Thursday, October 01, 2009

Movin' on down

For the past 12 months, I lived in an apartment building for international students, researchers and professors at Kyoto University. It wasn't the lap of luxury but it had a few perks.

My sheets were laundered every Wednesday. I had a huge balcony, a kitchen with counter space, rent that was so heavily subsidized it was practically free, my own washing machine and friends on every floor (except for the fourth floor. I never met anyone who lived on the fourth floor).

But, like all good things, it came to an end last week. The maximum tenancy at Kyoto University's international house is one year. After that, you're on your own. You have to move out and find a "real" apartment. Finding an apartment in Kyoto is both easier and more difficult than you might think.

The easy part is that there are apartment rental agencies all over the city. You simply go to one in the neighbourhood you want to live in. You meet with an agent and tell them what you're looking for. They then search for suitable apartments in your price range and drive you around from apartment to apartment until you find one you like. They do all of the work and it is completely free. You can go to as many agencies as you like and view as many apartments as you like. It's all very polite, professional and efficient. There is no pressure to sign a contract.

The difficult part is that you have to do all of this in Japanese. You also have to sign a rental contract that is written in Japanese. So you may not know exactly what you're agreeing to if your Japanese isn't up to scratch.

The other sticky issue is that many landlords demand a lot of money upfront. Two months rent, a security deposit, plus "key money" (key money is basically bribe money. It costs around $1,000 and it's considered a "gift" to the landlord for allowing you to live in the apartment. You can ask for housing that doesn't require key money but this will limit your options).

I decided I wanted to stay in the same neighbourhood, which made searching for an apartment a lot easier. I live in the northeast corner of Kyoto, which is considered an undesirable area because it is 3 km from the university and 5 km from downtown. A lot of Japanese people consider these distances "far" and "inconvenient." So rents are a lot cheaper up here. Which is ridiculous when you consider there is a train station and a subway station nearby. Not to mention a huge park with great hiking and running trails through the mountains. There are lots of little shops, restaurants and grocery stores. It would be a highly desirable neighbourhood in Canada. It's the Japanese equivalent of High Park in Toronto or Kitsilano in Vancouver (but with less blond hair, breast implants and Lululemon).

The average rent for a one-room apartment in Kyoto is about $400 a month. And by "one room" I literally mean one room. You cook, eat, sleep and work all in the same tiny room. An apartment with a separate bedroom is twice as expensive.

I found a one-room apartment for $300 a month. The best part is that almost everything is included in the rent. I have free electricity, free wireless internet and a free rooftop laundry room. (The rooftop laundry room is awesome. I'm totally going to have a party up here.)

The apartment is clean and quiet (except for the dog across the street, who barks and whines incessantly). The only catch is that the kitchen is the size of a photo booth with absolutely no counter space.

And the toilet is a squat toilet.

And, um, there's no shower in the apartment. But there are shared showers on the other side of the building, past the bike parking area. On the downside, the showers are coin-operated. On the upside, I don't have to clean them. It's like staying in a hotel! A really cheap hotel!

The strange thing is, none of this bothers me. If I were living in a one-room apartment with a squat toilet and shared showers back home, I would probably be in the depths of depression. But only because I would be surrounded by friends who own houses or rent large apartments. I would feel "poor" by comparison.

But over here, everyone is in the same boat. All of my friends are on the same scholarship, so we are all forced to share the same standard of living. We all live in one-room apartments. We all pull in the same income each month. Some of my friends live in places where they share kitchens and toilets. I feel rich by comparison. It's all relative.

So here it is. My new home. (Can you spot the items from Ikea?)

I haven't met the neighbours yet. They live in a traditional-style Japanese house. With barbed wire. They don't seem very friendly. I'm starting to suspect I live next door to the yakuza.

My landlord, on the other hand, is incredibly sweet. He is a huge road cycling enthusiast and a former triathlete. I think a major factor in his decision to rent the apartment to me was the fact that we both share a love of bikes. We ended up talking about cycling for an hour when he showed me the apartment. One of his dreams is to ride across Canada. He saw a TV show about Canada once and has wanted to visit ever since. Maybe that explains the cute nameplate he made me for my mailbox.

It may not be as nice as my apartment at Kyoto University's international house. There's no laundry service and no friends on every floor. But I'm getting used to it. It's home. For now.

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