THE snow accumulating on the Japan Alps is a reminder of the unforgiving winters in the city of Toyama. Kazuko Onagawa, at 87 years old, is unfazed. Lithe and trim, she power-walks around a swimming pool in the Kadokawa Preventative Care Centre. After she dries off she may drop into the gym, rehabilitation room or massage parlour. A doctor is permanently on site in case she or her friends overdo it. “I’m fit for my age,” she smiles. “Winters don’t worry me.”

About 30% of Toyama’s 418,000 residents are 65 or older, an even higher proportion than in Japan as a whole, where it is 27% (see chart). By 2025, the proportion in Toyama is projected to be 32%. In addition to greying, the population is also declining. The city had 421,000 people in 2005; by 2025, it will have 390,000.

As the population ages and shrinks, the services residents need have changed. The Kadokawa Centre, for example, is built on the site of a primary school that closed in 2004. But overhauling public services is costly, and the declining number of people of working age means there is ever less tax revenue to help pay for the shift. To remain solvent, the city has decided to shrink not just in population, but in size, concentrating residents and services in the centre.

Most of Japan is in a similar quandary. About 400 schools shut every year; some are being converted into retirement homes. In 2016 there were 300,000 more deaths than births. If Japan continues on its present course, it will have shed nearly a third of its population (and four out of every ten workers) by the time Mrs Onagawa’s grandchildren retire in 2065.

Japan will not accept mass immigration, says Masashi Mori, the mayor of Toyama. Efforts to raise the birth rate have had little success, although there are a few exceptions (see article). The only alternative is to learn to live with far fewer people. That implies great upheaval, which Toyama hopes to minimise.

The city’s first focus has been public transport. Old people who don’t get out and about tend to be less healthy and need more help. But buses can be daunting even for the relatively spry. At any rate, the number of passengers on the city’s buses fell from 40,000 a day in 1995 to 17,000 in 2012. The cost of nursing care, meanwhile, has risen by 21% since 2010. The solution, the city government decided, was to build a tram system that is easy for old people to use, and to encourage them to live close to it. It used mainly existing train lines and second-hand rolling stock to keep costs down. There are no barriers in the stations and no steps up onto the trams, to make them easy for frailer passengers to use. Those aged 65 and over can buy a discounted ticket to go anywhere on the network for ¥100 ($0.90). The number of passengers using the city’s trains more than doubled when the first refurbished line was opened in 2006; the number of passengers in their 70s rose by more than three times.

The city government subsidises both the construction and the purchase of new housing within 500m of one of the new tram stops, and rents out several properties itself. It also pays two-thirds of the cost of running the Kadokawa Centre, and offers further grants for those opening facilities catering to old people within the city centre. The elderly are given free admission to museums and the zoo, provided they bring a grandchild with them. The city even subsidises the wages of old people hired by local firms.

The result of all this has been that the population of the city centre is rising, even as that of the rest of the city falls. The centre is now home to 37% of residents, up from 28% in 2005. By 2025 the city government hopes the proportion will be 42%. The boom in the centre has brought new shops and other businesses, helping to stabilise tax revenues. The cost of providing municipal services has fallen, says the mayor, who is in his fourth term. As he puts it: “We want a small city for old people to live comfortably and happily.”