The Reluctant Gaijin in Japan: Housing and Renting

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Tokyo at night.

So here I am. Owing to a set of circumstances largely beyond my control, I find myself living and working in Japan. I could tell you the circumstances, give reasons or excuses, but telling you isn't going to help. Let's face it, life – and other four letter words – happen.

Part Four: Housing and Renting

The most fundamental thing about where you live isn't the food, the people or the weather, it's the actual building you're living in. At least, I thought so, 'An Englishman's home is his castle' and all that. My company therefore thoughtfully provided me with a small metal box. Millions of Japanese live in these tiny flats ('apartments' here) that compare unfavourably with studio flats in London. This is not limited to the major cities; these blocks are everywhere. The exterior may be concrete in truth, but the dividing walls are decidedly not and the identical heavy metal doors make it feel like you're living in a school locker.

I wrote before that 'life - and other four letter words – happen'. Well, another four letter word is 'love' and that is why I am in Japan. My girlfriend moved into my box, although you might not have noticed if you visited... my company contract states that my apartment is single accommodation only and a colleague lived three doors away (about 12 metres). Said colleague called on me twice during the first week my girlfriend was here, so all signs of Suzu were hidden. As the bed (a futon on a cupboard) only fit one and the floor was by the window, not far from the main road, Suzu had her bed IN the cupboard, directly under my raised bed. Still, I'm a concerned boyfriend, so I kept insisting she left it open a little so she could breathe.

The floor was wooden and there was no sofa, so not exactly designed for comfort; there were two metal-framed chairs and almost nothing by way of table space. The kitchen was basically designed for people who only eat out – no oven, no grill, just two hobs, which seemed to short the electrics when used together, and the whole thing was in the corridor from the front door to the living area. A gas man explained what would happen to the gas line in the event of an earthquake, but I didn't understand a word, which is probably just as well.

So, we have been looking for a new place with all haste. Back home, renting needs less ‘start-up’ money but usually has a minimum six-month contract; here there is an estate agent’s fee, guarantor fee and ‘key money’, so you can move out when you want to, but can’t afford to anyway because you’re broke. With this is mind, we looked at a wide range of accommodation to get it right first time (well, it's one way to see around the city).

Naturally, things are a little different here. There are no massive building firms constructing estates of private housing, there's not much 'council housing' as far as I know and everything's a bit random. It's all small plots of land, and buildings don't usually last long here – houses, usually wooden and detached, are demolished and replaced often. This means that apartment blocks spring up next to sizeable houses and anything over 10 years old is considered unfit for habitation by many Japanese. Their love of gardening seems to be a bit of a myth, too – ornamental public gardens, yes, but on their own property 'gardens' are usually unloved corridors of tarmac or weeds between houses that practically hang over one another.

Anyway, we visited a wide range of places, from a decrepit bungalow of the 'held together by the woodworm holding hands' variety to security-carded mansions. Here, though, 'mansion' just means a block of flats built to higher standards which, roughly speaking, seems to mean concrete dividing walls as opposed to flimsy wooden-walled apartments. Finally, we chose one of the older places, to escape the box lifestyle; a split-level effort, with only an office and storage room for company in the building (but an apartment block next door).

Unoccupied and unloved for some time, all manner of problems need attention. Fortunately for me, I can’t deal with any of them, because I speak no Japanese, so my ‘better half’ is running up a vast mobile phone bill sorting out the air conditioning, internet connection, broken shower (okay, that was my fault), holes in the walls and a vertigo-inducing, 'call health and safety' staircase to the roof. The electric company said our place doesn’t exist and the gas company are insisting on charging us for before we moved in, although they agree we weren't here. I just wander round the 100 yen store (that's about 70p) looking for cheap stuff.

My internet connection is apparently 30MB per second, or a 54800% improvement on what I had in England, but I have no idea how to test that speed. I should surf away, in ignorant bliss of the chaos, but feel foolishly compelled to get involved.

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