Kyushu Showa Town banks on nostalgia

by Tetsuro Koyama

Kyodo

This city of 25,000 people in the western part of the Kunisaki Peninsula has undergone an unusual revival thanks to a special attraction that brings in more than 10 times its population in tourists a year.

Bungotakada’s magnet is Showa Town, where about 100 stops line a street for 500 meters — a model community with a nostalgic theme that has turned the local economy around and drawn sightseers by the busload.

“I didn’t expect to see so many people,” store owner Katsumi Morikawa, 59, said as he looked out on the crowded street. “I am surprised myself.”

Showa Town is a restored shopping district that used to be in front of a railway station. However, the privately operated line closed in 1965 at a time when Japan was embarking on an era of high postwar economic growth.

The area ran out of steam and sank to the point where, as one resident said, “Dogs and cats outnumbered people walking on the street.”

Morikawa, who runs an old-fashioned penny candy store, was one of the residents involved in the Showa Town revival plan.

Hoping to spend ¥10 million on the renewal project, the chamber of commerce in Bungotakada asked an advertising agency in 1992 to map out a plan. The agency’s ideas proved too costly, however, and the plan was subsequently shelved.

But Toshiki Kanaya, a 52-year-old member of the chamber, said the proposal inspired storekeepers to band together to develop a community that would be unlike anything found in a big city and could only exist in Bungotakada.

They first searched for a redevelopment theme, looking back on the city’s history. It was a castle town during the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1568-1598), and considered a treasure trove of information about that time. They also considered the Meiji Era (1868-1912) before opting for the Showa Era (1926-1989).

Kanaya, who championed Showa Town, proposed that store owners choose theShowa 30s (from the second half of the 1950s to the first half of the 1960s) when shopping streets thrived and residents aspired to great things, even if they were not affluent.

Many older people are still nostalgic about that decade. In recent months, “Always 3-chome no Yuhi” (“Always Sunset on Third Street”), a movie set in Tokyo during that period, enjoyed huge popularity. This sense of nostalgia is believed to have further enhanced Showa Town’s appeal.

Upon hearing Kanaya’s proposal for the redevelopment, former Bungotakada Mayor Hirofumi Nagamatsu quickly decided to carry out the town development jointly with storekeepers, the chamber of commerce and the municipality.

The promoters realized that about 70 percent of the shops had actually been built by the Showa 30s. During the high economic growth of the late 1960s and 1970s, many shops underwent minor renovations and face-lifts, but since then little has changed.

Thus, Showa Town emerged in fall 2001 with some shops returning to their original look just by removing new signs and other additions.

The shops were named Showa Stores, with each displaying the tools of its trade retained from generation to generation as its “treasures” and selling original products advertised as being available in specific stores.

A farm warehouse was given a face-lift in 2002 and named Romantic Showa Storehouse. A model “dream museum” of penny candy stores was also built.

Initially, there were only seven Showa Stores, but the number has now grown to 38.

Milkshakes are popular at Morikawa’s store. A hand-made deep-fried croquette using a technique handed down through the generations at a meat shop sells well.

And many shoppers take the time to chat with the shopkeepers.

“This is a town where people meet one another and business takes place in the course of dialogue,” said Chizuko Fujiwara, 58, who guided a visitor touring the shops.

Kanaya, who launched the Showa Town project, is now living in Iida, Nagano Prefecture, working on another revival project.

Dispatched from Bungotakada, Kanaya is helping the municipality increase the number of tourists in its own revival efforts, which center on boating trips down the Tenryu River through a scenic gorge.