Shinjuku strip faces reckoning

Omoide-yokocho will someday soon be only a memory

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Few museums preserve the atmosphere of Tokyo’s chaotic postwar era better than the Shinjuku Nishiguchi Shotengai drinking strip, commonly known as Omoide-yokocho (Memory Lane), at least in the minds of heavy drinkers.

In the shadow of skyscrapers, department stores and other commercial buildings, the rickety buildings occupying the 2,000-sq.-meter area on the western side of the JR tracks preserves the atmosphere of its days as home to a bustling black market after World War II.

But the dingy alley’s days are numbered — landowners are planning to demolish some 80 wooden shacks to make way for a nine-story building by October 2008.

“It has been a long-held dream for those who work here to redevelop the district, due to safety issues stemming from the condition of the buildings and the fact that the utilities infrastructure is half a century old,” said Kenji Murakami, the 55-year-old owner of Sushitatsu, a sushi restaurant in the alley.

In respect for Omoide-yokocho’s history and the wish of many restaurant owners to maintain their businesses, the two basement floors of the new building will accommodate about 30 of the roughly 80 bars and restaurants currently clutter the main alley and its back streets, according to a preparatory group for the redevelopment project set up by landowners.

The floors are to be laid out in a way reminiscent of the current Omoide-yokocho.

The yokocho developed as part of an extensive black market that sprung up naturally along the western side of Shinjuku Station soon after Japan’s defeat in 1945.

As the black market prospered, vendors began building small barracks one after another. These structures numbered 1,600 in their heyday around 1950, according to the local shopkeepers’ union.

The Murakami family is a living witness to the area’s evolution into a dining zone for visitors to the market. After returning from the war, Murakami’s father and his wife opened a stall offering “stew” on one corner of the black market, using food scraps discarded by the Allied Occupation forces.

Coinciding with the growth of the Japanese economy, the content of the dishes served by the family improved to yakitori and then to sushi.

Around the 1970s, areas adjacent to Omoide-yokocho were hit by a redevelopment wave, which replaced rows of shacks with department stores and other commercial buildings.

What prevented bulldozers from also tearing down the lane was the complexity of land ownership — as many as 82 people own portions of properties on and around the narrow main strip.

Although the idea of redeveloping Omoide-yokocho has surfaced time and again, shop owners hoping to hold onto such a prime location always resisted.

What convinced the majority of land owners this time was a series of disasters that highlighted safety problems.

A massive fire in November 1999 destroyed a third of the alley’s 80 structures, burning for five hours and hopping from one wooden shack to another via the electric wires that crisscross the strip.

Another blaze in March burned down the second floor of a bar, and a small fire broke out in a restaurant in April. Meanwhile, a water pipe exploded last month, Murakami added.

Another reason is that business is on the decline as regulars grow older.

While the strip is attracting a younger clientele thanks to its nostalgic charm, they usually spend less money than their older counterparts, Murakami said.

The restaurant owners themselves are growing old, and many have been forced to close down due to health problems, he added.

“While we all know that the atmosphere in this place is precious, we cannot live on nostalgia alone,” Murakami said.

But not all the owners, restaurant operators and customers are happy with the redevelopment project.

More than a dozen landowners are still resisting the project and it is still unclear whether it can get off the ground in September 2006 as planned.

The 61-year-old operator of a yakitori tavern said he understands the need for redevelopment, given the safety hazards posed by the current buildings, but he wishes he didn’t have to see it in his lifetime.

“No matter what they do, it is impossible to reproduce the atmosphere of this place inside a clean building,” he said.

Customers, for their part, have mixed feelings.

Ryoichi Imai, a 49-year-old freelance journalist who has been a regular at several drinking places along the strip for the past three decades, said he will be sad to see it go. “There was nothing special about this place when I first came here as a student, because every drinking strip in Tokyo was like this,” he said.

“Everything (in Tokyo) has gotten cleaner since, but some things should be more meaningful to the human mind than convenience.”