Making the Big Move: Apartment Hunting (Part 1)

© BIGLOBE

What a typical real estate agency looks like in Japan.
© BIGLOBE

As I wrote in my previous post, apartment hunting in Japan can be tricky.  This first step is understanding what kind of properties in Japan are available.  Unless you plan on staying here for many, many years you’ll be looking for rental property, called chintai bukken.  There are three main types:

  1. apartments, called apaato – These are generally older apartments made of wood.  Due to building regulations they can’t exceed two or three floors, unless under special circumstances.
  2. mansion-style apartments, called manshon – Don’t let the name fool you, you won’t be getting a real mansion!  These are the most popular because they’re generally newer properties and made of stronger materials like reinforced concrete.  Mansion-style apartments are usually four stories or higher, and it’s not uncommon to see high-rise mansion-style apartment complexes with 10 to 20 floors or more, especially in big cities.
  3. stand-alone properties, called ikkodate or kashiya – These are usually houses for lease but sometimes include maisonette-style rental properties.

Recently due to modern design and better materials like steel reinforcements, builders have closed much of the quality gap that used to exist between apartments and mansion-style apartments.  Still, most people believe mansion-style apartments deflect noise better and provide better stability during fires, earthquakes, and other natural disasters, and I’d be hard-up to disagree when comparing older apartments to older/newer mansion-style apartments.

No matter what kind of property above you go with, all listings are generally classified by size/room type, and there should be a floor plan detailing the layout of the place you’re looking at.  Listings are categorized with a number and a combination of one or more letters:

  • number (1, 2, etc.) = the number of bedrooms a property has
  • R = room
  • L = living room
  • D = dining room
  • K = kitchen
  • S = storage
  • CL = a Western-style closet
  • WC / トイレ = toire, a toilet

In addition floor plans are often labelled in Japanese, too.  Here are some common items denoted in Japanese:

  • / 玄関 = genkan, an entryway
  • 浴室 = yokushitsu, a bathroom
  • 洗濯 / 洗面 = sentaku / senmenjo, a laundry/washing area
  • 押入 = oshiire, a Japanese-style closet
  • / 収納 / 納戸shūnounando, a storage closet
  • ベランダ/バルコニー = beranda / barukonii, a veranda or balcony for hanging laundry out
  •  / 洋室 = youshitsu, a room with Western-style flooring
  • / 和室 = washitsu, a room with Japanese-style, tatami mat flooring
  • = niwa, a garden
  • = , the number of tatami mats a room takes up- used to measure both Western and Japanese-style rooms

What a mouthful, right?!  Thankfully it’s not too confusing when you see an actual floor plan, so let me show you some examples.

© Home's / NEXT Co.,Ltd.

A collage of three typical apartment floor plans near Ikebukuro station, Tokyo.
BTW sometimes those neon-colored, floor plan graphics are bad enough to make any graphic designer cry.
© Home’s / NEXT Co.,Ltd.
Edited by J // Washing Rice Blog

Apartment #1 is a 1R (one room), meaning you get, well… one room of living space!  This 6 mat space has mostly Japanese-style, tatami mat flooring.  You could maybe fit a single futon, a small desk, and a dresser or shelf in there.  There’s also an entry way, a toilet, and a closet.  Unfortunately there’s no bathroom, so you’d have to bathe at the local public bathhouse if you were to live there.  It also doesn’t have a kitchen or sink, so you’d have to get a portable gas burner to make instant ramen or eat out all of the time.  This place would fit a single guy that spends most of his time at work.

Apartment #2 is a 1LDK.  You get one 4 mat bedroom, and another 12 mat space to use as your living/dining/kitchen.  Both of these rooms have Western-style flooring.  There’s also an entryway, bathroom, toilet, laundry space (not labeled, between the toilet and bathroom), two closets, and a balcony.  All in all, it looks pretty nice for a single person who wants a little more space or a couple.

Apartment #3 is a 2LDK.  Both bedrooms have Western-style flooring and a balcony.  The 6.4 mat bedroom has a small, walk-in closet.  There’s a 15 mat living/dining/kitchen area between the bedrooms.  You get an entryway, bathroom, toilet, laundry space, and a storage closet as well.  This would be a great apartment for a family.

In addition to size, you can also search by apartment features.  Features that you might take for granted back home may not be common in a Japanese apartment.  For starters, most properties don’t come furnished.  A nicer place will come with an air conditioner, gas burner, or electric stove-top.  Along with furniture, you’ll need to buy a refrigerator and a washing machine.  You can forget about a dryer, dishwasher, or garbage disposal- only the fanciest modern places have these.

Some features may have nothing to do with what’s in the apartment, but concern what type of person is allowed to live there and what the apartment can be used for.  Unless otherwise specified, usually no pets of any kind are allowed.  Don’t be afraid to ask; occasionally it’s negotiable if an extra deposit is paid in advance or the landlord is trying to lease out a property quickly.  You also can’t conduct business in your apartment unless it’s been OK’ed by the landlord first.  Many apartments don’t allow more than one person to live there, even if you’re a couple!  Crazier than that, some apartments don’t allow children!  And craziest of all, many apartments don’t allow foreigners!

But before we get into all that craziness and other issues you might run into when trying to lease (part 2), here are some things to keep in mind while apartment hunting.

The Checklist

  1. Consider the area and how you plan on getting around.  If you have a vehicle, being close to a train station, grocery store, post office, convenience store, etc. may not be a big deal.  For someone who relies on public transportation, a bicycle, or their own two feet to get around you bet it is- especially if you plan on having any sort of a social life.  On the contrary, a place right next to a big commercial area, train station, or factory could be noisy at night or in the morning when you’re trying to sleep.  Same goes for properties next to those occupied by families with small children.  A good real estate agency should have information on what kind of people live in the complex or surrounding area.
  2. Make sure the number of rooms and occupants are proportionate.  One room apartments are for single tenants, while your typical couple needs at least two rooms.  A couple with a baby may get away with two rooms at the beginning, but as the baby grows or the couple has more children they’ll need at least three.  You’ll also want at least three if you’re a couple living with your in-laws.
  3. How old is the apartment?  Anything over 20 years is considered old, and the monthly rent or purchasing price should reflect that.  A possible exception to this rule is if the apartment has been newly renovated and/or is in a prime location where land is expensive.  Properties in Japan are not made to last.  Your average apartment has a 20 year life span, while a mansion-type has around a 30 year life span before needing to be remodeled or demolished and rebuilt.
  4. What is the apartment made of?  Traditionally a property constructed of wood is less sound proof than a concrete one.  Newer properties, both wood and concrete, are now often reinforced with steel so it doesn’t feel like the walls are so thin.  Wood or vinyl-like wood flooring is easier to maintain, but is less sound proof and scratches easily so you’ll probably have to use furniture guards.  Carpeting is rare, very sound proof, but stains easily and and invites mites in summer.  Tatami mats are pretty sound proof, but also invite mold and mites during humidity.  You’ll probably have to use furniture guards to prevent leaving permanent impressions on the mats.  (After my nightmare with the tatami in our second apartment, I never want tatami again!)
  5. Does it have a toilet and bath area?  If so, is the toilet and bath area separate?  Having no toilet/bath or a same unit toilet/bath is undesirable to your average Japanese person, and the rent price should reflect this.  Additionally any place with a Japanese-style toilet should also come with a cheaper price tag.
  6. What floor is the apartment on?  First floor properties should be cheaper, because they take in more humidity and mildew.  They may be more susceptible to pests and theft if the complex has no security.
  7. What direction does it face?  South-facing properties are the most common type because they tend to let in more light. More light means spending less money on electricity, your laundry drying faster, and less humidity trapped in your home.
  8. Is there parking, and is it free?  Do you plan on driving in Japan?  Free parking is near impossible to find in the bigger cities, and being able to park on a property can cost upwards of an additional 10,000 yen ($100 USD) a month.  Most properties include bicycle (and sometimes scooter) parking, but not all properties have parking lots for cars or motorcycles.  In rural areas, with driving often a necessity, you’ll find many properties come with free or cheaper parking lot use to reflect this.

Have something else you think should be added?  Drop me a comment!  Part 2 is coming up soon, so sit tight.

– J

One thought on “Making the Big Move: Apartment Hunting (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Living in Japan Part 4: How to Read Apartment Listings | What can I do with a B.A. in Japanese Studies?

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