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Saturday, June 17, 2006

HIGH-PROFILE CRIMES SCARE PARENTS

Indoor play centers pricey but safe havens for kids


Staff writer

Parents often want their kids to play indoors because of bad weather, the threat of sunburn or other environmental factors, and increasingly, because of the fear of crime.

News photo
Hiroshi Tsutsui, manager of the Yokohama outlet of indoor play center chain KID-O-KID, displays a costume for kids.

Such concerns are fostering a booming cottage industry of indoor play centers.

Shiho Fukube, 31, takes her 21-month-old son, Fumiya, to KID-O-KID, a 1,000-sq.-meter indoor play center run by Bornelund Co. in Yokohama.

"With the crime situation, I can't think of letting him play alone in a park, even when he gets older," Fukube said.

"When I was about 3, it was normal for me to go alone to a nearby park, but the situation has completely changed. It's reassuring here because no strangers can come in."

Parents are worried by what they see as a recent rise in high-profile violent crimes committed against children by strangers.

Shibuya-based Bornelund, which also imports children's educational toys, has had the play center in Yokohama since July 2004 and one in Kobe from April 2005. The play center in Yokohama's Minatomirai district has 3,000 pieces of equipment and toys spread over eight different areas.

The center includes a sandbox, transparent cyber wheels that children can sit inside and roll, and an area with 20,000 small plastic balls to play in. There is also an area where they can put on different costumes and play house.

KID-O-KID only accepts children aged 6 months or older, and parents must accompany them.

It costs 600 yen per child for the first half hour and 100 yen for an additional 10 minutes. Adults pay a flat entrance fee of 200 yen.

Bornelund President Hiroko Nakanishi, 61, claimed KID-O-KID is extremely popular, with people often being turned away on the weekends.

"The demand comes from the fact that there are not enough safe places for children to play outside -- that it's scary," Nakanishi said, adding that kids need large spaces where they can be active and gain strength.

She said she has received requests to open centers at 50 locations across Japan. The next center will open in Kyoto in July.

In fiscal 2005, 460,000 people visited the Yokohama and Kobe centers, which saw combined sales of 140 million yen, according to the company.

Fukube said some mothers worry that parks are too dirty.

Addressing those concerns, KID-O-KID uses antibacterial sand in its sandbox and cleans its toys with a weak solution of alcohol several times daily, said Hiroshi Tsutsui, manager of the Yokohama branch.

"The 1,600 yen or so I pay each time isn't too bad for the service," mother Fukube said.

Yasushi Ochi's business is also doing well.

BLD Oriental Co. operates 180 Yu Kids Island indoor playgrounds in Japan, either directly or through partnership agreements, with equipment developed by the firm, 57-year-old Ochi said.

He said he often speaks to experts, including academics, who tell him crimes targeting children are increasing in rural areas because as the communities shrink and neighbors stop talking to each other, criminals may feel they can more easily get away with wrongdoing.

"I aim for my playgrounds to become like a community in these (rural) areas," he said.

His indoor playgrounds, including ones in South Korea and Taiwan, draw about 1 million families per month, with an average family spending 400 yen per visit, Ochi said.

One woman, playing in a Meguro park with her two children, 7 and 4, said it was a shame people are afraid to let their kids play outside.

"Children are supposed to play outside, right? It's not normal," she said, adding, however, that she would be anxious if her children were outdoors by themselves.

While a lot of the focus is on giving children a safe place to play, some play centers want to create a place parents can enjoy as well.

Kenichiro Masuda, 37, opened Baby Oasis, a play facility for children with a cafe for parents in Tokyo's trendy Jiyugaoka district, after discovering there were few places in Tokyo he and his wife could go to relax with their child.

Masuda was working for a financial institution when his child was born.

He saw how stressed his wife became with nowhere to go and realized that with the dropping birthrate, Tokyo had become a city for adults.

"There are very few facilities that accommodate small children," he said. "If mothers want to go out and get some fresh air, it's difficult to find a place to change diapers or breast feed."

Also, because there are so few children, they draw a lot of attention if they get cranky, making mothers reluctant to go out, he said.

So Masuda quit his job and started Baby Oasis in 2005. It has a loungelike cafe and baby-proof play area with a heated floor.

Catering to parents with babies and toddlers, it has three separate areas for breast feeding; changing tables cleaned by staff after every use; and six types of baby food, diapers and bottles for sale.

Baby Oasis only charges parents -- 1,200 yen per person for the first hour with a free soft drink bar and an additional 400 yen for every half hour.

Masuda thought he was taking a risk leaving his full time job to start his own business, but the center has become a smash hit.

It has over 1,000 visitors a month and many stay about four hours per visit, he said.

"It's relaxing here," he said. "Children love to see their mothers relax."



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