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Tuesday, April 3, 2001

Osaka a tale of two 'Americatowns'

New Citywalk aims at a different crowd to the old Shinsaibashi haunt


Staff writer

OSAKA -- Many cities in Japan, Europe and the United States have a Chinatown. But Osaka now finds itself with two "Americatowns" that, although not competitors, are keeping an eye on each other.

Young crowds swarm the busy streets of American Mura in Osaka's Shinsaibashi district.

The newest district is Citywalk, a collection of America-theme eateries and shops beside the Universal Studios Japan theme park in the city's Konohana district. Designed to appeal to families and a clean-cut younger crowd, the complex feels like a Los Angeles outdoor shopping plaza.

Nearer the center of the city, America Mura, a district of used clothing stores, bars and restaurants in Osaka's central Shinsaibashi district, has a decidedly urban feel. "Ame-Mura," as it is known, has long been the place to be for the city's young and trendy.

"Citywalk will draw lots of adults and clean-cut kids from the suburbs," said Takeshi Imamura, who owns a small women's clothing shop in America Mura. "Ame-Mura has an urban feel to it, with break dancers, graffiti on the walls, and rap music blaring from many of the shops and thus draws a younger, more urban crowd.

"Citywalk is also new, so there's going to be a lot of initial interest and we might lose a little business at first," he said.

Despite the media hype over USJ, most people who work and play in America Mura say that neither the opening of the park nor the adjacent Citywalk is likely to drain Ame-mura's regular customers for very long.

"Citywalk is far too pricey for most of the kids who hang out in Ame-Mura," said 23-year-old Kazumi Sawada, who said she has worked part-time at many of the shops in America Mura. "You can just meet friends in Ame-Mura and not spend any money, whereas you have to spend several thousand yen to enjoy yourself at Citywalk."

While municipal officials in charge of Citywalk are quick to insist they do not intend to compete with America Mura, some of those who work in the Citywalk shops wonder if maybe there aren't a few things the complex can learn from America Mura.

"I understand USJ and Osaka officials are trying to sell a certain concept (with the Citywalk project)," said a Japanese manager of a restaurant in Citywalk. "But the atmosphere of Citywalk is pretty sterile compared with Ame-Mura. Some of the shops that cater specifically to a younger crowd would welcome a more laid-back, America Mura-style atmosphere."

One of the big questions surrounding the USJ and Citywalk projects is whether both will draw a steady stream of repeat customers. There seems to be a general consensus among independent economic experts that USJ will have a great opening year and will meet or surpass its target of 8 million visitors.

However, to succeed, the park and the area must continually draw people back from Osaka and surrounding areas. Families from outside the Kansai region and foreign visitors are expected to be good repeat customers.

However, given the slow economy, there is concern among USJ and Citywalk officials that some customers, especially younger ones who live in Osaka, may opt for cheaper alternatives such as America Mura.

"All of my customers say they will definitely go to USJ at least once," Imamura said. "But since many of them are high school or college kids on limited budgets, I think they will only go again if it's a special occasion."

Location will also play a role in determining how many younger Osaka people travel to USJ on a regular basis.

"USJ and Citywalk seem kind of far away. America Mura is in the heart of Osaka, so it's easier and cheaper to get to," Sawada said.



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