Local Japan: Living in Southwest Nerima – our perfect mix
«Nerima? Oh please no! What on earth am I supposed to do in Nerima?!» This was a young American’s reaction when he learned that his company had decided to accommodate him in Nerima-ku for his one-month business stay in Japan. Though he had lived in Tokyo for several years before moving back to the US he had never felt the urge to set foot into Nerima, as he told me later. Fortunately, my boyfriend and I didn’t have any such preconceptions when we booked our first trip to Japan. Otherwise, we would have missed out on a great place to live. Our reason for searching an accommodation a bit farther away from Tokyo’s city center was simple: all places closer to the city were either astronomically expensive or claustrophobically small. Staying in one of those typically Japanese miniature apartments may be fine if you need it just for sleeping – but we like to cook and have a nice dinner in the evening. Moreover, we sometimes want to spend an afternoon home working at the computer and my boyfriend needs to practice his dance steps. Being spoiled by having spent most of my life in one of Berlin’s spacious pre-war apartments, living in Tokyo has made me realize the importance of having enough personal space. That is why when we returned to our Nerima home after having spent an intermediate period in a very small inner-city-apartment, we were thrilled about seemingly simple things like having a big table or enough storage space. Considering that apartment hunting in Tokyo often means “Spacious – affordable – close to the city: pick two!” we did not have to think twice. In order to have the luxury of space, we moved not only to Nerima, but even to its most southwest border.
Over the course of several months we have got to know and love the many advantages of this area. Thus, what was originally meant as a temporary accommodation has now become a place we proudly call “home”. First of all, we find here a calming counterbalance to the daily rush of Tokyo’s busy and buzzing city life. Coming home feels like entering an oasis of peace after a stressful working day. As a matter of fact, we love the inner city’s energy and its fast heartbeat, but we get enough of that by spending most days working in or sometimes just strolling through the city. On the other side, having an evening walk in our Nerima oasis or going for a little bicycle tour on a free afternoon has opened up another side of Japan for us: a slower pace Japan of small beautiful alleys where mothers stroll with their children and old ladies walk in their kimonos only to meet a neighbor and chat for twenty minutes on a street corner. Research has shown that spending time in nature considerably benefits people’s health. In an agglomeration like Tokyo putting this finding into practice is obviously quite difficult but there is nothing better to refill your batteries than spending an afternoon in one of Nerima’s parks which are usually less crowded than the inner-city parks. Shakujikoen for example doesn’t offer itself as a postcard motive of a typical Japanese park in the way Shinjuku Gyoen does, but it allowed me to spend three hours reading a book underneath a tree with just very few promenaders walking by every now and then. In fact, Nerima is said to be the greenest of Tokyo’s special wards.
What me and my boyfriend love to do most is to discover new areas by bicycle. Before we came to Japan, we basically had two different images of Japan in our heads. The first image was that of the wild crazy bustling big city life which we later found in Shinjuku or Shibuya. Our second image of Japan however was that of harmony, zen, tea ceremonies and beautiful peaceful gardens. It is that second face of Japan – we call it “magical Japan” – which we discovered by riding on our bicycles. While cycling in the traffic of Tokyo’s busy inner city streets is a rather stressful experience, there is on the other hand no better way to unwind than riding through the outer city alleys in the evening while the sun is setting and people are returning from work or going out for an evening walk. For us it is the perfect combination of physical exercise with exploring and soaking in that special “Japan feeling” which made us come to this country. While exploring the area by bicycle we discovered all kinds of shrines and temples which couldn’t be found in any tourist guide, but also small and lively shopping streets or hidden restaurants. For anime fans it might be interesting to know that Nerima is home to many anime companies (we live right next door to one) and also home of the famous cartoon cat Doreamon. Though I have no particular interest in animes, I enjoy having a look at the small open-air exposition of famous anime characters outside Oizumi Gakuen station, every time I come by the area.
Of course there are not only beautiful alleys and green spaces to admire in West Tokyo, but there is also no shortage of cafés, bars and restaurants to discover. If you are looking for a young and vibrant shopping area, Kichijoji is the place to go. By bicycle, it takes us less than 15 minutes to reach Kichijoji, where we like to discover all kinds of interesting restaurants and shops or to have a walk and watch the street performers. There is even a bakery selling German bread, which is usually hard to find in Japan. The atmosphere in Kichijoji is much more relaxed and also more bohemian than that in most central Tokyo areas, which are often crowded with too many tourists and tourist shops on the one side and hordes of salarymen rushing to and from work on the other side. Kichijoji on the contrary is trending with young people enjoying – and creating – the city’s charm. No wonder that according to a poll by the housing website SUUMO, Kichijoji has been voted the number one place to live in the Greater Tokyo Area.
Of course, living in suburbia has its disadvantages too. Since the distances between the different shopping streets, restaurants and other places of interest are farther than in the city center, there is really not much to do on those days when the weather doesn’t allow riding a bicycle. However, even in that case you can always opt for a trip to the city center. With the express train it takes only around twenty minutes to reach Shinjuku Station. To Shibuya it takes less than 40 minutes. Even when we lived in the city center, it often took us just as long to reach any place, except if it was by chance just on our train line or in our area. If you love to enjoy the nightlife however, you might find that living in the outskirts might thwart your enjoyment as you’ll have to call it a night quite early in order to get that famous “last train” which brings you home. Otherwise, there’s always the option to pull an all-nighter and go home when the first salarymen start their daily commute at around four in the morning. For us, the advantages of living in our little oasis by far outweigh the disadvantages. Yes, some people raise their eyebrows in disbelief or pity when we tell them that we live in Nerima, but in that case we just smile knowingly and go back to enjoying our perfect mix of “magical Japan” and “wild Japan”.