Reflections on Place: Yokkaichi Honmachi

Sometimes you come across a place that looks like it was born directly from your own fantasies and imaginings. A place that looks, feels, and even sounds like a place that you had visited before, but only in your dreams. I found one such place in Yokkaichi, Mie last week.

For the vast majority of people, I dare to say, Japan conjures up an image of hyper-modernity: high rises, bright lights, and life so fast-paced it may seem like a blur of constant motion. And for most visitors to Japan, that is the face of the country that one will see the most of: its major cities are brimming with life and vitality, youth and speed, the modern and the avant-garde. However, that fast, modern Japan represents only half the picture: there is another slow, almost completely stagnant Japan best seen in its rural localities: populated by an aging population, relatively conservative in its ways, and having largely been left behind by the nation’s explosive economic growth from the 1960s and 70s. This ‘second’ Japan is largely ignored by both the interests that promote an image of “Cool Japan” to draw in tourism, and the foreign visitors that are drawn in by their efforts. Thankfully, there exists a dedicated, if small, level of domestic interest in exploring these areas.

Yokkaichi is the place where these two worlds collide. Located in Mie Prefecture, one of the few places in Japan where the JR rail network is less extensive than a private competitor, the city center is oriented around the Kintetsu Yokkaichi Station, where everything is fast, shiny, and modern. However, just a little over a kilometer down the massive (for Japan) four-lane boulevard lies the JR Yokkaichi Station, which represents the second Japan. Described as “something that came out of a Communist country”, the massive, drab concrete structure truly could have been a station from somewhere in suburban Pyongyang. The two-story structure is almost completely vacant, save for the ticketed office (staffed, thank god) and a small city-operated bicycle rental. The station, which seemingly operates more as a terminal for freight trains, was designed for a capacity that was never achieved: it boasts only platforms #2 and #3, with platform #1 having been redeveloped into a pay-per-hour parking lot.

The area around the station has similarly shared in its fortunes. Directly out of the station lies Honmachi, one of the oldest neighborhoods of Yokkaichi city. A far cry from the sanitized modern Japan of identikit apartment blocks, Honmachi is mostly comprised of narrow, dark alleyways more reminiscent of a Hong-Kong crime film. However, it is also a place that breathes life – although many of its businesses are shuttered and decaying, Honmachi is still densely inhabited, mostly by pensioners alike.

The most remarkable – and decrepit – alleyway is marked by the ironic sign-plate “akarui shotengai”, meaning “bright market street”. However, the entrance is dark and foreboding, even under the bright summer sun. Walking inside, a remarkable scene of devastation unfolds: the street is full of shuttered izakayas and cabarets. There was once a time, probably not too long ago, that this small alley was a sacred sanctuary for the overworked salaryman, the backbone of modern Japan. Sustained by passengers getting off from the JR station, the oasis has dried up along with ridership figures.

However, the picture is not all dark. Turning the corner, yet another uncanny world unfolds: the plastic roofing that covered the street, much like many of the izakayas themselves, has begun succumbing to decay, dropping onto the ground haphazardly. Sunlight now filters in through these openings, creating a world of beautiful light. A place that once prospered serving the night now is beautifully illuminated by the light of day.

Cautious to not bother anyone who might still be living in the area, I stepped out of the alleyway and walked back onto the main street. A few businesses still survive on the block. The biggest establishment is the public bath, which in Kansai style, is still termed an onsen. The large tile-lined building looked right out of the post-war era and was quite inviting, but it did not open until much later into the afternoon. Further down the street, next to the entrance of the akarui shotengai, was the Moka (Mocha) cafe. When I walked up to the door, I heard the loud and lively voices of elderly women, and decided not to intrude. The Saharin (Sakhalin) cafe around the corner was a similar story, except the voices were male. Having exhausted my options for a relaxed sit-down place for a cup of coffee, I settled for the diner, had a quick omurice, and took the next train out.

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