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NEMURO, Hokkaido — Alexander Teriokhin roams through a downtown shop, looking at guitars, jewelry and watches.

“It’s my first visit to Nemuro,” said Teriokhin, a 41-year-old Russian sailor from Sakhalin. “People here are very nice.” Teriokhin is one of the hundreds of Russians who have visited every year since 1991, when Japan lifted the ban prohibiting Russians from entering the city.

Only 3.7 km away from Kaigarajima of the Habomai islets, Nemuro is home to 2,500 former residents of the disputed islands controlled by Russia, which also include Kunashiri, Shikotan and Etorofu.

Many Nemuro residents had mixed — sometimes bad — feelings about Russia, but with an increasing number of Russian visitors, the city has now become a center of Russo-Japanese exchange. The number of Russian sailors coming ashore has increased from 1,400 in 1991 to more than 20,000 in 1997.

Every morning, Russian ships loaded with crab and fish enter the port. In the afternoon, some sailors rest aboard their ships, while others chat over vodka. Recently, however, many have discovered a new pastime: shopping.

Shopping streets are full of Russian signs. The city government provides a Russian guide map, and an information center provides Russian-language assistance. Some shopkeepers fluent in Russian wait on Russian customers. “Russian people are good customers,” said Shinichi Suzuki, a downtown shop owner. Suzuki said 40 to 50 Russian customers visit his shop every day.

Aleg Kaminsky, a Russian sailor looking over Suzuki’s wares, said he enjoys the town very much, except for the anti-Russian slogans blaring from the loudspeakers of rightwingers’ vans. “After shopping, I will go to a restaurant for a beer,” the 39-year-old navigation officer said as he purchased a wristwatch.

Suzuki said he has noticed a change recently in his customers’ shopping habits. Until several years ago, the sailors bought necessities such as cars, refrigerators, washing machines and television sets, which they took back home aboard their ships. But lately, demand has increased for items such as compact discs, sunglasses and watches.

“Peculiar things such as blood pressure test machines sell well, too,” Suzuki said. “It seems most Russians coming here already own the necessities of life. Now they want something new and interesting.”

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