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People come to Japan and expect the unexpected, but it is funny how many unexpected things you associate with the ‘normal’ and ‘everyday’ after living in Japan. Behind all the famous sights and scenes, people’s daily life ticks along with a societal rhythm very different to our own. Robert Moran takes you on a stroll around his local neighbourhood in Tokyo charting some of the sights and sounds so familiar to him, reconnecting with what seemed so bizarre and new when he first arrived in the country.
Recent times have brought life much closer to home and (hopefully) given us the chance to appreciate some of the smaller things that can often get lost in our usually hectic and fast-paced routines. Many of us have been going out for walks in our local neighbourhoods to get some fresh air, clear the mind, and just escape the house! But these walks have also been a journey of re-discovery for me, of all those little things that were once new and intriguing. So, let’s take a walk through my local neighbourhood of Shin-Maruko, in Kawasaki city, adjacent to Tokyo and I’ll show you how daily life looks here.
Before we get onto the streets of Shin-Maruko, I’ll fill you in on the apartment I’m (possibly too eager) to head out the front door of. With 70% of Japan covered by mountains, its population is largely crowded into large urban areas which take up just 11%! This means Japan is the fifth most densely populated country on the planet so apartment and living spaces are often minute. Modernisation means fewer and fewer apartments have tatami mats but all living spaces are still measured in jou – the number of tatami mats (around 0.9mx1.9m) you could fit inside the apartment, rather than square metres. Our small apartment is 10jou.
Obviously then, space is a premium and we have to think carefully about how to use it (in multiple ways). After spending most of our first year sleeping on a futon which we rolled away each morning for daytime living space, we finally cracked and bought a western-style bed which takes up a lot of room. The kitchen worktop is detachable and fits over the sink – so it’s either cutting vegetables or washing up, not both at the same time! And our kitchen table is low to the ground with a floor sofa – both of which are easy to move around for those yoga and workout sessions we’ve been trying to keep going through lockdown.
So, out that door and we’re headed to the nearby Tama River (Tamagawa), one of five main river systems in the greater Tokyo area. On weekdays it’s a quiet and tranquil place with a few runners and walkers about, however on weekends and during the ‘stay home’ period it has been a hive of activity. With space at a premium, every inch is accounted for, whether that’s your kitchen sink or the river basin. Cyclists zoom past runners and walkers on three adjacent paths, all of them dodging those people playing tennis against the walls of bridges. The floodplains right on the banks of rivers, particularly in the greater Tokyo area, are one of the few places with flat, open land and so are filled to the brim with local baseball and football pitches, tennis courts and golf courses. The ones along the Tama river are still in different stages of being fully restored after the flooding from the devastating typhoons that hit the country in autumn last year (as anyone following the Rugby World Cup will be aware of)!
We cut back from the river to our local station one of the nodes of the rail network that is the lifeblood of city life in Japan, particularly the Tokyo region. There are 121 lines serving 40 million passengers (when counting line transfers separately) every single day. I have two stations within 10 minutes’ walk, one of which has access to over 7 different lines, shooting into central Tokyo within 15 minutes, out to Yokohama (Japan’s second-largest city) within ten minutes, and as far as the coast on both sides of Tokyo, as well as Mount Fuji.
Most people know have seen pictures of those station staff with white gloves pushing people onto trains during rush hour, and they do exist, however, stations are usually much quieter during the day (something which often surprises visitors). Whether at peak time or midday, there is always a sense of order, with dedicated lines for queuing at exactly the point the doors will stop, and even an etiquette of which direction to face when standing in different parts of the train.
While the general level of hubbub on platforms in Japan is very low considering the number of people on them, this is not to say they are silent. Train announcements precede the incredibly frequent trains that pass through on an almost minute-by-minute basis, and above all else, you’ll hear the jingles that warn passengers of the train’s closing doors. Not many people know they were originally composed by a sound engineer in 1989 who took the task of creating seven-second jingles to prevent stress and the resulting injuries on the platform. The task was taken pretty seriously, running complicated modelling programmes so that each train line’s melody harmonised with those on adjacent platforms. Nowadays there are jingles based on idol group songs, anime soundtracks, and even the calypso rhythms of ‘Under the Sea’ from Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid’.
Out of the station and it’s 5 pm, time for another jingle to play out across the neighbourhood. This time, it’s to let children know it’s soon getting dark and to head home. With the incredible levels of public safety in Japan, children will not only play outside with their friends without adult supervision after school, but walk, cycle, and take those ridiculously busy trains without their parents or guardians, often from the time they start elementary school. When travelling around Japan you’ll be bound to spot students in their immaculate uniforms and classic randoseru backpacks on the trains – when they go out as a group with their teachers they’re even easier to spot sporting brightly-coloured matching hats that indicate their class or year.
Right opposite the school is a juku – a cram school where students from as early as elementary (but in general more likely from junior and senior high school) attend after their main day finishes for extra studying. There is a big emphasis in Japan on getting into the right schools early on in order to progress up the academic ladder. The better schools each have entrance exams which young students are ‘encouraged’ to take in order to better their chances in the academic world, and as a result, their working life too. Some kindergartens even interview the prospective student’s parents and see how well the young student tidies up after playing with toys or blocks!
Past the school and juku is my local grocery store with a wall of bicycles lined up neatly in front of it as mothers, salarymen and students hop off them gracefully and enter. Japanese people will often make multiple trips to the grocery store or supermarket each week (sometimes even every day) as their smaller living spaces usually come with smaller pantries, while freshness and quality is often valued higher than price. While the cyclists usually glide along the street very quietly (even if you’re blocking their way it’s very unlikely you’ll hear a bicycle bell ringing behind you), the cicadas have just come out and their singing is the soundtrack of the summer wherever you go in Japan.
Heading back towards home, I can hear the hubbub of noise emanating from a number of izakayas (Japanese-style pubs serving food and alcohol) along with the frequent cries of ‘irasshaimase’ as every staff member in the establishment loudly welcomes each new patron. The salarymen who were so silent on the trains and at the station are now finally able to let their hair down a bit and enjoy the evening with their colleagues – whether they like it or not! Social expectations and a strict hierarchy remain strong in Japanese business culture and so if you’re invited out for drinks after work, you have a very hard task to try to turn them down, even if you’ve already been out with them four nights in a row!
Rounding the corner to my apartment, a vending machine outside a mom-and-pop liquor store catches my eye. I’ve passed a great number already (there are just under 5 million in the country) but this one serves cans and bottles of beer, wine and mixed spirits. These generally require you to swipe your ID to prove your age before as quick as a flash your drink is dispensed. Due to Japanese liquor laws, you can even drink it right there on the street. Alcohol, cigarettes, food, clothes, and ice-cold face masks are just some of the array of things on offer in vending machines around the country.
Forgoing the beer this time, I head back to my apartment, feeling grateful for all the little things that make everyday life in Japan so enlightening and enjoyable.