Making the Big Move: Finding Home

Apartment hunting and moving into a new place is a pretty daunting process anywhere, especially in Japan.  If you don’t know what to look for in a property, you may end up with a dud.  Once you get stuck with a bad property, there’s not much you can do but stick it out for awhile unless you have a lot of money to throw around; moving will set you back a few hundreds of thousands of yen (a few thousand USD) each time or more.  My husband and I lived in two duds before finally settling into the place we now call home.

© Sumaity / Kakaku.com

A typical four-story “mansion” (apartment) in Japan with a cram school and real estate agency on the first floor.
© Sumaity / Kakaku.com

This is dud numero uno.  My husband picked it out for us while I was arranging things to move back Stateside.  Unfortunately, never having lived on his own before, he knew about as much about picking out a good place in Japan as I did.  It looks nice enough on the outside, so what made it a dud?

For the most part, it was too small for us to live comfortably.  Apartments in Japan are measured in tatami mats.  We only had a bedroom and a living/dining/kitchen space, which were both around 6 mats each, or jō in apartment lingo.  Mat size can vary depending on region, but the standard is the Nagoya measurement system- about 6 ft x 3 ft / a little under 2 m x 1 m per mat.

The rest of our apartment space consisted of a bathroom, separate toilet, entryway, and balcony.  This might all sound luxurious, but the whole place was only 403.65 ft² / 37.5 m² in total.  In other words, the complex was a fit-as-many-people-in-one-place-as-we-can typical shoebox design.  I didn’t realize just how small that was until we met the moving company there and I saw the place with my own eyes for the first time.

Still, after our year of doing long distance, it could have been a straw hut and it still wouldn’t have changed the giddiness I first felt in that first moment I felt our new life was about to unfold.  It was a fleeting feeling, however.  Only a couple of months passed before our new place got downright aggravating to live in.

I only came with what fit into my suitcase and a few boxes my family sent afterwards, so despite its size the apartment had potential.  And hey, by the Tokyo living standards we were familiar with, this was a decent place for a couple with no kids.  The size only became a big problem because husband moved in from his parents’ house with almost everything he owned, and so for two years we mainly lived out of boxes because we didn’t have enough space to properly store it all.

For a year we ate dinner where we slept, on our futon, because getting a table would have only taken up more space.  We never had anyone over and our place never resembled anything like a home.

I remember one time a repairman came out and fix our A/C.  That guy couldn’t have wanted to finish and leave our place any faster.  You could tell he’d never seen a living space so crazy.  I’m sure he had a nice place of his own; I recall seeing a wedding band on his finger.  The way it plays out in my imagination, that night he went home and told his wife he loved her, told her all about how horrible our place was, and they lived happily ever after both remembering to be thankful for everything they had.  In reality he probably went home and told his wife that we were slobs, but I like to keep an optimistic mindset.

Lack of space wasn’t our only immediate issue.  After moving in, we had very little yen left to our names.  I wouldn’t receive my first paycheck for two months after starting work.  I’d managed to save up around $6,000 during my last year of college working part-time and monetary gifts from family, but it wouldn’t go far.  A plane ticket over, the huge moving in costs, staying in a hostel to attend work training before our move in date, and the first month of rent had taken about half of that.  We had no furniture or appliances yet and my husband had yet to find full-time employment in the area.

Being a newer building (under 5 years old) smack dab next to a train station, the rent was expensive. The place put us out 70,000 yen a month (about $700 USD) plus a 3,000 yen ($30 USD) mandatory cable fee.  We didn’t even own a TV to watch the cable we were paying for!

Add health insurance, taxes (20% of paycheck), utilities, food, and student loans to that, and I only had about a 1/3 of my paycheck left each month. My job didn’t offer full pay in either August or December, so my leftover earnings went into budgeting for that.  Anything left over I saved up to visit home during the holidays or for whatever small outing a month together we could manage.  After a year I started taking on part time work just to help out our finances. (This only took so long because I had to file for special permission to work another job without my company catching on, which I will make a separate post about eventually.)

If that wasn’t enough, the only things in our vicinity were the train station, post office, and convenience store.  The train only came once or twice every hour.  The nearest supermarket was over 1 km each way, but we only had one bicycle between us that I used for commuting to work and my husband borrowed on weekends.  I didn’t mind walking or biking to the store once a week, but it totally sucked when we needed something quick; there’s only so many groceries you can carry yourself or fit in a bike basket.

The apartment itself was on the fourth floor, but there was no complex elevator.  Climbing all those stairs day in and day out was tiring, and we had to pay extra for any big deliveries made to our apartment.  At night there were motorcycle gangs that would race down our street at ungodly times while we tried to sleep.

We were paying way too much for our tiny, inconvenient shoebox, so when our two year lease was up I told my husband I couldn’t do another two years in the same place and we needed to move.    We pooled what little savings we had and with some money borrowed from our families, found a bigger place in a neighboring city.  And thus, we moved into our second dud, pictured below.

© Google

Another typical four-story “mansion” (apartment) in Japan.
© Google

Dud numero dos was an apartment with three rooms and a kitchen, plus the essentials, in a pretty rundown-looking complex built beside a river.  It was in a convenient location and our neighbors were quiet.  The rooms were big, had just been remodeled, and the rent was cheap.  I was excited about having traditional tatami mats.  You know the saying, “If it sounds too good to be true…”?  Yeaaah.  This place wasn’t facing the south towards the sunlight, which isn’t a big selling point in Japanese property.  It didn’t seem like a big thing at the time, but oh man did it make or break our life there.  I never want to deal with a tatami mat ever again.

Despite how much technologically advanced stuff Japan exports, having no dryer, central air conditioning/heating, or double sided windows is pretty much the norm.  That meant our place was absolutely sweltering in the summer and freezing in the winter.  Without much sunlight to offset things, we had just moved into a breeding ground for all sorts of nasty mold due to the humidity.  We didn’t find out until about two months in, when I looked behind a door we always kept open and found a huge patch of fuzzy mold on the tatami.  It was only May and wasn’t even humid yet!  The only way we could combat the constant mold problem was to do an enormous amount of cleaning, which included:

  • Putting our futon out every sunny day
  • Spraying the tatami mats down with ethanol alcohol spray and let them dry with fans every week
  • Disinfecting our kitchen and bath weekly
  • Anything wood had to be wiped down weekly
  • Any clothing in our closet or storage, seasonal or not, had to be washed monthly so our clothing wouldn’t smell something awful, and to prevent our whites from yellowing and having to be thrown out
  • We couldn’t keep anything else in the closets for very long, because both the closet (made of wood) and the items there would begin to mold
  • The shoes box was a mold factory that couldn’t be aired out, so instead keeping our shoes there our entryway was cluttered with free standing shoe racks
  • We had to spend a good deal of money on dehumidifying packs for our closet and other storage that had to be changed weekly
  • Ventilating our apartment on good weather days by opening windows, at the risk of having huge ass spiders or cockroaches crawl in.
© Bryce McQuillan

Huntsman spiders the size of the palm of your hand. I can’t even tell you how many of these suckers I had to kill at dud number two. WTF.
© Bryce McQuillan

All in all, we (mostly I) put up with shouldering all that cleaning for almost four years.  Even then, the foundation was so rotten that you could see mold growing underneath the tiling and in the wood supporting the framework.  I shit you not, I even found mold growing on our metal toilet paper roll holder once.  How does that even work?

But oh how the rent was cheap.  We had almost twice the space as the first dud and only paid 50,000 yen ($500 USD) a month, which later got knocked down to 45,000 yen ($450 USD) a month because we gave up our parking spot we weren’t using to another tenant.  The location was in the middle of everything we needed close by, and we were allowed to have pets.  With the amount we saved on rent we were able to get engaged and throw an awesome wedding Stateside.  We also adopted two kittens from our next door neighbor, and they’ve grown into lovable cuties.

© J // Washing Rice Blog

Look at these cuties! How could you say no?
© J // Washing Rice Blog

Eventually I lost the battle against the mold.  Doing all that cleaning just to have a semi-decent looking place was exhausting, and took a toll on what social activities I was willing to engage in.  A drinking party on Saturday, you say?  Cool!  Oh wait… I can’t go because I have to scrub my whole place down on Sunday and don’t want to be hungover while I do it.

Our last year there I started getting horrible allergic reactions where I couldn’t stop sneezing in the morning.  It got so bad that at some point, I went in for testing at a clinic.  The doctor confirmed that I was indeed allergic to mold, mites, and house dust.  Basically I was allergic to our apartment.

When the second renew of our lease was coming up soon, I told hubs we had to get out of there.  Being a little better off financially than with two previous moves, we were able to wait and shop around.  We each made a list of our top three deal breakers, as well as other things we’d like a new apartment to have.  I liked how clean our first dud was, but vowed to never live in another place with less than three rooms.  I liked the space of the second apartment and the price, but not how dirty it was.  Did I mention the neighbor we got our cats from at the second dud was a pet hoarder and the complex always reeked of cat piss outside even after she moved away?  Well, I’m saying it now.

Anyway, I started checking real estate listings daily and we set up a few apartment viewing appointments, but nothing stood out until I stumbled across a listing for a new complex under construction on the other side of town.  It was a copy of another complex already built in a nearby city, and it looked really nice from the photos.  We put down a reservation to see the place when it was finished, and when we saw the inside we fell in love with it.

© J // Washing Rice Blog

My mom says it looks like an office building but if so, it’s the homiest office building there is!
© J // Washing Rice Blog

Even though we struck out twice before finding something ideal, the third time was a charm!  The learning curve was a harsh one, but the lesson stuck.  We learned to cut down on the clutter (my husband finally threw out half of that stuff from the first apartment) and my domestic ability increased tenfold thanks to the second dud.  We knew what we wanted this time around, and didn’t let the desire of wanting to move out ASAP facilitate any rash decision making like before.

Next update I’ll go more into detail about apartment words to be familiar with, leasing, and compile a checklist of things to consider before choosing a place to live.  Hopefully it’ll prevent someone else from choosing a dud like we did- twice.

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