The new school year started in April, and for the first time in, well, forever, my heart just wasn’t into my work.
It should have been.
See, for a number of years I had been trying to convince the city and prefecture of Fukuoka to put more effort into preserving what little remained of the buildings and houses which dated back to the prewar years. Just when I was at the point of giving up, I got a letter from the mayor’s office, requesting my participation in a conference on beautification and urban planning.
Finally, I thought.
Not wanting to blow the opportunity, I spent the next several weeks with my seminar students putting together some concrete proposals on how to not merely “beautify” the city—what does that mean, really? One guy’s idea of beauty is another one’s eyesore—but add value back into properties that had lost it through poor planning, urban flight, and stupid neglect. Knowing the city would only move once it realized there was actually money to be made by preserving buildings, we set out to prove that our proposals would be a boon for the city’s bush-league tourism industry.
Our main proposal was to first restore the sandō approach to Kushida Shrine and Hakata-dōri, the avenue which passes before the shrine, to their original machiya style. The city had already done it on a very limited scale with a museum called the Hakata Machiya Furusato-kan. Under our plan, the city would expand upon that, restoring the machiya that remained, building new machiya style buildings on existing parking lots in the area, and encouraging the local building and business owners to remodel their facades to better fit in with the original mood and style of the neighborhood. Finally, any new construction in the area would have to conform to new strict design guidelines, something most Japanese cities sorely lack.
My chief concern was that the city would take up the proposal, build a token number of prefab-like structures in the “machiya-style”, and then, content with what it had done, let it all fall to ruin. So, to not only make the area look like Hakata once did, but also feel like the old Hakata, we proposed that the city should invite all the traditional artisans and craftsmen—the Hakata doll makers, the Hakata textile makers, the magemono craftsmen, the blacksmiths, makers of o-hajiki, and so on—to come and open ateliers in the newly renovated area. Until now, they—that is, the few artisans who continued to ply their trades—were scattered throughout the city, pining away in shabby little workshops that were usually overlooked by passersby. And because so many of the traditional arts were not being taken over by the younger generation—because the crafts had been customarily carried on by family members, and the sons and daughters of craftsmen today preferred to become salarymen and OLs—we also proposed the creation of a vocational school on the grounds of the old Reisen Elementary School, which had closed over ten years before, to train and license takumi, or master craftsmen, and women—namely, something along the line of what Germany has done so successfully with its Meister program. The school would act as a community college and life-long learning center that would foster not only these traditional arts as hobbies, but also offer conversation classes in the local dialect, customs and history, and provide a place for children to learn traditional games, known as mukashi asobi, and so on.
So much of Japan, I had long lamented was beginning to look, sound, and feel like “Anywhere, Japan”. Here was a chance to demonstrate to the rest of country, and the world, that Hakata wasn’t just another city, but a unique brand, a place to be proud of, a place that more and more people would want to visit or live in.
As expected, there were loud, influential voices advancing the harebrained idea to reconstruct Fukuoka Castle. Why harebrained? Well, for one, no one really knew for sure what the old castle looked like—there were no drawings or photos left of it—and, two, the cost involved in building what would end up being another concrete “monsterment” would be too large. Three, once built the city would invariably welsh on its promise to provide adequate funds to maintain it. And, four, it was doubtful that many people would actually go out of their way to visit the castle beyond the first year of initial curiosity. Kumamoto Castle, considered one of Japan’s Three Great Castles, received one and a half million visitors a year. Nothing to sneeze at, but, by comparison, Kokura Castle in neighboring Kitakyūshū had less than 20,000 visitors a year. Time and time again, city officials all over Japan were learning that even if you did build it, no one would come.
No, here was an attempt to build at a modest cost something that would attract not only tourists from all over, but residents alike. And revitalizing those two streets would only be the beginning. Once the idea caught on, then it would breathe new life not just into the area, but into the arts, and in the culture of Hakata, as well. It was a no-brainer. Well, to me at least it was. The challenge, though, lay in convincing the city’s grandees.
And so, with my students’ help, we put together a well-researched, well-designed presentation, and gave it all in Hakata-ben.
To my surprise, the idea was not only taken up unanimously, but I was hired on as a modestly paid consultant to the project that would encompass much of the Reisen-machi neighborhood, and initially run for ten years.
I should have been ecstatic, but in reality, I was overcome by a rare feeling of melancholy. At the party, celebrating our proposal’s success, I looked at my seminar students, who had all done a fantastic job—I was proud of them, every one of them—but I still wished you were with us, sitting across from me, our feet touching under the table.