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Tuesday, April 3, 2001

OFF, BUT NEAR THEME PARK TRACK

Locals hope for USJ windfall


By KENZO MORIGUCHI
Staff writer

OSAKA -- The local community here hopes the Saturday opening of Universal Studios Japan in Konohana Ward will boost the ailing local economy, which has an unemployment rate above the national average. But some local vendors are not very optimistic.

Above: Yasuhiro Taniguchi, member of a citizen's group from Kujo in Osaka's Nishi Ward, advertises a walking tour aimed at attracting visitors of Universal Studios Japan. Below: The locals hope some of the crowds will access the downtown area through a tunnel under the Aji River.

According to one estimate, USJ will inject 148 billion yen in tourism revenue in the first year alone.

The Osaka Municipal Government hopes the city itself will enjoy a trickle-down effect of 860 billion yen in economic benefits.

But such optimistic forecasts don't make clear what benefits local residents and shop owners around the park will enjoy.

In downtown Kujo in Nishi Ward, locals are eager to profit from the flood of tourists to the park.

Of the estimated 8 million annual visitors to USJ, about half are expected to come on JR trains.

JR Nishi-Kujo Station in Konohana Ward is where most passengers will transfer to a line leading to the newly opened Universal City Station, a gateway to USJ.

Consequently, Nishi-Kujo Station expects to see a daily average of 18,700 passengers -- and up to as many as 42,000 on busy days -- either making a stop or changing trains there.

Located just across the Aji River from the station, Kujo locals are eager to draw those visitors by providing them with a typically Osaka experience -- something not available in the new theme park.

"We have to do something interesting for visitors in order for them to stop at JR Nishi-Kujo Station and walk down to the local shopping streets," said Yasuhiro Taniguchi, a representative of the Association to Talk About Kujo in the 21st Century, a local citizens' group.

The association organizes a monthly walking tour on the second Saturday of every month showing participants unique spots and shops in the area, such as a rare pedestrian tunnel under the Aji River that has a modern elevator, and what it claims is the smallest ramen shop in Japan.

The tour itself was launched by the association in an attempt to draw visitors to the Osaka Dome, which opened in March 1997.

The last 33 tours have drawn some 1,000 participants, said Taniguchi, an assistant professor at Osaka University of Art and a former tour guide.

"Beginning this month, we are changing to begin our tour from JR Nishi-Kujo Station instead of from the middle of the town," he said.

The association is also making a 57-shop map showing "takoyaki" (octopus dumpling), "okonomiyaki" (Japanese pancake) and ramen shops in the area, which will be available by the end of this month. "With such a walking map showing so many snack shops, I hope visitors will come over to the Kujo area from the station," Taniguchi said.

Other efforts by this area include providing a park-and-ride system for visitors to USJ.

Although the theme park has parking for 4,000 cars -- at a cost of 2,000 yen a day -- traffic jams and a lack of parking spaces are predicted on busy days.

The association is trying to promote four parking facilities to accommodate some 100 cars on such busy days so visitors do not have to be stuck in traffic.

"If visitors show a ticket for the theme park, they can park at least the first one hour free of charge. They can then enjoy walking along the shopping street to JR Nishi-Kujo Station through the Aji River tunnel," Taniguchi said. Parking a car in the area normally costs 250 yen per half-hour.

Although Taniguchi and his colleagues say they will try anything, they are not all that hopeful about what the USJ can do for them.

"USJ will probably take most of the good, while the transportation and hotel industries can make some gain from it," he said.

Such a view is shared by residents surrounding the theme park.

Kozaburo Ogino, director of the promotion union for the Kasugade shopping street, sees no gain for the neighborhood, for the moment at least, from the opening of USJ.

Although the shopping street, located less than 3 km away, is the closest one to USJ, one can hardly expect those visiting the theme park to spend money at the shopping street, Ogino said.

"We are located between JR Nishi-Kujo Station and JR Universal City Station and have no station near here," he said. "What can we expect?"

Right in front of the shopping street runs the only major road leading to USJ.

But Ogino, who runs a clothing shop in the shopping street, does not foresee motorists jumping out to have a break in the district, which does not have a parking facility.

"After spending time at USJ, probably eating dinner and buying souvenirs, would you stop here after just a few minutes drive?" Ogino asked. "I wouldn't."

"What we do expect is the traffic. Being in an area full of factories, we are used to vehicle emissions. But I am worried that some of the drivers might even try to make a short cut by driving narrow back streets, posing a danger to children and the elderly," he said.

"As an Osaka citizen, I do welcome such a facility as USJ. But as a member of this shopping street, I'd better concentrate on efforts to keep as many local customers as possible rather than hoping to lure the USJ visitors."



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