Things to do in Shibuya – explore the “pencil buildings”!

Why is it impossible to get bored in Shibuya?

The answer is “pencil buildings”!

What is a pencil building?

For those of you who have never been to Japan, a pencil building is exactly what the name suggests; a building that is so thin that the shape looks like a pencil, balancing on its head.

Pencil buildings can be found in any urban area of Japan, especially in the old parts of town, that modern urban planning has not yet extended its claws into.

Shibuya, this crazy city within a city, has over two million people using its train station every day! It also has one of the most impressive collections of pencil buildings in Japan still remaining. This, in spite of all the developments that are in progress around the station area, slated to be completed in 2027 (if ever…).

Deep and narrow

The typical pencil building has a narrow street front of only a few meters, and is often quite deep. It usually has as many floors as regulations allow, often at least four, and sometimes a couple of basements. The basements are like dark dungeons…meant in a positive way! They are of course devoid of windows, but still have a lot of charm. Some of them are even cozy. No place to hang out if you’re afraid of fires and earthquakes, though!

Since there is a need to have access to each floor through a staircase or elevator (if you’re lucky!), a lot of area is “lost”. In reality, the usable space on each floor often ends up being something that resembles a corridor. Foreign visitors that I take around Tokyo’s commercial areas for my business, often ask me why so many bars and restaurants are shaped like the inside of a train, and the answer often boils down to that many of them are located inside pencil buildings.

Why do pencil buildings even exist?

It simply relates to the deep and narrow shape of the plot of land that they stand on. According to my local friends in the real estate industry, when property is the subject of inheritance, splitting the land between siblings, instead of joint ownership, has been a common practice, giving rise to these thin “slices” of land next to each other.

Apparently, in the old days, tax used to be levied partly based on the width of the street front of each building. This also made it ideal for store owners to have a narrow front to minimize tax. To get the space they needed, they would instead expand their shop in the back.

The narrow shape also allowed for many different businesses to get a presence along the most attractive streets, making life more convenient for shoppers to find what they were looking for, all on the same street.

Why are pencil buildings so exciting?

It comes down to plain mathematics. Take a row of let’s say five pencil buildings standing next to each other, which is not uncommon for some of the narrow alleys in Shibuya. Suddenly you have a cluster of probably thirty bars and restaurants in one place, just waiting for you to explore!

The great thing is that, thanks to the “invisible hand of competition”, they all have their own specific niche. This is true not only for the menu, but also of course the interior design. Bar-hopping becomes like space-traveling from one micro-cosmos to another, each inhabited by different breeds of aliens (well, people)!

Also, places that might not be so popular, quickly end up in the graveyard of failed businesses. A few weeks later, you’ll find that they’ve already been replaced by new contenders, and the cluster keeps reinventing itself to stay fresh and interesting.

Amazing variety

I could probably spend the rest of my life in Shibuya, and never end up in the same place twice! In fact, I can almost count the number of restaurants and bars I’ve been to more than once, on the fingers of my hands! What’s the point of repeats, when you can try something new?

Most of these bars and restaurants have space for usually less than twenty customers. If you’re lucky, you might come across places that have no tables at all! When you enter, you’ll find only a single bar counter, of course equipped with a compact kitchen. It’s just like a cozy dinner at home with some good friends, with your own chef!

I love pencil buildings, and I’m on a constant quest to explore ones that I might have missed. It’s a race against time though, before the bulldozers of modernity razor them all away. If anyone has come across any great pencil buildings in Tokyo, please let me know!

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