The inspiration people seek: Tokyo is a giant metropolis made up of a number of diverse “micro-cities.” There’s an image that pops into people’s minds for each one - a “face of the city,” that people see depending on where they come from, where they live, their age, occupation and what brings them there. Among these micro-cities, Shibuya may be the one that attracts the most differing answers from people for what this “face” is. Try asking people at Shibuya Station what kind of town Shibuya is. The answers you get are likely to be as diverse as the maze of avenues and back streets that fan out and climb uphill away from the station like a spider web.
You can expect many of the younger generation to answer that Shibuya is all about youth fashion and the gyaru culture centered around the boutiques of Ichi-maru-kyu, and you can most likely tell from the way they answer whether or not they like or dislike them. For the majority of the generation that spent their university years in the Tokyo area during the “bubble economy” years of the 80s, Shibuya probably still carries the image of the cool place to come for young culture, be it fashion, music, books, films, theater or cuisine, with the PARCO department store at the epicenter. But the next older generation and people who live in the direction of Yokohama may retort with “that’s not the real Shibuya.”
They come to Shibuya via Tokyu’s Toyoko Line trains, and the appeal of the area for them is closely tied to the “Tokyu” name; from its department stores to the east and west of the station and the Tokyu Bunka Kaikan culture center that used to house a planetarium (where the Shibuya Hikarie high-rise is located today) to the now internationally known Tokyu Hands variety and DIY homemaking store.
Thus, you can’t easily describe what “Shibuya” is. The image held of the Maruyamacho area also differs greatly by generation and individual interests; as soon as you leave its iconic commercial districts, there are quiet streets lined with luxury homes; and there are many who love nothing more than the warm atmosphere of the small drinking and eating establishments in the alleyways of Nombei Yokocho. While it’s not an overstatement to say Shibuya is simply a swath of hills, it’s better described as a “mixing bowl” where various cultures and traditions coexist. This image, or “face of Shibuya,” is one not all will agree with, but nobody will deny either.
In short: As the ya in its name indicates, Tokyo’s famous Shibuya district is spread across a bowl-shaped valley. Owing to this topography, Shibuya is also defined by the shopping and entertainment areas new and old that line avenues like Dogen-zaka and Miyamasu-zaka and numerous other streets large and small that climb the slopes out of the valley like spokes of a wheel.
At the center of the valley is the Shibuya River, which today is little more than a drainage conduit, and the ever-so-busy Shibuya Station, one of the biggest terminal hubs in Tokyo. A total of nine railway and subway lines (the JR Yamanote, Saikyo and Shonan-Shinjuku lines, the Tokyo Metro’s Ginza, Hanzomon and Fukutoshin lines, Tokyu’s Toyoko and Denentoshi lines and the Keio Inokashira Line) converge at the “bottom of the valley.” Due to this unique convergence, the Ginza Subway Line, which is Tokyo’s oldest and the only one in the Far East when it opened, comes in at the 3rd-floor level of Shibuya Station. Four major road arteries also converge at the “bottom of the valley:” R246, Route 3 of the Shutoko metropolitan expressway and the Roppongi-dori and Meiji-dori avenues.
This great confluence has made Shibuya another city center that has witnessed amazing changes since the time of the Tokyo Olympics in the mid-1960s and Japan’s ensuing economic growth.
Some background: Despite the topographical coincidence, Shibuya is said to have gotten its name from a military commander of the Taira Clan who lived over 800 years ago and had the surname Shibuya. Around that time, and soon after with the establishment of Japan’s first military shogunate regime in Kamakura in 1192, the Shibuya area was already a place of strategic importance as the meeting point of the Kamakura Kaido highroad connecting Kamakura and Omiya, and the Oyama Kaido that is the predecessor of today’s R246. A constant flow of goods and people was present hundreds of years before the first Tokugawa Shogun moved his home castle to Edo, making it the true “capital” of old Japan. In other words, when it comes to streets bustling with traffic, i.e. people and horses, Shibuya has a much longer history than even Edo (today’s central Tokyo).
In the Edo Period, Shibuya was on the outskirts of Edo proper, and at the time the Miyamasu-zaka road sloping down to the Shibuya River was also known as Fujimi-zaka (hill with a view of Mt. Fuji) and it was lined with tea houses and drinking establishments catering to the travelers going west on the Oyama Kaido highroad. Crossing the river and climbing the Dogen-zaka road out of the far side of the valley brought travelers to the Koubouyu hot springs where people could soak in the soothing waters, and the nearby falconry grounds of the Shoguns.
After the Meiji Restoration (1868), Shibuya developed as a residential area—and the stage for the “Faithful Dog Hachiko” story—and the area around the station grew into a busy commercial and entertainment district. With the Tokyo Olympics (1964), the period of rapid economic growth that followed and the completion of the major roads mentioned earlier, Shibuya began to change again. By the 1970s, the perception of Shibuya as a “playground for adults,” characterized by the geisha houses and red-light district of Maruyamacho, had faded, and the area had become a center of booming “youth culture” like Harajuku. With completion targeted for 2026, large-scale re-development of the area around Shibuya Station has begun, and the resulting high-rise buildings that will dot the landscape will put yet another new face on the “topography” of the valley.