What meets the eye when first arriving in Japan is a jumble of unattractive low rise office and apartment buildings, electricity poles and wires, neon signs and box shaped houses stretching to usually a mountainous horizon in an overwhelmingly grey colour. It isn’t a pretty sight.
Yet, in one of the paradoxes that is modern day Japan, among and beyond can be found scenes of exquisite oriental beauty: tiny garden settings, ornate temples and their ancient grounds, old wooden farmhouses flanked by neatly tended rice paddies, impenetrable forests and mist-enshrouded distant mountain ranges. Much more so with the smaller cities, but even with a metropolis like Tokyo the suburbs can soon be exited by train.
Within the urban expanses, visitors on foot or using a local bus might notice these areas are made up of a series of small villages, whose citizens relate strongly to their own locality, patronising the local shops, their younger children attending the nearest primary school. Annual festivals in the local park, usually during the warmer months, work to reinforce this neighbourhood interaction.
Building has never been an act of permanence in Japan. The use of rocks was confined to the rich, for fences, castle foundations and ramparts, and some paving. Wood, the only natural resource readily available, was traditionally the most common building material. In a country of frequent natural disasters such as earthquakes and typhoons, destruction and re-building has been an oft-repeated cycle over the centuries.
Nowadays the majority of houses are pre-fabricated and put together on site, still not intended to last more than half a century. Only a tiny number are built in the traditional style, and occasionally a very modern design can be found. Wooden frames are still the norm in most cases. In property terms, land is king, and anything on it of passing relevance and usually not great value in comparison. Most constructions decrease in value from the time they’re new.
From the earliest times Japan was an agrarian society, with people living near where they worked. The latter part of the 19th century saw some expansion of towns and cities as the country strove to industrialise and catch up with Europe and the USA, but many city centres and large swathes of residential areas were destroyed or damaged during World War II. When the frantic re-building of the 1950s and 60s began, in many of the larger cities little was left of the previous century, and not a great deal of the immediate pre-war period.
For the construction industry after the war haste was the name of the game, with scant consideration for aesthetics. When the economy entered boom-time in the mid-1970s, skyrocketing land values again pushed construction companies to complete projects as quickly as possible, so they could get on with the next job and maximise the profits there for the taking. It’s this history of constant building and re-building that has led to the topsy-turvy landscapes of Japanese cities and suburbia.
Within suburbia there are sharp differentiations between close-ups and wider perspectives. Whilst the seemingly never-ending urban areas present a grey, squashed in appearance of mismatched and uncontrolled architectural styles, at close quarters there’s a great deal of beauty, interest and sometimes leading-edge design, to be found in shop windows and interiors, restaurants, late night snack bars, private homes, pavement food stalls and public buildings. Some planning and perseverance might be needed by those seeking out these architectural gems, both old and new, but they’re there for the finding.
The Japan address system
In stark contrast to other industrialised nations, apart from main arteries suburban streets in Japan don’t have names, so even maps in English can be of only limited value, especially for locating places or buildings that aren’t marked on maps. The street address system operates according to numbers and localities. At most suburban intersections, placed vertically on a fence or building can be seen small oblong metal markers bearing details of the immediate area. Most are printed in kanji, (Japanised Chinese characters that are the main writing form – see further ‘The Japanese language’), but enough are in English for the system to be useable by visitors. This information is supplemented by numbers on a smaller plate on each building, often near the post box.
From the narrowest micro to the macro, a Japanese address comprises the following: firstly, if the place is an apartment, the apartment number in the building; second (or first if the place is a house), the number of the building, similar to a street number; third, the chome number, chome being the name for the area into which each suburb is split up numerically; fourth, the ward or municipality name; fifth, the city name. The postcode comprises seven digits, hyphenated after the first three, relating specifically to the particular chome of the ward.
Thus, using the following address of an apartment as an example, 2-20-17-111 Hoshiguma, Jonan-ku, Fukuoka 814-0132: the number 111 is the apartment number; 20-17 is the apartment building number; and the building is situated in 2-chome, in the suburb of Hoshiguma, in Jonan ward, in the city of Fukuoka, the postcode of this particular chome in all of Japan being 814-0132.
From a starting point, such as an airport or railway station, a taxi driver will begin with the ward, seeking next the suburb, then chome, then building number. It’s a logical system that usually works well, stumbling only when the address plates are missing or hard to locate, especially at night.
Notwithstanding this system, and perhaps because of it, most Japanese are adept at map drawing and the practice is widespread, with a large percentage of business cards and other repositories of addresses also containing a map showing the location.
As a hint for deciphering a map, hand-drawn or printed, a road is any passageway accessible by a vehicle. There are some quite narrow vehicles in Japan, so what a visitor may be led to believe is a road, may at first impression appear to be a very narrow lane. Any visitor in possession of a map shouldn’t hesitate to ask directions of someone nearby, as they won’t mind being asked, and may be willing to take the inquirer part or all of the way to the destination.
Suburban streets away from main roads are quiet and largely traffic free. At night, being not brightly illuminated, they provide a charming, neighbourly atmosphere. After dark, usually the only people about are husbands returning from work and students returning from jukus (cram schools), which close around 10pm.
A walk through such settings of blissful suburbia can provide some indication of how life is at close quarters. Anyone passing by an open door as an occupant enters is likely to hear that person announce their return by the word tadaima, welcomed inside by the response o-kaeri nasai, set expressions in every Japanese household on these occasions, and recommended for use by anyone staying in Japan with a host family.
In central city areas streets are often more interesting at night, when the blandness, even ugliness of buildings above is muted by darkness, and transformed by the brilliance of neon lighting. Here, life on the pavement is the main focus. With the constant movement of people jamming sidewalk eateries, and the resultant assault on the senses of sight, sound and smell, the sense of being in Asia is all-pervasive. In such areas, temples and shrines offer the best opportunity to view the Japan of past eras, although some smaller towns still contain dwellings from the Edo era of before 1860.