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Commuting Beyond the Fringe

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					The Journal
Publication Date: March 2002. Feature. Page: 18

Commuting beyond the Fringe
A beach house close to verdant forests at an affordable rent doesn’t have to be a California dream. You can have it in Japan now.
By John R. Harris Wake to birdsong and rich forest-floor aroma drifting in the open window. As the sun peeks over the trees, sip coffee on the verandah of your spacious western-style home. Ponder whether this is the week to pick the mikan in your garden and if there is ¥150,000 in the rent-payment account. Grabbing laptop and thermos, hop in the car for a pleasant 15-minute drive through tree-lined country lanes. Look! A heron in the rice paddy! Park one minute from the station (the space costs ¥4,000 a month) and find your usual seat on the limited express. On the tray table in front of you, fire up the laptop with its wireless modem. Pour a cup of java while your e-mail downloads. So what if the train costs ¥2,000 each way? This relaxed commute is often the best part of your day. All too soon, the quiet hour is over. You’re at Tokyo Station, a ten-minute stroll from your office.

Believe it or not
Fantasy? Not for a small but growing cadre of Tokyo gaijin who have discovered the joys of “commuting beyond the fringe.” We are not just talking distant suburbs with fractionally more greenery and rents lower than Setagaya. And this is not about the dreary exurban marches of Saitama, where garish pachinko-parlor lights reflect in dilapidated paddies. This is real life in full-on green, natural environments—forests and beaches that would make people in Oregon green with envy. Amazingly, a few such places still exist within commuting range of Tokyo. Even more amazing is the puzzlement this notion provokes from many Japanese: “Why would you want to live all the way out there?” Get a detailed map of the wider Kanto area. Draw a circle representing a 100-kilometer radius (60 mile) around Tokyo Station. Now look for the green bits that survive in the shadow of the world’s largest city. South of Tokyo, the Miura Peninsula and its beautiful beaches have not yet been completely swallowed. Southwest, another patch of green persists near Hiratsuka. Beyond Odawara lies Izu, Tokyo’s holiday mecca. West, the mountain wall is tall enough to contain even Tokyo’s titanic sprawl. Between the hills and over the top, green, habitable niches can be found: Fuji Five Lakes, Ome and Chichibu. North, the radius skirts the mountains of Gunma and Tochigi. And Northeast, the verdant hills run from Mt. Tsukuba up past Mashiko, the pottery town. Southeast, the rugged Boso Peninsula lies shrouded in the fog across Tokyo Bay. Although larger, wilder and far closer to Tokyo than Izu, the lack of Izu’s cachet has kept Boso relatively unspoiled. In Manhattan terms, it’s like the Hamptons vs. New Jersey’s mountains. Thank heavens, Chiba just ain’t cool! To Tokyo’s notorious karasu, 100 kilometers west or east, it’s all the same as you hear from the incessant caws. But if you can’t fly like a crow the difference is huge—especially on a crowded train. One hour strap-hanging on a late-night sardine express to Sagamihara may be a fair approximation of hell. But one hour in an airline-style seat on a long-distance train can be a painless, even pleasant interlude. How far away from the Yamanote line can you get in one hour? JR East’s fastest conventional expresses will get you 45 to 80 kilometers out—depending heavily on which direction. An hour north, west or southwest gets you barely 50 kilometers out, still smack in the middle of drab suburbia. And out from where? If they terminate you in Ikebukuro (an awful fate in itself!) you may face a hellish cross-town slog. The pearls are limited-express services like JR’s Wakashio from Tokyo Station—58 minutes gets you 82 kilometers out to Kazusa-Ichinomiya, gateway to Boso’s ocean coast. Or the “green-at-each-end” Yokosuka-Sobu

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Commuting beyond the Fringe line expresses, which run from the Miura Peninsula to Boso via Yokohama, Shinagawa and Tokyo. Then again, you can go all out on the shinkansen to places like Karuizawa, Jomo Kogen, Nasu Shiobara or Atami. Even if you spend ¥120,000 a month (cost of a shinkansen commuter pass from Karuizawa to Tokyo), your overall lifestyle still may be cheaper as well as greener.

Lifestyle equation
Let’s face it. Even with a hefty expat package, much of Tokyo’s rental property is overpriced rubbish you would never look twice at in the States. Half a million yen doesn’t get you much—especially if the price includes a 40minute commute from outer Setagaya. Beyond the fringe, even the most palatial proposition won’t set you back much more than ¥200,000. Throw in ¥120,000 for commuting and, go ahead, the same again on a pied-à-terre for those nights you plan to carouse. You’re still short of half a mill. Best of all, instead of 40 minutes sardined on the Toyoko line, your commute is 60 minutes of productive comfort. If you could find anything in Azabu like Michael Kryshak’s house in Hayama, near Zushi, you might expect to pay as much as ¥1 million. “For 120,000 yen a month we have a big, old Japanese-style wooden house with a beautiful garden, complete with fish pond and mini shrine. Best of all, we’re 90 seconds from the beach,” Kryshak says. Cathy Szolga pays half as much for a roomy 2DK house on a delightful 300-tsubo patch of wilderness near Hiratsuka. “We’ve got a huge vegetable garden and an amazing view of the Tanzawa Mountains,” she says.

So why doesn’t everyone do it?
OK, time to ‘fess up on the downside. This life is not for everyone. There are places within commuting range of Tokyo where poisonous snakes and bands of marauding monkeys are bigger pests than sound trucks blasting rightwing propaganda. Cellphone reception is poor. The Trib comes a day late. You may be tempted to take up golf. And when duck hunters’ shotguns disturb the stillness of a fall afternoon, you may find yourself raking that Zen gravel driveway with a fierce intensity. If none of that worries you, consider some other obstacles. Starbucks outlets are rare outside Tokyo. Otherwise rural shopping has improved remarkably. Large supermarkets that now ring country towns vend French wines and cheeses, organic pasta sauces and other once-exotic delicacies. Big foreign box outlets like Costco and Carrefour SA and local chain Ito-Yokado Co. lie within driving range. And Japan’s amazing parcel-delivery services allow specialists like Tengu Foods to flip you organic popcorn on demand. Bricks-and-mortar links to home once tied gaijin to central Tokyo—places like National Azabu, Kinokuniya Books and Tower Records. With the Internet, who needs ‘em? That said, in much of Japan’s outback, ISDN is still the only high-speed link available. Not to suggest urban refugees want to eliminate Tokyo from their lives altogether. It’s a matter of balance: Tokyo’s phenomenal urban energy vs. bucolic tranquility. And that balance is not always easy to achieve. “It’s hard to have dinner with friends or go out to a show,” complains long-time Boso commuter and financial editor Marilyn Hayhoe. “There’s so little time between work and last trains out to where I live.” Still, in recent years, JR East has greatly improved express services. “Our priorities have been to introduce more and faster express trains, and to give every long-distance commuter a seat,” says JR East spokesman Masahiko Horiuchi. Hayhoe applauds those efforts but insists: “We need express trains after eleven, if not midnight. I’m so fed up I’m thinking of getting a small room in Tokyo for nights I want to stay out late.” The less you have to do it, the better beyond-the-fringe commuting works. Best positioned are those whose primary output can be attached to e-mail: writers, translators, graphic designers and the like. If you only have to go in three times or so a week, and don’t need to be in town at nine sharp, it can be a sweet life. Szolga finds commuting three times a week is just about perfect. “If I had to do it every day I’d consider paying 500 yen extra for the Green Car. But as a native-English editor with advanced Japanese skills, I have the luxury of making a decent salary on a part-time basis.”

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Commuting beyond the Fringe Nihongo is not a prerequisite for this course, but country life is much easier if you speak at least passable Japanese. Gaijin without it are likely to remain more socially dependant on Tokyo’s gaijin ghetto. Not that flawless keigo (polite Japanese) assures an open-arms welcome from the locals. When the same families have lived next door for 800 years, opening to strangers is not always easy. Then again, country people have a cheerful directness that can be very refreshing after overly-mannered Tokyo. You may find yourself in a large farmhouse kitchen surrounded by four generations of apple-cheeked rice farmers. If so, admit to liking sake at your extreme peril. As endearing as such neighbors may be, and no matter how enchanting your forest cottage, it is hard to build a sustainable lifestyle without like-minded friends nearby. This is not so much a gaijin/Japanese question so much as an urban/rural one. No matter which country, urban refugees tend to flock together.

The spark of community
Beyond greenery and good trains, it takes a nucleus, a spark, to spawn an “international community” beyond the fringe. How does this process work? By combining separately observed elements we can propose a composite theoretical model. Proto-communities seem to form where young gaijin out for weekends of athleticism and alcohol meet graying Japanese artistic hippies. An ongoing party scene develops. One or two mixed couples form. Surfers may have formed the nucleus of community in Boso. Sailors loom large in Hayama. And in the Gunma mountains, bands of shaggy Kiwi rafting guides are now homesteading upstream from the Jomo Kogen shinkansen station. People with serious city jobs then visit such scenes, admire the lifestyle and begin to realize the possibilities. Among the most amazing of which is the availability of lushly forested real estate at unbelievably low prices. If you know where to look, in places like Boso and Gunma you can find lots—properties people would kill for outside Seattle—priced as low as ¥5 million. Chalk this up to deflation, declining rice cultivation and an aging rural population. Slap down ¥20 million on a custom house-kit pre-manufactured in Canada, along with Canadian carpenters to install. Bingo! For five years worth of expat housing allowance you have a mountain dream home within commuting range of Tokyo.

Take the shuuden to Clarksville
Need proof of Japan’s uniqueness? Where else could you find an Australian academic carving out a feudal fiefdom in the woods, like some latter-day daimyo? Meet Gregory Clark, president emeritus of Tama University, member of umpteen Japanese government advisory committees, author, journalist, former Australian diplomat… and kiwi-fruit grower. Clark has probably infiltrated Japan’s power structure more successfully than any other gaijin—and not by being anyone’s toady. Call him a “mercurial iconoclast” or a “provocateur par excellence,” Clark stirs strong opinions wherever he goes. Over 15 years Clark has built a community of New Zealand wooden houses at Nakadaki in the forests of Boso’s Misaki township, complete with tennis and squash courts, and communal onsen. (See www.ringo.net/users/nakadaki) The Japanese Tribe, a book Clark wrote two decades ago (in Japanese no less) made him a media celebrity and lecture-circuit fixture. This generated a steady stream of cash that would have flowed straight to the taxman. But, having spent much of his youth in outback Queensland, Clark knew the world’s best way to legitimately lose money: farming. He started in the Boso hills with a kiwi and mikan orchard, which he still tends each weekend with a relentless farmboy work ethic. Later, he discovered a more enjoyable way to farm away money: two-legged livestock. The eclectic tenantry (weekenders and full-timers both) features a fleet of Japanese surfer dudes, a European cultural attaché, a brace of Canadian headhunters, a posse of writer/designer types, Hideki Tojo’s doppelganger and Elvis (the Welsh-speaking carpenter, not the late king). Recently, though, Clark realized something was missing: breeding stock. “It’s families with kids who could really stand to escape Tokyo—bigger houses, fresh air, room to play, all that,” says Clark with an expansive sweep of his arm. “But they’re tied to Tokyo by the bloody schools. It’s alright

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Commuting beyond the Fringe for expats, but people under their own steam—who represent Japan’s best gaijin talent—are being driven out of this country by high rents and school fees.” Some families have had good experiences with national public schools, others get by with home schooling, but education may be the final barrier to the growth of beyond-the-fringe gaijin commuting. Clark has no firm plans yet, but he is considering how to crack it. “We have a beautiful classroom out here, perfect for the kind of one-room schoolhouse that gave generations of farm kids a wonderful education,” he says. “If we got committed parents, we could hire a professional teacher without requiring anything like the two-million-yen international schools want.”

Light at the end of the tunnel?
There is a certain tribe of gaijin, people who arrived as adventurous young travelers 15 or 20 years ago. They mastered the lingo. They built solid careers. They married and had kids. They used to think this was all temporary, but they now find themselves trapped in jobs too good to leave, chained Gulliver-like in rented hutches and crowded trains. Could beyond-the-fringe commuting be their light at the end of the tunnel, their last chance to “have it all”? John R. Harris (akulliq@attglobal.net) and wife Mindy spent eight “bubble years” in Tokyo before going home to Canada in 1994. Returning last year to “reruns on Gilligan’s Island with two tots in tow,” the Harrises decided they couldn’t take another central Tokyo rabbit hutch.

Beyond the Fringe
Three Top Picks
Call it the “train/green ratio”—a serendipitous mix of natural assets and convenient transportation that makes long-distance commuting both worthwhile and feasible. Stir in good shopping and a community of other urban refugees and you have the recipe for a healthy, civilized lifestyle. But where does it work? Izu by shinkansen could work, but real estate is pricey and it takes too long to get from Atami or Mishima to the best places. Fuji Five Lakes and other western locations require grueling commutes on the Chuo or Saikyo lines. The Joban Line is no better, which dims the luster of the Tsukuba/Mashiko area. Here are three areas we like:

Unbeatable Boso
This is not the Chiba-ken you see en route to Narita. Boso’s serpentine hills hide thousands of small, lushly forested valleys—and land is dirt cheap. The mild climate is an improvement on Tokyo, summer and winter. World-class surf beaches put Shonan to shame. The trains are the best you’ll find short of the shinkansen, and driving is feasible, too. Both Narita and Haneda are close at hand. Icing on the cake is the Costco and Carrefour outlets in nearby Makuhari.

Miura’s West Coast Lifestyle
Hayama and other communities south of Zushi are still just green enough to pass our “sniff test.” Fuji sunset vistas are breathtaking, but, alas, the suburban tide may eventually sweep it all away. Good trains to Tokyo, Yokohama and both airports. And new services now make Shibuya and Shinjuku a one-shot proposition. Interesting neighbors galore, both gaijin and Japanese. Shop in Kamakura or Yokohama—and, if you know an admiral, there’s the AFES supermarket on the Yokosuka Navy Base. Proximity to Yokohama’s international schools rates high marks.

Snow Country High
The Joestsu and Nagano shinkansen lines can speed you from Tokyo to beautiful alpine scenery in little more than an hour. Park at Karuizawa, Annaka-Haruna or Jomo Kogen stations and you can zoom on to the log cabin of your dreams in minutes. It all depends on how you feel about tire chains and shoveling snow pre-dawn. If you pine for Minnesota or ache for Idaho, this is the life for you. — J.H.

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Description: A beach house close to verdant forests at an affordable rent doesn’t have to be a California dream. You can have it in Japan now.