Tokyo may be a megapolis, but our 13 million-strong population (with an additional 29 million in greater Tokyo) means space is, well, limited. Enter a whole load of things that would probably be twice the size abroad, which have been squeezed into the tiniest of spaces here in the capital, for varying reasons.
Our houses tend to be rather miniscule. Unlike other big cities, sharing isn’t very common, and many Tokyoites live in shoebox apartments with some rather ingenious space solutions. Wash basins in the bathroom can sometimes be moved over the toilet to make space for a shower, bedrooms double as sitting rooms by stowing away futons or having fold-up beds… The list goes on, and the space keeps on shrinking.
With such tiny houses, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that our cars may seem, well, small, especially compared to many Western models (we’re looking at you, North America). Yet with the crisscross narrow alleyways that still dot the city and a distinct lack of parking (many people only buy a car after they’re sure they’ve secured a parking space), our diminutive vehicles are rather convenient.
Capsule hotels really stretch the use of space to its limits, with a single bed cubicle being the budget-conscious choice of many salarymen who stay at work (or at an izakaya) past their last train home. The first one opened in Osaka back in 1979, and the trend spread across the country. Many places only cater to men, although female-only and more upscale versions have gained popularity in recent years too.
It’s not just infrastructure though – even our food, drink and foliage can be found in miniscule form. Pop by a supermarket or liquor store and you’ll find some mini-sized beer cans. Clocking in at a mere 135ml, the beers were originally designed both for those who like their beer cold (there’s nothing worse than the tepid last mouthfuls of a slowly drunk beer), and those who just can’t quite finish a larger can. Good things come in small packages.
The same goes for our food: we like it bite-sized. Everything from grilled meat to fried chicken tend to be served in a way that is chopstick-friendly, but the most perfect morsel of food has to be sushi. One bite and you’re done. For even tinier food, YouTube channel Miniature Space offers up videos of miniscule tempura, cakes and even gyoza, created by what seems an extraordinarily large hand by comparison.
Of course, Japan is known the world over for cultivating some seriously tiny trees. Bonsai is an art which has been practiced for a good millennium, with its roots in China. The trees are grown in boxes or pots, and are slowly, carefully shaped over time.
But that’s not the only tiny natural thing we have in Japan. Based on an ancient calendar, a year in Japan is actually divided into 24 seasons and 72 micro seasons, the latter of which only last a few days each – one bout of flu or serious hangover and you’ll miss them. Mid-May, for example, isn’t just some time in late spring; no, it’s takenoko shozo, or ‘when bamboo shoots sprout’. The ‘72 seasons’ smartphone app tracks these tiniest of seasonal changes, and if you eat a fancy kaiseki dinner (traditional, formal multi-course dinner), you might find references to them too. There’s never been a better reason to pay attention to the world around you, big or small.
Illustrations by Kento Iida