Seni Tonyagai – The Hidden Retro Arcade of Kumamoto
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Anyone who has visited Japan a few times, or even just once, have probably noticed the existence of the so-called shotengai, also known as arcades. Especially if you have visited a few different cities you must have noticed their presence since they are very predominant and you can find them, in different sizes, in almost every city in Japan. These arcades are often bustling with life and in Kumamoto, the two major ones, Kamidori and Shimotori, are the center of food, nightlife, and fashion. So far so good!
But sadly, over the last 30 years, since Japans economy started declining and the birthrates fell, many of the smaller arcades have been turned into so-called “shutter streets”. A word symbolizing the permanently pulled down shutters that usually cover the front of the store after closure. This phenomenon is common all over Japan and different projects, have been initiated, often without success, to rekindle some life into these forsaken areas.
About a 10-minute ride with the tram from central Kumamoto you will find an area known as Kawaramachi. If you walk for approximately 1 minute you will arrive at a certain arcade and the topic of this article, namely, Seni Tonyagai. The name translates to Textile wholesale street and was established soon after the second world war. The buildings and many of the signs remain more or less unchanged since then resulting in a unique retro atmosphere. Until fairly recently Seni Tonyagai also had its shutters permanently pulled down and was left to deteriorate alone in the dark. And judging from the picture above, the main street doesn’t seem all that enticing right? But take a left turn into one of the narrow streets of the arcade and you will be in for a surprise.
Suddenly you find yourself peeking into a very different atmosphere. This does not seem like a street that has been vacated and left to rut for years on end. Plants, bright colors and dazzling light shining down through the arcade roof creates a refreshing air that pulls you in and encourages you to explore what might hide behind the next corner.
As you step closer you will find a world overflowing with detail and self-expression. Narrow and carefully decorated alleys that are beautifully arranged, all while maintaining a feeling of haphazardness. This is the current state of the revived shutter street Seni Tonyagai that started to bloom again roughly 15 years ago. What happened here and how did these forgotten streets turn into this hidden retro spot and center of innovative culture?
Kumamoto is a place full of passionate people and they are known for their high sense of fashion. If you walk around in Kumamoto city you will find an array of vintage stores, small individually owned apparel-shops, trendy beauty parlors and such. The problem for the young person who aims to start a business is often the high rents in the more central areas of Kumamoto. That is one of the reasons why the deserted old arcade area in Kawaramachi that could offer cheap rents became the perfect place for up and coming youth who wished to open something new.
But there is more to it than only cheap rents. The unique retro atmosphere of the old and untouched alleys in the narrow arcade is an important reason why people decided to start their business here. Most of the run-down buildings might be cheap but they were also in need of a major renovation to be used for any kind of business. Seni Tonyagai gives you the feeling that the obstacle of renovating is more of a blessing and that the inhabitants of the area have poured their soul into projecting a clear vision as they have designed the interior of their stores. All while protecting the old-fashioned retro exterior that brought them all together.
Another particular aspect of Seni Tonyagai is the narrow alleys of the arcade. Once you step out from one shop, you only need to take another step to be inside the next one across the street. This close and intimate distance result in a familiar and warm atmosphere and it’s not rare to hear the laughter from the shop owners’ children echoing between the narrow arcade walls. The outcome is a beautiful and relaxing community that can only be described as its own little world. Maybe this is what makes the bonds between the people of Seni Tonyagai so strong.
There are quite a few original shops as well! This place called Moratorium is one of the most flavorful shops and it clearly doesn’t shy away from the extreme.
Here you can find figurines, action figures, small porcelain animals, weird dolls and almost anything you could ever imagine. And many things you definitely could not!
Apparently, the store is also a book-shop with the only peculiarity that it probably doesn’t contain any words written during the 21st century. But for the one who has a passion for old manga or Japanese literature, this is a place where you could spend hours!
The store is packed with everything that could be stapled with the word retro and it’s all neatly crammed into a small 2-store shop. If you are traveling with a big backpack, I recommend to leave it outside or you will probably end up knocking down half the store as you turn around to inspect some awesome item that suddenly made you recall your childhood. Tread carefully!
To sum it up, Seni Tonyagai is not only beautiful but also an inspirational and relaxing place where you can go to experience a completely different kind of Japanese shopping arcade. Here you can find everything from fashionable vintage shops, cute cafes, jaw-dropping retro goods, charming beauty stores, trendy design offices, inspiring galleries and much more. It can’t be stressed enough that this is an amazing area where young people in pursuit of their dreams have managed to turn a closed and abandoned arcade into a center for culture and innovation through sheer will-power and effort. It is a must-visit for anyone stopping by Kumamoto city, if so only for the unique atmosphere. What are you waiting for?
Oh, and feel free to check out: #河原町繊維問屋街, for more sweet pictures!