‘Fabric Heaven’ Nippori, Tokyo, wins following among tourists

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A tourist from Sweden examines a fabric with traditional Japanese patterns at Mihama Cloth in Arakawa, Tokyo. The Yomiuri Shimbun

Arakawa Ward’s Nippori district seldom comes to mind when considering Tokyo’s most popular tourist destinations. Nevertheless, the neighbourhood’s thriving fabric trade has helped propel a boom in interest among foreign visitors.

Dian Daruis gently touched her hijab, a scarf worn by Muslim women, when asked her reason for visiting Nippori. A tourist from Malaysia, Daruis had come to purchase fabrics, as Japanese fabrics are of high quality, comfortable and eloquently patterned.

Throngs of tourists from around the world have descended on Nippori Fabric Town for the same reason. Located near Nippori Station, the Fabric Town extends about a kilometre and includes about 90 shops that sell fabrics, textiles and other clothing essentials, such as buttons and fasteners. Daruis said her friend told her that Nippori was a must-visit place for tourists in Japan.

Nippori’s colorful fabrics are also popular on Instagram and other social media sites for their aesthetic appeal.

TripAdvisor, one of the world’s largest travel websites, features reviews posted by travelers from around the world. One woman from the US said everything needed for handicrafts could be found in Nippori, while a woman from Australia described it as a fabric heaven with various fabrics and textiles, ranging from those with Japanese patterns to others with modern designs.

Mihama Cloth ranks among the most popular shops, featuring fabrics with designs of flowers, birds, Mt Fuji and other motifs as well as traditional Japanese patterns. One customer from Myanmar diligently examined cloths with different patterns, and eventually purchased about 10 fabrics. She said she would give the fabrics to her mother as a gift and ask her to make longyi, a traditional Myanmar outfit.

According to Yoshiyuki Hamaguchi, 83, president of Mihama Cloth, the number of foreign customers has increased in recent years. Ninety percent of the store’s sales are now to foreign customers. Some European and American customers buy dozens of cloths to make tapestries, the store said.

According to the Tokyo Nippori fabric wholesale cooperative, which manages Nippori Fabric Town, the neighbourhood traces its origins to the late Meiji era (1868-1912) and early Taisho era (1912-26), when businesses dealing with textile scraps moved to Nippori from the Asakusa district. While operations were suspended during World War II, a growing number of companies and stores that handled fabrics and used clothing relocated to the area after the war. The neighbourhood subsequently blossomed.

Originally, Nippori largely housed wholesalers who did business with merchants. However, the price of ready-to-wear clothing fell in the 1980s and wholesalers’ sales declined. As a result, they began selling their products to ordinary customers. Word spread of the high quality and reasonable prices of the area’s fabrics, contributing to its nationwide recognition.

The globalisation of Nippori has only begun recently. When a tourist information centre opened at Nippori Station in 2016, only 30 per cent of its users were foreigners. However, the ratio has risen to more than 50 per cent today, and occasionally tops 70 per cent, according to a person in charge.

According to the Arakawa ward office and other sources, Nippori’s popularity has been boosted by the Keisei Skyliner trains, which stop at both Narita Airport and Nippori Station.

Nippori is also close to Ueno and Asakusa, major tourist destinations with uniquely Japanese atmospheres, and boasts relatively cheap hotels. The Yanaka district, which has a traditional Japanese townscape, is also close to the station’s west exit, and a tourist route that includes both Nippori and Yanaka has become popular.

“We want to make the district a fabric town that can be enjoyed by everyone, including Japanese,” said Yasukuni Usui, 49, the president of Tomato, a company that operates five stores in Nippori Fabric Town. Usui aims to attract new customers.

Nippori is likely to attract more attention overseas ahead of next year’s Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. The Yomiuri Shimbun (Japan)