Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Shoutengai and Kashii: The Bulldozer Comes to Higashi Ku

About a week ago I attended a conference in Nishijin, in the west part of Fukuoka. After the conference I headed off on bike for the hour-long ride back home in Higashi-Ku with Simon, a colleague of mine who had also ridden his bike. A few minutes into our journey the sky let loose a torrential downpour on us. Fortunately at that moment we were passing through Tojin-machi which, I knew, had a covered shopping arcade ("shoutengai" in Japanese) that we could take shelter under until the storm passed. We pedaled over and were fortunate enough to get there before the rain had completely soaked us.

The term "Shoutengai" refers to a shopping district or street which most towns and cities in Japan have. Here I'll use the word to refer specifically to shopping arcades, though in fact the word encompasses more than that. They are usually closed to vehicular traffic and lined with small shops. Often they run from a train station and are the centre of the town. Larger ones usually have a roof to shelter shoppers from the elements. The Tojin-machi Shoutengai is actually pretty small, running only a couple of blocks, but it did thankfully have a roof. This is what it looks like when it isn't raining:
We spent a few minutes at the entrance to the Tojin-machi Shoutengai waiting for the rain to let up, which it didn't. Coming to grips with the fact that we would have to make the remaining 50-odd minutes of our return trip in the rain, we decided to venture into the bowels of the Shoutengai searching for a shop where we could buy something cheap. Our purpose was to obtain a plastic shopping bag with our purchase and use that bag (we hoped to get one each) to put our wallets and papers into so as to keep them dry.

The Shoutengai meandered along with a fair number of flower shops, fish shops and other places selling things that we didn't really want to carry home in the rain with us. Finally we came across a supermarket which, we noticed, had a plastic bag dispenser near the front doors for customers to put things that might melt into. We realized those would be perfect for our purposes. We stood outside the supermarket, in front of a small fish mongers place and mulled how we might go about acquiring one of those bags without making a purchase.

As we did so our conversation turned towards the shoutengai itself. Being an expert on competition law, Simon was a bit conflicted about shoutengai in general. "From an economic standpoint, they are grossly inefficient" he explained as we looked at the fish monger, which hadn't had a single customer in the 10 minutes or so we had been standing there. "A lot of them really only survive thanks to favorable tax treatment they get from the government." The competition expert in him was displeased with this.

"Still though" he continued, looking at all the shoppers bustling around the colorful and vibrant street, "THIS is Japan." Despite their inefficiency, shoutengai are really the hearbeat of any city, and as the fortunes of the shoutengai go, so go the fortunes of the city.

Around Japan these days, a lot of factors are contributing to the decline of the shoutengai. Go through any small city and you are likely to find shoutengai with half their shops permanently shuttered, victims of depopulation, the general stagnation of the nation's economy, competition from big box stores and the growth of more car-dependent suburbs sucking the lifeblood out of the town centres. Its hard to tell which of these, if any, exerts a bigger influence on their declining importance, but a dying shoutengai is a gut-wrenchingly sad thing to see.

In the eastern part of Fukuoka not far from my place a number of shoutengai are under threat, though primarily from a different cause from those listed above. These shoutengai, in the area around Kashii, are threatened by a city plan to redevelop on a massive scale a few square kilometres of Higashi-ku centering around the Kashii and Chihaya areas. For readers who can read Japanese some details of the plans are on the city website here. The plan basically involves clearing huge swaths of the city south of route three and replacing it with a centrally planned, "modern" city made up mostly of high rise apartment buildings. Implementation of the plan is about half way through. Some parts have already been cleared and had new structures built, particularly around Chihaya station (which itself was built as part of the plan). A lot of the land around there was formerly railway lines, which made it easy to clear and also a relatively good place to re-develop. Some of it, however, was old residential and business areas near route 3 and in the past two years I've watched these slowly being torn down and replaced with new buildings.

Other parts of the development area have just been demolished and are sitting vacant. The area around JR Kashii station, however, contains the last vestiges of pre-demolition neighborhood left in the area. It has the look of an island of the old world under seige on all sides by massive machinery tearing the city scape apart all around it. Today I took a bike ride around the whole project area to contrast and compare the various zones and record Kashii's shoutengai area.

Japan is often said to be a land of stark contrasts, and nowhere is this more true than in Kashii today. My trip starts on Route three, the northern border of the new development. You can see the high rise apartments going up at break-neck speed around here:
The little houses in the foreground are in the development's area and will inevitably be demolished in the near future. When we moved here two years ago there were lots of similar houses and smaller buildings here, but these are some of the last holdouts in this area.
Not far away on route three a couple of shops stand shuttered and awaiting demolition:
A sign in the window of a beauty salon announces that the business has moved:
I pause to note that as I was taking this picture I heard the sound of a horn blaring behind me and then a loud "CRASH". I spun around and was faced with this intriguing sight:
This was taken within 3 or 4 seconds of the collision itself. Its not often that you can take one look at a car accident and immediately know who was at fault just by the sight of it, but this was one of those times. This is a six lane highway. This was nowhere near an intersection or any place where you might expect drivers to get confused and take a wrong turn or anything. Yet of course only one of the cars in the above picture was headed in the correct direction in the MIDDLE lane of east-bound traffic. That was the car on the left. The driver of the car on the right somehow managed to find himself driving the wrong way on an insanely busy highway a couple of hundred metres from the nearest intersection. The driver of the car on the left was not happy and within a few seconds of my taking this picture was out of his car and yelling at the other guy. I didn't stick around long enough to find out how the idiot in the car on the right had gotten himself into that predicament, curious though I was.

Anyway, turning off Route three I cycle along until I reach Miyuki Dori in Kashii, a quiet little shotengai that seems to cater mainly to middle aged women (judging by the fashions in the clothing stores):
Crossing a bridge Miyuki Dori turns into Kira Kira Dori, which is much the same:
Vegetable shops thrive on Shoutengai like these:
Leaving Kira Kira Dori we come to Nishitetsu Kashii station, behind which we find what must be the most "rustic" shoutengai in Fukuoka, Kashii Chuo Shotengai:
It does boast a roof, of sorts:
At the far end of Kashii Chuo Shotengai we see how far the bulldozers have gotten in razing the town on the eastern fringe of the development area:
Seeing this makes me a bit concerned about the fate of the Kashii shoutengai. Nowhere in the city's plans does it specifically say "we'll be tearing down Miyuki Dori, Kira Kira Dori and Kashii Chuo Shotengai and replacing them with shopping malls." Signs around Miyuki Dori indicate that it will survive. But one gets the sense that these places aren't the type of "vision" that city planners have for this neighborhood, at least if what has been built elsewhere in the development zone is anything to go by. Ramshackle Kashii Chuo Shoutengai - which I find to be the most charming place in Kashii - definitely has the look of something which development projects like this are specifically designed to get rid of. In fact they've already kind of started that process on the part of Kashii Shoutengai which isn't covered by the roof. These are what the original buildings look like, very colorful and slap-dash:
But the buildings across the street from them have been replaced by a new strip mall type building (on the right):
I appreciate that the strip mall building is cleaner and probably has other benefits which go with newer buildings. At the same time though, it lacks all of the color of the original buildings on the left. Its plastic, beige facade is no match for the multi-colored awnings on the old buildings. Its entrances, recessed from the street and a couple of steps up from it, are much colder and less inviting than the ones on the left, which open directly onto the street and have a much more intimate feel to them. I suspect that in a few years this whole street will unfortunately look like the building on the right while the ones on the left will be history.

Anyway, after leaving Kashii Chuo Shotengai I reach the main street leading up to JR Kashii station:
Its a fairly colorful street:
The station itself isn't particularly attractive:
But I like the fact that it opens right up onto this busy, tree-lined shopping street:
Under the current plans pretty much all of this area in front of the station is going to be torn down and turned into a "hiroba" which might generously be translated as "Town square." When you see what they've done in the stations they've already redeveloped below, you'll understand why I view this plan with some trepidation.

Perhaps in preparation for the inevitable demolition, the "Pachinko Empire" parlor sits abandoned in front of the station:
The side streets around Kashii station are fun to ride around with an "eclectic" mix of architecture and loads of small shops and restaurants:
Signs proudly announcing the redevelopment are to be found everywhere. "The making of a new Kashii town is proceeding!" the sign says along the top. They use the phrase "machi zukuri" which I would unflatteringly translate as "gentrification" though it literally means "town making":
The new development won't have any place for green buildings like this though:
One of Kashii's "hidden Shoutengai" that I peeped into. The red sign says that it is a shortcut to Kashii station and, in fact, I can confirm that it is:
It looks abandoned but actually all the shops are snacks and bars which only open at night:
There are some peculiarities within the development zone where they have cleared some land and kind of started to redevelop it but haven't gotten very far, like with these 4 trees recently planted in the middle of a vacant lot:
Not sure what that'll be when they finish with it. Some kind of park I guess.

Now I head west towards Nishitetsu Kashii Miyamae station, which has already been fully "redeveloped":
If there was ever a poster-child for poor urban planning, this station would win hands down. It is a piece of crap. I have no other word to describe it. None that would better convey the hostility I feel towards this station at any rate. When you exit the station you are met with this stunning vista of bleakness provided by the unnecesarily large, shadeless, grey "public space" they've created in front of it:
On the left a lovely parking lot:
Next to that an endless expanse of asphalt and concrete for commuters to walk through:
And dead ahead the parking lot of a pachinko parlour and some department stores whose facades and entrances face away from the station:
It seems every development of this kind in Japan is bestowed with a few trees that are planted and then forgotten and left to die:
Remember that nice picture up above of Kashii station which opens up onto the bustling shopping area lined with nice trees that can be easily walked to? They want to demolish that and replace it with ugly crap similar to this (if the artists depictions on the city's website are accurate at least). It is not at all encouraging.

Onwards I press, passing by a huge stretch of land that has been cleared for development:
I arrive at Chihaya station, which has also been cheerfully redeveloped into a dead grey zone devoid of any detectable human activity:
They have at least started to build a park across the street that despite having mature trees somehow manages to exude greyness and gloom about as well as a parking lot does:
Thousands of square metres of land waiting to be turned into more of the same:
Back on route three, this building was one of the last holdouts. It had a keysmith and the Yomiuri newspaper's distribution centre until it closed at the end of last month:
This house though is still occupied and still holding out. Why I don't know but I think its by far the prettiest place in Kashii, with that golden rooster metal advert on the wall:
So that is the state of Kashii today and a glimpse at the possible unpleasant demise of its shoutengai (at least as they exist today). To be honest, after looking at the city plans I'm not sure how much of what I've photographed above in Kashii will be demolished and how much will be incorporated into the new Kashii, though I suspect very little of what is there today will survive the coming years. I have to admit that some of the new apartment buildings around Chihaya look like comfortable places to live, but the new neighborhoods as a whole are just completely devoid of any of the character that old Kashii - despite the admittedly ramshackle appreance of many of its buildings - exudes. Even the parks in the new area look grey and depressing.

To return to the anecdote with which I began this post, Simon and I did eventually get our plastic bags from the supermarket. Our effort was made possible by the connivance of an elderly woman who was standing next to the dispenser who knew exactly what we were up to, having watched us as we spent several minutes mulling over what to do in front of the fish mongers. "What a good idea" she said with a wry smile to Simon as he tried to nonchalantly grab one of the bags "those'll keep your books dry." And with that she was off, popping open her umbrella, hopping onto her bike and pedaling away into the rain in a flash as though she had just been sticking around the whole time to see whether we'd actually make our move or not. It was the type of encounter that one typically has in old type shoutengai like the ones in Tojin-machi or Kashii. You could wait a thousand years and still not see that sort of spontaneous communication occur between strangers in the asphalt belt that surrounds Nishitetsu Kashii Miyamae station though.


Matt in Japan said...

One of your best posts ever! Kashii is certainly changing for the worse, becoming more sterile. One of the reasons I moved here was the charming character of the place. But it`s inevitable I guess..as you said the `old lady arcades` just can't survive without the old ladies.

Well done and thank you for documenting this.

Sean said...

Hey thanks!

Yeah, it really is a shame the way the place is becoming more sterile. Kashii is one of the few areas in Higashi Ku that has a vibrant shopping area in front of the station (over here in Najima we've got nothing) and if they lose that it'll just be like every other boring suburban neighborhood along the Nishitetsu and JR lines.


Andrew P said...

Found this on Facebook.

Very interesting read. Makes me want to pack up my bike and come visit you in Japan!


Sean said...

Fukuoka (and pretty much all of Japan) is much more bicycle friendly than Vancouver, Andrew! So yeah, bring a bike!

Unknown said...

Thanks Sean, a good brief and nice pictures also. You made me know better the area where I visited and shopped there sometimes. I personally like shoutegai also. It somehow conveys the spirit of old Japan to me.

Sean said...

Thanks Quynh! I like the shoutengai a lot too, they are among the most interesting places in Fukuoka.