Centrally planned communities have been around in Japan since the 60s with the advent of the “new town” movement, based on the similarly named British social housing policy. The idea is that housing and commerce are engineered to work together. Theoreticians of the Jane Jacobs school of organic urban environments may look down on the concept because of its artificiality: everything is supposed to work because it’s been programmed carefully beforehand. The new towns we’ve looked at in Japan are predictably old-fashioned, like snapshots of the 60s and 70s but ones that evoke no feelings of warm nostalgia except for so-called kodan otaku (public housing freaks). They just look old, mainly because most of the people living in them are old, but also because they are simply superannuated. Though the term “public housing” needs to be qualified in the case of new towns, for the most part the architecture and design of the communities were carried out by public or semi-public entities, and today the buildings and neighborhoods still have a utilitarian quality that many people find quaint at best, ugly at worst. It all depends on what’s been done with the residences in the meantime.
Yukarigaoka, a community in the north-central Chiba city of Sakura, isn’t stricly speaking a “new town,” but it was extensively planned. The difference is that the planning was done by a private company, Yamaman, which started out as a fabric wholesaler in Osaka in 1951. They moved their headquarters to Tokyo in 1965 and for the next ten years became a full-scale real estate developer for residential communities. Their first large-scale project was in Yokosuka, a project that was historically notable for being the first Japanese address written in katakana. They started the Yukarigaoka project in 1971, and even after the initial development phase was completed, have stayed on for the expansion, which continues today. The first sale of single-family homes was in 1979, the first condominium in 1982, the same year they opened a monorail that circled the project and connected to the Keisei Honsen train line. In fact, they convinced Keisei to build a new station just for the community called Yukarigaoka. Naturally, the company had to work closely with the Sakura municipal government in order to purchase land for development, but they also built the area as a community with a future. According to one of the company’s real estate agents, Yukarigaoka is the only similarly sized project in Japan completely overseen by a private company. Because it’s built on a hilly plateau with lots of farmland, the usual expanses of cramped housing developments are broken up by huge swaths of green forests and fields. (Though public parks are relatively scarce.) It has its own “downtown” with a major city hotel and department store complex. There’s even a university with one of the most attractive campuses we’ve ever seen.
Yamaman has a hand in controlling the community’s environment by handling the sale of both new and older housing units. As a result, the area continues to be desirable for both older people and younger families. Apparently, many younger people who grew up in the community want to stay, and often buy homes not far from where they grew up. It’s a sustainable, if perhaps inadvertent, model for growth. It also means properties tend to keep their value a little longer, though it’s difficult to tell by how much. The population of Yukarigaoka was 6,470 in 1987. But 2010 it had grown to 15,743.
Last week we made appointments to visit two condos for sale in adjoining buildings near the Joshidai monorail station. The first was part of an older complex of apartment buildings that was apparently modeled after public housing projects of the 1970s: five-story buildings without elevators, which means you entered them from the side, thus allowing for windows on both ends of the apartments. Yamaman will buy a condo from the owner if the price is right (i.e., low enough) and then completely renovate it as the seller (urinushi) using a subsidiary company called Renova. This one was a 73-square-meter 3LDK unit with new floors (wood veneer), new wallpaper (that dull white “kurosu” paper, except in the living room where a nice grey touch was applied), new unit bath, and other impressive additions that demonstrated the company knew they had to compete with brand new housing and not used housing. The price was reasonable, ¥12.5 million, but considering the size, location, and lack of storage space, still seemed slightly elevated to us. The two “bedrooms” facing northeast were tiny, and the though the washitsu (complete with a new built-in wall unit) adjoining the living room received lots of light, it felt like a compromise to an older, obsolete concept of apartment design. If we were impressed with anything, it was Yamaman’s determination. Most real estate companies who carry out renovations don’t go as far. The completely new kitchen included a built-in dishwasher, and the unit bath was much more attractive than the term usually implies. However, there are some things that just can’t be helped owing to the original layout. As mentioned, there was very little storage capacity and the washitsu was a waste of space. Also, despite the fact that the prospects at both ends of the apartment were clear, looking over a park to the northeast and out to a wide paddy-filled valley to the southwest, the windows were at least partially made of pebbled glass. The unit was on the fifth floor, so there was no privacy worries, but usually in condominiums windows are considered part of “common space,” meaning the owner of a particular unit cannot change them. We asked the agent if we could change these windows to transparent glass and he said he’d have to ask the building management company, which we took to mean “no.”
The other condo was simply being represented by Yamaman as the exclusive agent and hadn’t been renovated. The building was newer than the previous one we saw by 15 years but the apartment itself was in disrepair, poorly laid out, and dark despite the fact that it looked directly over a wide valley with no obstructions at all. The person who lived in it previously was obviously elderly. The place had been made “barrier free” in a totally makeshift manner: railings attached haphazardly to walls, cheap sliding doors in place of the original hinged ones, and one wall knocked out to create one large living room where previously there were two smaller ones. This is an idea we’ve often entertained when looking at older properties since too many Japanese residences have too many small boxy rooms, but the renovation work in this case was sloppy. The price was more than ¥13 million, and though it was slightly larger compared to the previous condo it was hardly worth it. The agent knew this but didn’t say anything. It wasn’t as much of a priority for sale as the one his company was selling itself. Also, he knew our preferences even before we set foot in the place. Unlike the other condo, which had a side entrance, this one had the genkan positioned off the outside central corridor, meaning the two bedrooms at that end of the condo also looked out on the outside corridor. We were a lost cause even before we saw the place because we said we didn’t like that kind of layout. Maybe he didn’t like it himself, but he didn’t say anything.