hybrid grid urbanism in nihonbashi

Edozu Byobu

Introduction and Methodology

As a person born in the Middle East and educated in North America until moving to Japan a year and a half ago, I have had to detach myself somewhat from my own preconceptions of the “Orient.” The word itself is rather weighty and fraught with the notions of inside and outside, Occidental and Oriental, local and foreigner and many other terms that have their own latent inferences. I like to think of myself as squarely between two worlds, having been brought up partly in “Asia” and in the “West.” I start with this disclaimer because my research, and I think urban historical research by any “outsider looking in,” starts as a search for signs and signifiers, looking for meaning and narrative within cities, architecture, fragments, literature, artworks and other artefacts. Without first delineating the terms of reference, it’s difficult to extricate oneself from one’s own preconceptions and perhaps the study that results would itself be inextricably Orientalist (to use Edward Said’s term) in its disposition.

When I first started to study Tokyo four years ago I found a quote from the philosopher Roland Barthes who had visited Japan and collected his observations in “The Empire of Signs.” He described Tokyo as a place without a centre, a void which displaced meaning and left a certain vagueness within what should have been the genius loci. Barthes struck upon an aspect of Japanese culture and urbanism which I found intriguing precisely because it deflected an immediate or facile reading and perhaps suggested something much more complex at work. After coming to Japan I realized that the culture, language, cuisine, and many other aspects offer the same type of indistinctness which is both engaging and confusing at times.

While Barthes was an intriguing entry into Japan, I now think that it’s dangerous to take his structuralist system of signifiers and employ it as a kind of endgame. His signs are eminently detachable, giving more weight to the “wrapper” or an exterior reading which may be useful as an initial approach, but unfortunately the sign doesn’t extend to a study of the subject or the observer (the manipulator of the sign). My sense is that the sign as a detached concept can lead to an Orientalist perspective that simply reads the surface for information, a very convenient tactic given that the wrapper is so well articulated in the Japanese context. Whether it is cities, architecture, pottery, clothing or food, the visual surface is given a great deal of attention in its making and presentation, the wrapper itself deflecting a closer reading.

In referring to Bunraku (puppet theatre), Barthes refers to the puppeteer’s exposed, “civic” face, as signifying “exemption form meaning.” He divorces the manipulator and reduces the performance to that of a prop in a kind of perverse reversal while quoting Basho:

“The master controls the top of the doll and its right arm; his face uncovered, sleek, bright, impassive, cold like “a white onion that has just been washed.” His assistants are in black, a piece of cloth hiding their faces.

In order to carefully strip away the exterior wrapper, Said’s Orientalism and Culture and Empire have been instrumental. Rather than to essentialize by focusing on representation, a comprehensive reading must include self-critique of Euro-centricism, imperialism (which in the Japanese context perhaps a bi-fold ramification) and perhaps more importantly, a critique of the manipulator.

In reading Tokyo, I have kept this methodology as a filter by which to critically approach a reading of a city to understand both the signifiers and the manipulators while also maintaining a healthy degree of self-critique.

Looking back: The History of Nihonbashi

The history of the development of Tokyo begins in the political and economic center of the city, Edobashi (now known as Nihonbashi). The point from which all distances in Japan are measured is a bridge first built more than 400 years ago in the Edo period, and then rebuilt again in the Meiji period just over a 100 years ago (on Oct. 30th, 2011, Nihonbashi celebrated it’s centenary). It’s an important moment in the history of the area with approximately 50 years passing since the bridge and it’s namesake river were covered over with an elevated expressway, destroying a once water-oriented culture. While the bridge itself is the symbol of an era when Western concepts were flooding into Japan, the construction of this bridge also harkens back to the location of the centre of commerce in the merchant quarter of Edo. It was once the centre of a thriving community whose imprint is still felt today, the structure of the city still corresponding to it’s original grid form, and the centre of commercial power in Tokyo still arguably located only a few blocks away. The urban form has managed to be resilient to a conflagration, a catastrophic earthquake, firebombing, waves of development and the introduction of massively-scaled infrastructure. As a new wave of re-development is on the horizon, it’s an important moment to look back and forward into the future to ensure that the Nihonbashi area maintains a link to its rich history and conversely an opportunity to correct some of the mistakes of the recent past.

The purpose of this study is to analyze the grid in its varied forms during the Edo period, especially in the Nihonbashi area, to determine how it has been re-appropriated (whether for economic or political reasons) and to uncover the signification of the grid as a reflection of the the power of the Tokugawa regime. While the study is historical in its breadth, there is also an intention to link it with current conditions and the implications of power and control over urban projects. As bookends to the evolution of Tokyo, the Edo period and current situation highlight the use of the grid as an all-encompassing matrix which facilitates ownership, power, and control over territory. This control extends to the flow of people, goods, information and nature; it determines and locates activities within its seemingly limitless capacity to expand its territory.

While there are negative aspects to the implementation of the grid, as will be explored through history, it has also formed the loci of vibrant and democratic culture beginning with the Chonin of the Shitamachi Low City. The grid in its capacity to accommodate many different functions simultaneously, also facilitated the development of an initially tentative resistance to compete for control with the Tokugawa shogunate. It also can be said to have developed the earliest forms of public space both within the grid and where the grid met the landscape. The typology of spaces for control and resistance will be catalogued in this study and linked to their analogous spaces in modern Tokyo.

Historical Context of Nihonbashi

In the larger scheme, the construction of the Nihonbashi bridge also connected the Tokaido highway with the Nikko Kaido, thus linking the old capital, Heiyan-kyo (Kyoto), with the newly relocated capital in Edo, and further on to the north-east with the Tosho-gu at Nikko. This axis of the Tokaido and Nikko Kaido were the backbone of the Tokugawa shogunate, their linkage facilitated the shift of the seat of power to the new capital and controlled the movement of goods and people between the major urban centres of Japan. Just as in ancient Rome, the development of road and highway networks represented the imprint of power on the landscape, similar to the effect of the Centurian grid which we see in the Roman empire.

The location of the Tokaido was strategic and defensive within Tokyo, and rather than allow it to simply travel directly to the front gate of Edo Castle, the highway by-passed the castle, skirting it and instead passing through the Shitamachi (Low-City) district of Edo along four significant bridges, Shinbashi, Kyobash, Nakabashi and Nihonbashi. The spiralling canals radiating out from Edo castle combined with the sheer density of the Shitamachi and the indirect access via the Tokaido together comprised formidable defensive measures. The relocation of the seat of power to Edo in 1603 marked a century of war which gave the construction of bridges an even greater significance. Crossing a bridge in Buddhist philosophy signify’s reaching enlightenment and also facilitates life. The bridges marked a symbolic end to the conflict, and a shift to a market-based economy, within which Edobashi began to wrestle control away from Tokugawa.

Urban Form

Oriented grids followed the lay of the land in the Low City, adjusting to landscape features such as canals, rivers and ridges. In order to pay due homage and deference to the centre of power in Edo, the grids also aligned to the castle gates (see Figure 1), but rather than provide for a ceremonial route for intruders and residents alike, the streets were shifted laterally off-axis. This configuration fell in line with the intent to obfuscate direct routes to the seat of power, with the spiralling canals of the castle providing another layer of defence. In general terms, a clear and navigable system of grids in Tokyo would have been indefensible, especially considering the century of conflict that preceded Tokugawa’s reign.

One of the enduring characteristics of Nihonbashi is its grid form which coincided with the founding of Edo in 1603 by Tokugawa Ieyasu. The relocation of the capital from Heiyan-kyo (modern-day Kyoto) brought with it the need to house both the ruling class and the supporting commoner population in a highly manipulated and surveyed configuration. The settlement patterns found today correspond with the Low-City or Shitamachi areas, inscribed in a patchwork formation of oriented grids rotating around two nodes: the former Edo castle (now the Imperial Palace) and the Nihonbashi bridge. This pattern can be said to have its origins in three historical urban and agricultural morphological typologies, the agricultural form of the rice paddy (perhaps the most ancient of these three), the Jōkamachi (castle town) form, and the Imperial City form which can be traced to the Imperial capitals (Heiyan-kyo, Heijyo-kyo etc.) and Tang city planning in ancient China. These three typological forms overlap in Edo to form a kind of hybrid, patchwork grid that orients itself to both the castle gateways and the locus of the Shitamachi at Nihonbashi Bridge.

The fact that the grids are oriented in two directions speaks to a paradigm shift which was occurring politically and economically in Edo at the time. To understand this, the hierarchical system of power at the time needs to be considered: The Tokugawa regime brought under strict control the movement of people and goods, prescribing everything from the location of residence within Edo in relation to Edo castle to when subjects were allowed to enter or leave the city. Permission had to be granted for any excursions which were outside of what was officially decreed and even within the city, movement was a highly surveyed and controlled affair, gateways and guards posted at each bridge and at intersections outside each Chō (neighbourhood). The ubiquitous Koban or police box within modern Tokyo has it’s lineage reaching back to the Orweillan surveillance which was a fact of life in the Edo period.

The Sankin Kotai system of alternate-year residence within Edo is also part of a larger system of control imposed on the populace. This system required the class of daimyo (land-owning feudal lords) to maintain residences both in their feudal region and with Edo and shuttle between the two every other year. The system also prevented the wife and heirs of the daimyo from leaving Edo, having being held in a kind of hostage-like situation under the watchful eye of the shogunate. Daimyo residences were spread into the hilly Yamanote district, following the lay of the topography and radiating out from the castle in relation to their status. This comparatively organic layout has led to the rather informal and labyrinthine structure of streets and residences which comprise the High City district which encircles the Imperial Palace to the north and west.

“The irregularly patterned western part of Edo consisted of daimyo residences, ordinary samurai quarters and dotted machiya of small sizes – the result of feudal planning of this great jokamachi (castle town). The convoluted pattern of streets was intended to lead enemies into a maze of irregular, narrow alleys and lanes similar to the labyrinthine towns of the Middle East. Uneven geometric relief in landforms served a similar purpose with an uphill, down-dale road network. Roads with straight stretches of more than 500m were carefully avoided even on flat lands, where it was physically possible to lay out long straight roads. On uplands, even planned grids had slightly curved roads to lower visibility.”

While Edo had a castle at its heart, the surrounding plebian city was composed of a mosaic of grids, each of which were surrounded by gates and guardhouses separating each residential neighbourhood, which were closed at night and guarded by residents on a rotation basis (Kato 1994: 47). The gridded chō in Edo were comprised of about 1,700 districts in 13 square kilometres in the late 18th Century, with a population of about half a million inhabitants. The city was highly stratified, with each class segment relegated to a different part of the city:

“The seat of the daimyo, the new feudal lord, these towns, among them Edo, Osaka, Tokashima, Kochi and Kumamoto, were focused upon the castle. Ranged around the keep, within the security of the main rampart and the inner moat, were the high officials. The second belt, for vassals, was unprotected, except perhaps by an outer moat and sometimes an earthen barricade. At the edge of this belt lay a ring of temples and shrines; this formed a circuit of first defence controlling the main roads and the points of access into the city. Between the two belts of vassals resided the daimyo’s privileged merchants and artisans.” (Kostof, p. 179)

Initially, grids were laid out in Edo for residential areas in the Low City to accommodate the burgeoning Commoner population. The grids themselves were laid out by appointed community leaders rather than directly by the Bakufu, who simply allocated land. There are several examples of oriented grids (see Figures 2 & 3), all of which maintained stringent regulatory frameworks which entailed delineating squares of 60 ken to a side (about 109m or 360 ft, one ken being 6ft or 1.818m). This standard can be seen employed both in a rural and urban context, and can still be seen as the underlying structure of the city block, also known as the chō. These blocks were further subdivided into 12 sections (tan) of 10 x 30 ken in rural areas and the hatamoto (samurai in direct service to the Tokugawa shogunate) districts. Shitamachi areas were divided into tighter quarters of 10 x 20 ken with a central court (kaishochi).

A good example of this typology is the Honcho area of Tokyo, which corresponded to the Kyoto standard, with all four sides of the chō surrounded by townhouses and a central open space used for latrines, a well for the neighbourhood, garbage facilities, a local shrine and other general common uses. Also based on the Kyoto standard were the roads surrounding this are in Honcho, which included Honchodori Avenue, Torichosuji (modern Nihonbashi Avenue) at six jo (approx. 18.2m), with smaller perpendicular streets at four jō (approx. 12.1m), three jō (approx. 9.1m), or two jō (approx. 6.1m). (Naito: p. 28) Due to the increasing demands on space with rapid population growth, central Edo was built up to such an extent that narrow streets (shinmichi) were extended into these blocks and the open spaces filled in with structures.

This standard measurement was borrowed from urban planning implemented in Nara and Kyoto, which was by extension, borrowed from the ancient Chinese capital, Chang’an  (modern day Xi’an) in the 8th Century. While in the Chinese and Kyoto / Nara context, the lay of the land offered an almost infinitely expandable grid, Edo-Tokyo was hemmed in by the Yamanote’s seven hills and five valleys. The road network there follows the ridge lines (including modern day Hongo-dori or Aoyama-dori), with minor roads running through the valleys towards the Imperial Palace.

The area known for it’s gridded form in the Low City was focused on Nihonbashi (see Figures 6 & 7), which comprised about 30 percent of the total area of Edo. The area has the most regular series of grids in the city, with canals and rivers running through the area and forming the backbone of trade. At that time, the city had little space for continued growth as it was surrounded by the Sumida River, samurai districts and the castle itself. Fallow lands lay on the other side of the river, eventually to be reclaimed by the more informally built-up district of Kyojima in post-war Tokyo.

There is a finer grain of the Hatamoto (lower ranking samurai who were direct vassals to the Shogun) were also housed in a Shitamachi-like configuration of residences known as Nagaya, but with larger properties. These isolated fragments of grids were spread among the larger daimyo estates, which were established earlier as country retreats.

Modern Tokyo is a chaotic ensemble of city districts, each seemingly independent but forming the incoherent whole which has been termed the “mosaic city and a collage city” (Hidenobu, p. 7). The city has synthesized and hybridized into an urban entity that is less dependent on form than on content. There are very few images of the city that effectively convey the vastness or complexity, mostly focus on the Imperial Palace grounds with the jumble of tall buildings amidst a carpet of low-rise edifices surrounding it. Despite this visually disconcerting image, it is clear from the city’s history and persisting underlying framework that the hidden order of Edo-Tokyo still maintains a strong influence.

“In short, we can say that the overall structure of the contemporary city is probably the result of a multifaceted and unique process of hybridization between the ancient structure of old Edo and the careless importation of modern Western teachings. Such a process has produced ambiguous “innovation” that is hard to identify, disquieting and disagreeable in many ways, but that is undoubtedly also fascinating, fluid and easily adaptable. “And the reason why Tokyo is so extensive is that it has never had a plan, a centre or visible order. The result is that Tokyo is ‘used’ today just as it was in the past.” (Arata Isozaki quoted in Sacchi, p. 97)

 “Tokyo, is a place-by-place place—how each location relates to the last remains obscure. Lacking vistas and grand plans, you have no sense of travel between points: rather, you leave an experience and start another somewhere else. The intervening motion is out of place and time.” (Thackera, 1989, p. 66)

In the formative years of Edo’s development, when city planners began to divide the city into districts, there was not an explicit sectioning based on the jōbō system which was instituted in Kyoto and Nara (Hidenobu, p. 120). The principles of this system oriented the north-south and east-west axes and aligned these with the four protective gods (Black Turtle to the north, Blue Dragon to the east, Crimson Phoenix to the south, and White Tiger to the west) – this alignment was derived from Japanese geomancy which has its origins in the cosmology of the Han-dynasty (A.D. 206 – 220) of China. Harmonizing the opposing forces of Yin and Yang (on and yo in Japanese) by balancing voids and fluids with masses and solids was applied at the scale of gardens and cities, especially during the Heian-period. Edo-Tokyo was planned quite differently because the topography was appreciably more complex as compared to the rather flat and expansive plain upon which Kyoto was built. A large number of streams and rivers emptied into the port of Edo which necessitated further negotiation and adjustment, resulting in a number of oriented grids. In the High City, the grid was especially warped because of the undulating hills and valleys, while in the Low City, the extensive canals and island formations required corresponding alignments.

Despite the organic nature of planning required by the shifting topography, land allotments and major thoroughfares were aligned to the symbolic reference of Mount Fuji. This is especially true in the Low City where more regular contours of the landscape allowed for a decisive implementation of the gird with framed views to the mountainous context.

As Edobashi grew and became denser, with housing fitted into every available open space in between the daimyo estates and cheek by jowl with the Edo castle, fires became an every increasing threat. In reaction to the fires of 1657, which destroyed most of Edobashi, the shogunate decided to expropriate portions of two neighborhoods, Yokkaichi-cho and Zaimoku-cho to create a firebreak known as goyochi hiyokechi. A embankment on the southern side of the Nihonbashi river was built at nearly 8 metres tall creating one of the first major barriers to the riverside (McCain p. 112). In the following years, despite the decree from the shogun to keep the area clear, seasonal stalls were set up and eventually more permanent structures were built within the firebreak area. Part of the dilemma was the high cost of maintaining the open space with guardhouses and guards to patrol the area, and eventually the additional income from leasing out spaces for seasonal shops became too tempting.

While these shops were technically illegal, the appointed neighbourhood officials turned a blind eye until their illicit activities were discovered by the shogun. Investigations and explanations followed, and in the negotiations it the shops were allowed to stay as long as they were maintained as temporary stalls (tokomise). Approximately 52 of these types of stalls existed at that time, growing to about 100 stalls by the eighteenth century as costs increased. The shogun was renegotiated with and in the end a compromise was struck and 71 stall were allowed to remain. The boundaries of Edobashi were constantly in flux due to the the insistence of community leaders, a reflection of the increasing power of the merchant class which was getting wealthier and wielding more influence as the ruling class’ power diminished. While the merchants were considered lowest in the social strata of Edo, ironically they were beginning to be regarded as an important community.

Eventually, two types fire abatement spaces were prescribed by the shogun and administered by local community groups, hiyokechi (fire prevention land) and hirokoji (widened streets) (p. 118-9). These two types of spaces added to the available public space around areas like the approaches to the Ryogoku and Eitai bridges, and areas like Atago Shita and Shiba Akabane near the Zojoji temple, whose streets were lined with shops giving it a bustling and lively atmosphere. Rather than simply a utilitarian space, the fire prevention areas began to gain prominence as major commercial spaces within Edobashi. Major public spaces were developed especially at the approaches to bridges and at intersections where streets were expanded for fire protection.

The grid of Nihonbashi was not substantially altered despite the re-negotiation of space, rather the streets were widened and some areas cleared to further reinforce the grid form. Since the grid was serving both the interests of the shogun as an enforceable and regulated space and from the perspective of the chonin as a viable mercantile quarter, the urban form persisted in the form that it is today. The ability of the grid to respond to multiple interests and be malleable enough to resist the expansion and contraction due to the  intrusions of temporary stalls, has allowed for it to be re-adapted and still readable despite modifications.

Another facet of the flexibility of the grid form was the transformation of many hirokoji into sakariba (bustling places), or amusement centres filled with performers, prostitutes, and other low-brow, popular entertainments for the masses. The essence of Shitamachi which authors like Nagai Kafu and Edward Siedensticker bemoan the loss of in a modernizing Tokyo were born within these spaces and allowed to flourish. The sakariba were spaces from which to view the changing seasons, enjoy performances, eat, drink and most importantly get a sense of freedom from the restrictions imposed by the shogunate. The sakaribas were expansive and a complete change from the dense housing circumstances where even the interior courtyard blocks were filled in to accommodate the burgeoning population of Edobashi.

The canals themselves were an extension of open space, used not just as a method of transportation but also for repose and an annex for the amusement spaces developing in the former fire prevention areas. They corresponded to the grid structure of the cho, interlaced to serve the brisk trade in Edobashi but again re-appropriated for leisure activities in a space separated from the regular comings and goings of the neighbourhood. Amusements tended to take the form of ephemeral entertainments which could come and go depending on the season or particular rhythms of the district. Due to their nature as temporary entertainments, they could easily evaporate and again manifest themselves at the appropriate time. More permanent structures sanctioned by the shogun also developed along the water, including shrines and temples. Water had a particular significance being connected to the afterlife. Since these spaces were not tightly regulated, areas for more illicit or vulgar entertainments developed in their vicinity.

While the more organic form of water and the grid may seem at odds with each other, these two types of spaces intermingled to create a rich set of public space typologies. Within this context developed the culture of the Shitamachi, including performance art like Kabuki. Christopher Alexander speaks about this seeming incompatibility in the modern city:

‘Consider, for example, the running water: the brooks and streams. Today they are paved over and forced underground. Instead of building with them, and alongside them, planners simply get them out of the way, as if to say: “the vagaries of nature have no place in a rational street grid.” But we can build in ways which maintain contact with water, in ponds and pools, in reservoirs, and in brooks and streams. We can even build details that connect people with the collection and run-off of rain water’ (Alexander, p. 324-5).

Perhaps the intermingling spaces of Edobashi / Nihonbashi need to be reconsidered given the modern circumstances of Nihonbashigawa as a river covered with an expressway. This district was once the centre of a thriving community whose imprint is still felt today, the structure of the city still corresponding to it’s original grid form, and the centre of commercial power in Tokyo still arguably located only a few blocks away (especially true now as redevelopment plans by developers hope to shift the center of power away from Western Tokyo back to the historic center). The urban form has managed to be resilient to a conflagration, a catastrophic earthquake, firebombing, waves of development and the introduction of massively-scaled infrastructure. As a new wave of re-development is on the horizon, it’s an important moment to look back and forward into the future to ensure that the Nihonbashi area maintains a link to its rich history and conversely an opportunity to correct some of the mistakes of the recent past.

Bibliography

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Illustrations

Edozu Byobu. Pair of six-fold screens. Detail of right screen showing Nihonbashi Bridge (National Museum of Japanese History, Sakura)

Copyright © 2012 Shabbar Sagarwala, All Rights Reserved. Any unauthorised commercial reproduction or distribution in part or in full will constitute an infringement of copyright. Permission granted to reproduce for educational use only.

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