Sunday, 3 June 2012

Apartment Living

Stylish Apartment Building
Outside Japan, I have never lived in an apartment. I lived in a terraced house for a while, and once in a conjoined unit, but never with neighbours above, below and on both sides of me. It is disconcerting that I hear my neighbour’s alarm go off just before mine. Apart from that I actually quite like the sense of community in my building. There’s a notice board in the lobby for messages; when I get home if there’s someone in the lobby or the parking area they welcome me home with a cheery おかえり!There are things both convenient and awkward about apartment life; some that are probably the same all over Japan and some that may be local. Because I know there are some people reading this who are planning to move to Japan, I’m going to explain some daily-life stuff about my apartment. Your living arrangements may turn out to be quite different, but a lot of what I have to say will be useful wherever you end up. I've lived in three apartments in two different prefectures so my experiences are at the very least 'common'.

The Good

I really like tatami. I like the smell, the springiness and the way it shines gold in the sun. I bought little socks for the furniture to protect the tatami.

What, YOUR table doesn't have socks?!

I bought tatami-bug spray but my tatami has happily always been bug-free. Tatami is expensive, and is replaced between tenants. The main expense of moving into a new place may actually be the tatami bill, depending on how many rooms have tatami. Each mat has ten years of wear in it, so it seems an awful waste to replace them every year for tenants who don’t stay long. When we first got Hayate he wasn’t allowed into our (only) tatami room. It turned out that we weren’t very good at saying no to Hayate, and he never damaged the tatami, so we gave up on keeping him out. Then we added Kuri to the family, and she was a different story. We no longer have a single un-chewed tatami mat. She loves it. She rolls around on it to scratch her back, chews it when she is board and tries to dig holes in it when she is excited. She recently expanded her repertoire of destruction by tearing a big strip out of the washi on the sliding door.
This is a little thing but it speaks volumes about the attention to detail that I love so much. The small step from the genkan (entry area where you leave your shoes) into the apartment proper has a strip of luminescence so that you won’t stub your toes coming home in the dark. Likewise the light switches and fuse box glow in the dark. Almost all apartments have some form of balcony for laundry drying. Even if your balcony is tiny you can grow some herb/flowers/veggies on it.

Urban Gardening

The Bad

A lot of apartments (and houses) are poorly insulated and drafty. Our apartment in particular has gales blowing through it because we had to McGyvre a way to get our aircon pipes out, leading to this situation:
And I paid a technician to do this...

As you can see, we’ve resorted to large amounts of duct tape. For the spaces around the balcony doors we use this stuff, which works well (until the dogs decide to play tug with it):

Ashley has a great article about insulation here (that woman knows everything).

The Ugly

I will never understand how the same culture could produce such amazing toilets at the same time as such disgusting drainage systems. My first experience trying to clean a Japanese bathroom was so nauseating that I still retch thinking about it… and it was seven years ago. I’ll start with the kitchen drain, which is surprisingly less revolting than the bathroom. There are no U bends or garbage disposals in a Japanese sink. It’s just a pipe that goes straight down. You need to get a permanent filter (plastic or metallic) to sit inside it and then disposable filters (bags that resemble huge tea-bags or plastic netting) that go inside that and which you will need to change regularly to prevent smells and blockages.
The bare sink
With catchment net and deodorising insert

You can also get a rubber filter to go on top of everything to reduce the smell further. It is unusual to use a plug in a kitchen sick. The usually way to wash dishes is under a running tap (as an Australia, this waste of water took a lot of getting used to). When you are preparing food you may want to use something like this to collect food scraps in.

The ten yen coin (bronze) stops scum from building up

There are triangular nets for these baskets

Usually it would be in the sink, this is just for picture purposes
The reason for this is to allow drainage time before anything goes into the rubbish, because any liquid in the bin will start to smell very quickly (especially in summer) and sloppy garbage is prohibited by some city councils (including mine). Anything you can’t dry out has to be wrapped in newspaper before going into the bin. Even with all of these precautions, your sink will still smell eventually. Mine periodically gargles and sometimes even regurgitates foul smelling water back up into the sink (much to the dogs’ excitement). Although I don’t like to use “heavy” chemicals in the house I dislike the sink-stench even more. You can get liquid cleaners, powder cleaners and tablets to drop down the sink.
They are easy to identify because of the pictures of U-bends... even though no\ sink I have ever had has actually HAD a U-bend
For the bathroom drains I have to use an even heavier kind of cleaner that can dissolve hair and soap scum. Even with a hair filter inside the bath, a cover over the drain on the floor and an internal… thing... hair still gets through. Every couple of months I don heavy duty rubber gloves, take the drain covers off and fish out globs of hair covered in grey soap slime before tipping the cleaner down. Two of the three bathrooms I have had have had drains placed in such a way that the floor could never completely drain, leading to a build up of soap slime, smells and infestations of these little bugs that look like fruit flies but live in the drain. As well as mould, of course. In my current apartment the bathroom sink pipe comes out under the bath, and then both bath and sink drain into the floor. Every time I brush my teeth I see the white spit running out from under the bath and wonder how much just sits under there, festering. The unsanitary (non)drainage is the only thing I really dislike about living here.

Doesn't look so bad, right?
Still looking ok! Many people stop cleaning at this point, not realising what lies beneath...
... which is something like this. This is the nastiest one I've see, most places have similar but less antique looking covers
Take it off, the the true horror appears
Like something out of "Ring"

The Slightly-Annoying-but-Important

You can recycle just about everything in Japan, which is wonderful. I can’t imagine having to go back to sending plastic packaging to land-fill. The downside is that the recycling system seems custom designed to be difficult and inconvenient… and it’s compulsory. Each city will have its own regulations regarding how and when different things are disposed of. When I lived in Nisshin City in Aichi prefecture we had to buy special plastic bags from the council, and rubbish would only be collected if it was in an authorised bag. My current home doesn’t have any such rule. I even put my paper recycling out in a cardboard box to cut down on plastic waste. We have one category of rubbish collected twice a week, another weekly, two more fortnightly and another one monthly and two more six times a year on alternate months. In addition there are things that aren’t collected and have to be taken to other locations ourselves to dispose of. If we need to get rid of an appliance like a washing machine we have to pay a recycling fee. Because this is confusing for everyone, the council publishes a colour-coded schedule every year, and you can get corresponding stickers to put on your calendar. Once you get the hang of how to separate things (jars go in glass but jar lids go in non-burnable) it isn’t difficult, but it takes up a lot of space in a small living space. Many people resort to storing their rubbish on their balconies. I used to have a snazzy three-in-one plastic bin with two draws and one peddle-operated lid. Now that we are leaving two young dogs home alone we have to be more careful to keep rubbish inaccessible, so no more snazzy space-saving solutions.

To Sum Up

Something that puzzles me about Japan is the mix of tiny thoughtful things that make everyday life easier and the huge glaring inefficiencies and inconveniences in areas that I took for granted in Australia. Here’s an example: Light-switches often have a small light on them that comes on when the light itself is off, so that you can see the location of the light switch in a dark room. ATMs close at 4 pm. Anything I want to buy online (plane tickets, books from amazon etc) can be paid for in cash at the corner store, which is open 24 hours. It costs about $15 and takes half a dozen complex steps, around 15 to 20 minutes, to transfer money from one bank account to another. You know the little plastic bags they have in supermarkets for putting fruit and veggies in that no old person can open? Here they have a moist flannel next to them so you can moisten your fingers without licking them and spreading germs. It takes over six hours to buy a mobile telephone, even if you have cash AND a credit card. The same department store toilet will have an automatically opening, closing and flushing toilet with bidet and heated seat in the cubicle next to a squat. You get the idea.
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  1. a nice post on quirks of living in Japan! I absolutely hate cleaning my bathroom, especially it gets moldy REALLY easily. I'm glad I'm not the only one!

    1. Ugh, I know. Something that has helped me (I'm not sure if this link will work) is
      The scent is more floral than I really like but it is definitely better than mould! Also "no scrub" is nice.

  2. I've had my share of living in Japan and I can attest to the problem with regards sink drainage. But that's how it is in Japan unlike if you stay in some apartment homes in Illinois.

  3. I am not much into reading, but somehow I got to read nice information on your site. Simple to understand and helpful. We will look forward for your future updates. I will visit here very often.

    1. New Launch Condo, you Don Juan you! You promised to visit here very often, but you never called me back. And after my post was somehow able to get you nice information and everything. For shame.

  4. I came to this page while searching for a solution to cleaning my kitchen sink. Thanks! And I can totally identify with your bathroom drainage. Mine is exactly the same.

    1. My pleasure! I am pretty sure Sadako has been living in my bathroom drain... I don't have black hair but there is always some in there 0.o

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  7. First spring/summer living here and I am so disturbed having just discovered this utterly disgusting problem in my shower room drain. Thanks for this post. It's a relief to know that the problem isn't because I suck (much) at cleaning.

    1. Thank you! No, it is most certainly not you. There are lots of great things about Japan, but plumbing is not one of them :/

  8. It is good that you will have a nice drainage system even in the apartment you stayed. It is good that you will secure your house even in water flooding.

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  10. Hello! What "heavier kind of cleaner" do you use for the bathroom drain? :) I need help with mine!

  11. This was useful, I barely lived in my apartment for two weeks and my shower drain is already slowly getting clogged. This blog helped a lot with that, thanks!

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