7 Important Lessons About Living in a Japanese Apartment

Living in a small Japanese apartment teaches you things. Like all lessons, there are some you’d rather not have been taught. Others, while you learned them the hard way, you’re glad you did.

7 Your Rug Can Make You Sick

Carpet never caught on in Japan like in the west, and while a multi-room apartment may have a single tatami room, the majority have wooden flooring. Living in a Japanese apartment means buying a rug. What you might not know is that it can make you sick.

Rugs come with allergens that need to be aired out. If you buy a padded rug especially, you’re also buying what the industry calls “volatile organic compounds,” or VOC’s. These chemicals, which include formaldehyde, are used in the manufacturing process. While they’re fantastic at keeping moths from chewing up your new living room fixture, adding a rug to a Japanese apartment means laying a sheet of chemicals over a very confined space.

I started feeling sick after I bought my new rug, so I did some checking and found out what I told you. It took two weeks of hanging it on the laundry pole outside before it was safe to keep in my apartment.

6 Don’t Hang Clothes Outside In Winter

zenkoji pond

Certainly a no-brainer, but if you come from a country where you don’t hang clothes out to dry you don’t think about these things. Japanese drying machines, mine at least, which was very expensive, will leave your clothes looking like stretch marks on an english bulldog. They’re expensive, inefficient, and there’s no room for them anyway. So, Japanese apartments will with either have a balcony or laundry pole to hang your clothes out to dry.

My first winter I didn’t want to hang my laundry around my coffin-sized apartment. There are stands built expressly for that purpose, and a special “dry” setting on the air conditioner that will help air them out quicker. At the time I didn’t know that, so my only option was hanging them on door frames and windowsills for about a day and a half. I needed those shirts the next day though, so I put them outside to dry overnight. It started snowing, and when I brought my shirts back in they gave off a crackling sound that struck me as very unshirt-like. They’d frozen stiff.

5 Buy Elephant Dehumidifiers

elephant dehumidifier

I’ve read books that said Japan has a mild climate. Allowing that those authors were comparing Japan’s lovely temperate weather to Saudi Arabia, calling 42°C (107.6°F) summers mild was quite reasonable. Unless you go north to areas like Hokkaido or Aomori, Japanese summers are hot and humid. Summer has the common greeting changing from “hello” to “atsui, ne?” It’s hot, isn’t it?

That humidity means you have to keep on top of your laundry or it will start to smell of mildew. My old apartment’s closet even had a special “humidity fan” that I had to keep on at all times. One of the best ways to combat mildew in Japanese summers is a joshitsuzai, what I call an elephant dehumidifier. I’d never seen disposable dehumidifiers before I came to Japan, though I’m certain they’re everywhere. Sticking one of these in your closet will save you quite a few extra loads of laundry.

4 Decompile Your Life

Living in a Japanese apartment teaches you what you need and don’t need. You need a bed. You need a table and at least one chair. You need a computer. You need a TV and stand, but only if you’re a gamer, for which you will also need a game console. That, and a bit of storage, should be all the luxuries you require. That is the Spartan existence of Japanese apartment life.

At least I thought it was until my wife taught me that you can quite successfully have a lot of possessions even if you live in a tiny space. At the time of her moving in with me, my two enormous closets, being filled to at most 10% capacity with clothes and two storage boxes, where suddenly too small to hold her things. This dilemma annoyed us both, though for very different reasons.

I think the Spartans knew something we didn’t, that of the 29 boxes my wife has packed into our two closets, she really only needs maybe a quarter. That quarter is clothes, which I won’t contest because I won’t get between a woman and her wardrobe. The rest though, she hasn’t even looked at since we’ve been married. My one box, well, I’m not even sure what’s in it, quite frankly. I’ll have to check. And being that I can’t even say what my “stuff” is right now, I’d bet that if I threw it all away this minute, my life would not change in any meaningful way. When I moved to Japan I recompiled my life to what would fit into a few suitcases. The fact that I haven’t used much space on the rest life’s hard drive since then, I count as a success.

3 Organize

Now that there are two of us living together, and one that can’t bear to get rid of those old magazines she never reads, we have to find ways to make the most out of our apartment’s space. Multi-purposing helps, and hooks. Nesting will buy you some more space, and a sofa placed at an angle against a corner will make storage behind it where there was none before. Don’t waste that space under the bed either, or even the chair, because that’s prime real estate. Buy an ebook reader. You’ll hold your entire library in your hand and save yourself a bookshelf.

Or, as I mentioned, you could just throw away all that stuff you never use and keep packed up in the back corner of the closet beside the other stuff you can’t remember what it was. But now I’ve stopped talking to you, haven’t I, dear reader?

Honey, are you reading this? If so, do you really need that filebox with nothing in it at the bottom of the bookshelf? And what are those magazines beside it? You never read them so I wouldn’t know. Love you. Hugs and kisses.

2 Location, Location, Location

Where you live is just as important as the quality of your apartment. That holds true for anywhere, but especially in Japan. Employers will usually pay for the price of your commute if you do it by train, so living near a station and taking the train to work can help offset the price of rent. This is often done by showing the company your tekiken, monthly train pass, which, if you often ride to the same city where you work, is even more money saved.

Then there’s being able to walk to the store. That had been impossible in my hometown, but now that I’ve lived in both convenient and inconvenient locations, I can tell you that there’s a lot to say for being able to just walk out your front door to wherever your going.

A little walking could probably do you some good, too. My first two apartments were ten and fifteen minutes from the station respectively. A little inconvenient, but during those two years I lost a good deal of weight. I would often just walk home when I lived in my second apartment. This took about thirty minutes, but I would have had to wait forty-five for the train and then taken another fifteen to walk home from the station. I’d save a half hour and get a some good exercise that kept the pounds off. Then I moved to where I am now–a much more convenient location–and put it all back on.

1 Make Japanese Friends If You Want To Move

A few Japanese landlords won’t rent to non-Japanese. I’m sure that some are just concerned about being able to communicate with tenants. In a culture that’s always worried about face, it’s a viable reason. But when I was looking for my current apartment my real estate agent had to assure one landlord that even though I’m not Japanese, I was a very responsible person that wouldn’t cause trouble. I know because I listened to their conversation on the phone. The friend I was with, Japanese, even apologized to me–unnecessarily–about the whole affair afterward. The agent also mentioned that I was attractive for some reason, though I’m not sure how much I agree with her or how much it influenced the landlord’s decision to finally let me see the apartment.

But you wouldn’t want a landlord like that anyway. There are in fact plenty of them very interested in having foreign tenants–to practice their English on. The real issue you’ll come across when renting an apartment in Japan isn’t racist landlords, or even chatty ones, but guarantors. To buy a place in Japan you need to have someone sign for you who will accept financial responsibility should you trash the place and bail. Everyone, Japanese or no, has to have a guarantor. Not everyone, however, can be one. Guarantors must almost always be Japanese, and the company or school you work at likely won’t sign for you. So unless you have a close Japanese friend who’s willing to put their seal on your contract, it’s hard to move from the apartment you start in. But hey, it’s just extra motivation to make some friends, right?



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7 Comments on “7 Important Lessons About Living in a Japanese Apartment”

  1. Artemis
    July 11, 2014 at 10:51 pm #

    All great tips! I think number 6 depends a lot on where you live though. For example, it only ever snows one or two days out of every year where I am, even in the middle of winter, so we actually can hang our clothes outside to dry if it’s sunny no matter the season. 🙂

    • introvertnathan
      July 12, 2014 at 12:07 am #

      Ah, very true. You wouldn’t need to worry about that further south, would you? Actually, the biggest problem for me has been trying to hang out my laundry in the rainy season. Sometimes I’d put it out before work for it to get rained on later in the day.

      • Artemis
        July 12, 2014 at 12:55 am #

        Yeah, the rainy season is the worst. It’s so humid too, so even on sunny days the washing often doesn’t dry quickly.

  2. birdicatt
    July 12, 2014 at 3:18 pm #

    Ah! #6 and #5 would have been nice to know when I was last in Japan. Hung out a pair of jeans to try to dry overnight on the balcony in winter and by morning, the jeans could stand on its own! The rest of my laundry wasn’t that much better in that they all smell of mildew.

  3. narcopathcrusher
    August 24, 2014 at 3:49 pm #

    An amazing post! I plan to permanently move to Japan and continue my studies there and none of the Japanese people that i know or my japanese teacher ever mentioned the mold or the climate problems! A gaigin’s perpective can help tremendously! Thank you very much! But for someone to say that 42o C is ”mild summer”! Where was he living previously in hell?


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