Monday, 25 October 2004

Well we're still here

Though only just due to earthquakes and typhoons, but like Gloria Gaynor, we have survived. Sideways Bob, in a comment, said he wanted a full report on the typhoon - well, I've already written one of those here and suffice it to say that last week's ones were pretty similar i.e. it rained. it was windy. some train lines stopped. we got over it. Similar job with the earthquakes on Saturday night that did some fairly serious damage to Niigata prefecture. It even manged to derail a shinkansen (that's a bullet train to those not in the know), which was the first time a shinkansen has been derailed since they started up in 1964 - a pretty impressive safety record, that. Anyway, Tokyo wobbled quite a lot and our building swayed in an alarming fashion - but for the fourth one at about 1845 I was on my bicycle going to the off licence and at ground level it wasn't nearly so bad, so I think living on the 7th floor really does make a difference, heaven knows what the really tall apartment blocks are like at the top...


Anyway golf-playing-brother also mentioned that there should be more stuff about living in Japan. "Like what?" I enquired. "Simple stuff, you know, that we don't do, like going to a supermarket. That's normal for you but is really weird for us." Which obviously suggests that all the supermarkets have closed down in the UK since I left. But in deference to my adoring public, just for you golf-playing-brother, here is a post about going to the supermarket.

The guru often goes to the supermarket. I, on the other hand, only find time at the weekend to visit the food and daily necessities emporia that dot the landscape. Within striking distance of the flat there are two Iida's, one Inageya, two Ito Yokado's and, if we are feeling rich, the food floor at Sogo department store. Of these I like Inageya most as it is newest and if the important ratio of distance/size/price/bread making ability is used, comes out top. It fails abysmally on the stocking alcohol criteria and some would argue, forcefully, that this should be a reason to veto it entirely. But a lot of supermarkets are like this in Japan, so what can you do? Also it means I get to go to the My Mart offy, to where I was cycling on saturday, which is a really good offy - decent wines, port, spirits, point cards, thai red curry mix - and they know me in there, so that is where we go.

Often before going to the supermarket we jot down the things we need to buy, we call this our 'shopping list'.

On the way to the supermarket we now pass a little building site. Kawaguchi is a city in transition at the moment. As it is just over the river into Saitama prefecture, it was once far enough out of Tokyo to be considered a place to place industry, so there are a lot of factories here. Not just ordinary factories mind, but heavy industry, steel smelters and die cast workshops and the like. The history of Kawaguchi is built on these factories and there is iron everywhere (more even than concrete, though this is slowly changing). But now, as the sprall has overtaken the city, industry is getting out. Even in the last two years the big factories on our side of the train lines have all but closed as the land has rocketed in value, meaning large wads to knock down the factories and build big apartment blocks in their place. This means, of course, that the demographics of the place are rapidly changing. It used to be, from what I gather, quite a polarized place, with a lot of factory workers and a few owners, so lots of small, cheap housing blocks and some really rather large and pleasant houses for the owners. But now it is all changing. Big apartment blocks mean white collar Tokyo commuters with young families. And it is a great place to commute from, one of the reasons we live here, as Shinjuku is only 20 minutes away, same for Ueno and only 25 to Tokyo and Otemachi, so quite convenient really (and trust me, convenience is the number 1 priority for home buying in Japan).

So this building site we pass was once a factory, or part of a factory, that the owners decided to change to residential land. (I think it was part of a factory as the rest is still there. Not sure what it makes, but luckily there are no zoning laws in Japan, so it could be the largest producer of hydrochloric acid in Japan and be quite legally placed in a residential area. Crazy.) So once this piece of land was levelled to make way for the builders, the guru and I mused on a saturday afternoon as to how many houses would be built on it. Now I have no idea about the exact size of the plot, but I would estimate that perhaps it is 25 meters by 15, or so. So I though one house and a nice big garden, or perhaps two. The guru, being Japanese, said they would squash them in there so three was more likely. Imagine our surprise, then, when the buggers managed to find space for 5 houses! Cheek by jowl doesn't do it justice.

Now to build a house in Japan is very simple, it seems to me. First get yourself the land, dig a foundation about a meter deep at most and then cover the floor with concrete, including raised bits about 50cm high that are the outline for the internal and external walls. Then, once that is dry, you bugger off to Ikea and basically buy a flat packed house. No really, everything else, it seems to me, is made of wood and looks like one big jigsaw. The frame is just lengths of 4x2, put up like a skeleton, after which a chap comes along and fills in the gaps with chipboard which is nailed in place with one of those pneumatic nail guns - no screws here. Windows are cut into the chipboard and the aluminium frames fitted. Lastly, on the outside, some nice mock brick cladding is added to make the thing look nice and substantial, which it isn't. Inside they are finised very nicely, I expect, but what you have is a very thinly walled house, which explains why they are a bugger to heat in winter, no cavity wall insulation in sight. But then again they have to be this way as it does make them exceptionally flexible and therefore safer in earthquakes. Also, if a big one does hit, the last thing you really want is lumps of concrete or masonary falling about your ears, the fewer heavy things that can drop on you the better, I guess, which is why bathrooms are always on the gound floor in houses. This flexibility, whilst being a strength, is also a weakness as the average lifespan for a house in Tokyo (or maybe Japan, I can't remember) is only 26 years, which is a ridiculously short time for a house, not even a lifetime - though by the time you can afford to buy your own house, it is probably about how much time you'll have left.

Anyway, I follow the building of these houses with much interest. I also wonder who is going to buy one of these five places as, in the few weeks since they were started, we have had a shit load of rain, meaning that all that wood can't be in the best of condition by now...

+++to be continued - next week (possibly), the supermarket+++

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