There's no doubt about it: In the lead up to the 2020 Olympics, Tokyo is undergoing somewhat of a behind-the-scenes boom. Japan has often been characterised by its fierce independence, stoicism and grit, but there's a certain frisson in the air and dare I say in some quarters, a quiet sense of renewed confidence in the megalopolis (the Japanese nation's pretty much been in an economic funk for more than 20 years).
With a Tokyo bureau, retail store and branded café in the megalopolis, for any of those familiar with upscale global affairs magazine Monocle, it should come as no surprise that Tokyo topped its annual "Quality of Life" survey. But what makes a city "most liveable"? And does Monocle, coming to the table with its own set of biases and idiosyncrasies, provide a reasonable assessment given Tokyo hasn't always cracked the "most liveable" ranking in other such surveys?
Monocle's revamped system for this year's survey includes 22 new criteria, such as the cost of a glass of wine and decent lunch, a cup of coffee, the price of a one-bedroom unit or three-bedroom house, and access to the outdoors. But Monocle says other, more established criteria such as safety and crime rates, health care, and state-funded education and environmental welfare underpinned its assessment.
"[Tokyo] manages to do something no other global metropolis can: provide a great quality of life for those who live there and also visit. From culture to security, food to courtesy, it has everything covered," says the magazine.
It's true that the city provides a plethora of positives; many of the qualities that make the city a great place to live also make it a fantastic place to visit. In other words, you don't have to live in Tokyo to enjoy all it has to offer. As a long-term resident of the city, who initially came to Japan as a tourist, I can only agree, and here are a few reasons why.
Admittedly Japan has some work to do on maintaining a proper work-life balance, but it's nothing short of a let-down to return to Australia and find yourself unable to buy anything after, say, 6pm that's not supermarket-related – especially if it's not Friday. You work staggered shifts? No problem. The clock may say 2am but if you fancy a meal out, a trip to the gym or even hard liquor, in Tokyo, a city 24 hours at your service, no worries! Furthermore, not only are convenience aka "combini" stores found on almost any corner, but the services they provide also way outperform those of their international brethren: real mini-supermarkets providing healthy meals, paying bills, posting letters, ATMs (often with no fees, dependent on your bank), ticket concierge (transportation, entertainment, sports – you name it!), and best of all, takkyubin, a privatised delivery service allowing travellers to send their luggage to destinations or the airport in advance.
Tokyo trains, how I love you so. Admittedly, I'm not catching said trains during the infamous peak hour crush (for a 9am work start), but with your promptness (waits less than 10 minutes), logical express and standard services, commuting in silence – no unwanted conversations, bliss! – and all-round efficiency, no wonder Tokyo tops the most liveable city list. Strikes are nonexistent and if a train is delayed longer than 10 minutes for any reason, apology tickets are available (ostensibly to show one's company). In cases of extreme delay, commuters are also entitled to the journey's reimbursement. Now, if I could only get my hands on one of those coveted JR Rail passes ...
The safety! Where does one begin? Although a firm advocate of always being aware of your self and surroundings, as a female, I can't begin to recount the exhilaration felt at being able to walk home at an ungodly hour, and feel no danger whatsoever. Liberated from time spent living in inner Melbourne, and debates such as whether I could risk the 30-minute walk back to mine or take a taxi I could ill afford, Tokyo's safety is nothing short of amazing, and pretty much considered a right and not a privilege. It's not uncommon to see primary school students make journeys alone to school, because they can. And no one bats an eyelid.
Stories and legends also abound of residents and travellers alike leaving valuables in public places, and in most instances said items are returned via the police, transportation staff or hotel concierge at a later date, no questions asked. Tokyo was, in fact, named the world's safest city earlier this year.
Yes, the outrageously priced fruit exists, and yes, you can spend in excess of $500 on a top-class meal. But these are hangovers from the bubble era; prices in Tokyo have been stagnant for years, and now that the yen has gone to the dogs, it's an even better time to visit. Eating out is far cheaper than in Australia, and it's entirely possible to spend no more than ￥1000 ($11) at a decent restaurant on lunch, a main dish with a "set" (drink and salad) included. And while rental costs have not fallen, it's becoming more common to forgo the dreaded key or present money to the landlord, and in some cases, abolish renewal fees for lease extensions. Visitors to Tokyo in search of longer-term accommodation are well advised to look at airbnb, where you pay per room as opposed to the Japanese standard of per person.