It’s been over four months since the explosion of COVID-19 infections around the world. While you’ve been cooped indoors, how has your neighborhood been changing?

One of the bright spots of social distancing is walks. That time we might have spent commuting to some other area, we now spend traversing the roads and alleys connecting back to our homes, maybe taking the time to greet the local cats.

Local cats seem to be properly cautious, maintaining social distance.

What have you discovered? How has your neighborhood changed?

My neighborhood in northwest Tokyo is a an old shitamachi, a traditionally residential neighborhood populated with independently run shops, restaurants, and Japanese-style snack stands. Private business owners have been hit hard by the pandemic, yet our neighborhood seems to be bustling.

Low infection levels in Tokyo mean that businesses can operate with almost no restriction, though all restaurant staff wear masks and do the best they can to distance diners, ventilate, and separate.

Thoroughly branded protective sheets at a Tully’s in Sunshine Aquarium in Ikebukuro.

At Ueno’s Ameyokochou, an outside market launched during World War II as a black market, there is a whole new stand dedicated to COVID-19 protective equipment.

Protective equipment stand in Ueno’s Ameyokochou market

Any retail store seems to offer masks, hand sanitizer, etc. Even vegetable stands in the Japanese countryside are offering handmade cloth masks as a sort of new-normal handicraft.

At the same time, prevailing trends are slowly but surely underway. Privately-run B&Bs and restaurants with elderly owners in Japan have decided to shut their doors early as the risks of operation have exceed the rewards.

Sento, or public baths, have always been run on razor-thin profit margins. In just 15 years, the number of sento in Tokyo have dropped by 50 percent.

A sento being demolished in Arakawa Ward, Spring 2020. Hand-painted mountains are a staple of sento design.

“Corona bankruptcy” has been warned against by experts in Japan, but as of yet, less than 500 businesses have reported COVID-19 as a reason for their bankruptcy since January 2020. Amidst this, Tokyo has the highest number and some experts predict the surge is yet to come.

But some businesses will continue to thrive — essential businesses, obviously, but even non-essential “third-place” businesses seem to be going strong.

Ironically, while I write this in my local coffee shop, masked up, I am surrounded by full tables of locals to whom I will never speak. Working from home frees us to spend more time in our neighborhoods. At the same time, public health restrictions have eliminated festivals, events, parties and any other opportunity to organically meet and get to know new people.

We are in the same place, but we are, quite literally, socially distant.

Our local cafe on a Wednesday afternoon

Our attention, which might be turned towards networking and getting to know our neighbors, is instead directed towards our physical environment and the movement of people around us. The writer continues to observe.

How have you observed your neighborhood changing? For better? For worse? Let me know in the comments or in the poll up top.

One response to “Cafes bustle while sento disappear — how is your neighborhood changing?”

  1. Dan Kingsbury Avatar
    Dan Kingsbury

    I live in a less-dense suburban neighborhood, which the writer knows well. A few restaurants have closed permanently, but most have transitioned to takeout/delivery; a few have reopened indoor dining, physically distanced. As the seasonal change to cold and rain advances, we’ll see how they all do; I’ll continue to make them my destination after a walk or bike ride.


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