On the few times when we took long car trips in Japan during the 1960s, ours was one of the few private passenger cars on the highway. My impression is that no more than 20% of the vehicles on the highways back then were private passenger cars. And there were very few expressways, so it was like driving the old two-lane national highways in the U.S. during the 1950s. And taking the business route through each town, since bypasses for almost any major town would involve either cutting through the mountain behind it or filling in the sea in front of it.
Well, Japan’s construction state has now done that for cities and towns all over the archipelago. Roads and highways are now full of private cars–and flanked by strip malls with hectares of parking where fields and paddies used to be. It doesn’t strike you so much when you’re traveling around on a rail pass, but if you look carefully out the window of the train, you’ll notice that in the smallest towns, the pachinko parlor has a bigger parking lot than the train station; or that many small cities have an Ito Yokado with ample parking. In the sprawling suburbs, even the combini have parking lots. (Ito, the largest shareholder of 7-Eleven Japan, has just merged the two firms to form Seven&i Holdings.)
I thought I’d look at the public transport and parking situation in Ashikaga, a small city of historic importance, whose similar-sized sister cities include Springfield, the capital of Illinois, and Kamakura, the capital of the Kamakura shogunate (1185-1333), which preceded the Ashikaga shogunate (1333-1573). Its Chinese counterpart is Jining in Shandong, which embraces the hometowns of both Confucius and Mencius.
This gives a sense of the city’s cultural pretensions, which are not hard to understand. Its cultural legacy dates back to the Heian period (794-1185) and Minamoto no Yoshikuni, progenitor of the Ashikaga clan famous for its shoguns. So it has many traces of old money, namely, plenty of well-maintained shrines and temples; a flourishing tourist industry; several art museums (including a world-class porcelain museum); and lots of streets and sidewalks paved with granite or brick flagstones near the tourist sites.
The oldest part of Ashikaga, the original castle town (本城), lies on the hillslopes north of the Watarase River. The JR railway also runs north of the river, and main street (中央通り or just plain 通り) runs parallel north of that. But, while the nicer restaurants, bars, and souvenir shops near the tourist attractions are thriving, a lot of main street storefronts are closed. Nearly half the storefronts on some blocks remain unleased, so that I’ve learned a new kanji combination, boshuu, as in テナント募集 ‘tenants invited’, or ‘space available’. Shop hours are also short during the week, often just 11:00 to 18:00, with longer hours on the weekends, when more tourists as well as locals are on the streets. Exactly two Ashikaga city buses run such long routes far out into the country side, mostly to accommodate old people and hikers, that they can only complete four runs in each direction, at intervals of at least two hours.
Most of the retail action is happening south of the river, which is served by the private Tobu Line railway, with over 60 trains per day in each direction to the JR’s 30. The park-and-ride lot on the south bank of the river is normally jammed with cars, while the north bank always has plenty of spare room. National route 293 north of the river is flanked by city offices and parks, schools, and historic temples. South of the river, it’s flanked by strip malls: big-box retailers, fast-food outlets, and discount specialty stores. As pedestrian consumers trying to stock a semi-furnished Japanese apartment for a year, my wife and I have been thrilled to have within a 20-minute walk such big-box retailers as Yamada Denki and Kojima for home appliances and electronics, Shimachu for home and garden furniture and supplies, and Ito Yokado (now Seven&i Holdings) and Apita department stores, and–most of all–the big Daiso 100-yen store (Japan’s equivalent of the old “five-and-dime” stores).
Except for the well-stocked Fressay Supermarket (now hiring!) down the street, we don’t do any major shopping on our side of the river. We hike to the strip mall, where we could find a Chinese-made rice cooker and an iron for a third the price of their counterparts in the customer-free Panasonic or Sanyo outlets on main street.
But the old north side of town is fighting back with three weapons, two old, one new.
First, it is going back to what once made the town famous even before those Ashikaga shoguns–education. The Ashikaga Gakko is billed as the first university in Japan. Contemporary Ashikaga north is just littered with schools, public and private, from preschools to an Institute of Technology. In the evening, the old town is awash in cram schools, now more elegantly named zemi (ゼミ ‘seminar’) than juku (塾). Other than scattered restaurants and bars, there’s not much happening after dark in old Ashikaga except cramming to get into a better class of school, with mothers lined up at the curb to pick up the younger students after class.
Second, the north side of the Watarase river offers a heavily publicized, dense network of hillside shrines and temples connected by tree-shaded hiking trails, which offer nature lovers a much wider range of flora and fauna–especially insects–than do the flat Kanto plains on the south side. The Ashikaga ハイキングコース (‘hiking course’) attracts a lot of visitors, especially retirees. Many of the temples and shrines have little boxes where pilgrims can get their guidebook “passports” stamped so they don’t forget where they’ve been.
Third, the northside merchants have become keenly aware of the importance of offering parking to their customers. It’s amazing how many tiny eateries and storefronts on bigger thoroughfares have a big “P” or “P あり” or “駐車所” (‘parking lot’) out front, usually with an arrow pointing around back to where a small house or vegetable garden used to be. If you walk the back streets, you see the same thing, plus a lot more small parking lots where houses or shops used to be. Some of them are for customers, others for car owners who rent them by the month. The Ashikaga sightseeing information page also gives a lot of parking information, including the number of car and bus slots at each temple or shrine.
All in all, I’m glad to be on the older and more walkable north side, but close enough to the river to walk to the strip mall and back in a couple of hours.
(Chopstick Sensei has some related thoughts from Gunma Prefecture, which borders Ashikaga to the south.)
UPDATE, 24 September: Well, another exploratory walk to the far side of Ashikaga’s little Higashiyama rise has revealed the vastest parking lot yet, and on the north side of the Watarase River! The lot serves both the huge Torisen supermarket–which broadcasts some in-store messages in Japanese, English, Chinese, and Urdu/Hindi (I think, in any case not Portuguese), and carries among other things “non-oil” tuna, whale meat, Skippy peanut butter (a rare find in Japan), and fair selection of foreign wines in the ¥750-1500 range–and the even more gigantic Keiyo D2 (ケーヨーデイツー), the latter as big as any WalMart I’ve ever seen. Ashikaga’s D2 branch was built in March 2004, most likely to serve the community employed by Sanyo and other businesses in the new Otsuki Sukedo Industrial Park (大月助戸工業団地), which stretches up the nicely treelined east bank of a confluence of rivers that drain the mountain valleys of northern Ashikaga City. Big strip malls stretch up the other side of the river, with chain stores such as a Home Center, Off House (used goods), and Denny’s. Here’s a summary of what an International Market Research report concludes about the growth of home centers and changing domestic markets in Japan.
The continuing growth of Japanese home centers was confirmed by recent official government data. The number of home centers in 2002 increased 27.9% from the 1999 Survey, and the number of employees working at home centers increased 51.6% over the same period. Due to the steady growth of the Japanese do-it-yourself industry and the recent boom in pets and gardening, both sales and numbers of home centers have increased in Japan. Japan’s large-scale home center market offers good potential for U.S. products.