Culture

Signs of life: Urban renewal in Nakamachi

by Stephen Mansfield

Contributing Writer

In Europe, resilient materials like stone, brick and hardwoods, facilitate the restoration of heritage buildings, even after decades of being unused. Unoccupied buildings of a comparable age in Japan, composed of wood, clay, straw, plaster and ceramic tile, if not fastidiously maintained, rapidly lapse into decay. The physical degeneration hastening the decline of countless provincial towns in Japan typically accompanies a slew of aggravating factors, ranging from aging residents and the defection of young people to cities to the decline of local industries, agriculture and services as well as the lack of funding and will.

Entering the main street of Nakamachi, the oldest surviving quarter of the city of Toba in Mie Prefecture, the first store I see has a sign in English: “Retro Goods Sell & Buy.” A first-time visitor to the city might be forgiven for thinking they have set foot in a haikyo, those abandoned amusement parks, public housing complexes, factories and rusting railway sidings so beloved by Japanese art photographers. Many of the shop fronts are shuttered, the rectilinear structures of prewar buildings warped into skewered angles; curtains hang in vacant homes like hanks of witch’s hair, or salt-stiffened kelp. There are countless such micro communities in Japan in desperate need of urban revival. In the case of Nakamachi, there may have been early symptoms that went unnoticed, but urban erosion — slow, potentially terminal — appears to have manifested itself in the final days of the Showa Era (1926-89), and with the subsequent spluttering of the bubble economy.

A finely constructed Nakamachi building in urgent need of renovation. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
A finely constructed Nakamachi building in urgent need of renovation. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Comparing the urban layout of the town today to half a century ago, you could develop what you might term a theory of shifting centers. Reclaimed land, supporting a four-lane main road, an expanded port and two Kintetsu Line train stations, deprived the well-appointed sea frontage of Nakamachi of its centrality, creating a fresh center, which, like a magnetic field, drew people, businesses and tourism.

Saeko Hamaguchi stands outside her Nakamachi tofu shop, Kojiya. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Saeko Hamaguchi stands outside her Nakamachi tofu shop, Kojiya. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Saeko Hamaguchi, whose street-facing tofu shop, Kojiya, is a fine observatory on the life of the quarter, is a faithful witness to change. “There was a factory about 40 years ago, a busy dock and an elementary school, so the streets were quite lively,” Hamaguchi recalls. “A large food and commodities market and public baths were gathering spots for the community.”

Asked about the most effective methods for rejuvenating the area, Hamaguchi draws her models from the past, stressing the importance of children, attracting young families to the district. Now in her early 80s, she has reduced her working schedule to just two days a week. There are no successors to take over the shop.

Mitsuo Murakami works with participants in one of his regular workshops. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Mitsuo Murakami works with participants in one of his regular workshops. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

At the end of the main street from Hamaguchi, Mitsuo Murakami has been making ceramic ware for some 25 years. He offers workshops that help draw visitors and tourists into the district. On the day of my visit, two sessions were scheduled, one with a young couple, the other a family. “People getting involved in programs like this can help to focus attention on the district’s events, activities and heritage,” Murakami says.

Miwa Endo applies the finishing touches to a calligraphic work. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Miwa Endo applies the finishing touches to a calligraphic work. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Actively involved in local renewal, my first impressions of Miwa Endo, a Toba native, are of a bubbly, articulate, robustly active woman, the type likely to get things done. Endo, specializes in ubi-moji, the creation of calligraphic works made by dipping her index finger into Indian ink and tracing lines freehand. She also doubles as a freelance designer, creating works for advertising purposes. A counter area of her atelier functions as a coffee bar.

Endo’s workplace exemplifies what can be achieved when contemporary design is fused with traditional building principles. With the aid of a friend, she spent six months renovating and converting her grandfather’s storage barn, turning a functional piece of vernacular architecture into her current enterprise, the Prink’M Atelier and Cafe. Endo is adamant that what she has done can be replicated by other people with the requisite creativity and vision.

Spending time in the company of Sayaka Sakata is like bathing in the radiance of a powerful electrical source, such is the energy and enthusiasm she irradiates.

A fashionably trimmed out young woman who drives a Mini-Cooper, Sakata declares with confidence that her soul is in Toba.

“My grandparents and generations before them were raised here,” she says.

The owner of Izumi Towel, a supplier of sanitary products, Sakata is a tirelessly active member of the Toba Nakamachi group, which is dedicated to exploring ways to revive the district. A desire to re-create the animated environment of her childhood and pass that on to future generations, and to encourage local shopkeepers and neighborhood residents to re-establish frayed links, propels her efforts to counter decline and obsolescence. The resuscitation began with the group creating a map and banner introducing the neighborhood, its local shops, restaurants and cultural sights, and encouraging outsiders to move into empty homes.

Toba Mayor Kinichiro Nakamura is an enthusiastic advocate for improving the prospects of Nakamachi. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Toba Mayor Kinichiro Nakamura is an enthusiastic advocate for improving the prospects of Nakamachi. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

For a more official appraisal of Nakamachi’s prospects, I speak to Toba Mayor Kinichiro Nakamura. A tall, well-built man with a firm handshake, the mayor turns out to be amiable and highly informed, but, more importantly, an engaged and concerned public servant, one with a keen interest in improving conditions in Nakamachi. He talks about the shipyard that existed in the area before the war and an ironwork factory making machine parts that was owned by his father.

The logo created to promote the neighborhood of Nakamachi. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
The logo created to promote the neighborhood of Nakamachi. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

“It was a very vibrant town at that time,” Nakamura says, “It’s important that people remind themselves of what they had and what can be revived or reactivated. It’s important that Nakamachi residents know the importance of its historic and cultural diversity. Each resident has a chance to represent the area, each has a role to play.”

Small enterprises, he adds, can galvanize older districts. The town hall had recently organized a questionnaire, asking local residents what kinds of businesses would be useful. Local residents expressed a desire for a bakery and pickle shop.

Another town hall official, Shigemi Masatoshi, tasked specifically with urban renewal in Nakamachi, is attempting to connect businesses like this with prospective owners. He is also addressing the problem of vacant homes. They have already had some success in renovating properties and subsidizing rentals.

It’s all very well canvassing the opinions of craftspeople, gifted entrepreneurs and government bodies, but what about the proverbial butcher, baker and candlestick maker? A fishmonger I speak with is somewhat forthcoming.

Kadoya's compressed courtyard garden features an unusual warai-doro (laughing stone lantern). | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Kadoya’s compressed courtyard garden features an unusual warai-doro (laughing stone lantern). | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

“It’s all about people — people numbers,” he says. “The less residents there are, the less items we stock and the poorer our profits.”

Another shopkeeper addresses the same fear: “When sales drop below our inventories, that’s when the shutters start coming down.”

There are several long-established merchants, born and bred in Toba, who have survived, even prospered, despite the demographic decline and aging of residents.

Yasuaki Matsui, owner of Matsui Sake-ten, holds a bottle of Nakamichi sake. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Yasuaki Matsui, owner of Matsui Sake-ten, holds a bottle of Nakamichi sake. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Yasuaki Matsui, the energetic owner of a liquor store named Matsui Sake-te, is one such figure. Occupying a 40-year-old building, established by his grandfather some 70 years ago, Matsui, has reached out to new businesses rather than depending on an uncertain legacy of patronage, waiting for customers to turn up on his shop stoop.

As a result, hotels in the area are stocking his brands.

“This one is popular,” he says, picking out a bottle of sake called Nakamichi. “The name refers to the old main road in Nakamachi, which was an important trade route.”

Another member of the Toba Nakamachi collective is an newcomer hailing from Sakata in Osaka. Toru Shimizu, preparing his signature champon-men noodle dish, spotted a business opportunity and opened his restaurant Kobukuri in a 150-year-old building. It’s lunchtime on Saturday when I visit, and almost every table is taken by locals and visitors, evidence of a small success that can galvanize the broader regeneration of the district.

Many of the craftspeople, traders, merchants and city officials in the region have come across Linda Denis, an Australian instructor and associate professor at Joshibi University of Art and Design.

Linda Denis (left), an associate professor at Joshibi University of Art and Design, poses with students outside their converted ARToba gallery in Nakamachi. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Linda Denis (left), an associate professor at Joshibi University of Art and Design, poses with students outside their converted ARToba gallery in Nakamachi. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

After hearing from friends about a community group attempting to revive their neighborhood, Denis, in close collaboration with members of the organization and her students, embarked on the “Toba Stories Art Project in Nakamachi,” resulting in a book that profiled the neighborhood, its residents and businesses, and the interactive art projects undertaken by Joshibi students.

Asked how her students can make a contribution to urban renewal in the district, Denis expresses hope that expanding activities at their gallery, ARToba, will lead to more interest in the area.

“There are many vacant buildings that would lend themselves well to have artworks displayed in their windows,” Denis says.

On first encounter, Nakamachi may look dilapidated but initial impressions can be misleading. A stroll along the lanes and alleys that thread across its main street reveal a wealth of historic and social detail. Can tourism, then, be part of the solution? In a world of excessive hope, yes; in reality, it might contribute to a modest revival.

A medium tonnage cruise ship had docked in Toba Port on my last visit, some of its passengers drifting into Nakamachi, clutching English maps of the district.

Among the middle-aged and retired passengers, Keith and Boon Khamily, a young Australian couple of Lao descent, are eager to find smidgens of architectural heritage among the district’s bricolage of timber structures.

“We’re more into culture than buying masses of trinkets,” Keith Khamily says. “There are some impressive religious sites here, quite old temples, shrines and indigenous residential architecture.”

When discussing the benefits of tourism and new trends within the industry, Nakamura had talked about the recent appreciation for “essence.” Keith and Boon appear to have found it.

Children and parents enjoy food outside Sainenji temple. The nagashi somen event is held three or four times a year. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Children and parents enjoy food outside Sainenji temple. The nagashi somen event is held three or four times a year. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Wisps of acrid incense impregnate the older headstones of Sainenji temple, some encrusted with lichen and verdigris. Head priest Kajin Kakehi, a friendly, avuncular man, was busy serving cold sōmen noodles to a gathering of parents and children. Split bamboo pipes had been angled in such a way that water could be fed into the contraption, nagashi sōmen (“flowing sōmen”) placed at the top and floated down the stem. Children, issued with paper bowls and chopsticks, were having the time of their lives fishing out the slippery strands from the conduit. It was just the kind of event capable of bringing the community together, piquing the interest of visitors and creating collective memories.

Kakeki is happy to answer questions on renewal, emphasizing the importance of communication, networking and creating gathering spaces. Asked how important spiritualism is, what role it performs in the life of this community and how that might promote renewal, he points to a gold statue of Amida Buddha.

Kajin Kakehi, head priest of Sainenji temple, is a highly active member of the community. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Kajin Kakehi, head priest of Sainenji temple, is a highly active member of the community. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

“The whole of life, and death, flows through here,” Kakeki says. “The temple is a symbol of permanence and, because of the cyclic nature of this faith, renewal is a constant.”

Another exalted personage, Emperor Emeritus Akihito, discovered in his travels around Japan that there were thousands of people, “citizens who love their local community and with quiet dedication continue to support their community.”

Everything now rests on the shoulders of Nakamachi’s residents, craftspeople, artisans, religious leaders, shopkeepers, and a singularly enthusiastic group of art students and their instructor, to now make the small miracle of urban revival happen.

The final installment of a two-part series that focuses on development issues affecting urban and rural communities.

Katsuko Hirono, proprietor of Kadoya, is a member of a duo playing Japanese and American folk songs. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Katsuko Hirono, proprietor of Kadoya, is a member of a duo playing Japanese and American folk songs. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

A corner apothecary

Constructed as a family house and apothecary, Kadoya (“place on the corner”) was completed in 1825. Judging from the quality of the structure, it was a prosperous business. An Edo Period (1603-1868) plan on the wall depicts a private dock where goods could be loaded directly onto small vessels for delivery around the bay and further inland.

I’m sitting in one of its sunlit rooms with Katsuko Hirono, a direct descendant of Kadoya’s founders. She lived here with her grandmother, recalling a time when the house was full of life, when family and childhood friends would gather for events such as New Year’s, everyday life seamlessly coexisting with the components of a cultural setting that included shamisen lessons and the tea ceremony. The window we are sitting at overlooks a courtyard garden that seems to reflect the higher aspirations of a merchant family.

After her grandmother passed away, help was required in maintaining the premises. The local Toba government helped, providing the funding for an exacting restoration. Open to the public at free admission, the finishing is exquisite, no expense spared in retro-fitting decaying wood, installing new tatami, paper sliding doors, stained glass and replacing guttering with copper fixtures. It is a heritage structure locals can be proud of. For all intents and purposes, it was a sound investment, resurrecting a physical structure to its former beauty and architectural authority, while rebranding the site as a cultural space.

Kadoya, with the help of volunteers, hosts a roster of events, that include cooking classes, talks, children’s picture story book readings, sewing, doll-making and diverse musical performances. The upper rooms are set aside for art and craft exhibitions.

In many ways, Kadoya represents a model for the greater renewal of Nakamachi, a well-supported project that has retained the original form of the establishment, but transformed and reinvigorated its function. (Stephen Mansfield)