In less than a week's time, the new Hakata Station, JR Hakata City, will open. Featuring two new department stores, Hankyû and Tôkyû Hands, and more than 200 specialty shops and restaurants, the new station building is expected to become a game changer not only in the already competitive retail market of Fukuoka City, but of Kyûshû's, as well. Case in point, the major department store chain Daimaru has closed its Nagasaki branch to focus on younger shoppers in Fukuoka.
The opening of the station coincides with the completion of a new shinkansen line, linking Fukuoka with Kagoshima in the south in an hour and nineteen minutes. By comparison, the same trip by car takes over three hours. The new bullet train service is expected to bring in ever more shoppers and tourists from neighboring prefectures to the city and to meet the demand of this potential consumer frenzy, some 7000 people have been hired. (Knock on wood.) Considering that Fukuoka already has several department stores, many of which are struggling to cope with changing demographics and a weak economy, I have my doubts. The projects always look good on paper, and they certainly create a lot of excitement, but time and time again, they have failed to produce the kinds of results that had initially been forecasted by the developers. Super Brand City, which has for the most part become a sparkling ghost town (Shall we call it Super Bland City?), and that albatross known as Island City come to mind. (Japanese developers have a weakness for the word "City".)
While I am often skeptical of major development projects like these, I must say that I have been impressed with what I've seen of the new station so far. It has bright, wide open areas, ceilings have been raised, and the extensive use of white tiles and glass in the interior design all lend it a spaciousness that the former station lacked.
The former station was a dismal piece of architecture built in the early 60s. Like so many buildings of its day in Japan, it was not seriously intended for human use.
The most insulting thing about the former station is that it replaced a gorgeously designed station that had been constructed more than half a century earlier. Today, nothing remains of the original station, which was located a few blocks northwest of the present station. Not the brick and copper plate exterior, not the marble restrooms, not the beautiful mantelpiece that was said to have been in the third-class waiting room, and so on. It was all brought down with a wrecking ball.
Many Japanese will counter that the original station had been damaged in the aerial bombings during the war, but that is, frankly, a lousy excuse for the ugly architecture that has blighted the cityscapes in Japan. Much of Germany, Poland, and Belgium suffered far more destruction, and yet they managed to rebuild their cities, brick by brick, restoring what had been lost. And, as a result, many cities in those countries (I'm thinking in particular of Warsaw's historic Old Town) have been registered as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
And so, once again it is out with the old, in with the new. Time marches on, one step forward, two steps back, three steps forward, one step back, and it sometimes feels like we're actually getting somewhere.