Google+ Rurousha 流浪者: Tokyo's riskiest neighbourhoods

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Tokyo's riskiest neighbourhoods

Tokyo is the world's safest city, based on the opinion of international travellers. It's also the world's most vulnerable city when it comes to natural disasters, according to insurance companies. Safe people; dangerous earth. That's my city.

Tokyo's schizophrenic personality might be a strange topic for a new year's first post, but on the other hand, we might as well remain aware of the nature of the beast.

Not all neighbourhoods are equally unsafe, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has done extensive surveys to determine the riskiest areas. I was surprised by the results: counter to my intuition, not all of them are in the low-lying, prone-to-flooding eastern districts.

Narrow street in Kyojima just off Kira Kira Shōtengai,
with wooden house on the right

Three risks have been identified: fire, building collapse and overall risk (which includes flooding and difficulty of access for emergency vehicles due to narrow roads). The government's report mentions the following areas:

Building collapse will be worst in alluvial lowlands where the soil tends to amplify shakings from earthquakes. This includes parts of Adachi, Arakawa, Taitō, Sumida, Kōtō, Edogawa and Katsushika; in other words, virtually the entire shitamachi.

Fires will be at their fiercest in areas with many wooden houses, including Adachi, Arakawa, Taitō, Sumida, Kōtō, southwestern Shinagawa as well as Ōta.

Communities with high combined risks are found in the shitamachi area along the Arakawa and the Sumidagawa. The southwestern portion of Shinagawa and the area from northern Kita to northern Toshima are also at high risk. When roads are taken into consideration, high-risk communities are also situated in the area from Nakano to Suginami along Ring Road Number 7, which has a high concentration of close-set wooden houses (areas known as 木造 住宅 密集 地域 mokuzō jūtaku misshū chiiki or "wooden house dense area").

Old wooden house in Asakusa

I went on a few walkpeditions. I didn't walk through all these areas, but I covered most of them, including a few listed by property insurance companies as vulnerable. What do they have in common? 
  • They're old.
  • Most are run-down; a few, most notably Wakaba, are undergoing a process of renovation. That makes sense: Wakaba is very central, near sought-after Yotsuya and Shinjuku.
  • Wooden houses abound. Many are extremely dilapidated, many are abandoned.
  • Streets are so narrow that only poetic licence allows them to be called "streets". I expected such narrow alleys in Sumida and Adachi, but I was stopped dead in my tracks by what I saw in Akagishitamachi near Kagurazaka.

They look remarkably similar, although – and this conclusion should be taken for granted, given the identity of the writer – the eastern suburbs have more history, more character and a more vibrant community life.

The rest of my story will focus on Kyojima, which has, at least to me, the most interesting history and current situation. Also … Sky Tree. I have a habit of stalking Sky Tree, and this time I did it from Kyojima, which is situated to the northeast of the tower. Yes, indeed, the world's tallest tower is built in the most vulnerable neighbourhood of the world's biggest city.

Makes perfect sense, in a Japan kind of way.

Sky Tree is very visible everywhere in Kyojima.

Kyojima used to be on the outskirts of Edo, on the other side of the Sumidagawa, but this changed after the 1923 earthquake, which obliterated large parts of downtown Tokyo and resulted in thousands of evacuees who were forced to live outside the destroyed areas. Construction companies saw a gap and built hundreds of cheap nagaya without any support infrastructure in Kyojima. Roads developed organically and followed the shape of small rivers or small paths on agricultural lands.

Interestingly enough, this particular area was not destroyed during the American firebombing of World War II, which led to a second wave of refugees. The population density at its peak was 800 people per hectare.

The next episode in Kyojima's history is the ageing and resulting depopulation of the last few years. Youngsters moved out, leaving behind a graying population and a 15% rate of abandoned homes.

Alley in Kyojima

Old house in Kyojima

Now, however, they might be moving back. Thank you, Abenomics, which is creating more low-salaried part-time workers looking for low rents. Kyojima is cheap, and it also happens to be a great neighbourhood. Study after study has proved that grid-like patterns and culs-de-sac make residents unhappy. Humans love organics shapes and a bit of disorder. I quote from a Japan Times article (link):
To paraphrase architect Arata Isozaki, Tokyo is a city that has never had a plan, never had a center and has never had any visible order. Kyojima epitomizes this view of the city. It is a district that proclaims the social values of inventiveness, density and proximity, values that modern housing in Japan — often built and designed by large construction companies — have failed to hold on to. Kyojima is not exactly the last holdout against modernization, nor does it comfortably fit the mold of an idyllic rural community, but it does say something about space becoming personal and intimate.
Unexpectedly, it’s the physical layout of Kyojima — a legacy of its unplanned beginnings as farmland turned informal residential zone — that makes it so prone to disaster on one hand and such a lively community on the other.
Kyojima is a complex anachronism. A 2004 study in the Journal of Asian Architecture and Building Engineering found that Kyojima is more livable and lively than the areas laid out on a grid because of its haphazard structure, full of winding lanes, densely packed wooden houses and irregular roads. It is the structure that has created the atmosphere of community and "draws livability to the area", according to the article.
I live in Taitō, near the Sumidagawa, near Asakusa, in the heart of the shitamachi. There are wooden houses and narrow alleys in my area, but also plenty of modern apartment buildings and wide roads. This apartment is on the eleventh floor: not so pleasant during a quake, but probably fire-proof and possibly a good idea during a flood.

Am I aware of the risk? Yes. Do I want to trade my beloved shitamachi for the safe, upmarket, modern Tama area with its plethora of hiking trails? Hell, no.



I've included photos from a selection of risky neighbourhoods, starting with Kyojima. These aren't merely gaps between houses; they're streets that provide access to other areas. They're so narrow that two people cannot pass each other.

There are modern houses in Akagishitamachi (Kagurazaka), and I spotted several Minis, but even these tiny cars wouldn't be able to drive in all the streets.


I've included photos of Machiya in Taitō so that we can end on a happy note. The area is famous for its roses next to the Tōden Arakawa Line. Isn't it gorgeous? (If the watermark on the photos confuses you, it comes from an old photo blog that I closed a few years ago.)


  1. That Mini looks like it's the same model as mine!

    I like old school Japanese architecture and the alleyways. I think since most people traveled by foot there was no need to make larger streets in between houses back then. Sadly it takes a bit to maintain these buildings since they were built more with the idea that sooner or later something would destroy them and so why spend a lot of money to build them. I guess us Westerners are raised with the idea of permanence so it seems odd to us.

    1. The yellow one or the stripey one? :)

      Tokyo's habit of tearing down houses and rebuilding them every twenty years bemuses me. I don't think I'll ever cross that particular cultural chasm. I wrote it about it here:

    2. I will never get used to the idea of having a house that I will tear down in future.

      Ahhhh Japan ;)

  2. A place that could have a natural disaster any time, but would you live anywhere else. No Chance! Tokyo is like a drug and once its in your veins, it has you hooked. I can easily see why you would live in this city Ru. It has tried to lure me away from my beloved Gifu many times and has almost succeeded :)

    1. I suspect I'll end up in the bundu of the countryside when I'm really old, dilapidated and decrepit, but for now ... Tokyo is the centre of my universe, and the shitamachi is my small home planet. :)

  3. The photo of those houses reminds me of my grandmother's old photographs from the beginning of the XX century. In between the two world wars they left their small village in southern Italy looking for a job in the industrialized north, ending up in Torino. They lived in an apartment right in the center of the old city, with streets and houses pretty much like the one in the photos above (but with houses made of bricks: no wood constructions in Italy). The photos she had of her apartment were pretty much like the houses above: full of random stuff, pots of plants everywhere, baskets with fruit and salami hanging from the roof. That of course was in the good times... most of the time food was not so abundant. At some point they even kept a hen in the house. When the poor animal got old, the reasonable thing to do would have been to eat it, but nobody had the courage to kill her so they just kept her even when she could not produce more eggs.

    Narrow alleys without a plan? You just described italian medieval towns: cities before cars were much more people friendly.

    1. "Salami hanging from the roof " got me sighing wistfully. Oh, for salami and cheese that don't cost triple Japan's national debt ...

      I'm often gobsmacked by how unbelievably cluttered Japanese homes can be. Zen minimalism? Ha bloody ha. Full of random crap. Don't geddit. End of rant. :D

      I love the story of the hen.

      Italian medieval towns. Ru scribbles another note to herself that she really, really!, has to revisit Italy before she turns into a bundu-dwelling old crone (see my comment to Japan-Australia).

      That's my collection of haphazard responses to your comment. ^^

  4. I agree that Sumida's ground amplifies the earthquakes. Whenever I check the Shindo level, it feels higher in my place. Just have to be "safe".

    Just a warning, in a couple years, I may not be in your beloved Shitamachi anymore. Definitely going to be here for at least 1 more year but after that, I might move. 6 years in the same place will a long time for me so I figure a new place will be in order. I know where I want to move but I doubt I'll have the money to do so. We'll see. Maybe I'll just move next to Sky Tree and get a nice house.

    1. The day will come (you can hear Bach's Great Fugue in G Minor in the background, can't you?) when my book collection will force me into a bigger-but-not-more-expensive-and-therefore-further-out apartment. It will come. It has done so before, and it will do again. Thus proceeds the story of my life.

    2. Aaargh! Actually I meant the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.

    3. Ag nou ja. Both will do. Ditto Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor. :D

  5. Just read this article:

    Abandoned homes a growing menace

    Looks like Adachi is offering 1 million Yen to demolish old homes. Maybe things will change in the next 10 years...

    1. I saw that article! I agree that the abandoned houses should be replaced, but please, not with awful cheap cookie-cutter houses! :(

    2. If I had the money, I'd buy a bunch of them and build a big apartment building. That, or a brewery. I doubt I can do either. :(

      Although my place might look like a cookie cutter. Maybe literally. ;)

  6. I like the way you captured the buildings especially the 4th picture, a perfect view, sky tree .

    1. Thanks! ^^ It's really (really!) nice to stalk Sky Tree in this area. Walk down a narrow alley with your shoulders almost touching walls, turn a corner and ... kapow! There's the tower in its full magnificent glory.

      PS: Yes, I'm in love. :D

  7. Thanks for showing us Kyojima. It is so nice to see.

    The mention of abandoned homes reminded me of acquaintances in Nagano Prefecture decades ago. A number of people were able to snag extremely cheap rents (or even free) for homes in the mountains no one was living in. The thinking was that it was good to have someone in a place to maintain it. Completely abandoned, the places would simply go to ruin.

    I miss the fast-vanishing, traditional houses and, yes I understand how dangerous they are (or were).

    I often remember my first train ride into Tokyo from Narita on the Keisei Line. In places there were seas of single-story wooden houses with tile roofs. Mostly all gone now turned into another hodgepodge of concrete, universal-world, 21st century conurbation.

    I believe there is increasingly little to distinguish any world urbanity from any other. Coming to Japan these days there is less, “Ah, I am really in Japan now.” And more, “Did I actually leave the urban sprawl of my native country?”

    I wonder if in the future people will look back with nostalgia at the concrete monstrosities of today, at least those that remain beyond their fast-expiring use-by dates.

    Oh well. In the summer the wooden apartment buildings I lived in were as hot as Dutch ovens. Stepping out into the hot sunshine was a good way to cool off. And in the winter it would take a couple of hours of the heat on before I would no longer see my breath in the room.

    1. It's always struck me how uncomfortable Japan's old houses were/are: as hot as hell in summer and as cold as outer space in winter. That seems to be the downside of a wooden structure. (That, and bugs, and dust, and fire, and ... )

      And yet, and yet, they are so beautiful.

      I disagree with many of Alex Kerr's opinions, but he's written a few hard-hitting truths about the preservation of old buildings in Japan. Having said that, it should immediately be added that "preservation" means "demolishing and rebuilding from scratch". The idea of never-ending permanence is just not a home-grown idea in Japan, is it? :)

      PS: "Never-ending" excludes the LDP.

  8. My sister lives in an old house off the Iroha shoutengai in Taitou-ku. Her kitchen and bath are cantilevered out beyond the first floor. I was amazed they didn't drop off on March 11th. I love how quiet the neighbourhood is at night.

    1. Hallo, Katakanadian, and thanks for visiting! :)

      Iroha in Nihonzutsumi? Ah, yes, I know that area! Quiet at night, and astonishingly safe (for a woman from South Africa). Yet another reason to love this city.



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