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Reference:    BBC NEWS | Asia-Pcific | Japan's 101-year-old bar maid  
Thursday, 29 May, 2003, 14:31 GMT 15:31 UK

Ginza denizens fight to preserve glory in face of commercialism

June 8, 2001

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Japan Times

Tokyo's Ginza district may have lost some of its past glory but several elderly people there are working to ensure that it remains a showcase of bustling Tokyo.

Ginza, stretching about 600 meters east to west and about 1.1 km north to south, was for long -- and still is to some degree -- considered a symbol of Japan's prosperity. A pace setter in upscale fashion boasting top-class bars and night clubs, the district is also home to about 4,000 restaurants.

But its streets have changed in the nearly 10 years since the collapse of the asset-inflated bubble economy, with some of the long-established shops giving way to the advance of foreign stores and fast-food chains.

Senbikiya, a high-class fruit shop that closed 18 months ago, folded partly because its expensive melons had lost their image as a luxurious gift item.

However, some locals, including Hideko Arima, 99, are holding down the fort. She runs Gilbey, a decades-old bar in the Ginza Corridor. On her 99th birthday on May 15, a number of regulars came to the watering hole to present her with bouquets.

Wearing a black blouse sprinkled with spangles, she chatted with each customer in the converted wooden residence, a structure dating back to before the war. "I learned more than I would have learned in graduate school just listening to what my customers talked about," said Arima, who was born in Tokyo's Asakusa district in 1902.

Arima began managing the bar in 1948, when she gave up her life as the wife of a salary earner "to do something."

Among her steady customers have been a number of prominent figures, including conservative political heavyweight Ichiro Kono, influential business leader Shigeo Nagano and novelist Shusaku Endo.

Arima's husband died 40 years ago, and their only son passed away 15 years ago. But she still has three grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

In her autobiography published several years ago, Arima said, "My first and foremost wish is to stay healthy and work until 'that one day comes.' "

Ichiro Sekiguchi, 87, is the owner of the coffee shop Cafe de l'ambre on Mikado Street.

Using a machine he designed himself, Sekiguchi roasts coffee beans every day in his shop on the ground floor of a small building tucked away in an alley. He opened the shop in 1946, the year he returned home from disbanded military service.

"(Some people say) coffee is not good for your health but take a look at me. I have been drinking more than 30 times as much coffee as the ordinary coffee drinker," said Sekiguchi, a born-and-bred Tokyoite who takes pride in the Ginza.

He said, however, that the taste of coffee has been deteriorating since the 1960s due to the decline in the quality of coffee beans, explaining that the spread of instant coffee required quantity rather than quality.

Yasuo Chiba, 62, has been baking sweet buns for 40 years at Kimuraya, Japan's first bakery, founded in 1869. Regarded as one of only a few people who can judge the state of dough fermentation by merely touching it, Chiba was asked to stay on after reaching retirement age.

Takeyuki Kikukawa, 56, has spent 41 years working at Shiseido Parlour, which got its first face lift in four years in March. Although a plate of beef curry costs 3,000 yen at the parlor, reservations are still necessary because of its popularity.

"Ordinary people's yearning was to dress up, go to Ginza and eat at the parlor," said Kikukawa, who was hired when he was 15. "I've learned everything from the Ginza, including how to be properly attired and personal enrichment."

Around noon, office workers start lining up outside New Castle, a curry-and-rice restaurant that stands out among the tall buildings of the Ginza with its conspicuous tin roof.

For less than 1,000 yen, the restaurant offers customers curry and rice plus a cup of coffee.

Hiroji Miyata, 59, who now runs the restaurant that his father-in-law opened shortly after the war, said, "We are able to operate the restaurant for that kind of price because ours is a small restaurant run by family members."

The vegetable-and-fruit curry is popular with women.

The word "ginza" has long been synonymous with shopping districts in Japan. The district officially took the name Ginza in 1869. There were once 600 ginzas across the country, but the number has dropped to about 300 as the name was replaced by other words, including "plaza."

Newly emerging popular stores such as Uniqlo, run by Fast Retailing Co., have recently marched into the Ginza hawking their low-priced apparel.

"Those who do business in the Ginza are making all-out efforts to stay alive," said Yuji Ishimaru, 65, of the Ginza Street Association.

"Surprisingly, there are not many who are particular about (Ginza's) history and old things. What makes the Ginza what it is now is the outcome of intense competition."

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The Japan Times: June 8, 2001
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