The blustery weather was absolutely biting, but the colours of this kimono and the late afternoon sun at least offered the suggestion of some warmth.
In postwar Japan, the desperate need for housing resulted in the mass construction of concrete tower blocks of varying heights and sizes — the initial design and efficiency of which were at least partly influenced by Soviet planned Khrushchyovka. Known as danchi, these government projects primarily offered affordable, but at the same time well-equipped apartments for the growing number of young, urban middle class families moving into the suburbs.
In the mid-1950s, when these new danchi began to appear, they were seen as the accommodation of the future. Along with modern fittings, they had the benefit of separate rooms for parents and children, although at the same time not enough space for different generations of the same family — an element that was a key factor in Japan’s gradual break with the long-held tradition of extended family members living under one roof.
The rush to build, and the similar rush of people wanting to move into these futuristic, concrete estates, eventually peaked in the early 1970s, when the authorities officially determined that the housing crisis was over. A decision that, planned or otherwise, resulted in the slow, perhaps inevitable decline of the once fabled danchi, both in regards reputation, and actual real estate.
Yet to this day a huge number of buildings still remain, and having initially moved in with their young, or soon to be young families, a considerable number of those early residents decided to stay. Nowadays though they are old, often alone, and their surroundings are far from ideal when it comes to the needs of the elderly. Isolation due to limited mobility and a dwindling network is an obvious problem, and along with other hardships, it has given rise to the terribly sad phenomena of kodokushi, or lonely, unnoticed deaths.
However, despite such issues, and to a certain extent stigma, some danchi are once again at the forefront of change by providing accommodation to Japan’s growing number of foreigners. For starters, such apartments are relatively cheap, especially as they don’t demand the often large, up-front payments that private property does. And arguably even more important is that for a section of society that suffers considerable prejudice when it comes to finding somewhere to live, public housing is on the whole far more open-minded. An element that in many ways takes these ageing complexes back to their original, and indisputably idealistic beginnings.
Plus separately, and on a decidedly more superficial level, some of these structures can still make one stop and stare. Like this bold, striking, and once optimistic monument to modernisation completed in 1972. A danchi that seen in the present feels genuinely poignant, as the future it once pointed towards is now irrefutably in the past.
Japan boasts a whole host of conventional racecourses, but Hokkaido’s Ban’ei Tokachi has just the one. With an origin in agricultural work, ban’ei involves huge draft horses pulling weights of up to a tonne along a 200 metre gravel track. An already arduous task that’s made all the more difficult by a couple of hill-shaped obstacles that slow proceedings down even further. In fact the race often comes to a standstill, as readjustments in direction are made, or the horses are braced before taking on the mounds — the sheer effort of which is hard to capture in a photo, especially from a distance, so for something of a taster, there’s a race video here.
This unusually slow pace also means that spectators can jog along at the side of the track to keep up with the race, although they are, somewhat half-heartedly, encouraged not to.
Starting out as an event at local festivals, the popularity of ban’ei grew to such an extent that in 1953, four racecourses were built. A business that eventually turned out to be unsustainable, and in 2007, the courses at Kitami, Asahikawa and Iwamizawa sadly closed down, leaving just the one at Obihiro.
Spending a good few hours there, it was interesting to see the number of punters ebb and flow. Visitors to the area clearly help enormously in keeping the enterprise viable, but like most forms of gambling, it has its hardcore fanbase. Old fellas mostly, who, like gamblers the world over, are there through thick and thin. Each and every time hoping, against all the odds, for that one last hurrah.