In my home city of Melbourne the population density is estimated at 430 people per square kilometre. In Tokyo the figure is 6000 people per square kilometre.
Japan has an overall population density of approximately 350 people per square kilometre. In Australia you’re looking at roughly three people per square kilometre*. That’s right, three.
That’s ample room to swing a cat, even of the sabre-tooth variety. If you’re antisocial by nature you could stroll around your square kilometre and feel fairly confident you wouldn’t bump into a single soul.
OK, much of Australia’s red, ‘dead’ heart is desert and unsuitable for high density habitation. This is why we sunburnt Aussies stick to the coastlines where it is wetter and greener. It’s also why the density numbers for Melbourne and Sydney are so much higher than the national average — and why traffic and public transport issues are top of mind for so many people.
For all our huffing and puffing, Melbourne’s 430 people / km2 hardly compares with Tokyo’s 6000. We could learn a lot from the Japanese mega-city.
My sense of Tokyo is that for all the crowding it doesn’t feel cluttered. The populace live side-by-side politely, patiently and efficiently. Space, the commodity many Australians have in abundance, is rarely wasted.
Living in Tokyo made me conscious of how we can make do with less. Why build big houses full of single-purpose rooms that are empty most of the day when you can stow your bedding each morning and turn sleeping space into living areas?
If you absolutely must own a motor vehicle, why not opt for a petite machine purpose-built for the tight parking spaces available.
A gap between buildings could fit one car-parking space — or six if you build an elevator that enables cars to be stored on top of each other. A steep, narrow sliver of land that’s probably no good for anything else could be perfectly fine for a cemetery.
Japanese garden design also reflects this capacity to optimise surroundings. Entire gardens are designed around what does NOT fit in a property. You simply ‘borrow’ scenery in the background, such as a hillside or a neighbour’s tree, by framing it with plants in your own garden.
Paths in Japanese gardens meander. The wisdom of a winding path, apart from being an excellent metaphor, is that each change of angle provides a different view. The gardener can craft several scenes from one. With this in mind they deliberately slow our progress, encouraging meditation and appreciation, rather than impatience and bustle.
The other place where this cultural prescription to slow down was obvious was in the public baths. We stayed a week in the mountains where the plumbing was often frozen solid. This didn’t matter as bathing took place at one of several local ‘onsen’.
Part of the reason I’m posting this so long after our trip is that I have been musing over the things I liked best about Japanese customs. Ten months down the track, I have to say I miss the public baths.
The onsen routine involved stripping down, scrubbing forensically in an open showering area, then moving to hot/very hot/cold indoor or outdoor pools to soak. I suspect public (segregated) bathing probably lessens hang-ups about body image but the ritual certainly had other benefits.
The onsen deliberately takes the pace off your life. It cleanses not just the outer layer but the inner, soaking up accumulated stress. As a full stop to a 24-hour period, it’s a very smart piece of punctuation.
I reckon I could use an onsen in my ‘hood.
(*I note that population data does not include those held in refugee incarceration facilities. My point is not that this would alter population density; the statistical impact is likely to be insignificant in an Australian context. It’s more a realisation that once you’re a stateless person, you’re apparently also a non-person. You don’t count in the country where you are seeking refuge.)