Renovation culture in Kokura

The third destination I visited during my December trip to post-growth communities was Kokura, a city located 2.5 hours from Itoshima on the northern tip of Kyushu. Together with Moji and Yahata, Kokura forms the municipality of Kitakyushu, a major industrial city with a population of one million.

Since 2010, Kokura has become a mecca of DIY building renovation. Building on the city’s identity as an eco-friendly city, local activists and city leaders embarked on a strategy of “renovation place-making” (リノベまちづくり) in 2010. A “Renovation School” has been held twice a year since 2011 and has attracted students from across the country, who learn the nuts and bolts of DIY construction, but also the business know-how necessary to design a successful renovation project with limited capital. The school has resulted in new stores, restaurants, cafes, bars, share offices, guesthouses, and renovated homes springing up in Kokura and across the country.

Sunset over Kanmon Strait, 2014

The roots of Kokura’s spirit of renovation can be traced from its history. In the 1870s, Kitakyushu’s strategic location on the 300-meter wide Kanmon Strait, which separates Honshu and Kyushu and links Asia and the Japanese heartland, led to it become the center of Japan’s industrialization. Soon after the Meiji Restoration, Japan’s first major steelworks opened in Yahata, and the region stretching from here to Osaka on the other end of the Inland Sea became the backbone of the country’s industrial belt. By the peak of the high-growth period in the 1960s and 70s, so much toxic smoke and wastewater was being emitted from the city’s booming petrochemical factories that the sky grew black and the bay was bleached yellow.

Kitakyushu during the high-growth era

Around the same time, residents in Minamata in southern Kyushu and in Niigata city were poisoned by major mercury spills, and the modern environmental movement gained steam. By the 1980s, Kitakyushu had cleaned up and rebranded itself as an environmental city. Today the municipality is considered a leading eco-city, with a bike sharing system and a lovely riverside promenade, and hosts a number of green-tech companies. Through its Initiative for a Clean Environment, it shares its knowledge with Asian cities choking on pollution.

Kokura’s riverfront

Despite this transformation, today Kitakyushu remains more Detroit than Silicon Valley. The city’s culture still reflects its gritty, industrial, working-class roots: in a local tradition known as kakuuchi, mom-and-pop liquor stores serve snacks to customers who pull cans of beer and sake from coolers and drink standing or sitting on old crates. The city’s architecture consists mostly of nondescript mid-rise tenant buildings dating from the heady years before the bubble burst, and the passage of time has given everything a yellow tinge and worn look that nostalgic Japanese often call the “flavor of Showa,” referring to the postwar era that ended in 1989.

“The flavor of Showa”

The ideas of renovation and historical preservation barely existed during Japan’s rapid postwar development, when the standard practice became to tear down buildings every 30 years and replace them with something larger and more modern. In the 1980s, as Tokyo real estate prices went into the stratosphere, Japan’s regions experienced a brief period awash in capital in search of greener pastures. Investors spent irrational sums erecting unsightly resort hotels, amusement parks, and golf courses across the country, anticipating a torrent of leisure consumption that evaporated after the bubble burst around 1990.

Many of the bubble-era businesses went bust, and since then, the central government’s efforts to prop up depressed regions have left rural Japan littered with thousands of elaborate museums and civic halls, many of which run with deep deficits and are derided by critics as hakomono, or empty boxes. While the spate of public projects propped up the construction industry and sustained employment, many concluded that it did nothing to help put local areas on sustainable footing, instead perpetuating and accentuating the periphery’s dependence on Tokyo.

In the last decade, regional development has entered a new phase. With pressure on the national budget, the government has dialed back its support for public works and retired old language like the 1980s-era “chiho shinko 地方振興(regional development) and 1990s-era “chiiki kasseika 地域活性化(local revitalization), rebranding its strategy for regional economies with the more forward-looking and entrepreneurial-sounding “chiho sosei 地方創生” (creating/inventing regions). The Abe administration created a cabinet-level post in charge of the strategy, and the government has shifted its stance to trying to encourage local governments and activists to take the lead. A more cynical and realist view is that the government is gradually pushing municipalities into the free market to determine who will survive and who will perish in the coming population retrenchment. Last year, Kokura’s Renovation School became a model case for the chiho sosei strategy.

Yohei Shimada, a Tokyo-based architect originally from Kitakyushu, is the driving force behind the Renovation School and Yamorisha, the local company that manages many of the renovated properties. Shimada is part of a young, highly-motivated, tech-savvy generation of local activists including media commentator Hitoshi Kinoshita who insist that the way to revitalize local economies is not through subsidies or top-down development projects, but by building sustainable businesses from the bottom up with private capital, often assembled through cloud-funding or other unconventional financing.

I arrive in Kokura around seven on Saturday evening and walk south down the main shopping street towards the Tanga Market, a labyrinth of narrow alleyways bustling with shoppers buying seafood, vegetables, and mochi cakes for the new year. The market is the kind of urban place Japanese like to describe using the English adjective “deep”: rich in local context and individual personality, the various stores’ faded signs and curious smells imbue the corridors with a sense of authenticity and humanity that one can’t find on the city’s surface.

Tanga Market in daytime

A cartographer I met recently in Tokyo recommended that I stay at Tanga Table, a new guesthouse that opened up in September in a building overlooking the market from across a small river. Tanga Table was built as a project of the most recent Renovation School, and is managed by another company run by Shimada. The guesthouse is located in a fourth-floor space that was originally a bowling alley, before holding several stores and most recently lying empty for ten years. The design incorporates a hip industrial aesthetic while preserving the existing funky layout of walls and corridors.

I put my stuff down and order a beer at the bar. The artisanal lightbulbs, Mumford and Sons soundtrack, and the punk girl in a beanie and slickly combed Frenchman making pizza behind the bar would fit in perfectly in Brooklyn or Berlin. Among any city in Japan, in fact, the young people in Kokura have an unpretentious style that strikes me as closest to the hipster ideal of casual sophistication (and most manage to pull it off without irony! See this Kokura street fashion stream here, ignore the photo of me at the top: it goes without saying that I am most certainly not a hipster ;-) )

Tanga Table staff (Yohei Shimada sitting in center with hat)

I ask manager Toshihiro Nishikata about the guesthouse and Kokura’s renovation projects. He describes the menu at Tanga Table as modern fare utilizing the local ingredients from the market, and the hostel’s name reflects an ideal that the local community and global travelers will sit around the table and eat together. He draws me a map of the major renovation projects nearby and sends a message to a woman at Yamorisha to let her know I would be coming. Before heading to bed, I notice that the staff is on the front cover of Soto Koto, one of the most popular local living and travel lifestyle magazines.

In the morning, I walk across the street to the Uomachi shopping street, which stretches from Kokura station to the Tanga market, and like many shopping streets in regional cities had grown depressed in recent years as new suburban shopping malls grabbed market share.

Nakaya Building (left), Uomachi shopping street (right)

Shimada’s first renovation project in Kokura was the Nakaya Building, a four-story former department store. His father had been involved in the management of the building in the 1980s and 90s, when a game center and other businesses occupied the space. By the 2000s, the building had lost its tenants but the owner was loathe to close the shutters and deliver another blow to the vitality of the street.

Meanwhile, Shimada had been attending architecture school in Tokyo, where his advisor told her students in the mid-1990s, “Pretty soon, there isn’t going to be any new construction in Japan anymore. If you want to be an architect, go abroad or renovate.” The idea came as a shock to Shimada, who had been attracted to the large-scale Metabolist architecture Japan became famous for during the postwar era, and was a student while the country was in the midst of a boom in construction of new art museums and other buildings. As he began practicing architecture in the 2000s, he gradually became more and more involved in renovation projects, including the revitalization of an old department store in Kagoshima with Ryo Yamazaki’s Studio L, an Osaka consultancy that has become famous for design interventions in shrinking communities. By the time Shimada opened his own practice in the old Tokyo neighborhood of Zoshigaya, he was working exclusively on renovation.

The owner of the Nakaya Building asked Shimada to find a way to re-make the building. The result was the Yamorisha (家守舎) company, whose name comes from the Edo-era yamori, a kind of property manager who would maintain rental properties on behalf of owners. The term has now been appropriated by renovation activists in a reflection of how ideas about flexibility ofproperty ownership and use is changing in an era of depopulation and sharing.

In 2011, the Nakaya Building successfully reopened with a local market on the first floor and a studio space for dozens of artisans on the second floor, and the moment marked a turning point for the area. According to the Renovation School’s documents, the foot traffic on the shopping street increased nearly 25% between 2009–2013, after falling by more than half since 1998.

Yamorisha runs a small bookstore and information center called Natsume Shoten towards the back of the building. There I meet Yumiko Kurauchi, who moved from Fukuoka to Kokura last year to join the Renovation School staff. She also helps to produce their publications on an array of renovation topics, and manages the bookstore that sells architecture and lifestyle books and an array of quirky fiction, as well as distributing local zines.

Kurauchi tells me that even as the Renovation School has garnered nationwide attention, they have sometimes struggled to build local consensus about how the local area should face the future. “Our fundamental stance is that we want to take the existing city and adapt it to the future, but many of the older shop owners would prefer things to stay the way they are.” Disagreements over strategy arise around issues like whether or not to remove an old roof over the alley outside.

Natsume Shoten bookstore

Out in the alley, another wooden building next door to the Nakaya building had also been renovated, but burned down soon after. In the empty space, participants in the forth renovation school had built a new pop-up restaurant in a container.

Back of Nakaya Building (left) and site of burned down building (right)

Down the street, a narrow alleyway led to a hidden Japanese garden and traditional home surrounded by tall buildings. Participants in the second renovation school had taken the abandoned and collapsing building and beautifully transformed it into the Mikiya Cafe. When I visited after noon, several customers were waiting their turn to try the vegetable plates and hot wine.

Altogether, the Renovation School has led to several dozen projects in Kokura, and countless others around the country initiated by participants.

Around six PM, I am sitting at the table in the guesthouse’s restaurant writing this article, when I hear a familiar voice call my name. “SAM!” I look up to see Naohiro Shiomitsu standing dumbstruck in the entranceway. “What the heck are you doing here!?” he stammers in his western accent.

Shiomitsu is the owner of a popular guesthouse called Ruco in Hagi, a small samurai town of 50,000 on the Sea of Japan coast, about 100 kilometers east of Kokura in Yamaguchi Prefecture. After attending Yamaguchi University and working in the city, a few years ago he went back to Hagi and teamed up with a well-known interior designer to renovate an old 4-story musical instrument store into a warm space with a bar and cafe open to the street outside. As is the case with many guesthouses, he announced the project through social media and dozens of friends came to lend a hand for free during the construction process. I stayed several days at Ruco last autumn, and had gone out to drinks with Shiomitsu and some mutual friends a couple of times in Tokyo.

“Where’s the toilet!” he interjects. “I got lost on my way here, and none of the people I asked had any idea what Tanga Table was!”

Shiomitsu had been visiting Shimonoseki across the strait and had come to investigate the new guesthouse. The world of renovation and guesthouses in Japan is quite small. Nowadays when I meet someone involved in renovation in a new city, we usually have ten to twenty mutual friends on Facebook. This closeness has helped the new style of casual, local, social accommodation in renovated spaces to spread across the entire country in just a few years.

We walk down to the south end of the Tanga Market to eat dinner at a little blowfish restaurant that the manager Nishikata recommended to us. As we drink hot hire-sake with singed blowfish fins, I ask Shiomitsu about his project in Hagi.

“Starting a guest house was really just a means to an end. My true desire was to broaden the appeal of the city. Until now, just about the only people who would come to Hagi were the old history buffs, who stay in big ryokan hotels and shuttle between the famous tourist spots in tour buses. There was no welcoming place for people our age. So I wanted to give people a new way to enjoy the city and to create a space for people to interact. I think it’s changed some of the local’s perception of the town, too, to see foreigners and young people walking on the streets instead of driving around.”

Shiomitsu has an earnest local pride, creative practicality, and social intelligence that he shares with many young local activists and entrepreneurs. He says he wants to prevent “the homogenization of the whole country into a boring version of Tokyo.”

After dinner, we walk back to the guesthouse past some graffitied shutters inside the market. Shiomitsu talks excitedly. “This kind of town is the best! It’s got a flavor, it smells. The people here are just ordinary human beings.” We laugh about the awkward proprietor at the blowfish restaurant, who only silently smiled in response to our repeated exclamations of how delicious the food was.

Back at Tanga Table, we look out the window at the tin roofs and chimneys of the shops at the market. Nishikata tells us that due to the construction of a new bridge, the market might get knocked down in the next five or ten years. Built atop a concrete platform over a river, it is apparently in violation of the building code. If it disappears, another deep corner of Japan will be replaced by the homogenous and anonymous surface of the modern city. On the same day, I read a newspaper article about Tokyo’s legendary Tsukiji fish market celebrating its final New Year, before closing permanently at the end of 2016.

I say goodbye to Shiomitsu and go to bed early to get some sleep before my 6:00 AM train to Onomichi, feeling optimistic. Kokura has no solutions to reverse depopulation, but that’s not the point: renovation activists are more interested in having fun, building community, and living happily through the decline.

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