Why are Tokyo residents saying sayōnara to Japan’s capital?

When Kazuya Kobayashi decided to leave Tokyo to pursue his dream of running his own ramen restaurant, Sano was an obvious choice. As well as being the spiritual home of Japanese cricket, the town in Tochigi prefecture is famed for its ramen shops, many of which are struggling to find successors.

“The coronavirus came along, and my wife is medically vulnerable, so it seemed like the right time to move,” said Kobayashi, who hopes to open his own restaurant next year.

The 40-year-old is not alone in wanting to bid sayōnara to the world’s most populous city, a megalopolis of 13.9 million people with a GDP bigger than that of the Netherlands.

The capital’s population fell in 2021 for the first time in more than a quarter of a century, with a net loss of 48,592 from a year earlier, according to a recent metropolitan government estimate.

The number of people seeking advice on starting a new life beyond Tokyo’s concrete sprawl rose dramatically last year – a trend experts say has been accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic and the advent of teleworking.

A government project launched in 2015 to revitalise Japan’s regions is bearing fruit, according to Hiroshi Takahashi, chairman of the Hometown Return Support Centre, a nonprofit that helps people relocate from the Tokyo region to rural areas.

The centre received almost 50,000 consultations last year from people hoping to move from greater Tokyo, more than 70% of them from people younger than 50. The most popular choice of new home was Shizuoka – a prefecture on the Pacific coast that can be reached by bullet train in about an hour – but second place went to Fukuoka prefecture, 550 miles south-west of the capital.

Although Japanese companies have given remote working a cautious welcome, the pandemic proved it was possible for people to limit their time in the office and still stay productive.

But according to Takahashi, would-be emigrants from big cities cite quality of life, childcare services and the cost of living more frequently than teleworking in explaining their desire to start a new life in the regions.

Changes in Japan’s economy had encouraged more people to leave the capital, he said. “During the postwar years, people dreamed of living in Tokyo,” he said. “Japan achieved its economic transformation, but in the 30 years since the bubble burst, life is more uncertain and Tokyo has lost some of its attraction. Now more people dream of leaving.”

Takahashi believes the “goodbye Tokyo” trend will continue long after the pandemic has ended. “In the past, work was all that mattered, but now families are thinking about their living environment, too. People’s values have changed.”

That view is supported by a recent cabinet office survey, which found that almost half of people in their 20s living in central Tokyo said they were interested in moving out.

Sano has capitalised on its association with Japan’s favourite comfort food to attract prospective chefs like Kobayashi. Two years ago, it launched a “ramen migration project” that provides training in everything from making noodles to management and accountancy. The local government also offers financial assistance and helps match newly qualified chefs with ramen shops.

“I worked in restaurant kitchens in Tokyo and have always wanted to run my own place, so when I saw the ramen project on the TV I decided to apply,” said Kobayashi, 40, whose wife is expecting their first child. “I spent 15 years in Tokyo and liked it there, but the cost of living is much lower here and people come from all over to eat Sano ramen, so it makes sense financially.”

Sano began offering incentives to new residents in an attempt to arrest depopulation, according to Mitsuru Ozeki, an official in the town’s emigration division.

“We wanted to find a way to set Sano apart from other places and its connection with ramen was the obvious way to do that,” Ozeki said. “We offer incentives to young people to buy homes here, and there are other financial benefits. The rents are low, the air is clean and the food is delicious.”

Last April, Gakuto Nishimura, a born-and-bred Tokyoite, quit his job in mobile phone sales and left for the mountainous idyll of Chichibu, a town of 60,000 people a two-hour drive from Tokyo.

“I’d been thinking about changing jobs, and the pandemic pushed me into making a decision,” said Nishimura, whose interest in Chichibu had been piqued by its appearances in anime films.

Chichibu officials say they are receiving a growing number of inquiries from young people. To encourage them to take the plunge, the town provides cash to renovate unoccupied homes or to buy a car, and the chance to live in a local home for up to a week to get a feel for life there.

Nishimura, 24, now organises events targeting other Tokyoites who are thinking of following suit.

“I tell them about the nature here, and the low rents, but also how much easier it is for young people to move around these days, as many of them are in jobs they can do remotely,” said Nishimura, whose apartment is significantly larger, and cheaper, than his old place in Tokyo.

“I have no regrets about leaving Tokyo and, even though it’s my home town, I have no intention of going back.”

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