The Yomiuri Shimbun HACHINOHE, Aomori — Amble into the Hachinohe Yokocho back alley area of central Hachinohe and you’ll feel like you have traveled back in time to the Showa era (1926-1989).
The narrow backstreets are tightly lined with izakaya pubs and snack bars, with a soundtrack courtesy of lively karaoke singers. Customers who have finished their work for the day enter the cozy establishments one after another.
Hachinohe Yokocho has about 130 drinking and eating places crammed into an area spanning about 150 meters.
The enclave consists of eight alleys with interesting quirks and stories. Tanukikoji, the oldest one, was established in the latter half of the 1940s soon after the end of World War II, and Harmonika Yokocho is lined with small venues arranged in the shape of a harmonica reed. The name of Rocho Rensagai, meanwhile, derives from the fact that there was a jail — ro in Japanese — in the area during the Edo period (1603-1867).
Hachinohe Yokocho was developed during the postwar reconstruction years, and a roller-skating rink for U.S. soldiers of the Occupation forces was built in the process.
Hachinohe Port was one of the largest in the nation in terms of the volume of fish landed from 1965 to 1974, when many fishermen from across the country visited the yokocho alleys to enjoy its nightlife.
But with the start of the Heisei era in 1989, the area started to lose its old bustling atmosphere as the hauls of fish coming into the port declined. Furthermore, the opening of the Tohoku Shinkansen line’s Hachinohe Station in 2002 resulted in the city’s streets being improved and expanded, and the flow of people changed significantly.
To create a new tourist spot, an executive committee by the Hachinohe Chamber of Commerce and Industry, among others, opened Miroku Yokocho, an alleyway lined with food stalls, in the city center. Visitors flocked to the street for its new buildings, but its success had a negative knock-on effect on establishments in the nearby yokocho back alley area, whose businesses fell into a slump.
“People have disappeared from yokocho, except Miroku ... we fear the situation will develop into a contest with no winner,” said Yuji Tsukidate, 65, secretary general of the community group Hachinohe Yokocho Rengo Kyogikai. With a sense of urgency, Tsukidate and others started a project in 2005 to put on an event, Hachinohe Yokocho Gekkan, to bring attention back to the neglected alleys.
With Tsukidate’s determination “to do something to attract customers’ attention,” he and his colleagues launched to hold a monthlong series of events once a year.
One such occasion is the Hachinohe Yokocho Rengo Nomidaore Rally, an event in which a ¥2,000 ($18) ticket allows buyers to visit five bars in the yokocho, where they are served one drink and one dish at each place.
At the Yokocho Only You Theater, dances, plays, stand-up and comedy shows are performed in vacant stores and on the street, and a ¥1,500 fee gets you four performances and a drink.
The group’s activities have the full support of the Hachinohe municipal government, which produces area guide maps for them.
Tomoko Kazahari, a former municipal government manager in charge of community building and other projects, said, “I thought if administrative support was given, many people would be able to visit the yokocho with peace of mind.”
The group’s endeavors slowly gained traction, but when the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake struck, the number of visitors declined in the aftermath. However, the numbers have since recovered to pre-disaster levels.
Hachinohe Yokocho will also host a national alleyway convention in October, for which Tsukidate and the group are making preparations. They will produce a map illustrating shortcuts in the city center area and information materials explaining past events in the city.
Plans are also under consideration for walking routes that visitors can arrange according to their preferences by combining such focal points as a morning market on the waterfront.
Ahead of the big event where alleyway enthusiasts will gather from across the country, Tsukidate said, “We’ll continue to disseminate information constantly for the survival of this yokocho.”
National convention set
The national alleyway event is organized by the national liaison council of alleyways, a volunteer organization whose secretariat is located in the Japan Society of Urban and Regional Planners, a nonprofit organization in Tokyo.
Amid a situation in which alleys have been disappearing as redevelopment continues throughout the country, the council was established in 2004 to preserve safe and charming backstreets. The conference is held annually in various locations around the country.
The council numbers 196 members, including local government officials, scholars and students.
It organizes a wide range of activities, including lectures by experts as well as strolling through alleyways used as filming locations for movies and TV dramas, and it recommends policies on future use and revitalization of alleyways.
■ Hachinohe, Aomori Pref.
Located in eastern Aomori Prefecture and on the Pacific coast, Hachinohe is designated as a core city by the central government. Its population was 230,151 as of the end of November 2018. Its main industry is fishing, centering on Hachinohe Port, which is famous for hauls of mackerel, squid, sardines and other fish.
It is very cold in winter, so the city is referred to as “Hachinohe the Icy Capital.” Ice skating and ice hockey are popular sports. The Hachinohe Sansha Taisai festival, derived from the Gion Matsuri festival in Kyoto, is held from July 31 to Aug. 4 every year. The city is the hometown of Kaori Icho, who won her fourth straight gold medal in women’s wrestling at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.Speech