Smokers escape the gas chamber

January 14th, 2010 by Felicity Hughes

A crowded smoking area outside Shibuya Station (Masahiro Hayata photo)

A crowded smoking area outside Shibuya Station (Masahiro Hayata photo)

Anyone who has seen the smoking rooms in many of Tokyo’s main stations will know that things aren’t looking up for Japan’s puffing population. These Plexiglass rooms are so noxious that they’ve been nicknamed “the gas chambers” by commuters. Naturally, smokers can’t be choosy these days. Hounded off the streets in most wards and banned from lighting up on train platforms, tobacco imbibers are only allowed to light up in specially designated areas.

Fortunately for them, JT (Japan Tobacco) is very keen to keep Japan’s smoking population at profitable levels. For the past few years the company has been pleading with smokers to practice good manners and follow the “smokers’ style.” And if you’re in any doubt as how to be a good smoker, the company’s Web site is full of useful tips, smoking games, smoking history and suggestions on where to have a pleasant smoke.

In addition to outside smoking areas, the company has gone to the trouble of establishing “Smoking Lounges,” café-style spaces where smokers can puff away without having to shell out for a coffee. JT’s first “Smoking Lounge” opened at Narita airport in January 2006 but more have been popping up around Tokyo since. Naturally, there’s a catch to these “free” spaces. If you visit JT’s smoking lounge in Roppongi, for example, you’ll be given a sales pitch for Kent cigarettes (most likely by a young woman), asked to fill out a questionnaire and given  a free sample of Kent to try (one cigarette per person). Each smoking space appears to be promoting a different JT brand. JT also has the retro-looking SmoCar – a mobile smoker’s space that shows up at events nationwide and promotes smoking manners.

While an increasing number of cafes and restaurants are now closing their doors to smokers,  Cafe Tobacco, which opened its first store in Shimbashi last year, is catering exclusively to ciggie lovers (and offering exceptionally bitter coffee blends to boot). More smoker-friendly spots can be found in JT’s gourmet section, which  concentrates on a different metro area each month. The guide also includes outdoor spots where a peaceful smoking experience can be enjoyed. This month the guide is spotlighting my home town of Nakano and JT recommends that smokers head for Momijiyama Park, which has a lovely balcony overlooking a quiet pond surrounded by flaming red momiji trees. I can testify: It’s a prime location for a breather, and a far cry from Japan Railway’s gas chambers.

Photo credit: Mashiro Hayata/Flickr

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