Hey, I can hear it, the Eros of Mozart
The romantic breeze is the violin
Wait for the Eros of Mozart to touch you
When it pulls the strings of your heart
A gorgeous September
Pink no Mozart, Seiko Matsuda (1984)
I got an inkling of the pastel troubles in store when I left the Chuo Expressway at the Sutama interchange in the northernmost Yamanashi city of Hokuto, an artificial 2004-2006 amalgam of eight towns and villages provoked by ruinous local government finances, and turned right up Rte 141, only to find that the very first roadside structure was an abandoned gas station,
which fell in combat so recently it remains on the latest maps, followed in immediate succession by an abandoned ramen noodle and gyoza potsticker place, fronted by a Merry Land ice-cream stand,
next to which reposed an abandoned yakiniku grilled meat eatery, Tomato.
A couple of hundred yards further up, a sweetly smiling blue-and-white concrete cow with a mysterious pastel-pink door in her chest lured me, Alice-like, down a sideroad to an abandoned karaoke parlor, Moon River 69, its name an unholy collision between Hank Mancini and Sonic Youth,
which jutted out over a nameless sun-dappled stream and moldered on next to an abandoned high-Bubble wedding hall.
Another couple of hundred yards further up, and right on cue, came the abandoned pachinko parlor.
All that was missing from this concatenation of desolation was an abandoned convenience store—but there’d be a few of them to be found over the next couple of days, I wagered.
Back in the eighties, there were three summer retreats (避暑地, “escape-heat-land”) of choice for sweltering plains-dwellers: Karuizawa in Nagano, which has thrived thanks to its bullet-train link to Tokyo, Nasu in Tochigi, which has survived thanks to the luster thrown off by the presence of an Imperial villa, and Kiyosato, which is in its last death throes.
A wreath for your dreams, I muttered to myself on entering town. Odd and crumbling edifices not to be found in the lowlands, such as a rotting mock-up of a Wild West wagon that might have once served as a putting-course ticket-booth, were strewn across the sides of Rte 141, but the first truly Olympian ruin was One Happy Park, a cyclorama of despair.
A man with a brush-cutter scythed tidily away at weeds that pushed up with irrepressible life through the cracks in the paving. It must have been sweaty work, as he was clad in boots, gloves, a face-mask, and a neck-flap hat, for late-summer insects do not take kindly to having their late-summer abodes destroyed, and after a while the reaper rested.
“When was this place built?”
“It must’ve been on the border of the Showa and Heisei eras, I suppose.”
“So that would be around 1989,” I ventured, but he had no concept of the Western calendar and merely shrugged.
“And when did it close down?”
“I guess it was about four years ago the last shop shut.”
I wondered about the precision of his recall—there was a dormant crêperie (who can forget the eighties crêpe boom) that appeared to form part of the complex and which bore a sign “Since 1979”—but even if the pastel palette of the fake windows above the gift shops dates us to the early rather than the late eighties, the miserable brevity of One Happy Park’s life is testament to the spectacular ephemerality of the Kiyosato boom and bust.
I strolled along the rusting colonnade, admiring the signs.
Oh yes, Petit (pronounced “puchi”) Road—we were all so high and mightily French back in the eighties, weren’t we? It was “puchi” this and “puchi” that and “puchi” the other. Impressionable and affected youth went so far as to append an honorific prefix to the name of the honorable country—“Ofuransu”. Japan, you see, was going to become a lifestyle superpower, just like France. Crêpes, it was rumored, if ingested frequently enough and in sufficient quantity, would turn your very blood and bones French—and you would then have no compunctions about loafing around at the beach for the whole of August. A wistful backward glance at One Happy Land is enough to show just how that dream turned out.
It struck me that One Happy Land would make the perfect stage for a performance of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, rescored with glutinous idol melodies of the eighties, starring Seiko Matsuda as Brünnhilde, Hiromi Go as Siegfried, and Onyanko Club as the Rhinemaidens. I could already hear a parade of what I dub Seiko Matsuda’s “no” hits streaming through the mind’s speakers: “Tengoku no Kiss” (A Heavenly Kiss), “Tenshi no Wink” (An Angel’s Wink), “Boy no Kisestsu” (A Season for Boys), and my favorite, “Pink no Mozart”, to name but a few. A more fitting backdrop could scarcely be imagined, as it was the legions of Seiko-worshipping burikko airheads with their Seiko-chan haircuts that decamped to Kiyosato in droves to stay at meruhentic pensions and plunder cute goodies by the designer bagful that were responsible for the boom, the irony being that the career of Seiko Matsuda, known as the “Everlasting Idol” (and also, curiously, as the “King of Idols”) has outlasted that of the town to which her idolatrous fans—now, like her, pushing fifty—once thronged.
The main street of Kiyosato forms a hind dogleg with the station at its knee. Up the foot arch, an old hotel was held together with string and hope and glue.
I parked up at the top end of town in the municipal car park, which had space for a couple of hundred vehicles; I was the second car in at three in the afternoon (and I suspect the other one belonged to the car park attendant). Yes, it’s a weekday, I told myself, yes, high season is only a memory, but even so… Strolling back into town, I crossed the tracks of the Koumi line, the cause of at least some of the travails of Kiyosato.
A lovely little line, to be sure, the Koumi, with all sorts of records (including nine of the ten highest stations on the Japan Railways network) to get train geek tickers beating faster, but despite all the fanfare that attended its 2007 debut of a hybrid train, not a line that can deliver swarms of pleasure-seekers to resorts at any speed, and in a nation that pays everlasting homage to the deities of convenience, it chugs and ambles and puffs its way across the mountains with inconsiderate leisure; indeed, its neck would have been on the chopper years ago if, post-privatization, East Japan Railways had really been run, to the delight of its shareholders but to the misery of the rural elderly, as a profit-maximizing private-sector enterprise, as the line loses roughly Y200 for every Y100 it takes in.
Just over the crossing, the One Happy family took me to its bosom again, this time with a plaza rather than a park.
Freeze-thaw in spring and autumn, the deep freeze of winter, and the deep heat of summer are exacting a swift and brutal toll on gimcrack and neglected Bubble-era construction. Never have I seen so many uri bukken property-for-sale and kashi tempo store-for-lease signs clustered together; this one, desperately delusional in its bid to flog off one of the shops in the One Happy Plaza complex, Norwegian Blue dead and far beyond the most heroic cardiopulmonary resuscitation efforts, is framed by a backdrop of local milk bottles.
Architecturally, the predominant Kiyosato style might be described as Rococo fairy-tale whimsy; in the case of the enigmatically named and very defunct Green Prab, with a dash of salty Victorian seaside thrown in for good measure.
This trio—jolly tree ogre, toadstool, and cheery snail—have become, in death, the symbol of the whimsical mayfly life of Kiyosato. That fly agaric, the toadstool that inspired the design, is both poisonous and psychoactive and hence a humbling metaphor for toxic Bubble-era hallucinations, of which Kiyosato is one of the most delirious, was an irony not lost on this observer.
As the mountain shadows deepened, I strolled the length of the main street, crossing paths only with a couple in early retirement, struggling with words for each other. Half of everything was definitively shuttered; some businesses, in the shame of defeat, carried somber signs protesting that they were readying to open or that this was their weekly day off, but returning later or the next day, the same signs were still in place. Could Kiyosato really once have been known as the “Harajuku of the highlands”, after the impeccably coiffed Tokyo fashion mecca?
At the junction of Rte 141 and the Kiyosato turn-off, the world had ground to a halt: inky shadows consumed a pachinko parlor, gone nigh on a decade by my reckoning, brush reclaimed a karaoke joint clad in white clapboard, restaurants and museums and hotels of every hue lay felled like giants slain by a horde of Jacks.
Writing in the commendably eccentric Wonder Japan magazine of one hotel, the Sunpark Hotel Kiyosato, whose ruination is most advanced and whose entranceway is pictured above, author and haikyoist Toru Kurihara relates how Kiyosato, like some Impressionist painting or Italian sports car, was enmeshed in the net of the Bubble:
Other tourist spots had genuine tourist assets—hot springs, historical buildings, giant waterfalls—but the attraction of Kiyosato was largely status. The very act of going there was the objective: young women would snap up armfuls of gifts as proof of their visit and brag of their trip while doling them out to friends and family.
“I went to Kiyosato at the weekend!”
“Wow, cool! I wanna go too!”
Just to be able to utter these words imbued a sense of superiority—the trip’s mission was accomplished.
But then there came a time when no one felt jealous any longer.
“I went to Kiyosato at the weekend!”
“Eh? To do what?!?”
Naturally the objective couldn’t be attained if there was no sense of superiority to be gained. There was no lingering sense of comfort and ease you get from a hot-spring resort, no sense of being moved by a giant waterfall. Western food that you could get in Tokyo—it didn’t even taste good, it was just pricey. And then there were the trashy souvenirs you bought at the shop of some has-been celebrity or over-the-hill idol, for which you had no use when you got home. Asked if you wanted to go there again, the answer was naturally “no”.
So disappeared the crowds of people so thick they made walking hard, and the shuttered streets that make the town so quiet now tell of how the illusory values of the Bubble have vanished and things have returned to their normal state, just the way they were before. Sun Hotel Kiyosato embodies the waxing and waning of that era.
This being statistics-drenched Japan, it was easy enough to dredge up the data in which to drape the decay: by 1998 visitor numbers in the Yatsugatake area, the jewel in the crown of which was once Kiyosato, were down 60% from their peak just a decade earlier in 1988 (the year Seiko Matsuda notched up the last of her twenty-four consecutive number ones), and have continued to slide, albeit at a gentler pace, dropping to 5.1mn in 2009 from 5.9mn in 2002. Most shocking of late, though, has been the collapse in overnighters, to 550,000 in 2009 from 935,000 in 2002, a slump of 40%, as purse-strings have been pulled ever tighter.
As darkness fell, the fey apparitions of the Bubble took on more ghastly demeanors: the lamp-lit milk-pot was a distended bladder, full to bursting, ready to spray noxious liquid on passersby
and the exoskeletal church, an innocuous pastel-pink by day, was now a monstrous robot arthropod programmed to kill and primed to attack.
Later, though, I was to learn of some sunnier microclimates in the otherworldly biosphere of Kiyosato…
(to be continued)