Kyoto removing utility poles to revive old-time ambiance

The city of Kyoto and local residents are pushing to remove power poles from a main street in the Pontocho traditional entertainment district in a bid to recreate an old-fashioned townscape.

The city government started work to lay utility lines underground this month, with a target completion date by the end of fiscal 2019, which is the end of March 2020.

The project covers 17 utility poles along the 490-meter-long main street, filled with ochaya (tea houses) where female entertainers such as maiko (apprentice geisha) and geiko, as geisha are known in Gion, serve customers.

The street attracts many tourists with its traditional wooden buildings featuring old latticework and eaves.

Pontocho residents have made efforts to improve the townscape since around 2011, including by taking down gaudy advertisements.

While large signboards and neon signs no longer dot the street, another problem remains: utility poles.

“We were left with a sky filled with utility poles after removing the signboards,” said Yuichi Kaneda, the 50-year-old deputy leader of the Pontocho town planning group. “Utility poles can collapse in the event of disaster, so we wanted to do something about them.”

In 2013, the group asked the city government to lay utility lines in the main street underground, but technological problems prevented the city government from doing so.

The main street, with an average width of some 1.8 meters, already has gas and sewage pipes underground, so there has been scant space to lay electric cables using conventional methods.

The city government adopted a new method of laying the cables in a package underground to kick off the work.

Local landowners, including an ochaya business cooperative association, also contributed to the latest project, by offering places for 12 electric transformers.

“Maikos don’t look good alongside utility poles,” said Daiki Kusunoki, 47-year-old head of the ochaya group. “The project is essential to restoring the townscape with an old-time atmosphere.”

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