I just moved into a new apartment in Tokyo, which has caused me to reflect on the many places I’ve lived since I first moved here way back in 2000.
All Tokyo residents, Japanese and non-Japanese alike, seem to have horror stories when it comes to finding a place to live. For starters, there’s Japan’s notorious “key money” system, a relic of the immediate postwar years, when housing was so hard to come by that you essentially had to bribe landlords to secure a room. Nowadays, a combination of “key money” and other deposits / cleaning fees means that you can sometimes pay as much as four months’ rent up front–and there’s a good chance you won’t get all of it back.
Finding a place is tough for everyone, but foreign nationals struggle even more. One friend said that in the world of real estate gaijin are like pets and pianos–plenty of apartments just won’t allow them. It’s still quite common to call a real estate agency and be told “No foreigners.” And then there’s the guarantor system, in which many landlords require that a trusted family member or work superior–with a full-time job and a certain income level–co-sign your contract and promise to pay up if you default on your rent. Needless to say, since many foreign nationals don’t have family in Japan, and a guarantor agreement isn’t something that even a close Japanese friend would enter into lightly, gaijin are often excluded from more than a few real estate agencies simply because they don’t have a guarantor–even if they themselves are financially well off.
Not surprisingly, a lot of foreign nationals–especially those who don’t plan to be in Japan long-term–just avoid all the key money / guarantor / two-year contract nonsense and rent from agencies that deal specifically with foreign nationals. There’s a catch there too, though, because those apartments are usually older and more expensive (ridiculously expensive if they’re new and set up for businesspeople). In the end, though, if you don’t have to buy furniture and appliances and pay key money, the cost kind of evens out. Twice in a row now I’ve gone this route, and so far I haven’t regretted it.
I remember my first apartment in Tokyo–a company apartment leased for me by my language school, who thankfully took care of all the apartment-hunting madness for me (most language schools do). It was a 4.5 tatami-mat room–about 12 feet by 8 feet, with a little hallway crammed with a washing machine, a sink, a single burner, a fridge, and a microwave. The bath-sink-toilet room was so tiny that I had to scrunch my knees up a bit on the toilet when I shut the door.
I paid 49,000 yen (about $600) a month for that room (I would have paid about $700 a month without the language school subsidy). I slept on futon bedding that I folded up and turned into a little mini-sofa during the day. These days I like to joke about waking up on Sunday mornings and being able to roll just a few inches to open the fridge, then lean over just a few more inches and turn on the TV.
I lived in a low-income, industrial area of Tokyo–probably close to some garbage combustion plants, because if I hung my laundry out on the balcony on certain days it always smelled sooty. So I usually hung the laundry inside–it took twice as long to dry and took up so much space that I could barely move around, but at least it didn’t smell.
I learned how to cook using my single burner and a rice cooker. I even managed to cook things like stuffed peppers and casserole-like dishes in a skillet.
Mostly, though, I spent a lot of time away from the apartment, because being in such a small space for so long depressed me. But I have a memory of packing up my stuff and listening to Lyle Lovett’s “Rivers” as I prepared to leave the apartment and my job of three years, looking around at that too-small space and crying. Three years later, when I was frantically searching for a safe and affordable place to live in L.A., I would lament that all the apartments were too big (and thus too expensive), wondering why L.A. couldn’t offer me a 12 foot by 8 foot room for $600 a month.
My next place in Tokyo was, ironically, even smaller–a guesthouse room near Harajuku with a bed, a desk, a bookshelf, and a clothing rack above the bed (my clothes used to tickle my nose while I slept). Showers, toilets, and the kitchen were all shared. For a place so close to Harajuku, it was cheap–about $700 a month. But all it takes is one messy or noisy resident to ruin a guesthouse, and we had more than one. And when you’ve got 20+ people living in a house and housekeeping only shows up once a week to clean the common areas, things can get pretty grimy.
After that I broke the bank to pay four months’ worth of deposits for a lovely little place near Kichijoji that I shared with a Japanese roommate. It was spacious and affordable (I tried not to think about all the deposits), and it even had a yard. Unfortunately the landlady–who lived right next door in an adjoining house–turned out to be crazy, and during the last three months of my stay made my life a living hell. Note to self–never again live in a place where the landlady lives right next door.
Unless it’s my most recent apartment, where the landlord lived next door but was awesome and friendly and ordered pizza for everyone during the aftershocks. Amazingly, that place was walking distance from the little 4.5-mat room where I began my life in Japan.
And now I find myself in another “temp” apartment, leased month-to-month from one of those foreigners-only agencies. It’s reduced my work commute from 1 hour and 15 minutes to just over 20 minutes, which is great, but eventually I do hope to go through the key money rigamarole again and get a more permanent place.
This place has certain perks. It’s quiet, for one, which is rare in Tokyo–I always seem to end up in places on busy streets or in close proximity to noisy neighbors. And it’s more spacious than my last place, with an actual separate living / kitchen area and a sleeping area with sliding doors. The neighborhood is also really cool and has a very “oldtown” Tokyo feel to it, with lots of rickety little mom-and-pop shops. At the same time, it’s quite international–there’s an Israeli restaurant (a really good one), a pho shop, a French restaurant, and a Spanish / Moroccan restaurant all within walking distance of the station.
My apartment has tatami flooring in the bedroom, though, which I’m not a big fan of. Plenty of people wax poetic about tatami–the look, the smell, the convenience of a multi-functional room. But I generally find it hard to clean and cold in the winter. Plus, after seven years of off-and-on Japan living I’ve discovered that there are certain customs I just can’t adapt to, and a lack of bed is one of them. I need an anchor in my sleeping room, a place where I can automatically toss my stuff and toss myself when I get home. A lack of bed also throws off all the height proportions–everything is low to the ground, and I feel like I’m constantly bending over, which gets annoying. So I’ll deal with tatami and futon for now, but eventually I’d like a bed.
The most hilarious thing about my new place, though, is the bath–or as I like to call it, the Soviet-Era Hot Water Furnace of Death.
This is actually pretty common in a lot of older Japanese apartment buildings, though it’s the first time I’ve encountered it. In order to heat water for the shower (and in the kitchen sink), you have to turn a knob and hold it down, wind a crank for several seconds, hold the knob down a bit longer, and then check through the little furnace window to see if the flame is flickering. And it doesn’t shut off automatically, so you have to remember to turn the knob back to “off” (no taking showers when drunk, I guess). At certain hours of the night you can hear the faint “clank, clank” sound of neighbors cranking up their furnaces. At least it works fine, and the water’s plenty hot.
It’s been a little over a week since I moved in, and things are finally starting to come together–books are shelved (though I need more shelves–and a Kindle, I have too many damn books), kitchen is organized, clothes are stuffed in the too-small closet. Now if I can just take a shower and wash my dishes without burning the house down…