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Ikebukuro

May 21st, 2007

Right back where I started from.

When I first visited Japan in the summer of 1983, my group took a Limousine Bus from Narita Airport to the Prince Hotel in Ikebukuro, where we stayed for the first three days in Tokyo. The apartment which Sachi and I are probably going to move into is situated on the very next block, right across from that hotel. Had the building existed 24 years ago, the view out my hotel window would have looked right out at our new digs.

It kind of surprises me that before I could even belt out my second post about apartment hunting (it’s still coming), we seem to have settled on a place. Despite early attention to Musashi Kosugi, one rather significant factor intervened: key money. Not that we can’t afford it; my savings would cover such a fee, but still, as we looked at places for rent and the fact that almost all of them would immediately sock us for about $7000 in non-refundable fees (the gift money and the agent’s fee), it was a rather sobering thought.

We also started looking with UR (Urban Renaissance), which is the agency I rent from currently. As I will go over in the upcoming second part of my apartment-hunting post, UR is a government housing agency. Not only do they welcome foreign tenants (still an issue with many landlords in Japan, as I have discovered), but they charge no key money or agent’s fees. You pay 3 month’s rent as a deposit (hefty, but not unheard of in private renting), and the first month’s rent of course, and that’s it. You’re in. And anything that saves you $7000 right off the bat is nothing to sneeze at. UR rents also tend to be a bit lower than usual market value, and are not slow about going down if market value so dictates; my own UR rent in Inagi has dropped considerably, maybe as much as 15%, in six years’ time.

But timing was as important as anything else in finding this new place. Sachi and I visited the UR office in Shibuya on Saturday, and grilled them about possible openings. Unfortunately, it was like pulling teeth sometimes. They would not look to see if any rooms were available unless we told them about a specific building–but there are so many buildings, and so many potential locations on so many lines that we could have accepted. Musashi Kosugi got ruled out early, at least as far as UR was concerned; it was a popular spot. And as Sachi and I soon discovered, that was the case with virtually all UR buildings close in to Tokyo. They go fast, and in most cases, it’s first-come, first serve.

Then the agent we dealt with told us about new buildings being constructed. UR puts up maybe a dozen or more new buildings in the area each year from what I can tell. For example, a new 247-unit building is going up in Ningyocho, just a short walk from the Ginza, which opens for signing up in September. If there are too many applicants, then they’ll do a lottery, but otherwise, UR just gives apartments to the first people who apply. Ningyocho caught our eye, but there are several other buildings opening, including two in Adachi Ward (a less-desirable but cheaper location), one in Setagaya, another in Yokohama, and another in Saitama.

But then the agent mentioned that there was a building which had just opened for people to move into, one which people had applied for a few months back. Probably what had happened was that a lot of the people who had originally applied in advance had found other places in the meantime, or otherwise decided not to go for this one, so they cancelled. That left a lot of rooms open–a situation that would last for only a short time (ergo the good timing). We were given a pamphlet and decided to check it out.

The building is called Vanguard Tower. While the photos on their site are better than what you actually get, it’s still a very nice place. They just finished construction, so all the units are brand-new. It’s a 38-story building in the heart of Ikebukuro, the next block over from Sunshine City. The advertisements say it’s a 10-minute walk from Ikebukuro station, but you know that they always make that figure sound as attractive as possible. We haven’t timed our own speed yet, but it’s probably closer to 12-14 minutes, I’d guess. Still, it’s pretty damned central.

0507-Vanguardtower-500-60
Vanguard Tower as seen from the observation deck of Sunshine 60.
Click to see a larger view. Our unit would be halfway down on the right.
That’s Mt. Tsukuba on the horizon, by the way.

The walk from the station is pretty straightforward. When you come out of the east exit of Ikebukuro Station, you go down the main street for a little then veer left down a big shopping street leading to Sunshine City. Vanguard is visible along that street, and in fact, I could see back down to that street from the apartment.

0507-Sunshine60Street-450
A rather extreme zoom of Sunshine 60 Street from the unit.

We spoke briefly to the staff on the second floor, in the recruitment office, and were given building passes for looking at the room. We went up to the 21st floor and checked the place out. While not perfect, it is a very nice place. At 72 square meters, it’s very spacious for central Tokyo. Here’s the layout as provided by the building’s web site:

0507-Floorplan

You walk in the door, and there is a small walk-in shoe closet on the right, and a smaller shoe cabinet on the left. The toilet is also immediately on the right, and is of the variety I like to call “the Captain’s Chair,” as the bidet and washlet controls slightly resemble a futuristic starship seat. Immediately down the hall are the two bedrooms. Sachi and I will probably use the smaller one as a storage room–and even at that, we’re both going to have to pare down our belongings considerably. To get out on the balcony, you can use either a door in the larger bedroom or one in the living room. The balcony area outside the bedrooms is wide enough to have a small table and chairs, but we might opt for a smaller table and two chairs in the little inset pocket just around the corner; it’s protected from winds better. The larger area might become a small plant garden/exercise area (I have to put my large elliptical trainer somewhere). The larger bedroom we’ll use ourselves, though we may need a new bed; it’s just small enough that my present bed might not fit the way we want. We looked at new beds last night, and they tend to range from 200,000 yen ($1,650) for a queen size. Ouch. Anyone know a place in Tokyo that sells beds cheaper?

The bath room is nice–two mirror/dresser areas, with plenty of cupboard/shelf space. The bath itself is nice, though Sachi noticed that the rubber fitting at the bottom of the bath room door may not keep water in as well as one would prefer; she noted that it seemed cheap. However, the complaints more or less end there, aside from a few small kvetches.

From there, you come in to the main living area. It measures about 6 x 7 meters (20′ x 23′), with a diagonal cut in one side where the balcony windows dominate. The kitchen is fully electric (no gas in the building, so I’ll have to sell that sweet new heater I bought recently), with three stove “burners” and a small internal grill. There’s a large sink and (for Japan) ample counter space. It might be hard to fit in a fridge and the nice rack of kitchen shelves I have at my place, but they could work. There’s enough cupboard space, and the nice feature is the open counter to the living/dining area–something I like a lot. It opens up the kitchen nicely.

The living/dining area itself a large, though the odd shape may make it hard to utilize as well as we might like. Still, it’s hard to beat the window area–large glass windows/door all around the room. When we were there, brown-paper faux curtains which we could only open partially cut off most of the light. But the room faces southeast, and will be very bright. The floor is heated from beneath, and they give us one air conditioner/heater. The windows are all double-paned, which will insulate the place very nicely, in addition to silencing traffic noise. The view is great–not fantastic, but great. Alas, here’s where the advertising photos cheat: they make it look like you can glance down at the dinner table and see the cityscape past the table settings. But the balcony railing cuts off the view of the cityscape unless you stand up. That’s a good thing, though–were the railing lower, you could fall over it too easily! It’s sphincter-puckering enough to look over the railing on the 21st floor as it is.

The view is a cityscape, and should be beautiful at night. We might even get a distant view of firework displays like the one over the Sumida River. But the view does not, alas, include the beauties of the Tokyo night. The Sunshine 60 and Prince Hotel buildings dominate the southern view. Tokyo Tower is visible, but mostly blocked by a nearby skyscraper. Shinjuku’s skyscrapers are also visible, but just through the gap between the Sunshine 60 and Prince Hotel. Mt. Fuji is blocked by the Toyota building (maybe ten floors higher and we could have had a view of it). So unless the Sunshine complex is going to be more dazzling than I expect at night, the view will have to simply be… north-central Tokyo. Which, hopefully, at night, will be a nice enough view for the city light show. (A small note of amusement: the pamphlet for the building shows a room with a telescope. But due to light pollution, the scope would be useless for skywatching–but great for looking into other people’s windows!)

0507-Eastview-500
The view to the west. Anything to the right is dominated by Sunshine City. Click to enlarge.

From here we get into the small stuff, a lot of which is nice. There’s an auto-lock security system (you buzz people in at the front door), with a video monitor to see who’s coming. The toilet and bath both have emergency call buttons which sound an alarm in the main living area (Honey, I forgot my towel!). There are two places where you can let (sound-buffered) air come in from the outside to create an air flow, aside from what you get by opening windows on opposite sides of the unit. There’s a clothes-drying system above the bath that allows for speedy hang-drying, with laundry poles and changeable rests for them. Rails with hangers adorn the side walls of the living area, allowing us to hang pictures or other ornamentation. And the mailbox system is a special treat: it’s closed off to anyone except you and the post office. No more regiments of part-timers flocking to stuff your mailbox with annoying ads! Yay!! Even better, there’s a system of locked closets for receiving large parcels, so if you get a Fed Ex delivery, you don’t have to be at home. Just give the delivery service the code number for the box, and they can leave it there for you to pick up at your leisure. Cable TV and Internet services are available but not included in the rent; that’s something we’ll still have to work out.

A small difficulty: there’s no garbage disposal chute. You have to carry your trash down to the 2nd-level basement and leave it in one of a few different rooms, depending on its type. However, that’s the same basement level where I’ll park my scooter, so I’ll probably be the one carrying out the trash. For the whole building, there are only 21 spots for motorcycles/scooter above 50cc, but I checked this morning, and they had a space available that I could reserve. It’ll cost ¥4000 ($33) a month, but that’s OK. It’s also very secure–locked behind a gate–so I won’t have to deal with theft like I did with my last scooter.

As for the environs, there is shopping galore. Sunshine City is one block away, with a massive shopping mall. Alas, as is usually the case, 90% of that is clothing shops, almost all of them hideously overpriced and fashion-bound. But the key is finding the dozen or so shops that suit you. For example, Subway sandwiches are good for my diet; a half-sandwich is enough to do me for brunch and is low on calories. I never had access to that in the Tama area. In the meantime, I’ll have to avoid all the other fast food shops which exist in abundance, like the six local McDonald’s stores or five Starbucks locations in the immediate area. I’ll probably spend the first few months just walking around, trying to figure out where everything is, and taking note of the shops I’ll want to frequent.

The shopping element that I worried about was plain-old supermarket shopping; downtown areas are not noted for their grocery stores. But in addition to the Seiyu supermarket just on the other side of Sunshine City, the builders of the Vanguard Tower foresaw the general lack. Half of the ground floor, the part that is not taken up by the semi-luxurious lobby and the mail room, is occupied by a medium-sized supermarket which will be open 24 hours. We’ll have to see about their prices and product quality. I’ve never heard of the market name before (and have forgotten what it was now), so it’s not a known quantity.

There’s good and bad here, but there seems more good than bad. In any case, we have ten more days to mull it over before contract time comes.

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  1. May 22nd, 2007 at 02:23 | #1

    That looks and sounds like a great place! I hope you will be happy there ( should you choose to move in). Are flats in Tokyo measured in square metres now? I remember flat details being primarily given out in tatami mat side, so has that changed?

  2. ykw
    May 22nd, 2007 at 08:02 | #2

    Sounds Very Nice !!!

  3. Luis
    May 22nd, 2007 at 09:16 | #3

    Kinuk:

    Do you mean that the total size was expressed in tatami mats? I don’t recall that… or maybe it’s a regional thing. Tatami mats are used as a measure of individual rooms. Total apartment size is measured in “heibei,” or square meter-age. Shape is expressed in the xLDK formula. I don’t remember it being another way, to tell the truth.

  4. matthew
    May 22nd, 2007 at 10:03 | #4

    Looks sweet. I hope you will enjoy your new home. Hey–I may be coming to Tokyo in the next few weeks. I would really like to meet up for a drink. I will let you know.

    Congrats on the new place!

    matthew

  5. May 22nd, 2007 at 11:03 | #5

    Your brother and I got a queen-size bed at some place called the Simmons Gallery (after Simmons mattresses) but I couldn’t find a URL for it (though I know I’ve seen it before). I think it may be in Roppongi but I don’t remember. Our bed (without headboard or footboard) was 50,000 yen.

    As for utilizing the odd living/dining space, I recommend you make an Illustrator file with the space and your furniture “to scale” (use millimeters where the real measurements are centimeters) and see how you can position objects most effectively. This works very well for fitting things well into small spaces on the first go since you can rotate and push around the objects really easily. This is how I set up our bedroom and kitchen (the living room happened by itself).

    Paring down your possessions should be liberating. I found I really liked our living space better once I did that.

    Good luck and keep us posted. I’d love to see a “before” (empty apartment) and “after” (fully-furnished) tour of the apartment if you’re up for posting it.

  6. Andy
    June 5th, 2007 at 08:35 | #6

    Hi Luis,

    I’m also looking at a place right now about the same size and location. Could you tell me how much the place cost here or possibly thru my email ? Thx

    Andy

  7. Luis
    June 5th, 2007 at 12:30 | #7

    Andy: the place we are getting costs •242,000 yen/mo, •250,000 if you include the maintenance fee.

    When comparing costs, don’t forget to factor in the gift money and agent’s fee–effectively three month’s rent covered over two years, or about •30,000 per month extra. After that, one month’s key money ever two years, or about •10,000 extra per month. So if our new place were a regular place, it would probably count as having a rent worth about •230,000 plus key money.

    What’s the place you are looking at?

  8. Andy
    June 7th, 2007 at 17:35 | #8

    Actually, I looked at a few units in your building, including yours. They also have another tower up that opens in 2008 built by Mitsui but its for sale only. I knew some of the places require key money but I had no idea its paid repeatedly whenever I sign a lease, so thanks for pointing that out. Ikebukuro is a pretty nice area. My wife used to work in Sunshine 60 actually, so she likes it there. We have schools to worry about so we might consider somewhere further north–Akabane or further up that line– or somewhere west of Shinjuku or my favorite Bunkyo area which appears to be too pricy for too little space. I’m not really looking to shell out about $2k a month maybe a bit less in the 1.5-1.8 range. Any ideas? We’d like to stay near the northern loop of the Yamanote line as much as possible with close access to a JR station -preferably Yamanote line or Keihin.

    Andy

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