U is for Urban Sprawl

I’ve mentioned this multiple times but it does bear repeating: Japan is one of the most densely populated countries on earth, a comparatively thin slither of islands on the edge of the Pacific Ocean packing in over 120 million people.  That’s compounded by the fact that a great deal of Japan is mountainous, with the habitable flat lands few and far between.

As the majority of Japanese people are not mountain hermits, those flat bits are utilized to maximum effect.  Farming is very land-intensive, and the urbanized parts are built up to an almost dystopian degree.  At least, it would be dystopian if Japan wasn’t so excellent at maintaining it all.  More on that later.

In my native UK, it is actually very rare for city limits to bleed over into one another.  With the exception of large conurbations like London and Birmingham, if you want to escape the city you will almost certainly have to travel through a green belt of rolling hills, fields of cows and and that ever pervasive stench of ‘the country’ (aka. poop).

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“Who farted?”

Not so in Japan.  On the contrary, it is rare to have standalone cities like that in Japan, even for places well out in the countryside.  The small town I used to reside in rubbed shoulders with the towns on either side.  Heck, my nearest ATM was in the neighbouring town!  And now I live in a large city on the edge of Tokyo, that fact is even more so: I commute for almost an hour into central Tokyo, and if you look out of the train window you would only see an unbroken march of city.

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No joke, you can actually see my city in this photo. Over there.

As a consequence, a lot of Japanese cities seem to suffer from a lack of…well, not so much identity (the locals sure love to push their local food speciality in your face), but more of a lack of personality.  Many cities in the UK have a certain look or vibe that makes it just that little bit unique.  But in Japan, especially around the larger cities, this personality is not so readily apparent.  It is there, but the difference between, say, Akabane and Omiya won’t jump out at you the moment you step off of the train.

And that’s another thing: really, the main thing that identifies these individual cities to the man on the street is the train stations.  Indeed, as mentioned in the T is for Trains post, cities seem to be built around the train station, with all of the main shopping, eating and business areas landing themselves within walking distance.  The further away you get from a train station, the lower density and more residential you get.

Let’s jump back to those high density parts for a moment.  Because when Japan gets built up, it doesn’t hold back.  Next time you are in Tokyo, alight at one of the major train hubs (Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ueno or Tokyo) and go for a walk.  Walk yourself to the edge of the train station building (if you can find it) and then try to walk back to where you started by going a different way.  You will see what I mean: there is something labyrinthine and ant’s nest-like about the deepest urban sprawl that, as I heard one commentator on Tokyo say, “almost spitefully urban”.

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There is something innately spiteful about the Shibuya Scramble. I think it’s sentient.

Yep, and that brings me back to my first point: this vast and complex concrete tangle would collapse into a hot mess of filth, crime and neglect if the Japanese weren’t generally so organized, detail-oriented and safe to a fault.  It is one of the many reasons why exploring Tokyo and getting lost is a joy, and not a dread: the risk of winding up in a shifty neighbourhood or a seedy backalley is basically zero.  Even Tokyo’s most notorious area, Kabukicho, is perfectly fine if you’re sensible (my now wife and I went bowling there!) and even that place is getting even cleaner.  It’s one of the many reasons why Tokyo might well be the only major city in the world where I can enjoy an all-night exploration or the backstreets and always feel utterly safe.

Oh?  I haven’t told you about my nightwalks?  More on that later…

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3 comments

    • Hachioji is a nice place! And it’s actually a perfect example of what I’m talking about here: You could go all the way from Hachioji to Shinjuku and see nothing but city, even through they’re about 40km apart.

      • I visited in 1989 so I’m sure things have changed since then. I did brave the train with my Japanese friend. But we went from Hachioji all the way down to Yokohama. It was crazy. I’m from Brooklyn and I’m in Japan. We’re going to Yokohama to see a New York City rap group. We stayed out so late we had to walk around and go to coffee shops until morning when the trains started running.

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