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Heritage Nagaya Houses – Renovate and Live

2018.08.24

A little town in Osaka called Showa-machi has all modern infrastructure, including transport links and a towering view of the tallest building in Japan, Abeno Harukas.  But it kept old residential buildings more than its surrounding areas. 

Nagaya – Once a Popular Choice for New Generation

From the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century, Osaka city’s economy grew, and the population increased significantly.  The local authority replotted areas around the city centre to accommodate as many people as possible.  The basis of the buildings was terraced houses, Nagaya. Showa machi was one of them.

Many people moved in, looking for opportunities, and it was a very lively neighbourhood.  Nagaya dodged the bombings during the war and survived beyond their assumed use-by dates.  But after the war, they became inconvenient, and in some cases inhabitable, for ageing occupants.  By the 1980s, modern, high rise buildings replaced the old wooden ones to maximise the return on high-valued land. Houses and shops stood empty, waiting to be demolished.  The town was starting to look as though it were seeing the end of its life. 

Then, the tide turned.

Registering the Modest Terrace as a Cultural Asset

In 2003, one of the terraced houses built in 1932, Showa Abeno Nagaya, was registered as an Important Cultural Asset by Osaka prefecture. 

It was unthinkable to the owner Mr Teranishi to see such a modest building, with a lot of patchwork to prevent leaks, as a valuable asset.  Situated in a very favourable location, a 1-minute walk from a metro station, it seemed absurd to keep them as they were. 

But a quick conversation in a car, regarding rebuilding plans, led to an architecture professor and his students visiting Showa-machi to inspect the old buildings. They were impressed with the condition of the houses.The visit was an eye-opener for the owner, and he started to hear positive remarks from passers-by, friends, and visitors. He found that these old buildings are structurally sound, even better than new steel and concrete structures. For him, it felt like the house was crying out for help.

Preservation is NOT the Purpose – Renovate, and Reuse

After an extensive but low budget renovation by passionate local contractors, registration was complete in 2003.  Showa Abeno Nagaya is now up to the standard for leasing. Residential rentals were not a viable option, as it needed more substantial structural changes (many of them did not have bathroom facilities), but the interest in running a small bar, a restaurant or a shop in traditional Nagaya was unexpectedly high.

Mr Koyama, the third-generation owner of a local estate agent in Showa-machi, heard about the success story.  He had in his office many similar buildings belonging to his clients.  If this everyday scenery, unchanged since his grandfather started the business in 1924, could be attractive to people from outside, it would be an opportunity to revitalise the area.  The owners of old houses began to come in, seeking possibilities for generating revenue without a significant investment. 

He offered contracts at the lowest range of the rental market and the contract period was three years, but with a periodical review of tenure against the shop’s income to support start-ups and individual owners.  Instead of the usual “Shop To Let” for old, dark and small spaces, he used the catchphrase, “How about Creating your store in Nagaya terrace filled with character?”.  

After getting the first contract, Kingyo Café, an antique themed retro café, the estate agent helped with publicity on social media to support the business. Mr Koyama ended up helping not only the house owner but the tenant, to generate added value to the beloved Showa-machi. 

Social Media – Visual Word of Mouth Platform with Easy Access

Having a unique Concept Café as the first tenant helped to spread information via online “word of mouth”.  The story of a flexible approach to the contract was the principal attraction. 

Four young entrepreneurs took up a property that had stood empty for ten years.  The rent was not below market levels, but the owner allowed young people to renovate it freely.  It was a DIY project with progress reported on Social Media.  The flexible approach opened the gate to further enquiries. 

By 2010, within seven years of the recognition of Showa-machi Nagaya as a cultural asset, the town added value as a favourable area to do small business.  It often features in magazines as the place to visit for unique shops and cafes. 

Inclusiveness has been the key to continuity.  The town has regained the liveliness it had at the beginning. Long-term residents feel confident about staying in the area, with newly created communities.  People want to live and work in/near the town, where a new dream becomes a reality with the support of long-term residents and businesses.   

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