The stark contrast of a little bar or business that has become a car park is always shocking, but the transition from a home to merely an empty building is no less moving. In fact it probably has even more impact, as it’s the cycle of life made tangible rather than something that’s mostly tucked away in the back of our minds.
Kinugawa Onsen a few hours north of Tokyo is in many ways the perfect symbol of Japan’s numerous old resort towns. Faded, down-at-heel places whose best days are long gone and slow decline is now the harsh and very visible reality.
Coming of age as it were during the mass tourism boom of the 1950s and 60s, the success of those times in many ways led to Kinugawa’s subsequent downfall, as it resulted in more, and ever bigger hotels, culminating in the construction madness of the bubble years. The inevitable bursting of said bubble in the early 90s, however, promptly put an end to such developments, and the area’s visitor numbers peaked around the same time. Since then it’s been a gradual spiral downwards, both in popularity and appearance.
Understandably there’s now a concerted effort to demolish the many hotels that fell foul of changing times and trends, but the damage can’t be so easily undone, as whatever beauty the river and surrounding landscape once possessed has long since been lost. Local businesses have also suffered, with many now no more, as the former white-walled behemoths that dominate the town catered to their customers’ every need, meaning guests didn’t have to leave the premises.
Several decades after its peak then, here are some photos of Kinugawa Onsen at the end of 2022. A fascinating place in so many ways, but none of them are what the money men would have hoped for when they set out about changing it all those years ago.
It was once a little hub of local shops, but these days this narrow arcade is more or less just a wooden shell with empty spaces where most of the businesses once stood. Only two of the original stores are still open, and even then, the green tea outlet looks more like a museum piece than a fully functioning operation. The tofu place next door, on the other hand, is very much a going concern, and considering the location, it still has a steady enough supply of customers.
A more modern appendage at one end seems to enjoy the majority of visitors, but presumably when either that or the tofu shop call it a day, then the bulldozers will finally move in. Until then, however, it remains a fascinating glimpse of Japan before supermarkets and convenience stores became common.
Some of these photos have appeared on Tokyo Times before, but with the addition of several taken very recently, and others from quite a few years ago, it seemed like the right time to put them all together as a document of sorts. My little photographic homage to a part of Tokyo’s subway system that is genuinely unlike the rest of it.
There have been changes in the time I’ve been visiting. The bars have new owners and now look quite different. Also, the unusually located vending machine is sadly no longer there. But on the whole it’s pretty much still the same. Presumably the same as it has been for many decades too. A rare glimpse of how things once looked, and in regards these photos, how it has looked over the last 10 years or so.
Many of the little bars and eateries I like to visit are completely unknown quantities on the inside — their faded exteriors not always reflective of what lies behind the sliding doors. The contents of this ramshackle structure by the side of a road several hours north of Tokyo, on the other hand, were pretty much exactly as imagined, right down to the septuagenarian owner. A man who has been running the place for nearly half a decade, and at 78 years of age, has no intention of shutting up shop just yet. In fact he rarely even has holidays, opening seven nights a week and only taking time off to celebrate special occasions.
The one unexpected thing, however, was the complete lack of a toilet. A situation that’s not ideal when beers are being consumed. So it was either try and somehow gallantly hold on, or pop round the side and brave the elements. And so somewhat inevitably, several unceremonious sojourns into the bushes were added to the experience of the evening.