Giving Tokyoites their balconies back

One day when Mr Theodore Jennings looked out from his ninth-floor penthouse at the sea of residential high-rises that fill his Shinjuku neighbourhood, he had a sudden realisation.

There were hundreds of balconies, lined with laundry or rubbish bins, but “you could see absolutely nothing else, save for the odd plant,” the 34-year-old said.

In this city of more than 13 million, famed for its diminutive living spaces and coffin-like hotel rooms, Mr Jennings began to think of the situation as what the Japanese call “mottainai” or a wasteful use of space. And it gave him an idea for a business.

At the time, Mr Jennings began experimenting with his own 35-sq-m balcony, which wraps around the 75-sq-m apartment he bought four years ago for the equivalent of US$500,000 ($655,700).

His building, what Tokyo residents refer to as a “mansion”, was built of concrete in 1985. The apartment includes two bedrooms; one bathroom, which features one of the high-tech toilets with a heated seat so beloved by the Japanese; and some interesting double-paned doors. The lower halves of the glass doors are glazed, harking back to a time when the Japanese routinely sat on the floor and wanted a bit of privacy.

The balcony, which has views of the Park Hyatt Hotel and the nearby Takao mountains, now features loungers, a dining table and chairs, lighting, plants and music speakers. Mr Jennings said the work cost the equivalent of about US$10,000.

Friends took note and the Texas native, who has lived in Japan for 12 years, began renovating the balconies of other expatriates. After losing his job in the finance sector last year, he formally established Vacation Verandah, a business that since April has renovated 12 balconies for fees of US$1,000 to US$5,000 each.

It is “a way of me tapping into my artistic side that I had pushed aside for a long time,” he said, adding that he had been thinking about working for himself even before the financial crisis.

The balconies he has converted range in size – one was only 3 sq m – and in location from Tokyo Bay to the shopper’s haven of Ginza. Some include pebbled surfaces, while others have plants and outdoor dining spots. There is not a rubbish bin in sight.

One of Mr Jennings’s first customers was Mr Aron Tseng, 32, a DJ promoter and event organiser, and his partner, Ms Kazumi Niwa, 29, a fashion designer. They spent the equivalent of US$1,000 upgrading their 4.5m-by-2.5m backyard in Yutenji, which is a seven-minute train ride from Shinjuku.

“Before Teddy did anything, the garden was a rectangle of concrete, edged with a smaller rectangle of dirt,” Mr Tseng said. There also was “a horrible bare concrete wall surrounded with chain-link fencing at the top, which all the neighbours could see through.

“Teddy laid down some wood decking and stones on the ground, surrounded the garden with bamboo ‘curtains’ to give us complete privacy, added lots of tropical greenery, and gave us a space to grow herbs and vegetables.”

“We love it. Since its completion we have spent every opportunity we can out there,” Mr Tseng said. “Before we only went out to hang washing or dump garbage when we had missed garbage day.”

Mr Jennings, who also runs his own business consulting company, said that Vacation Verandah is only now beginning to attract Japanese customers. “The Japanese are very good at using small amounts of space,” he said. “They are well known for it. However there is a certain disconnect when it comes to their homes. They can do it inside but they haven’t figured out outside space beyond storing trash and laundry.”

Source : Today – 3 Dec 2010

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