Monday, August 03, 2015

The Swamp Room in Ginza

   In my life (so far), there has only been one entranceway of one building where - in hot weather - there was a pressure oscillation felt more than heard (indeed, perhaps *only* felt - albeit with the ears), reminiscent of a helicopter's relatively slowly whirling blades.
   The first time I experienced it, I thought "That's odd... I wonder what causes that...", and then I quickly forgot about it (or more accurately, stopped thinking about it) as I got on with my day.  But each time I revisited the building in hot weather, I would again experience the pressure oscillation and so a desire to know the cause grew.
I like to know the *reason* for things (and the source, and/or cause), so the more time passed, the more I wanted to know the cause of that pressure oscillation.  It seemed so strange, and so obvious to me, that I began asking other visitors to the building (that I met while there) if they had also noticed it.  Not a single, solitary soul had, but when I then took people to the most obvious spot (about three or four meters within the entranceway), then some people got a surprised/excited look on their faces and said "Oh yeah!  I see what you mean!", and some said they thought maybe they could barely detect something, but weren't sure, and - at the opposite extreme - some looked at me like I was stark raving mad and said they couldn't detect anything at all.
These reactions poured fuel onto the fires of curiosity and - since many people didn't believe there was anything going on, but I *knew* there was - I ended up with a kind of burning desire to know the reason/cause of the oscillation.
Further fuel for the fires of curiosity was provided by a long-term tenant I regularly meet (POBT - Pressure Oscillation Building Tenant) who told me that their company also rented a basement room in the building and that one of their colleagues claimed there was a door in the back of the room that lead to a mysterious passageway with WW-II blackened walls that they thought might be connected with the subway system!  (About the blackened walls - it appears that the building may have been built on top of the lower concrete foundations of a previous burned out building.)
Hearing that, I got excited just thinking about it and told POBT: "Seriously?!  That's a really amazing thing to hear!  I'd love to see that space!"  POBT laughed (at my mysterious fires of curiosity I suppose) and said it might be possible for me to see it some day.  I responded with a "Please!-Please!-Please!  If there's any way I can see that, I definitely want to!" sort of response and went back to perceiving the pressure oscillation in the summers and forever wondering about it.
Actually, the news of the mysterious passageway made me come to the conclusion that there might really be some kind of connection with the subway, and I imagined the helicopter-like sound/feel was probably generated by the type of large-blade, slowly revolving exhaust fans that are used for forced air ventilation (and/or exhaust) of large structures.  So after several years, I thought about it less, but still stopped in the entranceway to experience it each time I entered that building - and imagined large exhaust fans somewhere underground beating the air.
Fast forward to early 2015.  I walked into a different building and saw my acquaintance from the Pressure Oscillation Building there... and then was shocked to learn that they had moved from the old building to the new location, and that the old building was about to be demolished.  People and companies moving isn't a big deal of course, but I had so associated that particular acquaintance with that one building, that it seemed like some fundamental part of my universe had changed with them being somewhere else.  (Nothing to lose sleep over of course - but just an initial surprise when learning of the change.)
Almost immediately, I got all disappointed and told POBT, "That means I'll never get to see that mysterious passageway!  Ahhhh...!!"  They laughed and said they could still show it to me since they hadn't turned in their keys to the building yet, and - since there were still a couple of hold-out tenants using the building (via different entrances) - demolition work had not yet begun.

POBT: "So I can still show you that space..."
LHS: "Wonderful!  When?"
POBT: "Anytime you like."
LHS: "How about now?"
LHS: "Seriously?"
POBT: "Sure!  It's just down the street and shouldn't take long."
LHS: "Great!  Thank you!-Thank you!-Thank you!!!"

And so we went off to the old building.  I felt a little odd going into the vacated (main) part of the building, but POBT seemed completely at ease - as I suppose they would, having used the space daily for many years.
Reaching the basement room, we were happy to see the electricity hadn't been cut yet, so we still had lights.  My acquaintance crossed the room and opened a door on the far side.  Instantly the room was filled with a motor noise (not with any feeling of pressure oscillation though, but still...).  I squeezed into the narrow passageway and worked my way back as far as I dared in the narrow, dark space, and then reached my camera forward with the flash on to see what was around a corner....
And while there was no evidence of a physical link with the underground train system, there was a large, belt-driven exhaust fan arrangement back there - so maybe (probably) that was the cause of the pressure oscillation I experienced so many times (over several years) on the first floor.  I took a short video of the passageway, that you can see and hear here:

Exhaust Fan Passageway in Old Building

And then, just as I was thinking there wasn't much of anything else to see, my acquaintance looked down at a small, square, under-floor access door and said "I wonder what's under here...".  (Before moving, there had always been something over the access door, so they had never noticed it before.)  POBT raised the cover and exclaimed in surprise 「なにこれ!!」 and stepped back.
I looked into the hole and was similarly surprised to see that nearly the entire space under the floor was water!!!  Old buildings in Japan (1930's, etc.) often had wells in the basement, and I'm pretty sure that's what that was - an overflowing one.  I really wish I had had a couple of flashlights to illuminate that space and get a good look, but taking flash pictures I got the general picture.
Looking through the access hole, I was struck with how the water seemed oily and didn't smell very nice (as the well water in the Okuno Building was after construction began next door...).  So - noticing that there were ventilation tubes in the well space that seemed to connect with the exhaust fan I had just seen, I can only suppose that they converted the well room into a regular room to rent and then had a smell problem (for the entire basement and maybe even the first floor), so they put in that large exhaust fan arrangement to have air constantly drawn into the basement rooms from outside, and then vented outside somewhere (presumably on the roof) via that powerful exhaust fan.
As for the blackened wall and broken concrete (one side only) in the narrow passageway, it does kind of look as though a newer building was built upon the foundations of a previous building.  I'd love to know the precise history of the building (and the ones before it built on that space), but these kinds of things are often simply not recorded very well in Japan, so I may never know.  The only reason I was finally able to pin down the exact construction dates of the Okuno Building was because I had a close look at a very corroded, but still legible metal plate in the building that had the information recorded on it.

This is one of the things about living in Tokyo, where buildings (even very large ones) are quite often torn down after only a few decades - it's quite hard to keep track of what was where, when, and how all the pieces (past and present) of the city fit together in a coherent time-line.
In any case, the Ginza Swamp Room still amazes me when I think about it.  Imagine using a room in a fairly large concrete building for a couple of decades, and then suddenly discovering that it was basically a platform over a swamp of dank water from an overflowing well!  It's not something I would have liked to think about *while* using the space!  I think back to a party I attended in that room now, and don't think I would  have enjoyed the party so much if I had known we were all standing and sitting on a metal platform over a dank and oily swamp!

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

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