Osaka street struggles to tap into tourist boom

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The Yomiuri ShimbunOSAKA — In the Shinsekai area of Naniwa Ward, Osaka, which is crowded with foreign tourists and locals, there is a shopping street far away from all the bustle. The street, Shinsekai Ichiba (Shinsekai market), surprises visitors by being deserted, with some people calling it a “different world” or an “air pocket.” People running businesses on this shopping street are struggling to recover their former prosperity and are trying various measures, such as a new tourist service for foreigners launched by the owner of a long-established store.

Shop owner gets creative

“Hello, this is Japanese tea.”

Early one afternoon in July, Hiroaki Okita, 60, the fourth-generation owner of green tea shop “Okitaken,” founded in the first year of the Meiji era (1868-1912), called out in a smattering of English to foreign tourists walking on the street.

Shinsekai Ichiba shopping street is about a two-minute walk from Tsutenkaku tower, a famous sightseeing spot in the Shinsekai area. In its heyday, the 150-meter street was lined with 48 stores, but the number began falling around 2000. Only about 15 stores are operating at present. As the store owners get older, few of the old shops were turned into new ones as the shop buildings were also the owners’ dwellings. Today, vacant and shuttered shops are conspicuous.

According to an estimate by Mitsubishi Research Institute, Inc., the number of foreign tourists visiting the Shinsekai area increased threefold to 1.28 million from 2012 to 2015. In reality, however, few tourists visit this shopping street as it gives an impression of being deserted.

Hoping to change the situation, Okita decided to attract more foreigners. He learned English phrases such as “strong green tea” on the internet, and created a leaflet in English.

Since many Malaysian tourists visit the store, Okita started offering an original cafe latte using matcha powdered green tea mixed with sugar, which he thought would be popular among Malaysians after visiting the country himself to learn about local tastes. In March, Okita launched a new service in cooperation with an organization running a tour for foreign tourists to taste Japanese green tea. The service has been favorably received by participants, with one from the Philippines saying, “I will definitely let my friends know about this after returning home.”

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Shintaro Kaku shows his design in Naniwa Ward, Osaka.

“I want to do anything I can come up with to attract more people,” Okita said. “If I fail, I will think about the next step.”

Animal prints bring fame

Other strenuous efforts to recover the street’s prosperity have been under way in recent years.

A poster reads: “Once, in the past, we could not see even a short distance ahead due to the crowds. Now, we could go bowling here.”

Posters carrying these self-deprecating messages about how deserted the street is were created based on an idea from a copywriter at major advertising company Dentsu Inc. People visiting the street can enjoy various phrases on these posters, which appear throughout the street.

Meanwhile, garment store Naniwa Komachi has begun to specialize in animal print clothing in order to better match Osaka’s reputation for being over-the-top. The store handles an inventory of about 5,000 garments with leopard and tiger prints. When the shop opened in 2012, it mainly offered yukata summer kimono. However, since about two years ago, it made changes to its product line and started offering items representative of Osaka to entertain tourists. Subsequently, the store has often been spotlighted on TV programs and in other media.

Owner Mayumi Takahashi, 66, who has become famous, loves leopard-print patterns. She said: “It’s good to emphasize Osaka’s unique characteristics as well as those that are popular among foreigners. I would like to promote these features in order to revitalize the whole shopping street.”

Sticker fetes 105th anniversary

OSAKA — A sticker has been chosen to help liven up the mood of the 105th anniversary of the Shinsekai area in Naniwa Ward, Osaka, in July.

The sticker represents the bustle of Shinsekai — literally “new world” — and has smiling faces drawn on the number 105. It will be displayed by shops in the area to promote the 105th anniversary of Shinsekai.

Shinsekai started in 1912 at the former site of the National Industrial Exhibition. A local community-building organization called Shinsekaientai (A team to support Shinsekai) chose the sticker from a total of 40 sticker designs in a contest and other events.

The selected sticker designed by Shintaro Kaku, a 38-year-old designer from Nara, features the number 105 with smiling faces on it. It also says “Metcha iitoko Shinsekai” (Shinsekai is a really nice place). It was highly praised at the contest as it matches the atmosphere of the town, which attracts many people.

The team printed 800 stickers, each measuring 15 centimeters by 15 centimeters, and distributed them to shops and others in July. “This sticker shows our hope that Shinsekai will remain a nice place, even though it is ever changing,” said Masataka Kondo, 54, the head of Shinsekaientai. “I want to liven up the mood of the 105th anniversary with it.”

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