Getting an apartment in Tokyo can be an expensive undertaking, and we’re not just talking about the cost of rent. In addition to the monthly chunk of cash you’ll need to be giving to your landlord, there are also security deposits, insurance fees, and key money that you’ll usually need to pay before spending a single night in the apartment, with the total move-in costs often being equivalent to several months’ rent. Then there’s the cost of furnishing the apartment, since in many cases apartments in Japan are little more than walls, so you’ll have to buy your own interior lighting, refrigerator, air conditioner, and cooking range.
That’s a huge outlay if you’re just transitioning to life in Tokyo, especially if you haven’t finalized your work or school plans and might want to be moving again in a few months if you get a job or enroll in a school that’s a long commute away. One way to avoid these costs and commitments, though, is by staying in a “share house,” as Japan calls its boarding houses.
Our Japanese-language writer Hirazi spent two years in a share house in Tokyo’s Itabashi Ward, and we asked him to give us a rundown on the pros and cons of living in one.
● The house
"I lived in a two-story house in Itabashi,” recalls Hirazi, “There was a single entrance…The entryway where you took your shoes off before heading inside had so many shoes in it that there was hardly anywhere to step.”
Hirazi’s house was for men only (though Japan also has women-only and co-ed share houses), and while the exact occupant count fluctuated, most of the time there was a total of about 10 guys living under the same roof. Hirazi was about 30 years old when he moved in, which put him in the middle of the pack age-wise, with the other tenants ranging in age from roughly 20 to 40. They came from various walks of life: some were students, others full-time company employees, and still others worked a variety of part-time jobs to make ends meet.
There was a common-use kitchen and living room/dining area, as well as a shared bath/shower room, restroom, and laundry area. Bedrooms were private, though, and Hirazi’s was a very modest 6.6 square meters.
● The good
Hirazi’s room came with some basic furnishings. There was a bed, which is actually a bit of a luxury in Japan, where many people in small apartments sleep on futon mats instead. He also had a desk, chair and a free-standing rack to hang his clothes on, and so his basic furniture needs were all already met when he moved in.
The rent was also extremely cheap, partially because the house itself was on the older side (it had been recently renovated, but Hirazi still encountered cockroaches frequently in the summer). Hirazi’s monthly payment was 38,000 yen, and that included all of his utilities (electricity, water, and gas) and even internet service. By comparison, the average monthly cost for a studio apartment in that same ward of Tokyo is 73,900 yen, so he was just about cutting his rent in half by living in the share house.
Hirazi also lucked out in that the owners of his share house contracted with a cleaning company to regularly come in and clean the common-use areas. This isn’t the norm, but it was a very welcome perk which meant that he only had to worry about keeping his bedroom clean.
He was also fortunate in that his fellow tenants were a friendly, communicative bunch, with a wide range of experiences who made them interesting and insightful to talk with. “Sometimes, someone would even cook up a big batch of food and we’d share it,” he remembers.
● The bad
That said, there’s a drawback to living with a bunch of talkative people too. “My bedroom was right next to the common-use area,” Hirazi says, and since the house was originally designed as a single family home, the interior walls didn’t have the same level of sound-proofing as divisions between separate apartments. If there was a lively conversation going on in the kitchen, he could hear it in his bedroom, and if someone was running the washing machine late at night, the whirring and whooshing of the cylinder and hoses made it hard to sleep. “My favorite possession in those days ended up being not my brand-new smartphone, but my brand-new earplugs.”
Speaking of washing machines, his house had two, but even then, with 10 people sharing them it was always a competition to try to get a load in before someone else’s clothing occupied it. Then there was the time one of the machines broke down, leaving just one for everyone and making the wait for an empty slot twice as long.
While Hirazi was happy to have a bed, the single piece of furniture took up about half of his bedroom floor space, and so it also ended up doubling as his personal-use sofa. “If I was in my room, I was basically always on my bed,” he says, and after a year or so of constant use, it actually collapsed and needed to be repaired.
Oh, and even though they had a professional cleaning staff come by periodically, you can only keep a house so clean with 10 full-grown adults living it. “Once a week,” Hirazi tells us, “the shower drain would get clogged up with hair.”
● The final verdict
But despite some unpleasant aspects, looking back, Hirzai is glad he spent those two years living in a share house. “I got to meet a lot of people and learn about a lot of different lifestyles,” he says, but even that’s not what he liked the most.
“The best part was having someone say ‘Welcome home’ when you got back at the end of the day,” says Hirazi, who’s since moved into a bachelor apartment that he has all to himself. “You’d have a hard day at work, but after you walked in the door, you’d run into one of the other people living there and they’d give you a smile and say ‘Welcome home.’ Sure, there were things that were inconvenient about living there, but sometimes I miss hearing those words so much.”
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