A healthy dose of community spirit – and random strangers stealing your underwear… The ins and outs of living in a Japanese share house.
It’s 3am and there is a 40-year-old German singing opera in my kitchen. I have two main problems with this. Firstly, I don’t like opera. Second, it’s 3am.
For better or for worse, I live in a share house in Tokyo. I’ve been here 10 months now. Originally I moved to Japan with the intention of possibly only staying a year, but as is so often the case, that year has passed and I’ve just signed on for another stint. My reasoning for not getting my own place when I first arrived? Cash. Plain and simple. As anyone who lives here knows, the Japanese rental system is one big money pit.
As well as the standard deposit you would expect, you also have to factor in cleaning fees, guarantor fees and the two financially fatal words that everybody renting dreads: ‘key money’. Key money is essentially a gift to the landlord: cash that you’ll never see again. Hurray! It can be up to a few months’ rent – so once you add everything up you’ll be lucky to see change out of ¥200,000. That’s around £1,500 ($2,400). And that’s before you even start to think about furnishings.
You wouldn’t believe the crap that accumulates in a share house over the years. Here’s a shot from my kitchen table: indoor fireworks, cockroach spray, red curry paste and a jar of ¥1 coins.
My flight to Japan was costing me enough. I didn’t have much savings. For these reasons I decided to share. I’d never shared in my life so I was apprehensive – but I was also thinking it’d give me some immediate friends when I arrived and make the transition a little easier. Did it? Most definitely. Some of my closest friends I have met through my house, or from friends associated with it.
One of these friends is Vivian from Lost in Translation. She has just moved out on her own after living in a share house for 1.5 years. She was one of my first contacts here, emailing me back and forth with advice from Tokyo while I was still in Ireland, so I thought it’d be cool to go full-circle and ask her about her share house experiences.
VivMo, over to you…
Over the course of my three years in Japan, I’ve tried a few different living situations (by myself and with roommates) in various places (from the rice fields of Shikoku to the madness of Tokyo). I’m a bit of an expert at moving in Japan. I’d have to say, living in a share house was both the best AND worst experience.
When I moved to Tokyo, I decided to settle into a share house with five roommates. It was a sudden move and I didn’t have much time to figure things out, so it seemed simple, and it saved me a lot of stress and money. Living in shared quarters means everything is there already: kitchen appliances, a washing machine, the internet, and most likely the room is furnished. Moving into a single apartment in Japan is EXPENSIVE. The move-in fees alone equal to three times the rent, and apartments are completely empty – no curtains, light fixtures or appliances, which can easily break the bank. A share house was the cheapest way to move to Tokyo and to live in a trendy neighbourhood like Shimokitazawa, steps away from all the goodness. Shared utilities also meant very little money towards bills, and more money for my wardrobe fund.
I also wanted to live in a share house to meet people. After spending long months alone in the rice fields, I was tired of feeling lonely; living with house mates was great, a balanced mix of Japanese and foreigners. I became good friends with most of them, we sometimes cooked together and had drinking sessions in the kitchen, and I appreciated having them around when I got sick with food poisoning and couldn’t drag myself out of bed for three days.
Although my house was usually very quiet, there were times when I was trying to sleep but chatter or loud music kept me up, or finding all my apple juice was gone – normal roommate issues, which can get annoying once you’ve had the chance to live by yourself. Shared houses usually don’t have strict rules for cleaning rotations, at least mine didn’t – so no one cleaned and it was pretty dirty. I started missing having privacy after a few months, sometimes I just wanted to come home and not talk to anyone, or have friends over but felt uncomfortable and awkward. After a bit I started noticing all the irritating little habits of my roommates and it drove me nuts. Yet, the affordability and convenience of it all kept me there for a full year, and then some.
Living in a share house can be risky. In Japan, you don’t have much say over picking new roommates, so you may have the “chance” to end up with really weird characters. For instance, that Japanese girl who fil
led her room with bags and bags of garbage and empty food containers and slept on top of it, until we found out and she got kicked out. Or, the roommate that came to my room while I was at work (and asleep)… Oh and the missing underwear incident. Don’t forget to lock that door!
I now live by myself.
But what about me? What do I think about living in a share house? Well, I did my research before I moved here and for me it was all about location. I’m sure my mates in Koenji and Harajuku will disagree, but I reckon I live in the coolest neighbourhood in the city. Shimokitazawa is sandwiched in between Shibuya and Shinjuku, conveniently crossed by both the Inokashira and Odakyu train lines. It’s a maze of retro clothes shops, cool cafes and I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
Odakyu line speeding past. I can get to both Shibuya and Shinjuku in under 10 minutes.
Living in a kakui (cool) area comes with a price though: literally. Rental in Shimokitazawa is expensive. But I guess my room’s not too bad. I pay ¥75k for a 6-mat room with a huge closet and an outside space. All the bills are included, internet, water, electricity etc. It’s a pretty good deal (although most of my mates are paying a similar price for their own place in other areas of the city.)
My room in Shimokita…
Luckily, my house has an extremely low turnover rate. Two of the tenants have been here 2+ years, and generally there’s only one or two new faces per year. This is important. People coming and going gives the impression that you live in a hostel. That’s not good. So besides the 3am opera and the cleaner who shows up when she wants to, I can’t really complain. (Though I do complain.)
Vivian’s friend, Eloise, actually used to live in my house before me: “I thought the place was haunted. Our old flatmate swore she used to hear children laughing in her room.” If that’s not scary enough then one roommate “pleasuring himself loudly unaware of the paper thin walls” most definitely is.
So, like I said, for better or for worse, I’m still here. But that’s because I love living in Shimokitazawa. Moving out means moving neighbourhoods and I’m not quite ready to do that yet.
And of course, things could always be worse… I could be living here.