It seems that the subject of commuting in Tokyo has been much in the news again recently, both here in Japan and in the foreign press. It is perhaps appropriate, therefore, that we revisit the topic that we touched on in our previous articles on commuting, and renting accommodation in Japan, and focus specifically on getting to work in central Tokyo.
Whilst Britain’s BBC, and the Daily Mail and Daily Express newspapers were all this summer obsessed (yet again) by images of commuters being forcibly crammed into train carriages by Tokyo station staff, something Tokyoites have taken for granted for decades, the Japan Times was reporting less sensationally on a new government initiative to encourage employers to embrace flexible working practices to curb commuter hell.
The Japanese government is always proposing some reform or other to make life easier, whether anything ever comes of them is another matter entirely, but it is supposed that if only one in five of Tokyo’s workers were on flexi-time, congestion on the trains could be eased considerably. However, until flexible working becomes a reality, lifestyle choices of workers in the region will continue to be defined by their daily commute, and visa versa.
Ultimately, the reason most people commute has less to do with convenience and more to do with financial constraints – not everyone’s lucky enough to work for a financial institution that gifts them a luxury flat in Roppongi – but it’s certainly true to say that the farther one travels out of central Tokyo, the lower the rents become. It might also be the case that the size of affordable accommodations similarly increases over distance. But in deciding where to live, there will be many other variables that one can only consider subjectively.
For example, the farther accommodation is from a station, the cheaper it will be, but if that adds an extra 20 minutes walking time to an hour’s commute by train, each way, you can easily find yourself spending 3 hours a day or more in transit. That might appear doable now while you’re still young, fresh and enthusiastic, but over time you might come to resent making your daily journey.
Of course, only you can decide what duration of commute is acceptable to you in relation to what you’re prepared to pay in rent, and for the kind of personal space you think you need. But when you factor in the kinds of local amenities you deem essential, or how close you wish to be to the distractions of nightlife, culture or nature, etc., your search for a place to live may demand you make some compromises with your expectations.
Before we look at some suggested areas around Tokyo for home-hunting, I’d just like to mention employers as a resource. Some, though not all, Japanese companies offer advice and/or assistance to new staff from out of town or overseas; I’d urge you to take it where it’s available.
Japanese employers are critically aware that an employee’s home life and travel time can impact upon job performance, and they know well the rail lines that best serve the station nearest their offices. In my experience, senior Japanese company managers often have professional or personal connections with trusted property agents and will be happy to refer you to them. Increasingly, many such agents can converse in English.
Commuter Routes Into Tokyo
I’m going to look at three very broad areas outside of Tokyo, ones which are already well-established havens for commuters, with well-developed rail connections and local amenities. These are Kanagawa prefecture to the south-west of Tokyo; Chiba prefecture, that stretches from Tokyo’s eastern suburbs down into the Bōsō Peninsula to the south; and Saitama prefecture to the north-west of Tokyo.
All three areas are quite different geographically and, to some extent, culturally, each with its own distinctive atmosphere, though that might not be immediately apparent to a newcomer to Japan.
• Kanagawa Prefecture is the most expensive of our three choices where, on average, a one-room apartment costs around ¥59,000 per month, though this still compares favourably to the Tokyo average of ¥78,000.
However, on the coastal side towards Yokohama, or anywhere convenient for reaching the prefecture’s Great Buddha Statue at Kamakura, the beaches at Enoshima, or the hot springs and lakeside views of Mt. Fuji at Hakone, rental prices will rise steeply above average. One might find bargains closer to the industrial centre of Kawasaki, otherwise, Kanagawa tends to suit better-paid professional people.
On the plus side, Kanagawa is serviced by a whole host of rail services to and from Tokyo’s Shibuya, Shinjuku, Tokyo and Shinagawa stations. These include JR’s Yokosuka, Keihin-Tohoku, Tokaido, and Shonan Shinjuku lines; Odakyu Odawara line; Tokyu Denentoshi, and Toyoko lines; and the Fukutoshin Subway line, to name but a few.
• Chiba prefecture, on the other hand, is often overlooked by Westerners seeking accommodation, though it boasts some amazing beaches, lovely scenery, fascinating historic sites, such as the Naritasan Shinshō-ji Temple complex and, of course, the Tokyo Disneyland Resort at Urayasu. It’s also one of the most populated areas of Kanto in providing overspill for Tokyo.
Much of the housing stock is modern, high-rise complexes (sometimes known as bed towns), and facilities reflect Chiba’s popularity with young families, but there are plenty of one room apartments too with an average rent of ¥53,000 per month. Several rail links connect Chiba with Tokyo Station, Shinjuku, Akihabara, or Tsudanuma Station, including: JR’s Sōbu Rapid, Keiyō, and Chuō-Sōbu Local Lines, and the private Keisei Chiba line.
Towns in Chiba to consider for accommodation include: Ichikawa, Chiba City, Funabashi, Kashiwa and Matsudo. However, Chiba’s susceptibility to tsunamis and liquefaction might be off-putting to some newcomers to Japan.
• Saitama prefecture extends into some very rural parts of Kanto, but for commuters, there is little need to stray too far out of Tokyo to take advantage of the prefecture’s generally low rents – ¥53,000 per month on average for a one room apartment. But even inside the Tokyo metropolitan area adjacent to Saitama and along the common rail lines listed below, rents can be significantly lower than the Tokyo average.
Most of the commuter trains from Saitama terminate at, or go via the main hub Ikebukuro Station, such as the JR Saikyo line from Omiya, the Tobu Tojo line from Kawagoe (along with the Tokyo Metro Yurakucho and Fukutoshin lines that it shares some track with), and the Seibu Ikebukuro line from Tokorozawa. Also from Tokorozawa is the Seibu Shinjuku line to Tanashi, Takadanobaba and Seibu Shinjuku.
Commuting Within Tokyo
Depending on where one’s commuter train arrives in Tokyo, a significant part of one’s total journey may still involve changing trains and navigating across town. If that’s the case, why bother isolating yourself in some far-flung corner of a neighbouring prefecture, especially if what you really crave is a truly cosmopolitan environment and really cool bars that don’t call last orders at 9pm? It’s a valid point, for there are many creatures of the night who’d prefer to be close to those of their kind and within staggering distance of home on a Saturday night, even if it means living in an overpriced, possibly condemned shoe box.
I’m not saying you can necessarily trim much off that ¥78,000 average rent by going down market in Tokyo, but with a little patience and perseverance, anything’s possible. Areas known for cheaper accommodation in Tokyo include: Nakano, Asagaya, Ogikubo, Sugamo, Narimasu and parts of neighbouring Itabashi, and Shimokitazawa. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but they’re all places I know and where many personal friends, foreign and Japanese, seem to flourish.
A Final Thought – For the Ladies
Commuting into or across Tokyo can indeed seem like hell, so I’m glad I don’t have to do it anymore. But if it’s bad for blokes, it can be much worse for female commuters. Being sardined with a bunch of men can’t be any fun at the best of times, especially with the odour of the previous night’s ramen and beers still on their breath, but those who like to grope female passengers (chikan, they’re called in Japanese) can be a real nuisance.
For this reason, some commuter trains have female only carriages, though usually only during morning rush hour. Currently, these are mainly found on Tokyo Metro trains, such as the Yurakucho and Fukutoshin lines, and some JR services, including the Saikyo line, so foreign female staff might like to research their availability before deciding which commuter routes they take.
By Bill Ambler
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