“I’ve been thinking a lot about my retirement, so I’ve decided to buy a village,” a friend of mine said. “I want to create the perfect community for all of us to grow old.” A few minutes earlier, before he casually announced that he wanted to purchase a hamlet for his silver years, we’d been talking about summer holidays and running regimes. The way he delivered this bit of news made it sound like he was thinking about taking up golf as a hobby or raising sheep for a bit of extra income – not becoming his very own self-appointed mayor.
“I’ve been looking around and I have my eye on a few places about an hour outside of Tokyo,” he went on. “Don’t you think it makes sense? Create a little community for your friends and all the people you like to support?”
Admittedly, we were well into the evening and it was fast approaching midnight at the Oak Door restaurant in Roppongi Hills. But my friend was completely serious about his exercise in bespoke urbanism. As Frédéric filled our glasses and my friend went through his criteria for the perfect place to grow old, I couldn’t decide if I was more jealous of his forward planning (he’s only 36) or his canny eye for life improvement.
According to his plan, he wanted something more like a big rambling house than a sprawling estate. “We’re all going to want to travel but we won’t want to drive, so we’ll have our taxi/limo and we’ll be within easy reach of a train station to link us to the main airports,” he explained. “We’ll also attract visitors because we’ll have a special programme to nurture craftsmen and various artisans. It goes without saying that there’ll be an excellent vineyard.”
By this point I was hoping he hadn’t told too many friends and that there were still a few places left in his little village. It was all sounding so inviting that I wanted to know if I could move in well before I hit 50.
“Maybe we should get all of our friends to buy up tiny villages so that we can spend our retirement just travelling around, from Italy to the British countryside to the islands off the top of New Zealand’s North Island,” he continued. “Where would you buy outside London? Cornwall? Closer?”
Cornwall, I explained, would be a lovely idea if there was a proper high-speed rail service to whisk us down there, but there seemed to be a new-found dislike for anything high-speed on rails in the UK and we’d be long gone before there was a shinkansen stretching to Truro.
“They’re so crazy in England,” my friend said. “Why don’t they wake up to how great fast trains are? What’s the problem?”
With this, I decided that we needed another bottle to workshop the issue of Britain’s decaying railway network and how many people (and more importantly who) would live in his village. Would the village be retained and restored? Or would it be completely rethought with a group of new architects commissioned? Who would set the tax rate and who would establish the rules?
“It won’t be a free-for-all, that’s for sure. I think we need to interview all potential residents, don’t you?” he asked.
I suggested that this might get up the noses of all kinds of do-gooders but it was the only way forward if we were going to pay the bills, maintain a sense of order and get everyone rowing in the same direction. I also told him it would be much easier to pull off in a monoculture like Japan and would be riddled with problems elsewhere.
“I see what you’re saying,” he nodded. “Very tricky to find the right little village in the UK and then get everyone to play along.”
“Maybe so,” I said. “But I’m quite sure you’d find an audience. Finding the cosy hamlet will be the bigger challenge.” As the waiters started setting up for the following day’s lunch service and we cleared the cellar of the Oregon Chardonnay we’d been quaffing, we set about selecting retail tenants, landscaping the park and thinking about how many rooms the inn at the vineyard would need to turn a profit.
I woke up the next morning with a shocking headache (a bit of a theme this month) but still managed to hit the streets of Hiroo to do my 5km run in the 10,000 per cent humidity and 28C heat at 7am. As Tokyo came to life, I was already thinking about my friend’s little village and why such a place wasn’t on the map already. Or perhaps there is and we just haven’t been targeted with a special offer yet?
Exactly 26 minutes later (it was a fast but sweaty run), I was back at the hotel and thinking it was time to start a scrapbook of design, architectural and horticultural inspiration. As Tsutaya Roppongi bookstore seems to be a favourite among Tokyo’s Fast Lane readers, I was the one you spotted very early on Thursday morning with an armful of architecture and design journals and a few special magazines devoted to growing old gracefully.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine
More columns at www.ft.com/brule
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Southwest may as well not exist / From Ms Elizabeth Balsom