Tokyo has taken the opposite tack from many Western cities when it comes to curbing tobacco use in public space: smoking is banned on the streets but not inside bars and restaurants. Well, almost banned — special smoking areas, usually in front of train stations, corral smokers into tight quarters around a few communal ashtrays (and inside a haze of smoke). These smoking zones are so unpleasant, they’ve been nicknamed “gas chambers.”
Recently, however, we’ve seen a smattering of more attractive smoking spaces — and not just ones created by tobacco companies. The new Hikarie building in Shibuya has what could be called a deluxe smoking lounge. There are benches to sit on, outlets to charge your phone, and, in the smoking space on the 11th floor, moody lighting. Most impressive however is the degree of ventilation — the air isn’t deplorably smoky.
All of this conspires to position smoking not as a fact-of-life or a dirty habit, but rather as a quality of life issue — smoking should ultimately be a pleasant experience. It’s the same logic that results in Japan having some of the nicest public restrooms in the world, with heated toilet seats and rows of mirrors (complete with hooks for hanging handbags and a ledge for holding make-up pouches and hairbrushes).
Starting this summer, a new venture is betting that, where such deluxe quarters do not yet exist for free, smokers would be willing to pay a small premium for that pleasant experience. Ippuku, which means “a puff,” is a pay-as-you-go smoking area. It features much of the same amenities as the space in Hikarie: padded rails to sit on, tables to prop up a drink, outlets for phone charging, and continuously circulating air.
The cost to enter is ¥50 — far less than a cup of coffee, but twice the price of the average cigarette. Customers pay with a swipe of their Pasmo or Suica train passes and enter though automatic gates much like those at Tokyo train stations. While a staff door indicates that someone is keeping an eye on the place, the space itself is unmanned.
Since July, Ippuku has opened three smoking stations in central Chiyoda Ward, which was the first ward to ban smoking on the street 10 years ago. Ippuku isn’t a knee-jerk reaction to a new regulation; rather it is the latest twist in the ongoing negotiations between the city and its smokers.
In an interview in Nikkei Trendy, a spokesperson for General Fundex, the real estate company behind Ippuku, explained that what customers were paying for was the technology used to keep the smoking area, well, smoke-free. This includes a water-flushing system for cigarette butts, walls coated with a stain-resistant substance, and aromatherapy scents pumped into the air.
Also peace of mind: In many public smoking areas the boundary is not clearly drawn, and second hand smoke wafts out into the areas beyond. But inside Ippuku, smokers needn’t mind about non-smokers; this space is 100% theirs.
But will people actually pay to smoke? When we stopped by last week, we saw a handful of people come and go (then again it was about 35 degrees outside and Ippuku does have air conditioning). General Fundex is optimistic though: The company plans to open three dozen new branches around Tokyo in the next three years.