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Sanya: A travel guide to Tokyo’s coolest ghetto

24 Comments
By Laura Liverani

“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.

Shopping

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.

Sleeping

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

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24 Comments
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so how do we get there ? just get off at minami-senju ??? does someone have a google maps link or something else ?

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Yes. Don´t expect too much; the writer is dramatizing his story. Fact is, the government has been pouring money into the old burakus, and as a result they don´t look all that different from other low-income and small factory areas around Tokyo.

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Today, Sanya is a depressing landscape of vacant buildings and half empty streets. Still, it’s refreshingly different from the rest of Tokyo.

Poverty and deprivation is soooo refreshing. I think I'll become a homeless drunk.

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Interesting, sure. Different, yes. Coolest? Really? There's nothing in this article that makes it sound like a cool place at all. Unless despair is now cool.

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He was shot dead, but was spared until he finished the movie what is the story behind these film makers why were they shot?

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http://grace.hyperdia.com/cgi-english/hyperWeb.cgi

fagui at 10:21 AM JST - 21st May

so how do we get there ? just get off at minami-senju ??? does someone have a google maps link or something else ?

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So ghettos are now cool?! What was the point of this article?

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This is hardly a "travel guide", since there is no guide given on how to travel there.

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Another good book to read about Sanya and, specifically, the life of a day laborer is A Man with No Talents, by Oyama Shiro. It's written by quite a clever guy who just couldn't stand living the typical salaryman life and so dropped out of society, so to speak, and became a day laborer. I thought it quite insightful and it won some literary prize when it came out.

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The place got the name Sanya from the Sanya-bori canal that flows into the Sumida River, which was filled in long ago. The name Sanya was certainly not "taken away 40 years ago." It can be found on page 142 of the Tokyo Road Map by Jinbunsha (2001 edition), which clearly shows a "Sanya Koban-mae" at an intersection on Yoshino-dori one block south from Meiji-dori.

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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.

It's not a "Buddha statue" it's Jizo (Kṣitigarbha), who was a disciple of Buddha, and functions as a guardian deity for the departed souls. Sheeesh...

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I guess this article is a response to all the fuss over the Google "street view" filming and maps. I'm not sure there is anything interesting to see here. Sounds like a good chance to get hurt. I wonder, is it (more) dangerous there? Probably nothing like Bedford-Sty, but you never know.

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Its wooden walls ooze the smell of Edo low life

there’s not much to do except carrying on drinking cheap booze by the sidewalk.

Smashed vending machines, passed out drunks, vacant shops.

I still don't get the point. Is the author so far removed from any kind of privation that poverty is interesting? The disclaimer at the end does little to dispel the odd tone of the article.

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caticcat:

" Sounds like a good chance to get hurt. "

No. I have walked around there, and did not have the impression it is any more dangerous than other low-income areas around Tokyo (Kawasaki, etc.). Granted, I´d say you would be advised to flash your Gucci handbag on the Ginza and not there, but still, this is Tokyo. If you want to take a look w/o getting off your office chair, just use Google street view.

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Himajin

Agree. This article reads like a satiric travel guide, but ends up as some kind of public service announcement.

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Sanya: A travel guide to Tokyo’s coolest ghetto

I think this is something that JTB should be all over. Start out in local ghettos, and then it's off to Mumbai, Bangkok, Karachi, Flint, MI, and for some "South of the border" flavor, Mexico City!

Perhaps the stupidest headline for a story ever appearing on this web site, which is saying a lot.

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This article is terrible. That is why JT put it on the back burner where it could not be seen anymore.

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Why are you all hating on this article? I found it pretty interesting and a refreshing change from the regurgitated press releases that usually haunt this section.

It's original, interesting, and reasonably balanced for what it's worth.

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It's original, interesting, and reasonably balanced for what it's worth.

Mojibake, I agree with you on all counts. But the writer did a slipshod job of researching historical facts, and unfortunately her version of history might be "original", but it's wrong on practically every count that matters. Outcastes were never called "burakumin" in the Edo period, that's a contemporary term. The "hinin" (correct term) were subcontracted by the city government to perform crucifixions and stake-burnings, but decapitation by sword, the most common form of execution, was done by ronin samurai who had the right to carry a sword, whereas commoners (and naturally hinin) did not.

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I liked this article by Laura Liverani. Sure, there may be some inaccuracies as noted by Japanophiles who have lived here for 1000 years, but it's interesting nonetheless. I know many Japanese who don't even know there are homeless in Japan, so it must be an eye opener for them, not to mention any foreigner who stumbled across this cool ghetto. I will seek it out on my next jaunt to Tokyo and hope to share a dirt cheap cup of sake with the locals.

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A final note: Remember that Sanya is NOT a human zoo...

So basically ignore everything else she said about this "cool" ghetto? Gladly!

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I also found this article about 10 times more interesting than the usual crap on on the newest cool restaurant opened in Akasaka or Omotesando, acoompanied by the aforementioned restaurant's advertisement.

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If you can see through the slightly frayed exterior, have a fertile imagination and know a little of the local history Sanya is a fascinating place. Come over and have a pint, a bite to eat, talk to the locals and make up your own mind. Maybe even stay. Try Hotel New Koyo, Hotel Juyoh, Economy Hotel New Hoteiya, or Tokyo Kangaroo Hotel amongst others. Join us for a tipple at Bar :- http://www.katsunagi.com or Cafe Bar Tepui.

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