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Thursday, May 11, 2000

Firing up Fukuoka's hippest corner


By STEPHANIE GARTELMANN

FUKUOKA -- A long feature on Fukuoka in a recent issue of Toyo Keizai magazine examined three different areas that represent development in the city. Two of these, the reclaimed land of Momochi, and the city's historic Kawabata area, have seen much growth in the last 10 years, boosted by giant government-funded ventures.

In contrast, the third area, young, cosmopolitan Daimyo is booming from the overflow of the department-store wars in nearby business center Tenjin. Daimyo is a chic little enclave just west of Tenjin only 500 x 500 meters in size, often described as being what Jiyugaoka is to Tokyo, while Tenjin is equivalent to Shibuya.

Because Fukuoka is the economic core of the dynamic Kyushu-Yamaguchi region, its internal cores also generate high earnings. A survey by Nishi Nippon Bank showed that shoppers in their teens and 20s spent over 40,000 yen in a day at Daimyo -- twice that age group's average spending for the whole city. Statistics in 1999, released by Nishi Nippon Shimbun newspaper, revealed shopping as the number one attraction for nearly 40 percent of visitors to Fukuoka -- far outstripping those who came for weddings and functions (20.2 percent), sports and cultural events (17.6 percent) and even business (4.2 percent).

Daimyo is where Fukuoka's hippest bars, restaurants and shops compete to set the city's fashion scene. On any given day, crowds of pedestrians amble at their leisurely Kyushu pace past upmarket and hip-hop clothing stores, incense-oozing Asian import shops and cafes in obscure nooks.

"Daimyo is the neighborhood to be in now," says Alfredo de Michel, owner of Fukuoka's first commercial "head" shop, Circus. Sales in Circus' selection of body piercing and more lurid items are doing extremely well.

"We get a lot of young women. . . They look around and say, 'I'll have five of these, and five of those!' " says Michel with amusement.

Formerly the city's shitamachi or castle area, Daimyo's character lies in its labyrinthine, narrow streets (intended to confound potential attackers of Fukuoka Castle) and rows of old-fashioned grocery stores. Daimyo grew as a commercial center and, despite a "post-bubble" development slump in the mid-'90s, has seen dramatic changes in the last three years when many remaining dwellings were converted into gleaming commercial houses.

Shoppers poured in, impelling local magazine City Joho Fukuoka to add a regular department called "Daimyo Document" to its contents. The page's editor, 25-year-old Yuki Yoshino, even moved here to pursue the area's myriad developments.

There is an interesting pull between those who want to make Daimyo more upmarket and those who want to bring in more youth and subculture. It's the latter who btend to set up shop in renovated old, even ugly, plaster-board bungalows or wooden buildings, creating unlikely and imaginative eateries, stores and exhibition spaces. One import store and gallery, Poodleian, run by graphic artist Yuki Fukui, is hidden at the far end of a dank apartment courtyard, making it all the more popular.

Upmarket developers, on the other hand, pull down old buildings. Is this all bad? Ikumi Ogawa, owner of a renovated 160-year-old store selling Japanese and Asian home wares, admits the changes have also brought much vitality to the area. Yet the city government places no restrictions on the size of buildings, and has no plans to improve roads or create and preserve green spaces. Developers take such decisions into their own hands, often clumsily.

One very positive example of a Daimyo developer is Toshiaki Kuboyama, CEO of Naoki Creative. Kuboyama has gained much attention for five buildings placed strategically in north, west, south and central Daimyo.

"I believe areas should be developed very gradually," says Kuboyama, who is passionate about Daimyo. "I want to build a living town, not just a town for show." Kuboyama has had his share of directing large projects, such as Ikebukuro's Sunshine City and Fukuoka's stunning Marine World aquarium. But he prefers small developments that take less long-term planning, allowing for better answers to consumer needs.

Naoki Creative's Kiki Place, a two-story building in Daimyo, won a Fukuoka City urban design prize in 1999 for its sensitivity to the area's back lanes. Kiki Place is unobtrusive, and has a distinct European touch. It embodies some strong Kuboyama principles. Bricks are used for their excellent aging qualities. Ceilings are high. Trees are planted outside, in an attempt to bring green back into the city center. External stairs lead to upper floors, adding design interest and making spaces flow. Natural, soft colors such as beige are used, says Kuboyama, to enhance Daimyo's innate dignity while attracting a more sophisticated visitor.

Kuboyama carefully selects tenants before any building starts, to ensure variety and high quality of content. Kiki Place even has a day-care center. In Southside Terrace, a building nearby, a yakiniku restaurant doubles as a kiln-inspired gallery for the vibrant works of ceramic artist Gen Kozuru.

"There's too much fashion here. Daimyo needs more depth," explains Kuboyama, who dreams of bringing an intimate cinema to Daimyo, and roof gardens to each building.

Daimyo's combination of youth-oriented and sophisticated culture means that fans don't grow up and move out -- they just go to different establishments in the same area. It's sometimes hard to predict which way the balance will tilt. One cafe, T-Two, was designed by owner Kimie Tanaka as a tiny glass-and-steel box that brought a fresh touch to a then-quiet Daimyo lane. The cafe attracted older customers at first, but now is usually a cheerful din of twentysomethings who spill out of nearby fashion shops.

"Now there are five boutiques here, and a hotel on the corner," says Tanaka. "There are too many people in Daimyo now," she sighs.

True. But not many business people are likely to leave, either.



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