Travel | BACKSTREET STORIES

A small slice of Showa Era life, preserved in Ome

Hand-painted movie boards and classic trains await in old Tokyo post town

by Kit Nagamura

Contributing Writer

Ome is, as they say, a ways away. At least from central Tokyo. I rock on a west-bound Chuo Line train from Tokyo Station for about 90 minutes before I get there.

Once I alight, though, the station’s quaint wooden platform buildings make me feel like I’ve traveled backward through time. Butterflies flit by and swallows swoop over the train tracks, backed by mountainous terrain. The air is full of pollen, and there’s a rarity once the train disappears: utter quiet.

Taking the south exit, I pass through a tunnel of retro, hand-painted movie signboards, most of which feature trains: Vittorio de Sica’s “Terminal Station” (1953), Pietro Germi’s “Il Ferroviere” (“The Railroad Man,” 1956) and Shinji Murayama’s “Tabiji” (“The Journey,” 1967). In an effort to find out more about these, I ask the stationmaster, and he directs me to a charming little visitor’s center nearby.

I acquire stacks of information on Ome, which, according to the clerk on duty, has several claims to fame. From as early as 1150, it was an established area of fine silk production. During the Edo Period (1603-1868), the town was a crucial shukuba (post station), and gave its name to the Ome Kaido, a western route for travelers from the old capital, Edo, to Kofu (in current-day Yamanashi Prefecture.)

‘Bus Stop’ (1956): Ome is festooned with hand-painted, location-themed movie boards, many of which are the work of artist Noboru Kubo. | KIT NAGAMURA

These days, tourists visit Ome to check out its collection of Showa Era (1926-89) movie billboards. In the early 1950s, Ome ran three independent cinemas and a self-taught Ome native, Noboru Kubo (1941-2018), nabbed the job of painting all the advertising billboards for the cinemas. During his prime, Kubo, who went by the sobriquet “Bankan” (a play on the word kanban, or billboard), churned out seven to eight billboards a week. By 1973, however, all three cinemas had closed business.

After a hiatus of nearly two decades, Kubo was asked to once again display his talents for the Ome-juku Art Festival in 1993. Merchants in Ome responded to the nostalgic quality of his painting style and realized having movie posters that related to their shop’s businesses might improve the area’s aesthetic. In later years, art students from Meisei University’s Ome campus were enlisted to add paintings to the collection.

I nab a map that lists 100 of the billboards displayed in Ome. Clutching this, I head into the sharp sunlight, to see how many I can identify.

Before long, I’m distracted by an overhead sign to something called “Nya-Nya-Magari.” Tucking the map in my pocket, I enter a zigzagging alley, and find it festooned with all manner of feline figures. Each house has some display of cats: jigsaw cutouts, wire sculptures, spray-painted felines, rubber kitties and even a pinata puss climbing a fire escape.

Walking on, I assume I’ll never find out how this craze for cats emerged, but when I ask passerby Masako Okano, 72, what she knows about it, she reveals that it was, in fact, her husband, Masanari, 74, who named the alleyway.

“This passage makes seven turns, or nana-magari,” she explains. “And because there were so many cats around, he dubbed it Nya-Nya-Magari.”

Happy couple: Masako (left) and Masanari Okano, cat enthusiasts and Ome residents.
Happy couple: Masako (left) and Masanari Okano, cat enthusiasts and Ome residents. | KIT NAGAMURA

Taking the “n” sound and making it into “nya” is a Japanese way of mimicking cat-talk; it’s catchy once you get the “nyack” for it.

Masako’s husband emerges from their home. “Forty-seven years ago,” he says, “we were setting up shops on the main street. We all built homes behind the stores, and we all seemed to have cats.” I sense that Ome operates under the “pick a theme and stick to it,” policy of community-building.

I bid the Okanos farewell, and purr off down the alley, veering toward Ome’s main commercial center. Even at Ome’s biggest pedestrian crosswalk, I notice there is far more wildlife than people.

Ome’s commercial district resembles an early Showa Era movie set, circa 1950, with the occasional extra strolling past the pastel, faintly art deco storefronts. For a reality check, I pop into Kiguchi Juntendo Yakkyoku pharmacy. It is cavernous and dim inside, with one fluorescent light, buzzing. When my eyes adjust, I note that half the store is filled with beauty products several decades past their sell-by date. “I wish someone would come and take it all for a museum,” pharmacist Tomohiro Kiguchi, 62, says, explaining that much of his dead stock is Max Factor, the company that once specialized in movie makeup.

There’s a thin layer of dust over much of what’s in Kiguchi’s shop, but a bell on the door rings as a customer comes in, and I take that as my cue to exit, quietly.

Back out on the street, a sizable insect suddenly lands on my collarbone. I try to flick it away, but it bites me and bolts down my shirt. I dart into a vacant parking lot to shake the hostile visitor loose. It flies off before I can see what it is, but it leads my eye to the first of Ome’s outdoor movie billboards: “Les Enfants du Paradis,” Marcel Carne’s 1945 film. Brutalized by the elements, the painting of a scene from the black and white classic is sadly peeling off its plywood base.

Across the street, I find another billboard, in far better condition. “Glass Moon” is clearly a play on Peter Bogdanovich’s 1973 “Paper Moon,” with stars Ryan and Tatum O’Neal depicted as — surprise, surprise — cats. The billboard advertises a stained glass art shop, Minamo.

Soldering on: Mariko Yanase creates handmade mirrors, lamps and jewelry from glass.
Soldering on: Mariko Yanase creates handmade mirrors, lamps and jewelry from glass. | KIT NAGAMURA

“You’ve been bitten,” remarks the owner, Mariko Yanase, 60, peering at me over her glasses and holding aloft a soldering iron. I’m trying to ignore it, I tell her, turning my attention to her displays of handmade mirrors, jewelry and lamps. “I use Showa glass from demolished buildings in some,” Yanase says, indicating a row of lamps with molded glass in patterns that are still common in Tokyo’s older neighborhoods. I love the upcycling idea, and the creative celebration of this disappearing detail. As Yanase solders on, she mentions that she offers classes and also takes commissioned orders. Thanking her, I head out again.

Walking east, I notice movie billboards everywhere. One features John Ford’s “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949), and decorates a clothing store. Another — De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves” (1948) — appears, naturally, over a bicycle shop. Some billboards are hidden on side walls, some are glaringly new, and some feature the faces of silver screen stars, foxed and faded with age.

Eventually, I come across two tile-roofed, prewar buildings, repurposed as museums. One commemorates Fujio Akatsuka (1935-2008), an early “gag manga” cartoonist best-known for his “Tensai Bakabon” (“Genius Bakabon”) series (1967-76). The other houses the Showa Retro Shohin Hakubutsukan, a museum dedicated to merchandise and memorabilia of the period.

With my afternoon hours waning, I enter the latter (¥350) and marvel at the collections of medical supplies, stationery items and toiletries, only decades removed from the present, and yet already so distinctly different. In the rear, display panels explain in detail how Bankan prepared his famous billboards and a collection of his perfectly preserved works is wonderful to observe up close.

Exiting the small museum, I find a sign that points me toward the Ome Railway Museum. I cross the JR tracks, then climb past some tennis courts and finally scale a steep set of steps through a plum orchard that reminds me that Ome means, literally, “green plum.”

Collector
Collector’s item: An early 5500-series train imported from Britain in 1897. | KIT NAGAMURA

The museum entrance is styled to look like a JR ticket wicket, but the fee (¥100) is cheaper than any actual Tokyo train ride. Inside the museum building, the displays are somewhat lackluster, and the model trains cost another ¥100 to run twice around the track.

But outside, I find three full-size steam locomotives and one electric engine from 1935 that justify the price of admission. And right around the corner there’s still more: a full-size electric engine, plus five more steam engines.

Blue-eyed blonde: One of Ome
Blue-eyed blonde: One of Ome’s resident cats. | KIT NAGAMURA

The gleaming black collection ranges from an 1871 British Side Tank Locomotive Class 110, one of the first steam engines in Japan, to a 1969 Hikari shinkansen, the first model to exceed 200 kilometers per hour. Visitors are allowed to enter the cabs of most locomotives, and throughout the park there are rides for toddlers (¥100 each).

I’m out of steam — and daylight — so I head back down the hill. Cutting through an alley on my way back to the station, I pass a father and son playing catch, and hear a mom soothing her baby to sleep through the window of small home. Checking my billboard map, I realize that I’ve only explored half of Ome so far. It seems reasonable to make the trip out again next month. As I’m thinking this, a beautiful white cat appears, as if to say “Why ‘nyot?'”

Ome is served by Ome Station, which is a one-hour-15-minute journey on the Chuo Line from Tokyo Station (¥920/one way). From Tokyo Station, board a direct train bound for Oku-Tama, or change onto an Oku-Tama-bound train at Tachikawa Station, where the Chuo Line diverges.