The first time I came to live in Japan I was setup by my company, Sega, in the company dorms. That wasn’t the best place but it was all taken care off. Some small fee like $150 was deducted from my paycheck and the personal department took care of getting my name registered with the electric company.
This time though I had to do it all on my own. I knew several issues that I guess usually distress most new arrivels here in Japan. For example there is the issue of key money. In Japan you almost always have to pay *key money* (reikin: pronounced ray-keen). There’s really no way to explain it except to say that it’s the money you pay for the privilege of staying in the landlord’s building. For 70% of apartments it’s 2 months rent. This is NOT the deposit. You don’t get this money back ever. Consider it the contract closing fee if you want. There is one positive side to this. There are no leases in Japan, at least not for apartments, so unlike America where you sign a lease and if you have to leave early you still have to keep paying rent well that doesn’t happen here. There are some apartments for which there is no key money but expect them to be pretty crappy. The kind of apartment that basically couldn’t be rented any other way except to lower the price.
On top of that you need your deposit (shikikin: pronounced shkee-keen) which is also generally 2 months rent. You may or may not get this back. I supposed just like America that depends on the landlord and yourself.
The next issue is that people don’t want to rent to foreigners. There are the general problems like if you have no ID (note: a passport/visa is not a valid form of id) then you are going to have problems. That’s generally true in any country but even after that you’ll generally find that more than half the landlords do not want to rent to foreigners. You might consider that racist and that might be true for some of them but what I found was that lets say 60% of the people won’t rent to a foreigner, within that 60% it seemed to me that at least half had tried before and had bad experiences. Lots of foreigners come from a different culture than their Japanese counter parts. An example, young American males often have parties at home at night. I’m not talking about big parties but at 4 to 8 people come over and you goof off. This is not something that seems to happen often in Japan. The Japanese go out to dinner or an izakaya to socialize. That means that the foreigner who decides to live his culture and have friends over till 2am every morning is going to be considered a problem. The other big issue that landlords have faced is that foreigners screw them in the end. They leave back to their home country with no notice or they don’t pay the last 1 or 2 months rent etc. What’s the landlord do to? He can’t track them down internationally.
Another issue that comes up is that no matter who you are you need a co-signer. Even if you are Japanese you need a co-signer (hoshonin: pronounced hoe-show-neen). This is often referred to as a guaranteer. Someone that promises to pay if you don’t. This person has to be Japanese and generally has to be an older family person. In other words you can’t use your 31 year old friend as a co-signer though you might be able to use his parents. For lots of foreigners this is covered by their job but if you came over as student then you are going to have to supply this yourself somehow. I was fortunate that one of my old roommates said her father would be happy to do it for me.
So, what follows is my experience trying to get an apartment in Japan.
The first thing I did was my friend Natsuko set me up at a Weekly Mansion. This is basically an apartment that you rent weekly. They can cost as low as $300 a week which is really not that bad.
You have to also pay your phone and utility bills in advance and if you use more then you paid for those services will get shut off automatically. Therefore don’t let them run out. My phone ran out once at 11:10 at night and I had to wait till the next morning to be able to pre-pay some more so I could use it.
Also you need to make reservations in advance. If you don’t and you need to stay longer than your reserved for they reserve the right to switch your room and of course they might have already booked all their rooms so you might be out of luck. Also I think you probably have to be Japanese to rent or at least already have a bank account because they give you the unused portion of your utility expenses back by bank transfer and if you don’t have a bank account here in Japan they won’t be able to do that. You might be able to make other arrangements.
Here you can see my room. It’s only slightly smaller than my old dorm room from Sega. There’s a small *kitchen* if you can call it that. There is one electric burner. It’s in the one kitchen drawer. If you want to cook you pull it out of the drawer and plug it in. The table with the TV on it doubles as a desk. There was a folding chair somewhere in the room. The bed was pretty crappy. A 2 inch thick piece of foam on top of some kind of hacked together thing that was like a bed. I think if you futs with it it will convert into a couch but I didn’t try.
So, from my base of operations I set out to find an apartment. I looked in Tokyo Classified, a magazine for English speaking people here in Tokyo. There were several companies that advertised specialty in placing foreigners.
There were basically two kinds. One kind actually has their own buildings which they rent to foreigners much like Weekly Mansion. They have both shared houses where you rent just a room and share the kitchen etc. These are often called guesthouses. They also have apartments. All of them are furnished. I paid a $300 non-refundable deposit to hold on to one place. I didn’t want it but I thought I’d better risk it just in case. All of those places had coin operated phones. That didn’t sound too cool to me especially as I wanted to be able to use my modem. Some of the shared places had a computer though. You can use them short term too so they’d probably be great for visiting Japan as they would be much much cheaper than any hotel.
The other type of place was a standard realty agent. The first couple I visited said that it was going to be very hard for me to rent because I didn’t have a real visa. I was and still am at the time of this writing (2001/02/11) officially a tourist. My student visa will not come for another month. The other issue is that I didn’t have a job which was going to scare off lots of people
I finally found a realtor that seemed up on my situation. He said I would need proof that I had a co-signer and gave me a form to give to my co-signer to sign saying that they would co-sign once I found something and he said I also needed a letter from my school showing that I was taking a long term course.
Armed with those items he could find me something in my price range. They way it works with him and probably with most realtors is that he has tons of ads for apartments which come through a realtor service. They are on like 17 by 11 paper and generally have a floor plan and other details. Some of the interesting details are that they have what the building is made of (wood, concrete, steel, etc) which the Japanese are concerned with because of loudness and because of earthquakes. They believe that concrete is the best.
Another item is how old the building is. Anything older than 10 or 15 years is considered probably icky. Some other things are: with or without AC/Heater. Without means you will have to buy your own. Gas or electric range. Toilet in a separate room from the bath (preferred in Japan). Size of the building (2 stories or less can be a bad sign but not always). And of course what floor the apartment is on. 1st floor is considered icky. How many minutes walk from the nearest train station. 3 minutes or less is probably loud. 10 minutes or more might be too far to walk for many people.
My particular realtor’s deal was that you pick all the places you are interested in. He had them arranged by which train line they are near. Then he will call all of them and see if they are still available and if they will rent to you. After that you pick the 4 you most want to see and he will then take you on a tour of those places. You pay him $100 up front non-refundable and 1 months rent minus the $100 when you rent a place. I got the impression that was pretty standard but if you add up the numbers you can see that it will cost you 6 months rent to move into a new place. 1st months rent, 2 months key money, 2 months deposit, 1 month for the realtor.
I picked my 4 and then a couple of days later we set out to see them. We started at Ochanomizu station (which means tea water). I’m assuming that’s from the color of the water in the river next to the station. This has got the be the most scenic station in Tokyo as you can see in the picture above.
The first place seemed very promising. Ochanomizu is where I’m volunteering at Digital Hollywood so it would be great for that.
The particular building we went to look at had two apartments available. One was a single bedroom place and the other was a 2 bedroom but the 2 bedroom was not going to be available to be shown until the beginning of the next month and I couldn’t wait.
The area seemed very business like meaning that it was near lots of big buildings and not lots of people or shops. The building itself was very clean and new looking as was the apartment but it was really really small and as it was the first apartment of course I wanted to see the rest.
The 2nd one I’ll save for last. The 3rd one we looked at was in very dark building in a very busy area right across from a supermarket. It was just one long room. It had lots of closet room but it was over all pretty depressing because it had just one window facing the street and one small window facing nothing. See above.
In that same city was one the realtor wanted to show me so he said he’d just add it on and still show me the 4 I wanted originally. It was on top of a "live house" or a place where live bands play. The live house turned out to be in the basement and the apartment was on the second floor of a building on a shopping street (a street with lots of shops on it)
The building was nice and clean and the road it was on, though a shopping road, in other words lots of foot traffic, was not that wide and seemed kind of nice. It would have been very convenient for all kind of shopping.
It was actually kind of exciting. Kind of like living on Venice Beach right on the beach. Not quite that cool but you get the idea. Live house below. People watching etc.
The down side was that it was simply the smallest apartment I saw. I wouldn’t be surprised if the 1 room was only 8 by 8 feet big. The most interesting aspect though was that it had a ROBOT BED as the realtor called it. It’s basically a bed that electronically goes up to the ceiling to be out of the way in the day and you lower at night to go to sleep.
The last place was basically the same as the 3rd. Dark, one window opened to nothing. One long room and it was fairly dirty as though it hadn’t been cleaned yet. It’s interesting how important that is. Logically you should be able to look at a dirty apartment and imagine that it will clean up but in reality its often hard to see and then there’s always the thought that they won’t really clean it up. Like for example they won’t fix that hole in the wall or they won’t replace the carpet with all the spill stains etc. Very depressing feeling at least for me. I’m sure it could be brightened up with some good lamps and decorations but compared to the 2nd one none of these really compared. Especially since they were all around the same price
The 2nd one we saw the realtor warned me was probably old style which he could tell from looking at the ad. He was right. One the plus side it was 3 rooms + bath. On the minus it was old style, all tatami mats except for the entrance area and a low ceiling. It was also on top of a steep hill and after climbing the hill, without even looking at the apartment I knew I didn’t want it. It’s one thing to look at that hill as good exercise but it’s quite another when you know how hot and muggy Japanese summers are.
I was a little scared of the tatami mats. Were there some special traditions about living on them that I needed to know. For example was it okay to put a chair or a desk on them. I wasn’t sure.
It turns out you can pretty much put anything you want on them. If you break them then they’ll just buy new ones from your deposit. Anyway, I wasn’t interested in that one but the realtor representing the 2nd apartment had some others she wondered if we knew about and as they were close she would be happy to show us.
As it turns out my jaw nearly hit the floor when I saw them. The price was in my range and the view was incredible. A river lined with cherry trees. You could see all the way from Ichigaya station to Iidabashi station. I was pretty much sold the moment I saw them
There were several apartments available in the same building. It seemed kind of strange but the realtor for the building said that a local company with lots of foreign employees had recently moved and they relocated everybody and so that’s why half the building was empty. As my realtor said, "timing is everything."
This apartment not only had the view but it was 3 rooms. One room was tatami mats. The other 2 were what the Japanese call "flooring". Basically what we would call hardwood floors though they might just be thin wood on top of concrete.
I was stoked. A kitchen large enough for a dining room table. A large sink and gas range (large for Japan). I could have a living room and a bedroom separate and it was in a pretty nice place about half way between my Japanese school and Digital Hollywood. It even came with a washing machine. And that view… My Mother and Grandmother were planning to visit in the spring and they would have simply loved it.
Renting to foreigners was not a problem as they had lots of foreign tenants in the building already and the landlord’s daughter spoke fluent English.
Even the rear view was nice. There were two apartments per floor. One floor plan had two windows which faced the front of the building. The other floor plan had a bedroom with a window that faced the front and the kitchen faced the back. The 2nd floor was the landlord’s apartment and the first floor was the landlord’s tire store.
The area had lots of colleges including three directly behind the building and one very large one across the river in front. I seemed I had really lucked out.
Well, it turns out it was too good to be true. At least for me. You can see why in the next picture. I don’t know why I didn’t notice this when I first saw the place. All I can think of was that (a) I was only there 10 minutes or less and (b) I was caught up in the excitement.
The problem was it was TOO LOUD. It did cross my mind when I first saw it but I dismissed it thinking it must be alright. It wasn’t. You can see in the picture outside there’s 6 lanes of traffic and across the river are 4 train tracks. A train passed by probably on average once every 2 minutes and it seemed like the stone fence on the other side of the train was designed to reflect the sound directly into my apartment.
Only 3 days after I had moved in I decide I had to move out. I generally couldn’t understand the TV when the cars went by or a train went by. The landlord said he had gotten used to it. I’m sure many people could but it turns out not me.
Of course after that I noticed other more minor things. The toilet was a strange design. No bowl to collect water. Instead it just seemed plugged into the water supply with some kind of mechanism to shut itself off after a few seconds. A mechanism that often didn’t work so I’d have to shake it for 2 to 10 minutes to get the toilet to stop flushing.
Also the bath tub was old Japanese style which basically meant no shower. In Japanese style you are supposed to fill the tub with water and leave it full at all times and warm. The tub can keep the water warm. You wash outside the tub and after you are clean you get in and relax. Translation: It’s friggin cold to take a shower and there’s no place to do it unless you want to get the entire bathroom wet which is normal but not so cool when the toilet and washing machine are in the same room.
So, I called the realtor and told him I had to find another place. We followed the same routine and looked at 4 places. It was disappointing though because none were 1/10th as cool as the place I was at although the first one we saw was very quiet. You can see it here. It had a nice view out the back. It was pretty clean. 2 rooms, a kitchen/dining room and a living/bedroom. It was in a small 2 story building with maybe 2 apartments total.
Things that turned me off to it was one, it had a similar style bathroom to the previous place. I wasn’t sure I was ready to keep that style. The other issue is there was no place to put a refrigerator that was not going to be in the way. Strange but that was how it was designed.
Another and possibly bigger issue was that I got to the station maybe 30 minutes before the realtor. Actually I was maybe 10 minutes early but he called and said he was going to be 20 minutes late so I decided to take a look around. It’s strange but something about that area was just depressing. The stores near the station all had a common roof over the sidewalk to make it possible to shop when it’s raining. That’s cool but something about the design just made it look very dark and uninviting. Like a place you’d want to spend as little time as possible
The next place was in the same city as the robot bed above. I was excited about that as it seemed like a very convenient place to live. The place I was at was not that convenient in that if I needed anything other than groceries I was going to have to take a train somewhere. Here though there were hundreds of stores. I generally wouldn’t have to leave the area if I didn’t want to and if I needed something I could just walk to get it and easily carry it home vs. having to get it shipped home and pay shipping charges and having to stay home to meet the delivery guy etc. That can be quite an inconvenience, especially when they are late or don’t show.
Well, the place turned out to be in a pretty dingy building. It was like 8 to 10 stories but it seemed almost like the kind of building you see in a movie about growing up in a public housing project. It really seemed like it was ready to fall over in some ways which is even worse in earthquake country.
The crazy thing was that this apartment was on the top floor and had an amazing view on all 3 sides and it was almost entirely windows or I should say sliding glass doors. The balcony wrapped continuously around all 3 sides of the apartment.
Again I was tempted by the view. It was not quite as pretty as the apartment I was currently in but it was still impressive. 3 views instead of 1 and from the 10th floor you could see quite a way.
I mean check it out. You can see in these views it’s almost like out of a movie. You’ve heard the theme from "Green Acres" where she sings about wanting a "penthouse view". Well this is it. A couple of issues. You can see there is a screen in the windows that really detracts from the view giving it somewhat of a cage feeling.
And of course there is the issue that you might feel like a bird in a cage because pretty much anybody can see you.
But in this view you can see the last bad issue. More trains. Not as loud as the apartment I was in but still not quiet by any means.
So, we get back to the realtor’s office and I tell him I’m that I’m not interested in the first 1 because of it’s feeling. The feeling that it’s a town I won’t want to spend anytime. He doesn’t seem to happy with this and I suppose I can’t blame him.
His suggestion is that then I should come in and look at the ads, he gets new ones every few days, he’ll call to see that they are still available and that my situation is okay (foreigner, student, no job, etc..) and that then I should, on my own, go check the place out from the outside. If I decide it’s a possibility then I should call him and he’ll come show me the inside as soon as possible.
Well, I must have looked at 20 or more places. That may not seem like many for LA but in Tokyo that’s alot of trains and alot of walking. I did get to learn about quite a few places I hadn’t been. It was surprising the number of places that were right on a busy street. As my *wants* were that it be quiet, it have 3 rooms that were connected to each other, a new style bathroom, an area that seemed inviting and it be under $1200 a month. . It’s probably those combination of things that made it hard to find a good place. If I had looked at 1 room places it would have been easy. If I had raised my price to $1500 a month it would have been easy. But those combination of things meant lots of not so great places.
Eventually I found a place just about a month after I moved into the first one. I was quite frustrating not to be able to *start living* for a month. Moving into the first place I had ordered a refrigerator, a TV and a futon. I didn’t open the refrigerator box the whole time I was there nor did I open the vacuum I bought or the fax machine/answering machine. When I had moved in I was all excited about setting it up. I was going to get a couch, a coffee table, some bookshelves, a dining room table, a computer desk as well as all the other little things I’d need to live but for an entire month I lived on the floor with nothing at all except a futon. I also couldn’t get my stuff sent from America as I didn’t know where I would be when it arrived. That included things like my heavy jacket which I had expect I’d have in time for when it got cold.
So, with all that. Here’s the place I ended up in