By Mutsuko Kuwata / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterOKAYAMA — Cafes and variety stores with fashionable exteriors have brought a spark of life to the Toiyacho district in Okayama’s Kita Ward, which used to be dominated by monotonous lines of buildings.
The low-story buildings and wide roads in Toiyacho were designed to facilitate the handling of cargo, so the district has an inherent feeling of openness. On a weekend in July, a 24-year-old company employee enjoyed lunch with her friend at a nice cafe in the district. “We can easily come here by car and relax,” she said.
Located three kilometers southwest from JR Okayama Station, the once sluggish commercial district has now evolved into a popular spot. The approximately 13-hectare area used to be a wholesale district, mainly for the textile industry.
In the 1960s, the Okayamaken Oroshi Center — a wholesalers cooperative established by entities including a prefectural commercial union of textile wholesalers — converted rice paddies into a commercial district. Nearly 90 firms had facilities in Toiyacho during its peak period in the 1970s.
However, more and more vacant buildings appeared due to the growth of distribution systems that bypassed wholesalers, as well as the shuttering or downsizing of businesses after the bubble economy burst. A redevelopment plan to bring in a large commercial facility never came to fruition.
In 2000, the center revised its articles of incorporation so the district could be used for purposes such as retailing, services and residences. This provided an opportunity for the district to renew itself.
Takumi Akashi, 48, president of a design planning company, helped rebuild the district into what it is now.
During a business trip in Tokyo, someone asked Akashi: “What is there in Okayama?” He struggled to answer. In 2003, Akashi saw a building refurbished by his senior artistic creator. The building housed a cafe, and an actual airplane was displayed on the roof terrace.
“I want to create a district here we can be proud of,” Akashi thought. He wanted to change the impression that Okayama offers nothing special.
At the request of an acquaintance who owned one of the buildings in Toiyacho, Akashi compiled a broad plan that envisioned the district 20 years later. He asked the owner of a building that could serve as the starting point for an inflow of people to refurbish the building, and invited shops from the local capital.
He reasoned that local shops would be tenants longer than national-chain stores, which tend to quickly withdraw if sales are not up to par.
The Toiyacho district began to bustle with businesses such as a shop for a famous Okayama brand of jeans, a restaurant specializing in donburi dishes where customers could always use their favorite bowl, and a beauty parlor that carefully selects the water for its shampooing. This in turn brought even more shops to fill nearby buildings.
Nobuyuki Takaki, 49, president of a wholesale company of miscellaneous daily goods, refurbished his own building and is now renting it out. Takaki recalled: “A beauty parlor manager told me: ‘The sky seen from Toiyacho looks vast. It enables me to create a special space that makes customers feel content even after leaving my shop.’ After hearing that, I realized the [district’s] appeal.”
There are now more than 150 businesses in the district, two-thirds of which are engaged in activities other than wholesale operations. Shop managers and other people concerned have formed a local tenants association as well.
“I want to emphasize local ties and revitalize this district,” said the association’s head, cafe manager Tsutomu Oda, 31.
Many buildings in Toiyacho have conspicuously small windows. Taking advantage of this characteristic, Akashi and his fellows began to organize a new activity late last year in which artists can design the walls of the buildings. Discovering the district via Twitter and Instagram, students and others enjoy taking photos and posting about the district.
Ippei Yamamoto, 62, head of the center, is looking to the future.
“This district’s mood has changed,” Yamamoto said. “I want to make it a place that people will feel even more drawn to.”
Okayama’s latest merger in 2007 with nearby municipalities brought the city’s administrative area to its current size. The city became an ordinance-designated major city in 2009.
The city functions as a transport hub in the Chugoku and Shikoku regions, as it has JR Okayama Station — which serves eight train routes including the Sanyo Shinkansen bullet train line — and Okayama Airport. The population has increased to 721,116 as of July 1.
Known as one of Japan’s top three gardens, the Okayama Korakuen had been given the highest three-star rating by the Michelin Green Guide Japon. For this and other reasons, many foreign tourists have visited the city in recent years.
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