Letters From Japan ~ Vol V ~ The Apartment Search


Introduction: I recently began writing letters to send to my friends and family regarding my experiences here in Japan. I've received some encouragement to release the letters net-wide and am doing so in the hopes of providing some entertainment and maybe even some useful information...

Well, the search is finally over and I have a place to call my own, for a while anyway. The apartment search was definitely a pain in the oshiri. Even though the company provided me with the names of two real estate agents, they weren't particularly helpful, not in my case anyway.

I had narrowed my search down to a particular area, the Shimo-Kitazawa area, because it seemed to be a nice place with all kinds of shops and the commute to Otemachi looked good. There weren't too many apartments available in that area due to the new school year having just started, or so I was told. So I expanded my search to include anywhere along the Odakyu, Inokashira and Shin-Tamagawa train lines any of which would give me relatively painless commute.

One of the realtors, Towers Realty, never came up with even one place for me to look at and the other, Ken Corporation, faxed me several possiblities and I looked at one but didn't want to make a decision after seeing just one place. Since I wasn't getting very far this way, I had to find other means. One evening my friend Kyomi and I set out on foot around the Shimo-Kitazawa area and managed to talk to a couple agents before they closed and made an appointment to see one place the following weekend.

Then, during the week I picked up an apartment hunting weekly which lists apartments all over the Tokyo area. While I was looking through it in a local restaurant near my temporary apartment, the proprietor noticed and told me one of his customers is a realtor and proceeded to find his number, call him up and hand the phone to me! I explained in my broken Japanese what I was looking for and made an appointment to look at some places on the weekend. The next day I called Able Realty in Shibuya since they advertised several places in the magazine in the area I wanted to live and set up yet another appointment for the weekend.

That Saturday, Kyomi and I met early in the morning and looked at about a ten different apartments and sifted through dozens of listings. Apartments here are typically categorized by 1R, 1DK, 1LDK, 2DK, 2LDK, and 3LDK. 1R stands for "one room" and are just that, one room studio apartments. A 1DK is a bedroom plus a dining/kitchen room, 1LDK is the same except they claim that the dining/kitchen area is big enough for dining/kitchen and living room as well. Correspondingly, A 2DK is 2 bedrooms plus DK and so on. Most apartments typically include a bath (but not always!) but often don't provide anything in the way of appliances including heater/air-conditioner, refrigerator, stove, or oven. Prices in the Tokyo area range from about $500/month for a 1R to around $800 for 1DK's and $1300-$2000 for 2(L)DK's. Already such prices don't seem remarkable to me anymore.

Other factors to consider when selecting an apartment is walking distance from the station, what floor the apartment is on, exposure to sunlight, noise level of neighborhood, and of course the specific features the apartment has. My friend Kyomi cited the risks of doroboo ("burglars") when recommending that I stay away from first floor apartments. This is actually one of the least of my worries in Japan but a co-worker gave me a more practical reason for avoiding the first floor -- first floor apartments are more likely to have serious mildew problems in this mushiatsui ("hot and humid") climate.

Of course everybody has particular features that they feel are important. In this regard, I have a personal dislike for so-called "unit baths." Japanese are often pressed to come up with space-saving features and many new apartments have "unit baths." These are single molded plastic rooms containing toilet, sink, bathtub and shower probably similar to something you'd find in a Winnebago. That's fine for camping but for regular living, count me out. It's just too cramped plus if you have a guest, one person in the shower prevents use of all other facilities.

One is also faced with the choice of choosing a Japanese style or Western style apartment. Usually the only difference is that the Japanese-style apartment has one room of tatami (like straw) flooring and maybe the sliding style doors. Places with completely tatami and wood flooring are rare (around here anyway). Apartments with Japanese style (squatting) toilets are rarer yet. My preference is Japanese style because it's more "exotic" and less boring plus the tatami gives off a distinctly Japanese "woodsy" odor which I like. Of course, for somebody allergic to such an odor this kind of place would be unacceptible.

Additionally, some apartments are called "mansions." These are "upscale" apartments usually in larger multi-unit places. They give themselves such a designation by offering additional services or features that the average apartment doesn't have. For example, if it comes with a heater and air conditioner it may be considered a "mansion!"

In fact, my temporary apartment in Hatagaya provided by the company for two months in Hatagaya was a mansion. Although it was only a "one room," maybe 12x10 ft plus bathroom, it provided furniture, phone and TV and linen/cleaning services. I'm not sure what the cost was but I think it was probably around $2000/month.

So, anyway, after apartment searching all day long, I finally decided on a nice 2LDK in Eifukuchoo, I didn't leave a deposit but made plans to make contract arrangements on Monday. We were pleased to have finally accomplished our mission, but, on Monday, I was surprised to learn that the apartment was not available anymore. Either they had sold it out from under me or just withheld it for discriminatory reasons.

The latter case is a very real possibility. During the apartment search I experienced the most blatant racial discrimination ever in my life. Here in Japan, barring individuals from renting apartments, entering certain establishments, or receiving bank loans simply because of race is not uncommon and not even illegal. Most of the realtors I dealt with were relatively happy to deal with me but if I expressed interest in an apartment they'd call the owner, tell him/her my background and see if it's okay to show the apartment to me. On one occasion, they told me "well, they're looking for a young couple..." as well as other vague excuses which I didn't always catch due to my poor grasp of the language.

In my case I'm a more desirable "undesirable" since I'm a white American working for a relatively solid company. The realtor would call up and, in the Japanese round-about way, say something like "well, I have an American here but... he works for an American shooken (financial) company and...[he looks housebroken]..." One can't let such things get one down too much and it's best to concentrate on the good things, like the restaurant proprietor going out of his way to call his realtor friend for me. Since, as a WASP male, I haven't previously experienced much in the way of racial discrimination, I view the experience as good in terms of having opened my eyes a bit to make me more sensitive to such issues. Nevertheless, a little discrimination goes a long way and I don't wish to repeat the experience.

So, that left me back where I started almost since I didn't really have a good second choice lined up. I returned to the office of Able Realty to look through more bukken (listings). After looking at and rejecting several (and being rejected by others) Inoue-san, my realtor, asked me if I'd consider living in a place by looking at the outside only! I thought he was being unreasonable but it turns out, one particular place was occupied and would be coming available and if I waited to look it over, it'd probably be sold already. So I said, well let's take a look at it so he drove me over. It was a two-story, four unit place which looked nice enough -- from the outside.

Then, Inoue-san, a friendly guy about my age, did a heroic thing. He borrowed his business card back from me (he'd forgotten to bring them) and went to the door of one of the apartments, knocked and asked them if we could check out their apartment. The guy said, sure, so we went in and as we peered about, the bathroom door opened, and out came okusan (the lady of the house) more than a little surprised to see this gaijin standing in her entranceway. Inoue-san was actually behind the door so she saw only me -- a frightful sight, I'm sure! Fortunately I was still in my suit which made me look less threatening.

Inoue-san quickly explained what we were doing but her repeated exclamations of "iya da" ("oh no!"), because she hadn't cleaned, etc. etc. prevented us from looking any more. So, several deep bows and apologies for the intrusion later, we took our leave. Inoue-san's heart was beating rapidly when we left. I thanked him but he said it was "nothing."

Due to time constraints and the fact that I was sick of looking for apartments I decided to take the apartment even though I didn't get to see the actual unit. And now three weeks later, I finally have it. Luckily for me, the Japanese are usually trustworthy in terms of workmanship and service so I didn't worry too much about the cleaning job. The place was nice and clean when I got it. It didn't look like they had changed the tatami mats or carpeting but the Japanese style of living (never walking in the house with shoes on) had kept them new-looking.

So, anyway, the apartment is in Mishuku, Setagaya-ku. It's one stop past Shibuya on the Shin-Tamagawa train line, only a 25 minute commute (plus walking time). The apartment is 15 minutes from the station but much quicker by bicycle. I'll be paying about $1500/month -- about average for this type of place. Actually, sometimes I feel a little guilty about living in such "luxury" when most of my Japanese friends are living in 1/3 or less the space. Typically this kind of place (a 2LDK) would house a couple or family of three comfortably. (Comfortably for Japan, that is.)

Here's the layout:

     ____               |
+---/    \------+----+  S
|     A   |     |    |   
|         |..   |  F |   
|         |.: G      |   
|               |----|
|          |       E | 
|----------+    +----+ 
|_ _ _ _   |    :  D   
|              _:____|___  
|          |          |  | 
|     B    |    C     |  | 
|                     |__| 
|                     |  |
|          |          |  | 
 |        |                
A. Small bedroom -- 5.6-jo (8x9 ft), carpeted with "American style" bay window. I expect to use this as my bedroom. Typically this would be the child's room of a 3-person family.

B. LDK (Living/Dining/Kitchen) -- 9.5-jo (9x15), this is carpeted with cabinets and kitchen sink, and gas hookups for a stove on the north wall. On the south wall is a sliding patio door leading out on to the small balcony. Balconies in Japan are normally used for hanging clothes and little else.

C. "Master bedroom" -- 6-jo (9x11 ft). This room has tatami mat flooring, very nice for giving a Japanese atmosphere to the place. The smell is pleasant too. Typically, Japanese would sleep here on the floor on futons and roll them up out of the way during the day. I think I'm just going to make this into a Japanese-style living/dining room with 12-inch high table and cushions for sitting on the floor. On the east side are two closets.

D. Genkan (entranceway) where shoes must be removed upon entering if one wishes to live in proper Japanese-style. E. Toilet, self-contained in its own little room.
F. Combination bath/shower. The ofuro (bath) is on the north and next to it is a shower area. The door closes so the entire little room is waterproof. G. Washing area. There is a bathroom sink and cabinet here. Also contains space and hook-ups for a Japanese washing machine (which differs from a U.S. machine in that they're typically half the size).

A "jo," by the way, is a Japanese square unit of measure equivalent to one tatami mat or 1.65 m2 or 18 ft2.

(C)opyright 1994 Mike Chachich

This material may be freely copied and distributed for non-commercial uses provided this copyright information remains intact. Commercial uses are strictly prohibited without prior written consent. All stated opinions are solely the author's and do not represent those of any other person or organization.

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Created: May 30, 1994
Last Updated: Mar 30, 2005