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"You call this a toilet?!"
And Other Oddities of Japanese Housing

Julie Parsons, ALT
Rikuzen-Takata City, 1994-97

 

Before I came to Japan, I imagined what my new home would look like. It didn't bother me that it would probably be small. After all, with Japan being the global leader in high-tech innovation, I was sure my abode would be a picture of modernity, complete with new conveniences my Western mind could not even fathom. When my predecessor wrote with the blessed news that my apartment was not one, but two floors, I couldn't believe my good fortune. On top of that, my monthly rent would be only ¥9000 (less than US $90/£60), since my apartment is owned by the prefectural government and is designated "teachers' housing". But, my predecessor warned, the kitchen and bathroom are small and the building is old. Perfect, I thought: cheap, small enough to keep clean, and probably quaint and charming to boot. I could hardly wait to see it.

I can now say without a shred of doubt that there is nothing quaint or charming about cockroaches. These and a host of other surprises greeted me upon my arrival at my new home. I arrived very late my first night, and after being awakened at 4:30 the next morning by the sunlight streaming through my shoji (thin paper screens that cover the windows), I took a good look around. I was utterly amazed. My predecessor failed to mention not only my pesky roommates, but also my pit toilet -- pit, as in, it's a hole in the ground and doesn't flush. It did partially redeem itself by having a plastic Western-style seat fitted over the traditional "squat" commode, but the room itself is so small I now understand the origin of the term "water closet". (Silly me, I thought it was the British!) The room is also outfitted with a tiny sink that both of my hands can't fit into at the same time. I promptly pronounced it good-for-nothing and shut it off permanently. I use the kitchen sink now, instead.

Across the hall from the WC is the bathroom, which has crammed into it not only my tub but also my washing machine. There are two types of washing machines common in Japan. One is the automatic type usually found in the West. The other is mine. It has two compartments, one for washing and one for spinning. First you wash, then spin, then rinse, then spin again. It's a time-consuming process that ranks right up there with scrubbing toilets in terms of enjoyment.

In my bathroom, I also have a psuedo-shower contraption that is temperamental and doesn't allow for much control of the water pressure or temperature. At least I have a shower, though -- the other AET in my town doesn't. But most AETs have showers that work properly. If you don't and are really desperate, you can buy one. I didn't miss not having a real shower during the winter because I took a bath every night instead. Japanese baths are amazing; they are of shorter length and greater depth than Western tubs, allowing one to soak up to the neck -- a bit of heaven on a cold night! Their one drawback is that some models, mine included, must be filled with cold water and then heated for about 40 minutes or so. This struck me as incredibly primitive at first, but I got used to it in no time.

Marching down the hall from my bathroom, which takes 0.9 seconds, one finds the kitchen. "Small" doesn't even come close. Try tiny. Diminutive. Miniscule. Some days I feel like a giant in Barbie's Dream House. My kitchen has a sink, a space next to the sink for dirty/clean dishes and a gas range. Most Japanese kitchens don't have ovens, but I bought a microwave/toaster/conventional oven which has been worth every bit of the ¥ 30,000 (about US $300) investment. Many Japanese kitchens also don't have a Western-style hot water tap, but this really isn't an inconvenience. Instead, a small, separate hot water heater fits above the sink and allows you to instantly have water ranging from tepid to almost boiling. It's great for making tea! I also have cupboards in my kitchen, but I have yet to see a Japanese kitchen with "counter space" as we know it. My trash can and midget refrigerator eat up most of the remaining space. A skinny friend and I can cook together quite nicely, but only if we get along very well. There's lots of bumping around and no room for squabbles!

Just past the kitchen is a 4 1/2 tatami mat room which serves as a dining area. A tatami is a mat used as flooring material in traditional Japanese rooms. It is made of rice straw and measures approximately three feet by six feet. On top of my tatami sits a kotatsu, which is hands-down the finest thing in the Japanese home. A kotatsu consists of a table with an electric heater attached to the underside of the frame. A blanket is draped over the frame under the tabletop. To sit, one places one's legs under the table, which is low to the floor, and wraps the blanket around one's lower body. I can fit my entire body under my kotatsu, and I have often spent several hours baking myself. Most of Japan does not have central heating and Iwate housing is the rule, not the exception. Other than kotatsu, space heaters are the main source of heat here. This is not as dire as it may sound. The heaters run on kerosene, which is messy but fairly cheap, and the best of them have timers and other gadgets that make them easy to use. However, unless one has a heater with a vented exhaust, the apartment needs to be aired out at fairly regular intervals. Carbon monoxide poisoning can be not only fatal, but tends to make one somewhat unpopular with the neighbors. Electrical heaters are also available, but they are not economical and are best used for heating small spaces (perfect for my kitchen!).

The second floor of my apartment is a surprisingly spacious bedroom/TV room with lots of storage space. Part of it has a wooden floor, the other part is six tatami. Like most Japanese, I pull my futon out of its closet every night and sleep in the tatami area. If futons are left on a tatami floor for too long, they become damp and cause the tatami to rot. Japanese futons are not like the ones my friends and I had in college. They are roughly the size of a twin bed but are very thin. I usually sleep on two, though one can also buy pads to go under the futon. It is possible to buy a metal bed frame if you want to, but sleeping on the tatami floor is actually comfortable.

Outside my upstairs room is a small balcony where my two clotheslines are. As there are no clothes dryers in most Japanese homes -- my school has one, rumored to cost ¥ 80,000 -- I spend lots of time on my balcony, even in winter. I could drag a chair out and sit and admire the view, but since it looks out onto a parking lot and an apartment building even uglier than mine, I've managed to resist the urge to pretend I have a patio. Most JETs I know also hang clothes inside during the winter or when it rains, but they seem to dry faster outside. The balcony is also used for airing out futons. You just fling the futon over the railing, secure it with a special clip and beat the hell out of it with a bamboo wand.

So, there you have it -- paradise. Actually, after clearing out the cockroaches and splashing some new paint on the walls, I settled into my apartment quite comfortably. If it sounds like hell on earth to you, don't worry -- no other JETs I've spoken to have had cockroaches. If for some reason you do (or if you have any other pest problems), you can buy sprays, traps, etc. which, I'm happy to report, work well. Whatever your housing situation, it's easy to improve things if you use your imagination. It's usually possible to paint, hang curtains or make other changes. I bought a three-tiered hanging basket to store fruits and vegetables, and it made a huge difference in my elbow room. Another concern you might have is cost. I don't know anyone who pays more than ¥55,000 for rent, and most pay closer to half that amount.

Overall, if you come here expecting your apartment to be as comfortable as home, you will probably be disappointed. But if you expect the dimensions to be smaller and things to be a little less convenient, you'll be fine. You might even be pleasantly surprised. Some JETs have huge houses to themselves or brand-new apartments with most of the comforts of home. You will most likely have tatami, shoji and no central heating. If you're lucky, you might have a flush toilet and a shower. One major inconvenience you will have to learn to live with is frozen pipes. Iwate is very cold, and since housing here is not well insulated, pipes can freeze and/or burst if they are not drained on the coldest winter nights. Unless, of course, you are among the small minority who live on the slightly warmer southern coast, where I am...even my apartment has its advantages.

   

 

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Article originally published in the 1995 Iwate Pre-Departure Handbook
Article ©1995, Julie Parsons
Images ©1998 - 2007, Anthony Hand
Email: anthony@handaweb.com