Getting Settled in a Brave New World

by Celeste Heiter, Mar 31, 2001 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo

In the best of all possible worlds, when you arrive in Japan, you'll be met at the airport by several really cool English-speaking people in a mini-van, who will help you with your luggage and offer you a large, comfortable, conveniently located, rent-free, open-ended place to stay........Dream on, tomodachi.

Not to worry, though. Once you've awakened from your dream, the reality of getting settled in Japan can and should be divided into a simple twofold process. One: Finding a place to lay your head for the first few days or weeks. And Two: Landing a place that you can afford and would be willing to call home for awhile. With a little luck, a lot of bowing and a couple months' salary tucked into a tastefully decorated envelope that you will eventually hand over to your future landlord, you should be in possession of your very own set of house keys within a week or two.

However, in the beginning, unless you're living some kind of divinely charmed life, you'll probably have to schlep it for a few days in a gaijin house (youth hostel), a ryokan (family-style inn), or, if you're lucky, on a futon in someone's spare tatami room. Here's where all your stateside research pays off. If you can find even one friend-of-a-friend to put you up for a few days, consider yourself among the truly blessed. And, in the event that you are that lucky, be sure to practice good houseguest etiquette (shoes off at the front door, respectful use of kitchen and bath, observance of household waking and bedtime schedules, and of course, tasteful hospitality gifts for your hosts).

If the aforementioned lodging arrangement does not materialize for you, by all means, search the Internet for an "international apartment exchange," especially if you happen to live in a desirable location and have a nice place to let. A simple keyword search should turn up a variety of options.

Otherwise, dive into Fodor's Japan, or check out travel sites on the worldwide web for a reasonably priced (ha!), centrally located youth hostel, or a family-style ryokan.

Key criteria (besides price) to consider when choosing your first lodgings:
Proximity to the train or subway station. You'll be on foot for much of the first few days, so every step counts.
Telephone access for making, and especially for receiving calls. And if you can somehow manage to convey your needs and intentions of finding a job and a place to live to the proprietor of the inn, you will likely find them effusively willing to help.

Your First Day in Japan

Let's say for argument's sake, that you've gotten yourself to Japan, navigated your way successfully to your first night's lodgings, and have opened your eyes the following morning (or evening) wondering just what planet you've woken up on. Don't panic. More importantly, DON'T try to accomplish anything more ambitious on your first day than taking a walk around the neighborhood, maybe having a bowl of noodles, getting your hands on a public transit map, and buying yourself a copy of the Japan Times, the Asahi Shimbun, and the Yomuri Daily. These English versions of Japan's three most popular newspapers may be purchased almost exclusively at kiosks inside the train stations, or in the sundries shops of large tourist hotels. You might stumble upon the occasional newsstand, but it's not likely. Look for newspapers inside the nearest train station.

Once you've accomplished these humble tasks, go back to your lodgings, have some green tea, browse through the classifieds, go back to bed, and sleep off the jetlag. After all, in the immortal words of Scarlett O'Hara, (who most certainly never faced the stygian task of apartment hunting in Japan) "Tomorrow is another day."

Finding Home Sweet Home

The first thing to remember in your quest for a place to call your own in Japan, is that the rules as you know them no longer apply. And any notions you may have about apartment size, price, amenities, rent control, fair housing, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, should be left at the door with your shoes. That said, here's how to go about apartment hunting in Japan:

Look Everywhere. Look in the newspapers. Ask around the neighborhood. Talk to people, both foreign and domestic. Keep your eyes peeled for rental agencies. You'll come to recognize them by the dozens of apartment listings posted in the shop windows detailing the number of tatami (square feet), the monthly rent, the deposit expected, any furnishings or amenities, the nearest train station, etc. They really are quite informative, and you may just find your dream home. The one I lucked into was eighteen tatami, ten minutes' walk from the train station, with a tiny garden, a western toilet, five rooms, fully furnished right down to the chopsticks, a gas heater, a washer, a sewing machine, and..........a piano! All for only 90,000 yen and two hours of my time on my day off, teaching English to a bunch of darling Japanese kids in the landlady's little English cram school in Toshimaen. So, have faith! There are bargains to be had.

Pay close attention to the neighborhood and the terms of the rental agreement. Is the apartment close to the train station, and shopping? Is the neighborhood quiet? Is there some kind of stipulation, such as "No Visitors," a shared bathroom, or an obligation to teach private English lessons to the landlord's daughter?

Choose carefully. It's both difficult and costly to extricate yourself from a rental agreement in Japan. At best, you will probably forfeit a sizeable deposit. At worst, you could end up in court.

Be punctual, sincere, and well prepared. If you're fortunate enough to land yourself an appointment with a rental agent or a landlord, be sure to show up at exactly the appointed hour, be extremely polite, bow deeply, greet them in Japanese if you know how, have all your paperwork at hand (passport, letters of recommendation or guarantor, employment verification if you have it, bank account identification, and a nice envelope with exactly the prescribed deposit money all ready to hand over at the appointed moment.) The more information and validation you can provide, the more likely you are to walk away with the keys to the place.

Don't be too picky. One definitely has to lower the bar when searching for an apartment in Japan. The Japanese affectionately refer to urban housing as usagi no uchi......rabbit warrens! With that in mind, be advised that some of the best bargains to be found are six-tatami rooms in aging wooden buildings with no kitchen, a squat toilet and a shared bath. Many of them are a hefty hike from the nearest train station, and no matter how small, quaint, inconveniently located, and lacking in amenities, all are overpriced. The long and short of it is, "When in Rome........." The thing to keep in mind is that, once you're earning Yen as an English Teacher, it's all relative, and quite easy to live within your means. Ultimately, the secret is to find the best place you can afford, and make the best of it.

Which brings us to another issue:
Which came first, the apartment or the job?

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