Earlier this week the Sankei-affiliated web magazine Zakzak published this year’s results of business journal Toyo Keizai’s annual survey of “urban power,” meaning the most livable cities in Japan. Toyo has been doing the survey since 1993 in conjunction with the publication of a periodical data book that compiles statistics about local economies. The survey uses “14 types of information” released by a number of government organs, including the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, comprising five criteria for satisfactory urban living: safety, convenience, comfort, affluence, and housing standards. The survey covered 787 cities and the 23 wards of Tokyo, and this year the municipality that came out on top was Inzai in Chiba Prefecture, which just happens to be where we live.
Our reaction was pleasant surprise mixed with doubt, and as we read the Zakzak article it became clear what Toyo Keizai’s priorities are with regard to a satisfactory living situation. Inzai ranked #3 in the nation in the convenience category because of its retail accessibility. There are lots of discount stores that are easy to reach and with plenty of free parking. People of a certain aesthetic disposition will, of course, find this aspect of Inzai life somewhat off-putting. The retail outlets in question line route 464, which runs parallel to the Hokuso train line through three stations. Many of these outlets are gathered into rather sterile shopping malls. The article also quotes a 35-year-old resident as praising the “large choice of restaurants” along the main road, though such effusiveness should be qualified by the information that almost all these restaurants belong to national chains. For sure, if there’s one thing that characterizes Inzai’s abundance of commercial choice it’s the almost total lack of distinction. There’s nothing here that’s any different from other suburban commercial districts in Japan except maybe more of it; or less, since you’d be hard pressed to find anything that could be described as “typically Japanese.” If anything, the retail tone is strikingly American.
Another criterion that boosted Inzai’s rating was parks, which comes under the “comfort” heading. Inzai ranked #9 in the country. We’ll concur with this judgment. In fact, when we first moved here from Tokyo a year ago we thought there was too much park space. There’s one on every street corner when there isn’t a public park covering an entire swath of land. And they’re building more. Japan urban parks can seem either gratuitous or inadequate, but I now think that the ones in Inzai are quite well laid out. They’re mostly large lawns with generous complements of leafy trees and a minimum of extraneous facilities. And since Inzai seems to be a very family-friendly place, you actually see lots of children playing in the parks freely, with fewer signs restricting what they can do, and since the nearby traffic is light there’s little danger of accidents. Even the landscaping around our apartment complex is attractive; much better than any equivalent we saw in Tokyo. And the survey correctly took note that while the commercial district is rather dull and pokey, a five minute car ride north or south brings you to lush forests and rice paddies. As far as the comfort factor goes, we would place less stress on parks than on the abundance of bicycle lanes through relatively untouched rural landscapes. Inzai is definitely a place made for automobiles–the parking is cheap, the roads wide, the traffic manageable–but we don’t own a car. Biking is a very pleasurable pastime here, even though for us it’s a necessity, and the fact that we don’t distinguish should mean something.
The article stretches the truth a bit regarding access to Tokyo. It says Inzai is 40 minutes from the city center, though that could only be true if you took the special Sky Access express from the Chiba New Town Chuo station, which only runs several times a day. Our station is Inzai Makinohara, which is one station farther from Tokyo than CNTC and not an express stop, and it takes a little more than an hour to get to Ginza. Also, the article doesn’t mention the cost, which is about ¥1,140. The Hokuso Line is, famously, the most expensive train line in Japan. And, yes, we are closer to Narita Airport than we are to Tokyo, but it isn’t as close as it could be. The Sky Access, which connects Haneda to Narita, stops twice along the way for a total of fifteen to twenty minutes for reasons that the line’s operators have never explained, and from our station it costs ¥730, even though it’s only three stops. That said, the Hokuso Line is one of the most convenient trains in the Tokyo Metropolitan area since it hooks up with Keisei at Takasago and then at Oshiage the Toei Asakusa subway line, which goes right through central Tokyo and connects with practically every other JR, subway, and private line in the city.
Zakzak doesn’t get into housing standards very much, nor affluence, and we’ve come to the conclusion that, in Inzai’s case, the two are very much related. Having been developed around the Chiba New Town project that started in the 1970s, Inzai is mostly the product of the semi-public housing authority UR. The new town wasn’t as successful as they’d envisioned, which is why the Hokuso line is so expensive. There are still huge tracts of land, some very close to the train line, that remain undeveloped. UR owns them and according to reports wants to get out of the whole Chiba New Town project. UR’s exit has caused some problems for local merchants, many of whom were attracted by artificially low rents that are already being phased out. UR has been prevented from investing in any more housing developments itself by the government because of its massive debt. The result is that more private developers are moving in with new housing developments that most consumers will think of as upscale. One located north of Inzai Makinohara station will be built on the principle of a “smart grid.” Because so much prime land is finally being opened up for development, residential property values, at least for new houses, seem to be higher than in surrounding cities. It should also be noted that there are very few low-income people in Inzai. Several weeks ago, while doing some research, we called the city office and asked about public housing. We were told that Inzai has none, which means poor people are essentially shut out of the city. That’s one way to keep property values and relative affluence high. Nevertheless, most of the housing developments are the usual cramped collections of huge boxes. By contrast, many of the older UR danchi apartments are pretty good, surrounded as they are by all this park space. Even better, they’re reasonably priced. Rents aren’t bad, either. Our UR rental unit, built in 2003, would be perfect if it had a larger perspective of the sky.
So, yeah, we like it, but #1? The rating process and criteria are chosen to appeal to an average person who likely has little in common with us, and, truth be told, we’re not even sure exactly what we like. We moved here because we couldn’t afford Tokyo any more and this is one of the few UR apartment complexes that allow cats. Oh, and the earthquake, which Toyo Keizai didn’t rate. Inzai is supposedly built on solider ground than surrounding cities. It’s supposedly why so many banks and other major companies have placed their main computer and data centers here. We say “supposedly.” It may be an urban legend, which, come to think of it, might make a good criterion all by itself.