Kotobukicho is a stone’s throw from the bustle of Chinatown and glitz of Motomachi but couldn’t be more different. No families live here. Look around and you’ll see mostly elderly men on the street. There are no traffic lights in Kotobukicho, Mr. Okabe explains, because until recently few people had reason to visit.
Kotobukicho comprises 122 “flophouses,” many built during the economic boom of the 1960s to house day laborers. Today, Kotobukicho’s population comprises 6,500 people, mostly men, former day laborers and welfare recipients. An astonishing 50 percent are over 65.
Mr. Okabe, a graduate of Tokyo University’s School of Architecture, came to Kotobukicho three years ago to see if he could revitalize the neighborhood by capitalizing on its proximity to Chinatown and other Yokohama tourist attractions, as well as a surplus of space provided by increasingly vacant flophouses.
The idea was to improve the quality of the community by partnering with flophouse owners to create attractive, low-priced accommodations for tourists.
Today, Mr. Okabe’s Yokohama Hostel Village runs four hostels in Kotobukicho offering tatami or Western rooms starting at 3000 yen a night. Typically, the hostels are located on the top floors of “flophouse” buildings. The rooms are small but clean, and most include TV, air-conditioning and wireless Internet access.
Mr. Okable’s organization shares the revenue from the room fees with the owners of the buildings.
“A lot of flophouse owners see the business sense of this arrangement because (as former day labors age and die), they are facing huge vacancies,” Mr. Okabe explains.
On average, some 1,000 people per month stay at the hostels. About 40 percent come from overseas, including Europe, the United States and Asia. The rest come from around Japan.
Mr. Okabe takes me into one of the buildings where the top floor has been converted to hostel use. The halls are clean and the walls decorated with posters and old maps of Yokohama.
“Before the owner of this building partnered with me, this building was a mess,” Mr. Okabe says.
The owner had a change of heart and started to take pride is his building once he saw that people from around the world were coming to stay. Today the building boasts a rooftop garden where residents and tourists alike can relax.
Mr. Okabe says the current economic downturn hasn’t diminished business any.
Walking through Kotobukicho, one can see the neighborhood slowly transforming. Elderly men still congregate in the streets, but there are also young people, faces of many nationalities. Other businesses have begun to sprout along the main drag, including a restaurant that offers low-priced but nourishing meals.
Mr. Okabe regularly invites musicians and artists to perform in the community. He also gives tours of the neighborhood for university students studying social entrepreneurship. (Daniel Rosenblum)