Microculture: Electric Avenue in Shibuya, Tokyo

Elana Varon

Daily, thousands of pedestrians scramble through Shibuya Crossing—purportedly the busiest intersection in the world—en route to the office, shopping, noodles, or the country’s most popular Shinto shrine. Crushes of people all vie for a piece of this electric neighborhood.

Digital entrepreneurs included.

The unofficial startup and technology center of the world’s largest city, “Shibuya has colloquially been known as Bit Valley since the late 1990s,” explains Riku Iwanaga, associate at East Ventures, an early stage seed capital firm. “Today the tradition lives on,” he says.

Glowing video signage and crowds everywhere draw comparisons to New York’s Times Square—minus the grime, chain restaurants, tourists, and shops trying to make money from tourists.

According to researchers at Stanford University, Shibuya is one of three main clusters of startup activity in Tokyo. Tokyo’s excellent, always-on-time, world-renowned public transportation puts nearly every neighborhood within 15 to 20 minutes of each other, researchers note, making it easy for entrepreneurs and funders to connect. The emerging firms dotting the upscale Roppongi area include Mercari, an eBay-like online marketplace dubbed Japan’s “first unicorn startup” by TechCrunch. The Ometachi district, a financial center, is home to a concentration of venture capital firms.

Tech in Asia Conference, Source: Tech in Asia

Trendy Shibuya hosts a mix of startups, venture firms, incubators, and accelerators, including Open Network Lab, one of Japan’s first seed accelerators, and COLOPL NEXT, which recently launched a US$50 million fund to invest in virtual reality equipment, content, and distribution. Tech in Asia, a media, events, and jobs platform for startups, held its Tokyo event in Shibuya in September.

The district has been the launching pad for some well-funded startups. One of Open Network Lab’s early ventures, Fond, a platform for managing employee rewards and perks, has raised $25.8 million and moved its headquarters to San Francisco this year.

In addition, SmartNews, a news aggregator that uses machine learning to curate users’ feeds without input from social networks or human editors, has obtained $88 million in funding since 2013. Campfire, a fast-growing crowdfunding site located a block from the Tokyo Shibuya rail station, recently received a $5.5 million investment to launch a cryptocurrency exchange and a peer-to-peer payment platform (East Ventures is a backer).

A walk through Shibuya reveals the district’s eclectic energy. As with most of Tokyo, the streets are clean to the point of looking new. Glowing video signage and crowds everywhere draw comparisons to New York’s Times Square—minus the grime, chain restaurants, tourists, and shops trying to make money from tourists.

Meiji Jingu Shrine, Source: Temple Japan

An excess of vending machines sells everything from beer and corn chowder to anime figurines and umbrellas. Loud pachinko arcades—featuring a gambling game that resembles a cross between slots and pinball—dot the sidewalks.

Not far from Shibuya’s center, you’ll find Meiji Jingu Shrine within the peaceful and largely forested Yoyogi Park. Here everyone, from locals to tourists, business travelers, and visiting dignitaries, pays their respects to the deified spirits of the shrine’s namesake emperor and his wife and takes refuge from the surrounding sensory overload.

All told, Shibuya has maintained its importance as a venue for advancing Japan’s commercial, cultural, and investment interests. The nation of 126 million is increasingly embracing entrepreneurship and the tech talent is gravitating to startups, as opposed to seeking traditional employment with established brands, according to Iwanaga.

Like most everything else in Shibuya, digital innovation is on the move. D!

Where to eat:

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RyuGin modern Japanese

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Uobei Shibuya Dogenzaka tech-enabled Sushi

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Coucagno Provençal French

Where to stay:

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The Peninsula

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The Ritz-Carlton

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Cerulean Tower Tokyu Hotel

Read more thought provoking articles in the latest issue of the Digitalist Magazine, Executive Quarterly.


About Elana Varon

Elana Varon is a freelance writer and editor specializing in technology, leadership and business innovation.