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Nishiogi Lovers Fest: Community Place Making by Community Members

This past month’s hugely successful “Nishiogi Lovers Festival” was a new neighborhood event organized by residents and local businesses. The driving force behind it, the Nishiogi Information Center has been organizing community activities for three years, but will now be closing down its office.

The first ever “Nishiogi Lovers Fest” was held on March 21, 2016, in Momoi Harappa Park on the northern “edge” of Nishi-Ogikubo. Over 70 Nishiogi shops organised stalls at the event. Unlike the typical Japanese urban festival, this was an event planed by community members rather than professionals. The organizing committee comprised not only members from the local business communities, but many other ordinary residents. Beyond eating and shopping stalls, there were also two stages that featured a host of performances, including Tennis Courts, Ichiko Aoba, Yukari Nishiogi, and other local musicians. The Mammoth Orchestra growled and pranced to an eerie cacophony of electronic noise accompanied by playfully costumed dancers. It was a beautiful early spring day, and the thousands of attendees greatly exceeded expectations. Many visitors spent the afternoon listening to music while patiently queuing for food. But it seems that a good time was had by all.

While this well-attended festival seemed to represent a new beginning for the Nishi-Ogikubo community, it also represented an ending for the Nishioigi Information Center, which was the main sponsor behind the event. In operation for three years, this entirely privately run business has not only provided information to tourists and residents, but also organized tours and events and publications about the community. Located in an alleyway north of the station, the old building that houses the Information Center is scheduled to soon be demolished, and the primary backers – Okuaki Kei and Okuaki Ayano – don’t have the money to continue their activities in a new location. They have already put too much of their own savings into the center, they say. However, they do plan to continue upgrading the popular Nishiogi Information Map and organizing community events.

The beginning of the idea for an information center goes back to the Teashop Asuka located on the pedestrian street north of the station. Over eight years ago, the teashop owner Keiko Watanabe put a sign on her shop identifying it as the “Station Information Center,” personally offering up her rich storehouse of local information to visitors. Watanabe-san had long hoped to open up a stand-alone information center. Having contributed to the production of a local tourist map, graphic designer Okuaki Kei and his wife Okuaki Ayano decided they would help Watanabe open up the “Nishiogi Information Center” in a new location.

Okuaki Kei had moved to Nishi-Ogikubo nine years earlier. Born in Fujiyoshida City, Yamanashi Prefecture, he came to Tokyo for university studies. He moved several times, ending up in Gyotoku in Chiba Prefecture. “That was a kind of working class area, a lot of cars, convenient place to drive around, kind of different from my tastes. I thought, maybe some place along the Chuo Line would be better. At first Mitaka looked good, but after looking around we decided on Nishi-Ogikubo.”

Kei was looking for a base where he could do his design work, so it didn’t really matter how far it was from the station. “While looking for a place I found a keyaki tree. When I saw that keyaki tree I thought, this is it. Gyotoku is all landfill, so it doesn’t have any old trees. When I lived in Fujiyoshida there were a lot of old trees like that. And on this day I saw an old lady digging yams under that keyaki tree. She said she was preparing for the mochi making the next day. All the people in the mansion were building a fire and making mochi. I thought this is great. When I lived in Yamanashi we didn’t have that custom. We are still living in that apartment building. That was the beginning of our Nishiogi life.”

After one year of living in Nishiogikubo Okuaki Kei began helping with the free neighborhood magazine “Nishiogi Donburi.” After one year he became the second editor of the magazine. “At that time I wrote about the 104 year old (99 at that time) coffee owner, Mr. Ando. Many people read that and that is how they got to know me.” 

That was the time when Kei became involved with the Teashop Asuka. The NPO set up by Asuka had published a walking map of the neighborhood, but there was no one around to keep producing it and it had not been updated. “So I thought, 'I would do it!' And that’s how we started the Information Center.”

The information map became one of the more important jobs of the Center. Advertising spaces on the back of the map were sold to local businesses, and this covered the cost. This is supposed to be a walking map, Kei explained, so it doesn't include all the shops. 

According to Kei, the stylish image that Nishiogi has now did not exist then. “Back then people would say, there is not even a Starbucks at the station. People who lived in Nishiogi said, ‘this place is no good.’ But people from the outside didn't see it that way.” 

The current Nishiogi boom is the result of television and magazine publicity in recent years. The Information Center has undoubtedly made a contribution to that. “Nishiogi itself has not changed all that much," Kei said, "but people’s perspectives have changed. Now it is often featured in magazines. We call it a “Nishiogi bubble.” Of course, there are some people who feel put off by it. There are some people who come once and don’t come again. Television coverage can lead to lines at shops but after that then sometimes there are no more customers.”

The officials of the traditional shop owners’ associations also have varied attitudes. In Nishiogi alone there are more than 23 shop owner associations. According to Kei the enthusiasm of the association heads towards the activities of the Information Center vary greatly. “Those near the station are easy to motivate. But, for example, the business association on Itsukaichi-Kaido is like ‘stop it already!’ that kind of attitude. ‘If things are happening up in Nishi-Ogikubo, it is not helping us down here, just trouble, handing out fliers, spending money, only trouble and no profit!’” 

The Center has also created a “Nishiogi Handbook” that introduces Nishiogi arcana from history to geography. “We went for information that would not change, history, wild birds that can be seen. Even though a building might disappear, we have information about the authors that once lived there.”

Based on this handbook, the couple then developed a Nishiogi Exam. Passing this exam is not easy, Ayano explained: “We asked experts from many genres, asking for their help with information, the Suginami Historical Building Society, Nishimura from the Bird Watching Society, the Literary Walking Society,… we had support from all these different associations active in Nishiogi.”

Okuaki Ayano stresses the plural nature of neighborhood values, beyond the current fad for urban consumerism. “From the point of view of the media, this begins and ends with what you can find delicious to eat in the neighborhood. I really don’t want to be lead by this idea, I want to give shape to the real values in the neighborhood.”

The ideal of the Okuaki couple is to use the energy of ordinary residents to build the community on their own without the leadership of professionals. The Lover's Fest was one example. Although they had to use the name of the street association in order to gain permissions, the event was entirely run by volunteers. As Okuaki said before the festival began, “Really it is mostly done by salarymen [people with full-time jobs]. There is only me who works during the day at the Information Center. This would be pretty tiring. Illustrators work on illustrations, salarymen working on organization, calling up musicians, etc. They aren’t selling anything themselves.”

Ayano: “We want this to be an event for people to enjoy their own neighborhood, to make their own festival on their own. We want people to feel like they are experiencing life in their own neighborhood instead of being guests at the event. In the traditional local festivals, no matter what you end up feeling like you are a guest or a customer.”

The festival was organized by Nishiogi residents, but that doesn’t mean that outsiders were not welcome, the couple emphasized. “This is not to exclude outsiders at all. But if you come here to Nishiogi to have a good time, you want to experience something special from Nishiogi. So we want to show the best of what Nishiogi has to offer.” (Farrer, March 24, 2016)

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