an effort to lift the image of the area. In fact, Sanya has always been an unholy place, and its name associated to poverty, crime and death.
Today, Sanya is a depressing landscape of vacant buildings and half empty streets. Still, it’s refreshingly different from the rest of Tokyo. Some say there is a sense of community here that is hard to find in other areas. Day workers and homeless, foreign students and no-budget travelers make up the population of this unusual neighborhood.
Sanya is full of ghosts. In Edo times, it was home to the burakumin, the lower caste. They were forced to carry out all those "impure" jobs which the shogunate needed done, but were not allowed to perform themselves because of their Buddhist faith. This meant blood. Of animals -- butchering, skin curing, etc -- but also human blood. Criminals were slaughtered by the burakumin and buried in mass graves. The Buddha statue you can spot from the train approaching Minami-Senju marks the site of the killing fields where more than 200,000 souls rest, probably not in peace. On the opposite side of the station is the Bridge of Tears intersection, Namidabashi. The bridge has gone long ago, but its name is left to remember the sad crossing leading to the execution grounds.
Eating and drinking
In Sanya, there are plenty of cheap eateries: join the laborer crowd at the lively yakitori stands, busy as early as lunchtime, or at one of the ramen shops. Near old Yoshiwara -- Edo’s pleasure district now turned into an impossibly tacky soapland -- there is one of the oldest food establishments in Tokyo; Iseya is a small tempura restaurant that has been there since the 1880s. Its wooden walls ooze the smell of Edo low life and frying sesame oil all at once.
Not surprisingly, the heart of Sanya is a "shotengai." But this is like no other shopping arcade. This is the shopping mall in "Dawn of the Dead" after the zombies ransacked it. Smashed vending machines, passed out drunks, vacant shops. The busiest place is the large liquor store -- if possible, avoid the 350 yen bottle of red wine. Some of the few open shops cater for day workers. Construction gear and clothing, work boots and blankets are a bargain. Sanya is also dotted with leather factories and old shoe shops, a tradition surviving from the Edo custom of animal-skin handling by the burakumin.
Right after the bubble exploded, flophouses offering dorm style accommodation were filled with day workers, who would line up in Sanya streets from dawn to get the occasional job in a construction site. Today most of the crumbling boarding rooms have been transformed into dirt-cheap "doya" or business hotels catering mainly for backpackers. You can find a private room -- or rather a cubicle -- from as little as 1,500 yen per night. Sleeping in the street or in the shotengai is unfortunately not an option for aging laborers, as the day-job market -- partly still controlled by the yakuza, it is said -- is declining.
Entertainment and nightlife
When night falls over Sanya, there’s not much to do except carrying on drinking cheap booze by the sidewalk. There is only one bar open until late, quite popular with foreign travelers procrastinating their way back to their cubicles. Another interesting nightlife spot is the pink five-story karaoke-hotel with Chinese and Korean signs. I never ventured inside but I’m sure it’s full of surprises and unusual characters.
Arts and culture
To know more about Sanya, two classics cannot be missed. "Yama" by Sato and Yamaoka (1986). It took two years and the life of two men to complete this documentary about laborers’ life in Sanya. Freelance filmmaker Michio Sato was stabbed to death by the yakuza after he had started shooting. Then it was the turn of Kyoichi Yamaoka, who had taken up the project after Sato’s death. He was shot dead, but was spared until he finished the movie. Edward Fowler's "Sanya Blues, Laboring life in Contemporary Tokyo," Cornell University Press, is a fascinating and in-depth account of Sanya in the 1990s narrated by a researcher who plunged himself into real ghetto life by becoming a day worker.
A final note: Remember that Sanya is NOT a human zoo. Tomorrow it might be you sleeping and boozing in a street after losing your job. Respect the locals even if they are passed out drunk, don’t take photos as if they were local folklore. If you are really interested in the homeless scene, share a drink and a chat, hear their stories as individuals without patronising. And if you want to help, you can volunteer at Sanyukai, an association based in Sanya since 1984. They offer free counseling, medical treatment and meals.© Japan Today