The third weekend in March began with huge traffic jams along Tsuchiura-Gakuen Sen as cars scrambled to find parking places for the grand opening of "Lala Garden", a new shopping center in Tsukuba. A total of 65 shops and stores line the two-story mall, beginning with "Grand Plechef", a glorified Kasumi supermarket.
According to the "Joyo Living" newspaper, the large, L-shaped complex was designed by Fernando Vasquez with architectural designs from the Toscana Italy region in mind, to provide a layout people won't soon tire of. Whether that dream will be realized, of course, remains to be seen. The complex consists of an enclosed mall area (on the lower level of the bottom of the "L") with a variety of small shops, particularly those focused on fashions for the young. In the center of the complex, there is an open-air plaza with a stage for mini-concerts, etc. The Grand Opening hoopla included a "Los Tres Amigos" look alike Latin music band, among other events. (For you newcomers, "Los Tres Amigos" is a well-known group from South American countries that have been performing for years all over Japan, including numerous times locally.) Starbucks fans will be happy to know that the king of coffee shops has finally arrived in Tsukuba, with a small shop next to the plaza. The second floor above Plechef (pronounced more or less like the French, which comes out in Japanese as "Purushe") is likewise a mini-mall, with shops on both sides of a narrow passageway down the middle.
I visited LALA on a Wednesday afternoon and found it unbelievably crowded for such a weekday. Cars were lined up for several hundred meters just trying to get into the parking lot. I would imagine things will settle down once the novelty has worn off, but in the meantime, I would recommend going early in the day and avoiding weekends if possible. Likewise, you might want to just go by bicycle if you're reasonably close. It's roughly halfway between Nishi Odori and Ushiku-Gakuen Sen (408) to the west of downtown Tsukuba.
As is typical for Japan, the names of the various stores is a creative mixture of English and Japanese, with roughly half written in English (or at least words that are written in the Romanized alphabet anyway) and the other half in Katakana Japanese. One "fashion" store is named "Drug Store's", and among the goods it sells are shirts, hats, etc. with its theme, which reads, "drug store's: It's a name for girls loved by a pig", with the "pig" not written out, but with a cute picture of a pig. Whatever that is supposed to mean, at least it is not as bad as some I've seen on Japanese clothing. But then, I've seen some pretty weird Japanese/Chinese written on shirts in America too. And then to further confuse the linguistic scene, there is that old standby of an American clothing store named "Oshkosh B'Gosh", which has now invaded Japan and has its first outlet in Tsukuba in LALA. For those not familiar with this company, it began in the Wisconsin city of Oshkosh, on the shores of Lake Winnebago - good Indian names, and the B'Gosh is from a slang expression, "By gosh", which shows surprise (As in, "By gosh, this store is actually in Japan!").
After you have browsed the stores and your kids have spent a small fortune on various games in the large arcade, you can choose from a variety of restaurants, including a fast food shop named, "Freshness Burger." Stores generally open at 10 am and close at 9 pm, with the exception of Grand Plechef, which stays open until midnight. Also, the restaurants and coffee shops are open from 11 am to 11 pm. The 1100 car parking lot opens at 9:30 and stays open until 12:30 am, with free parking.
With a similar mini-mall named "Q't" (pronounced (katakana style) as "Kyuuto", "cute") now under construction next to Tsukuba Station, shopping in Tsukuba seems to be on a trend away from big chain stores such as Seibu and more towards complexes of small shops in mini-malls. It will definitely increase variety as well as competition. Whether downtown Tsukuba is going to be able to handle all of the new traffic without turning into a Tokyo look alike, however, remains to be seen. That certainly doesn't look like a likely prospect to me.
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