Cramped Tokyo has its charming side

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iol travel march 19 cw  TOKYO NIGHT2 INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS 9. Tokyo

Their cheeks pressed up against the windows, the mass of bodies in the compartments leans to the side as one as the train slows coming in to the station. There is no complaining, at most an isolated groan.

The doors open and the pressure eases as passengers fall out of the doors. The next group is waiting on the platform ready to board. Tokyo's citizens call the daily rush hour in the world's largest conurbation “tsukin jigoku,” or commuter hell.

Images of rail workers pushing passengers into the full compartments on certain stations are one of the most frequently seen visual cliches of life in Japan, but Tokyo is much more than a throng of millions living on top of each other. The Japanese capital has its charming side as well.

Driving into Tokyo, the first impression is of a host of skyscrapers soaring upwards. The numbers have risen over recent years, the city appearing to grow skywards because of lack of space on the ground.

There are almost 9 million people crowded into the city area's 23 wards. If the entire conurbation is taken into account, the megacity of Tokyo is easily home to more than 30 million.

Tourists are drawn to areas like Shibuya with its pulsating nightlife and huge video screens - a neon jungle of loud music and hordes of colourfully dressed young people.

But the view out from the top of a skyscraper over the city that never sleeps reveals a different Tokyo - a sea of mostly low buildings. The megacity is often affectionately referred to as the city of a thousand villages.

Sawako, a 36-year-old housewife, lives in Nakano, one of these villages, along with her family of four. She and her husband have just put themselves into debt for decades to build a tiny house for themselves.

If Sawako sticks her arm out of the window, she can almost touch the neighbours' houses. Her living room covers less than 20 square metres, and her bedroom just 10. The streets of the neighbourhood are alleyways unable to accommodate two cars passing each other.

Nevertheless she is content. “With this house we have made a dream come true,” Sawako says.

The crowded chaos and the tangle of houses lends a charming quality. There are still small corner shops everywhere and tiny doctor's surgeries tucked away. Every evening the tofu seller comes along on his bicycle ringing his bell.

Many of Tokyo's neighbourhoods look like Nakano. The dense housing packed higgledy-piggledy together ensures that the traffic noise from the main thoroughfares scarcely penetrates.

There are few gardens and those that exist are so small they do not justify the name. But, despite its steel and concrete, Tokyo is surprisingly green. “Gardening” as it is called, has become a passion for Japanese city dwellers.

The tiniest spaces, often just a few centimetres, are utilised to plant flowers or shrubs, or to position flower pots around the houses. Tokyo also has its large parks like Shinjuku Gyoen, a green lung for the huge city.

Given the high cost of housing, many simply cannot afford to own their own homes in Tokyo and are compelled to move to outlying areas or to neighbouring Yokohama, subjecting themselves to hours of commuting and the crush of the Tokyo tsukin jigoku.

While Tokyo bursts at the seams, entire rural areas are emptying of their inhabitants. Many villages are home to the elderly only, with the young leaving for the major cities in search of work and greater opportunities.

There are also fewer and fewer children. Japan is one of the most rapidly ageing societies in the industrialised world. - Sapa-dpa

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