Out of Japan: Tales of life from room with a crowded view

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TOKYO - Directly opposite the window of my flat is a three-storey apartment building. I can also see a few trees, an elevated expressway, Tokyo's imitation of the Eiffel Tower, and a Zen temple - all nestled in a mosaic of roofs.

But it is the apartment building that always captures my attention, since my building is on top of a small hill and I can look down into the rooms opposite. Privacy is a rare commodity in crowded Japan.

The building is owned by a family, who live with their young children on the second floor. They had installed grandfather on the top floor, and rented the ground floor out to a fashionable young couple who drove a sports car.

But grandfather has gone - shipped off to an anonymous old-folks' home. I was sad to see him go: he added a warm touch to the neighbourhood, feeding stray cats, cleaning up dead leaves and pretending to get angry with the local children - much to their delight. Last winter I noticed he was finding the stairs up to his flat increasingly difficult.

Rather than move him into the ground-floor flat or give him a little extra help carrying his shopping upstairs, his family decided to send him to the home.

I could see when he could not sleep at night, and got up to turn on the television. I could follow the hectic routine one floor below, where children had to be fed and bathed and shunted into folding beds in the small two- room apartment. And on the ground floor the young couple would be preparing to go out to a party. It is almost as if I were living inside the building, so intimately could I observe the goings-on.

Tokyo presents a strange face to the first-time visitor. The city's streets seem crowded and narrow, the buildings close together, and there is a suffocating lack of open space. But the population density is less than New York or Paris.

Strict land-zoning laws and height restrictions have meant the city has few buildings with more than three storeys. This keeps land prices sky-high. And it means there is little space wasted at ground level on gardens, public parks, pavements, and other such luxuries of land- rich countries.

Back to my room with a (crowded) view. The elevated expressway, which has a mes merising 24-hour stream of cars and trucks, is one of a network criss-crossing much of Tokyo to soak up traffic that gets jammed on the narrow streets below. Higher than the expressway is Tokyo Tower, built in 1958 using the Eiffel Tower as a model, but 100 feet higher.

A little distance away is a sharply sloping roof with ornate tiling: this is a Zen temple, the Tokyo branch of the famous Eihei-ji temple in Fukui prefecture. Eihei-ji was established in 1244 by Dogen, one of Japan's great Zen masters, who placed great value on long meditation and an austere life.

The monks are expected to rise at 3am, and long before the rest of Tokyo wakes up I can hear the dull thud of drums to signal a round of morning prayer in the temple.

Finally, with that characteristic touch of Tokyo that delights in combining the traditional with the garish, the apartment of the old man has been let out to a long- haired youth. On the balcony he has installed a fluorescent green surfboard, with the name 'Nobu' scrawled on it. Now it is the first thing I see every morning, right in front of my window.