“Swedish name, non-Swede” is how my American friend Sven used to like to introduce himself. Looking a little like a young Jerry Lewis, the non-Swede lived in an old 1LDK (Japanese estate agent-ese for “one bedroom with lounge-dining room-kitchen”) in the heart of Shinsaibashi in central Osaka, five minutes walk from thousands of hostesses, two Irish pubs and several hundred sunakku (Japanese-style bars).
“Did you know that enough money is spent in Shinsaibashi in one evening to feed sub-Saharan Africa for a week?” he used to quote with learned gravitas, making it up as he went along.
Back in the late ’90s and noughties, Sven and I bar-hopped our way around the pleasure quarters of the megalopolis, generally having the time of our lives, but there was always a crucial divide: While Sven luxuriated in city-center living, declaring at any moment during our nocturnal ramblings that he was tired and heading home, or having everyone back to his place, or having a nightcap chez lui with that special someone he had just met, I was always the kid from the sticks, stuck out in the wilds of the endless suburbs, a 40-minute train ride or — heaven forbid — a ¥7,000 taxi ride away.
This meant that my city-center night wanderings were of a rather different ilk. For most of the time, I was under the cosh of last trains (12:13 a.m. heading north from Shinsaibashi), and if I decided — as I usually did at least once a week — that I was going to head to a nightclub or give my flirtation skills a workout in a late-night bar, then I would be pulling an all-nighter, staying awake until trains resumed at dawn, and spending most of the next day comatose on my futon.
At such times, how I cursed the inconvenience of the suburbs, and longed to move downtown! The suburbs, that infinite sprawl of tedious families and tired salarymen, that vast waiting room for the weekly revels of the city.
But once, when Sven disappeared on one of his annual tours of Southeast Asia, he entrusted me with the key to his apartment. Thrilled at the prospect of having a convenient pied-a-terre in the heart of the city and being able to dispense with last trains home, I thought of moving in; but after just one night, I quickly came to change my mind.
His apartment could not be bettered for nocturnal activities, but suffered from noisy street traffic and no daylight. During the day it was insufferable, and when I took a train the following afternoon back to my suburban flat, I began to look with fresh eyes at how clean, green and sunlit it was. When I entered my bathroom for a shower, I felt as if I was literally rinsing away the grime of the city. Ah, it was so good to be back in the suburbs!
But here was the thing: I had spent my entire life in the suburbs and knew nowhere else. I had been raised on the outskirts of a provincial British city and had lived in Japan in the suburbs of Tokyo, Kyoto, Kobe and Osaka. You hear much talk about the cultural differences between nations and regions, but for me the suburbs of modern nations like Japan and Britain have a lot in common. Their sense of “difference” is exemplified not with other nations but with the places that define what suburbs are not: city centers and the countryside.
Ah yes, the countryside. Because, if there was a part of me that hankered for city-center living, then paradoxically, another part was sure that I needed to move into the heart of the countryside and live in the “real Japan.”
I happened to be invited to stay with a friend in the countryside, one who lived in a thatched farmhouse with perhaps an acre of land around it. I arrived in the dark and he put me in a tatami-mat room for the night. I awoke to discover I was surrounded by a blaze of greenery and the sounds of birds tweeting, and opened the curtains to reveal a rustic pond straight out of a Basho travelogue.
All around his house were forested hills, and my friend would grumble about the latest incursion of a wild boar onto his land. His concerns were totally different to those of the city dweller — he was trying to be self-sufficient in certain vegetables and do organic farming and had set up a local pottery kiln. I became seduced by this vision of country living and thought that I, too, must look for some rundown thatched farmhouse.
My friend told me that he had moved to the Japanese countryside because after 10 years living in the city he had started to feel bored with life in Japan and longed for a fresh challenge. Buying a dilapidated farmhouse in the countryside not only provided him with an ongoing restoration project, but also immersed him in the life of the rural community, where everyone knew everyone else.
When he led me over the hills to a pottery kiln, we walked through a forest of bamboo with dense grass underfoot. Ah, to live this life, I thought. To be surrounded by fresh air and greenery, to have such a sense of community. This, I instantly decided, was the type of place where I should live as well, and so I abandoned my plans for city-center living and began to scout for abandoned farmhouses.
Yet, as with the city center, I discovered after multiple visits that one night was my limit with the countryside before the sheer inconvenience and isolation of the place overwhelmed me. In the suburbs, everything you need, from shops to parks, is accessible by means of pleasant bicycle rides. In the countryside, where you are supposedly “at one with nature,” you have to spend your whole time driving a car everywhere. My friend, who superficially seemed to be integrating with the Japanese “community,” actually spent most of his time in a draughty back room of the farmhouse watching BBC World. He and his wife, meanwhile, would rave about some mediocre, deserted restaurant run by some toothless country bore a five-mile drive away.
Nah. Get me back to the suburbs — those beautiful, wondrous suburbs where civilization was so perfectly balanced with nature, that symphony of domestic harmony!
It’s taken me — a suburban boy — the best part of a lifetime to realize not just that the suburbs are best, but that they are what I love most about Japan. I love the kids in their colored hats taken by nurseries to the park and mothers whizzing by on their bikes, balancing groceries and children. I love the relaxed strains of melodies wafting along the shōtengai and the plethora of restaurants offering tasty food at modest prices. I love pottering about in the local supermarket and saying hello to the neighbors.
I love my kids playing on the street with other neighborhood kids and welcoming them all into our house for tea and gossip. I love the views of the manicured garden our house looks onto and the sounds of the evening street patrols telling us to “Watch out for fires!” and the wailing siren of the sweet-potato salesman and the announcements of the recycling collection vans. I love the quietness, convenience and intimacy that you can only find in those hugely underappreciated Japanese suburbs.
A girl I once hired to teach me French put it best when I asked her what she most loved about living in Japan. “La vie du quartier” (“neighborhood life”) is how she instantly responded.
You can be pretty sure that when people think about the allure of life in Japan, they are generally not thinking about the suburbs. What causes people to get excited about Japan are the neon lights and adrenalin rush of the mega-cities, or else the beautiful snowy mountains and thatched houses of the countryside. Take a quick look at the images of Japan you see on any social media platform and I guarantee that this is what dominates. But I would like you to consider the idea that it is actually in those tepid, half-forgotten suburbs that what is most magical about Japan is to be found.
These days, rather than saying I live in particular cities in Britain and Japan, it is more accurate to say that I live in particular suburbs, and in truth rarely leave them. Why would I? In the immortal words of the Pet Shop Boys, “suburbia” is “where the suburbs meet utopia.”
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