Notes on brief visits to two shopping arcades in Nagoya.

There is not much I can tell you about Nagoya. But this is what I learned on a brief visit to the city and its shotengai. This should not be taken as a guide to Nagoya or any sort of recommendation. But I will begin by telling you that I had just gotten off a train from Kyoto, where I stayed in pretty nice hotel and ate a meal by the riverside and explored as much as I could — and I did not enjoy it. The city felt full. But Nagoya — like every other city outside Tokyo, thought to be barely worth visiting — was comfortable. I can tell you that it was the middle of summer and the girls in Nagoya are more tanned and wear shirts that show their bellies. The city is famous for chicken wings and ankake spaghetti, pork cutlet with sweet red miso. Nagoya hasn’t changed much for the better since about 1960s, when I assume the now crumbling department stores downtown were put up, when millions made a living building things out of metal.

I can tell you that before I visited Nagoya, I had little interest in leaving the cocoon of Tokyo. The doom and gloom headlines about Japan’s demographic crisis — in Tokyo, you can ignore them. Japan has tilted toward the Kanto Plain, concentrating money and people and business in Tokyo. Now, I wish I understood this better: the reordering of the Japanese economy in the 1980s and 1990s killed off manufacturing and every other industry, except the service industry, maybe banking, real estate…. Tokyo began to bleed power and population from the capital’s former rivals. Cities like Nagoya were swept up in the postwar miracle but they were hit hardest by the the recession and stagnation that Japan entered into after 1990. Migration into Tokyo has continued but second-tier cities like Nagoya have withered. They’re still making cars in Nagoya but, if you look up the number of employees a Toyota plant requires now, well, it’s not the same business it was in the 1960s. The Brazilians that once came to work in heavy industry and manufacturing have mostly moved on and haven’t been replaced by low-scale immigration from China and the Philippines.

But anyways, as someone that tended to avoid trips beyond the central wards of Tokyo, it made me think that I might be happier living in Nagoya.

Let’s talk about shotengai, though.

Osu in Nagoya’s Naka Ward is another place that’s supposed to be in decline. From a promotional website proclaiming Osu to be Japan’s Most Enjoyable Shopping District:

The Osu Shopping District has flourished since the Edo period (1603–1868) as commercial streets centered on the gates of Osu Kannon, Banshoji, and other temples. Unlike Sakae, Nagoya’s downtown business district, Osu retains a hint of the ambience of traditional working-class neighborhoods.

I want you to know, Sakae looks like it hasn’t changed much since 1983. So, Osu must look straight out of the Edo.

Osu goes back further than Sakae, as a center of the city. The district developed following the construction of Nagoya’s tram network in the late-19th century. The north-south tram line linked Osu to Sakae and central Nagoya. When the city began to build subway lines in the 1960s and 1970s, the tram network was dismantled and the decline of the Osu shopping district began. I’m quoting this information from John Douglas Eyre’s Nagoya: The Changing Geography of a Japanese Regional Metropolis (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Dept. of Geography, 1982) but Eyre’s research was mostly conducted only a short time after several stations began operating in the area, like Kamimaezu Station on the Tsurumai and Meijo Lines, Osu Kannon Station on the Tsurumai Line, and the slightly older Yabacho Station on the Meijo Line. I walked south down Otsu-dori, which is lined with the next generation of department stores, which look nothing like the crumbling hometown fortresses of retail, boutiqes, Hermès, Parco.

The Osu shotengai is a collection of many linked covered shopping arcades: Banshoji-dori, Osu-shintenchi-dori, Nagoya-osu-Higashi nioumon-dori, Osu-nioumon-dori, Osu-kannon-dori, Osu mozenmachi, Osu hon-dori and Akamon-myouou-dori. Taken as a whole, the complex is larger than any shotengai in Tokyo.

I am merely a shotengai fan on tour but each arcade felt slightly different. Akamon, for example, is the busiest arcade in the complex and seems to welcome the most tourists. There are a number of electronics stores and anime stores, nerdy card shops, shitty little T-shirt shops and night market-ready Taiwanese fried chicken stalls on Akamon — a clear focus, a smaller version of Tokyo’s Akihabara. Further along, Higashi nioumon-dori’s vintage stores and small izakaya are part of the reason that Osu is considered a hip district — a chilled out atmosphere a bit like Koenji. Like other large shotengai in Kanto, larger businesses like pachinko halls and chain retail serve as ballast. In Tokyo, arcades located close to stations are frequently being redeveloped for residential but it’s not happening at the same pace in Osu.

This is not a strong observation but I can’t help but think the multinodal, decentralized nature of Tokyo works against local neighborhoods. But Osu — whatever these people are saying about transportation networks and decline — is within walking distance of most of central Nagoya and a short walking distance from stops on two major subway lines.

It’s built to attract a wide range of shoppers. You know what I mean? You want to play pachinko? We got you. Want to flip through racks of moldy late-’80s granddad sportswear? We got that. Brazilian restaurants, grocery stores, 100 yen shops, anime shops, hipster izakaya, artisanal ice cream shops, tobacco shops with a fine collection of Swedish snus. Subcultural consumers and the neighborhood shoppers stroll side by side. The old people buy their pickles and stop off to sell their late-’80s sportswear and kids come to buy hojicha latte gelato before going to a hipster izakaya to show off their new late-’80s sportswear.

Research into the arcade turns up a paper, “Information Visualization System for Activation of Shopping Streets,” which details an attempt to use information technology to update customers. What that means is, basically, they made a website about the shopping street, listing vendors and events, which seems like the first thing you’d want to do but… not many other shotengai have functioning websites that tell you why you’d want to go there. But Osu has a good online presence.

Maybe the place is dead on a weekday at 2 p.m. It’s hard to say. I visited a few times. It’s hard to evaluate a shotengai based on a handful of visits but it seems fairly lively, with not many shuttered shops, comparing my own observations to earlier accounts of the health of the arcade, and comparing Osu to arcades in Tokyo.

Endoji, a short walk from Nagoya Station and the Shikemichi area is a local shotengai that reminds me of neighborhood shopping streets in Osaka and Tokyo. There is no doubt that Endoji will no longer exist as a neighborhood shopping street within a decade.

Like many other shopping districts, including Osu, Endoji was built around a temple complex during the Edo and flourished as tram lines brought new business to the area before going into decline when the street car lines were replaced by the subway. The area was a meeting place for merchants in the area nearby. Prewar buildings and traditional architecture has survived in the alleys leading off the arcade. A roof was put up over the entire street in the late-1980s.

Unlike Osu, Endoji never became much of a shopping destination and mostly serves local residents and the few tourists that wander over from the historical district at one end of the arcade. Even though the arcade is livelier than some of the abandoned shotengai in my neighborhood in Tokyo — preparations for a festival were taking place (see picture below) — there are numerous shuttered shops. There is a lot to read online about attempts by the Endoji Promotion Association to resuscitate the shopping street — film festivals, ad campaigns — and there are more recent arrivals among the tenants of the Endoji stretch—the older half is called Endoji Honmachi..

In Tokyo, the future of abandoned arcades is probably going to be redevelopment, in most cases. Even Sanya’s Irohakai, which has its own historical baggage and isn’t close enough to a transit hub is slowly being carved up for residential as lots fall into the hands of developers. The future for a shotengai like Endoji is less clear to me. One half is fairly viable but the Honmachi stretch is already in sharp decline. I don’t know. It’s hard to see much future in these old shopping streets. That’s the way I always have to leave it: this might not be here when I come back the next time.

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