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Sunday, June 12, 2005

TENJINBASHISUJI / OSAKA

Shop till you drop on the longest arcade of all


Staff writer

"We get a lot of oddballs here," says Yuji Nomura. "Artistic types, computer nerds, bookworms, the homeless, and those who, for whatever reason, don't feel comfortable in the crowds among the big shops in Umeda."

News photo
A view of a relatively quiet day along the 2.6-kilometer Tenjinbashisuji shotengai in Osaka.

Welcome to Osaka's Tenjinbashisuji Shotengai, which is the longest covered arcade in Japan. Beginning at the Tenmangu shrine near the city's Minamimorimachi Station, this shotengai ends 2.6 km away at Tenjinbashisuji 6-chome Station. It's the route taken by pilgrims and partygoers during the city's annual Tenji Matsuri, which takes place every July 25th and is one of the largest and most popular festivals in Japan.

But everyday is a party, of sorts, in the Tenjinbashisuji shotengai. Several hundred shops (nobody really knows how many there are for sure, as places are constantly closing and opening up) cater to both the local community and, as Nomura notes, people from other parts of the city and further afield, who prefer to avoid the more upscale Umeda district, which is about a kilometer away.

There are seven separate districts within the Tenjinbashisuji shotengai and each has its own characteristics. Near the Tenmangu shrine, at Tenjinbashisuji 1-chome, one can find a fair number of coffee shops. Not the modern nonsmoking U.S.-chain coffee shop types with a dozen varieties of Italian-named coffees, but the rapidly disappearing older, local neighborhood coffee shops, with very bad coffee, very friendly service, musty carpets, late Showa Era pop songs on the stereo, copies of "Karaoke Fan" magazine lying around, and those tiny stools and tables that give you leg cramps after two minutes.

Heading north into Tenjinbashisuji 2-, 3- and 4-chome, you'll notice that the atmosphere starts to change. You'll see more bookstores and more restaurants, especially Asian restaurants. Because of its easy access to Umeda and other parts of Osaka, and because of it's relatively low rents, the Tenjinbashisuji area draws large numbers of foreign students from all over Asia. Chinese, both Mandarin and Cantonese, as well as Thai and Vietnamese can often be heard in the shops and restaurants in this area, and advertisements for Taiwanese and Thai-style massages abound.

Droves of bargain hunters

From about Tenjinbashisuji 4-chome until the end of the arcade at Tenjinbashi 6-chome station, things become very crowded, especially on weekends, as bargain hunters descend in droves. Casual clothing stores feature women's and men's shirts and pants for as little as 100 yen each, while audiophiles can check out about a dozen used record and CD shops specializing in jazz, blues and enka (folk ballads).

But the Tenjinbashisuji shotengai spirit is not just about the stores; it's about a sense of community and maintaining that at a time when many other shotengai are in trouble.

"The are several reasons Tenjinbashisuji continues to thrive at a time when many other shotengai are hurting," says Haruko Goto, the owner of a small cafe in Tenjinbashisuji 5 chome and a member of the Tenjinbashisuji shotengai promotion association. "First, and foremost, is that there is still a large local community of both small businesses and residents who support the shops in the arcade. The second reason is that the merchants of Tenjinbashisuji have undertaken an aggressive modern advertising campaign over the past few years to let both businesses, and customers, know what's going on,"

These promotional efforts include a Web page www.tenjin123.com that lists upcoming events, tells merchants about tour groups visiting the arcade and offers on-line coupons for many of the shops and restaurants.

But watching people, especially all of the "oddballs" that Nomura spoke about, is what makes this shotengai so popular, not just with bargain seekers but also people in search of something a bit more bohemian. "I'm glad that Tenjinbashisuji continues to draw lots of people who are different from the usual crowds elsewhere. A lot of people come to Osaka, see Umeda, and wonder where the 'real' city is. The answer is, it's here," says Nomura.



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