Archive for the ‘Hibarigaoka’ Category


January 14th, 2013 2 comments

When I woke up this morning at about 9:00 a.m., it was raining hard. Big puddles of water outside. Very wet.

About a half hour later, the rain turned to snow, as predicted in the weather forecast.

Within an hour, there was more than an inch of snow on the ground. I took Ponta for a walk, and it was already white everywhere you looked. By now, 3:00 p.m., it must be more than 6 inches. We have to go outside every hour and shake the snow off our small cypress goldcrest trees or else they’ll be crushed under the weight.

This is the view from our door, just a few minutes ago when I went to do the shaking:


The neighbors are also keeping busy, shoveling and keeping the card cleared.


The snow accumulation is pretty amazing—we are really getting socked here.


You just know this stuff is going to stick on on the ground for another few weeks…

Train lines in the area are severely affected, and road traffic is jammed. On the JR, Chuo, Sobu, Saikyo, Keiyo, Joban, Nambu—all lines completely shut down.

Up to 40 or 50 cm is expected today.

Soon after I posted that, the snow stopped—but not the precipitation. Nothing worse than rain after a snow…

Categories: Hibarigaoka Tags:

The Streets, They Are A-Changin’

May 29th, 2012 2 comments

Maybe a year ago, I noticed that a bank on the shopping street from the station did a renovation, but with an odd touch: they shaved off a corner of the building and filled the corner, inexplicably, with concrete planters. Seemed rather odd at the time.


Then came something even stranger: a small apartment building with a mini-spa on the 1st floor was built, but it came with an empty spot of land, wedge-shaped, that was fenced off. I could not figure what the purpose of the wedge was. It just seemed weird. If it was for access to the back, it was really badly designed.


Then, across from both of these sites, a building was taken down and the area covered with asphalt. That seemed reasonable–a parking lot.


But then, right next to the mini-spa, another building went down…


…and suddenly, the pieces fit together.


These were no random redesigns; I had completely forgotten that a new road would be cut through here, as part of the city’s new plans for avenues.

For some time, there has been a big, wide avenue with large sidewalks which rather awkwardly starts about 350m from the station. Closest to the station, it suddenly narrows into a narrow, crooked road with no sidewalks. The city has long planned to fill in the remainder of that avenue, creating a large open space in front of the station exit, and extending the wide avenue to go all the way to the station. The thing is, a lot of buildings stand in the way.

However, plans seem to be in high gear now. In addition to all this reconstruction at the shopping street, a few large buildings near the station are also being torn down. How long it will take before the project is done is anyone’s guess. It seems right now like there’s a lot left to take down, but looking at the map, it appears that maybe already half the work is done already. I noted that a few other buildings, including a pharmacy way out from the station which shut down mysteriously early this year, are already shuttered and ready to go.

Two things I wonder about, though. First, there’s a cemetery plot which will wind up on a major intersection which you would expect to be primo commercial space. Do they relocate cemeteries in Japan? I would guess so, but will be interested to see how that is handled.

Second, when will they get around to the secondary streets adjoining the main one they are building. I ask because one of them cuts through our kitchen. Literally.

Update: Found a document which says that the station road is planned for completion in “fiscal year 2013.”

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Romertopf Chicken

May 13th, 2012 4 comments

When I was a kid and our mom had to work nights, we took responsibility for our own cooking, and one of our usual meals was Romertopf clay-pot chicken. Romertopf is an unglazed ceramic cooking pot which does a great job of keeping juices in–I had just forgotten how well it can do that.

When my brother and his wife left Japan recently, they left us their Romertopf; they had acquired one small enough to fit into a Japanese microwave/convection oven. It was not as big as the ones we used to use, but it can be big enough.

Eager to try it out, I went to our local supermarket and ordered a whole chicken–they don’t sell them whole in Japan usually, and this one took 4 days. Now, my sister-in-law warned me that the pot would not take more than a 1.5 kg chicken, and so I tried to order one. The store guy warned me that the chickens they could order would be bigger than that, so I just asked him to order the smallest one he could get.

It turned out to be a 2.5 kg chicken.

And, as expected, it came nowhere close to fitting in the pot. I still wanted to try it out, though, so I cut off the neck (they had left about 6 inches of it), the wings, and a bit of the tail; I also cut off the legs and thighs, but didn’t leave those out. With everything trimmed, I could fit the torso in the pot, and though it was a tight fit, I was able to put the legs and thighs back in, albeit reversed.

One of the tricks, I think, is to leave the torso cavity open, stuffed with onions and spices, so I did not want to just chop the bird up and pile the pieces in–they would have fit better, but keeping the chicken as whole as possible was optimum.

So, after pouring on some soy sauce, brandy, and red wine, then adding the same spices I put in the chicken (basil, garlic & onion powder, celery salt) on top, with some paprika (Spanish pimentón in this case) for appearance.

Rom Ready

As you can see, it was bulging out. I could fit the cover on, but obviously there was not much space left. I could only fit in a few small potatoes, instead of several along with some carrots.

Figuring it was the best I could do, I put it into the oven–even with a small pot, it barely fit–and set it for 90 minutes at 175 C. Or, for 60 min at 180 C, as the oven couldn’t be set for more than an hour, and only could be adjusted to 10-degree intervals. After 60 minutes, I set it for another 30; you’re supposed to cook for 80 minutes, take the top off, then cook for another 10 minutes.

Of course, the oven was so small that I had to remove the whole thing to take the top off, and so all the heat escaped; I cooked for 15 minutes rather than 10 with the top off.

But boy, did it ever work!

Rom Cooked01

Rom Cooked02

Alas, the photos (different colors as they were taken by different cameras) don’t do it justice. It looked good enough from the outside, but when I cut up the meat, it was the juiciest chicken I remember ever seeing. Just fabulous. Again, this photo doesn’t do the spread justice:

Rom Table

We went in for seconds and thirds, eating nearly the whole chicken.

Next time, I want to try a 2 kg chicken, if I can get one just the right size. One of the nice things about Romertopf, however, is that it is really hard to get wrong; it’s very forgiving, and consistently good.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2012, Hibarigaoka Tags:


January 23rd, 2012 8 comments

Tonight is the second day we’ve had snow this year, and it’s coming down. What you see here may not look like much, but had been falling only a little over an hour by the time I took this photo. It was falling heavily at the time, but this is a time exposure and so the falling snow is not visible. (Click for a larger image.)


It should be quite a blanket on the ground by the time it stops, probably around of just after midnight.

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Buying a Home in Japan (Very Long Post)

June 7th, 2011 12 comments

Now that we’ve been here almost two months (Has it been that little time? Were we really still in that 21st-floor apartment in Ikebukuro only a little more than a year ago? Jeez…), it’s probably about time to do a wind-up on the whole home-buying process here.

For me, buying a home was a no-brainer. If you pay rent, you get nothing back, assured. You buy a home, and yes, something terrible could happen and you could lose it all–but it’s much less likely that you would come out worse than you would if you instead paid a hundred grand per decade and got nothing back. For about a quarter of a century I paid rent, more than a quarter of a million dollars I won’t ever see again. For the first half of that, I was moving about and buying a house was not a really strong option anyway, and for three quarters of that time, I didn’t really have enough for a down payment anyway. But after getting married and having enough for a fairly healthy down payment, it really didn’t make much sense to keep renting.

When Sachi and I moved in together, we were both working, and could afford a more expensive place; we got our Ikebukuro apartment, on the 21st floor of a big building that was a few minutes away from pretty substantial shopping, about a 15-minute walk from one of the biggest stations in Tokyo. We paid about 250,000 yen a month in rent (roughly $3100, ouch). Some time into that, Sachi stopped working and started studying, and out of inertia we stayed, until it was pretty clear that we simply could not sustain that. By that time, we had already started contacting real estate agents and looking at properties.

Knowing that we would not get a house immediately, though, prompted us to move to a cheaper apartment, so we moved to Hibarigaoka. The apartment was much bigger (about 90m2), and was 60% of the cost, or 150,000 yen ($1870). We were still 15 minutes from an express station, but it was a 15- to 20-minute express train in to Ikebukuro, moving us that much farther out. This was much more in line with our budget, relieving some of the pressure to make a purchase that much sooner.

One thing I looked forward to: the mortgage payments on a house amount to somewhat less than the rent for a place just as big. We could own a nicer place than our apartment and pay less, and much of what we paid would eventually come back to us. In more ways than one, this promised to be a money-saver.

When you first start looking, the first thing to consider is the location. In Tokyo, that means focusing on train lines and stations. Ideally, you want something which has good options for transportation, and that means a train line convenient for where you expect to go to work, but also easy transfers or line conjunctions that allow you to go almost anywhere else with as little difficulty as possible.

We first started looking in a place called Kosugi, just across the Tama River from Tokyo in Kawasaki. It’s on the Tokyu Toyoko Line, which runs between Shibuya and Yokohama, with through connections to the Hibiya Line and, in a few years, the Fukutoshin Line–meaning that you could step on a train in Kosugi and it would be bound directly for the Hibiya or Fukutoshin Line destinations.

We looked at places in Kosugi itself, which has excellent shopping and, being close to the river, nice park areas, but discovered that we were late to the game–Kosugi has been a popular area for some time now, has been expanding, and so is fairly expensive. We found that in stations a bit further out, like Hiyoshi or even Kikuna (both express stations), nicer places could be found.

The next thing you want to decide on, in Japan, at least, is whether to get a house or a mansion, what the Japanese call a condominium. Mansions are very popular in Japan, and do have some attractions: they are usually located closer to the station, you don’t have to worry about maintenance or do any yard work, and often you get a nice view, if you can get a unit high up enough. For me, however, this wasn’t enough. While mansions are often located close to stations, you could get homes close in, too. I also found that mansions really did not provide any price advantage–in fact, for the same price and general location, houses tend to have more floor space. With mansions, neighbor problems are more an issue than with a house; you share walls with them, and more people are closer to you. Also, mansions come with rules that must be obeyed, and you can’t just do anything you want with the property without having to get other people’s consent.

But most of all, it just didn’t make sense as an investment. For me, the house is a possible fallback for retirement; when we’re 65 or 70, we could sell the place and that would help augment our retirement finances. With a mansion, after living there for 20 or 25 years, what you have is an old apartment in an old building–not the most attractive purchase. Even with a home purchase, after that long, the building is worth very little if anything at all–and with a mansion, the building is pretty much all you’ve got. Some mansions have communal agreements to completely renovate the structure every x-number of years, but that not necessarily a deal-saver. In the end, owning a mansion is essentially like owning a small sliver of land that is inextricably locked in with dozens of other land-sliver owners.

Buying a house made much more sense. You own the whole land, which is at least two-thirds, maybe three quarters of the whole cost. The resale price will be at least the value of the land, and establishes a base value that rises or falls no more or less than that of a mansion. In the end, the options for selling are more attractive. In addition, with a house, you make your own rules, for the most part. (For example, we can get any dog we want, while most mansions either forbid any dogs or limit the size you can own.) There are fewer immediate neighbors. There is more floor space. Yes, there is yard work and other maintenance, but it’s your house. That intangible counts for quite a bit.

By this time, you should be thinking about the house loan. When I first applied, I was rejected. Sachi already was engaged in a loan with her family, and could not act as my co-signer. I had a good chunk of change for a down payment, and I had a good, steady, well-paying job I had held for a dozen years. However, they told me that my visa standing was the deal-breaker. Although eligible, I had not applied for permanent residency. Do that, they told me, and they would consider giving me the loan. So I did, and eventually got that loan. I am not sure if having the permanent residency outweighs the co-signer benefit, if I would have been approved on a working visa had Sachi been able to co-sign for me. She couldn’t, so it never came up.

The loan is also important to consider because it helps determine your price range. For such-and-such a down payment, with a loan stretching out so many years, at such-and-such a monthly payment, you could calculate the price range you could afford.

Interest on the loan is very low; we’re paying a shade over 1%–though that could increase over time. Japan’s interest rates are usually a good deal lower than American rates, in any case. Also, property taxes are very affordable here (again, that could potentially change, but does not appear to be about to do so).

When we did the calculation, we got our price range, which was not too bad. We could afford a place not too far from a decent station, with maybe between 80 and 100 square meters of floor space. That was what we felt we wanted, minimum. So far, so good.

Another consideration in getting the loan is the insurance check. If you cannot qualify for life insurance of a certain kind or level, they won’t want to give you the loan. Which means you have to be in at least reasonable health for a person of your age.

So, by now, I knew I wanted a house, and once I got permanent residency, my chances at getting cleared for a loan were good. By this time, we had settled in Hibarigaoka, and found that we liked it as a prospect better than the Kosugi area. We had also checked out many other areas, but were limited by various preferences. One was that I didn’t want to live too close in to central Tokyo, as I value floor space more than proximity to town–but Sachi preferred closeness, and would not accept a place too far out. That gave us only a narrow range, a kind of irregular ring surrounding central Tokyo. I preferred west of central Tokyo, as my work is on this side of the Yamanote, and I have always lived in this general area and I like it.

While we looked at areas on the Keio and other lines, this area stood out better. The Seibu Ikebukuro Line is a good one; aside from going into Ikebukuro, there are direct through connections to the Yurakucho and Fukutoshin subway lines. Between those three lines, you could make connections to go almost anywhere with a minimum of fuss. Compare this with the Seibu Shinjuku Line, for example–that line has no through connections, and the terminus, while in Shinjuku, is a bit of a walk to any other train line. The Seibu Ikebukuro, at least, now gives me a direct train to the station closest to my job. While we looked at properties between Shakuji Koen and Kiyose, Hibarigaoka appealed to us as an express stop with good amenities and reasonable prices. A direct express train takes 30 minutes to get to Shinjuku, while a local train takes 42.

Hibarigaoka is also a fairly nice station area. There are two department stores and many restaurants and other businesses in the area. Parks are not too abundant, but there are enough in the neighborhood, and a whopping big one on the south side of the station. Eventually, we narrowed our search down to this area.

While selecting a real estate agent can be more or less a crap shoot, it can be important. Using more than one is a bit redundant, as they all tend to have the same list to choose from.

A warning, though–and this is where the only major down point came in our experience–no matter how nice, helpful, or resourceful the agent is, never forget that their only concern is to get your money. We let ourselves forget this, and paid for it.

We chose a realtor close to where we lived, Seibu Kaihatsu to be specific. The agent we got was as congenial and helpful as you would expect, especially here in Japan. He showed us a variety of locations, was patient and generous with his time, and had a very friendly and easygoing manner.

But at one point, he screwed us, and good. In net terms, it may not have cost us a penny or changed our final decision at all, but at the very least he royally pissed me off and robbed me of much of the joy of buying my first, and likely only home.

It was, in fact, when we had narrowed our search down to our current house. I was content to search for as long as it took, so I could get the right place. I was ready to spend a few years in the search, if need be. It was hard to do–you would see a place that was almost what you wanted, and had to gamble between getting a good place and waiting for something better which might not ever come.

When we got to this place, we were mostly sold on it. It was the right size, distance, and general location. The floor plan could have been better, or so it certainly seemed, but for the price, it was pretty attractive.

It was at this point that the agent sold us on putting down a deposit with the developer that had built the house. And here’s where he screwed us: he led us to believe that this was just something to hold the property, so no one else would take it, while we looked at it and made the final decision. He knew we were first-timers, and by this time, had a sharp sense of what we knew and didn’t know.

When he put this idea forward, the idea sounded plausible; the property could still be showcased, but putting money down would demonstrate that we were serious enough, and they could get interest off the money in the meantime, something which a corporation making many such transactions might appreciate more than a private seller.

Still, I was suspicious; this was, after all, a million yen (about $12,500), and while that might have been enough to profit the holder in terms of interest income while not costing them much in sales opportunities, it was still an appreciable chunk.

So I asked the agent, to be clear–if we decide not to buy, we get the money back, right? His answer was in the usual floral language in which clarity evades me, but between Sachi translating and my re-asking the question, the answer came through as a clear “yes.” So we got the money and came in to make the deposit.

When we did so, I began by asking again: if we decide not to buy, we get all of the money back, right? We have one month to look and think, and if we say, “we don’t like the house,” the developer returns the whole deposit, yes? The agent assured us, though he pointed out that the 15,000 yen ($187) in revenue stamps would not be returned. No mention of bank loans or any contingent events, just “yes, the money is refundable.”

Then he laid out a lengthy contract, and we went over it line by line. Again, my suspicion was roused–why such a big contract for just holding the property while we thought? In the back and forth, Sachi said that the realtor explained this was to set things up, so if we decided to buy, we would be ready to go. It sounded strange, but I really had no idea how things were done.

When we got to the part about refunding the deposit, the language in the contract was far less than clear. One last time, I asked the question, putting it as clearly as I could. If we decide not to buy, the million yen, though not the revenue stamp fee, gets returned in full, right? I tried my best to establish that it was contingent on our decision to buy or not. Again, he answered in the affirmative. No mention of conditionals. This is not just my memory–I was taking notes, I have them right here. I remember phrasing my question as carefully as I could and asking Sachi to translate. I even remember feeling a bit sheepish about repeating it so much, but I wanted to be sure.

So we signed. By now, you must think we were huge suckers. Maybe we were. But we had built up a relationship with this guy, he seemed to be working a good deal for us (he had talked the developer’s price down by about $50,000), and he had repeatedly assured me on this particular point. I simply hadn’t considered the idea that he would lie to us so baldly.

A few weeks into this “consideration” period, I started finding a few concerns. Nothing that was deal-breaking, but things that I wanted reassurances over, and points which I felt we could negotiate with the seller over. I mentioned these to the agent as we viewed the house one day, and after the viewing, I had to go to work, while Sachi went to the realtor’s office to go over some details.

I got a distressed call from Sachi later that afternoon: the realtor was suddenly claiming that the deposit was non-refundable, and if we backed out of the deal, we would lose not only all of that money, but also a significant sum to cover his commission.

I was livid. I called him up and complained. He came to our apartment, by this time it was 11:00 pm, and we had a confrontation. The guy was as unrepentant as he was dishonest–politely and firmly. He claimed, to our faces, that what he had told us was that we could get the money fully refunded only if the bank refused to give us the loan. Otherwise, we were committed and would lose the money if we decided to back out.

He called it a “misunderstanding.” I call it “bullshit.” The three times I had asked, he never mentioned a bank loan. I know the vocabulary for that, and had he mentioned it, I would have known it and asked about how it played into it. I had asked him three times, and though my Japanese is not perfect, I knew I had expressed, clearly, that I saw this as hinging purely on our decision to buy or not. He simply stuck to his story about the bank loan contingency.

In the end, we had nothing but words which could not be proven–our word against his. He had a signed contract, which, if a lawyer were to read it, said what he said he told us. But the language was not clear–Sachi, for example, read it directly, but did not see the catch–only in hindsight, being told what to look for, did she notice that contingency.

Clearly, the realtor knew this to be a hook he could use, and I have little doubt he has used it often. I am pretty sure that many Japanese would either quietly eat it, or even see themselves to blame. And yes, I was to blame as far as you can be to blame for getting scammed–but in the context of fair dealing, we were right and this guy was wrong. That didn’t help us, though–we were now in a position of either buying the house, or losing tens of thousands of dollars. Of course, as much as we could, we took the mindset of accepting the loss rather than getting a place we didn’t want–but it is impossible to truly know that it had no effect on our final decision. Maybe, free of any penalty, we would have given up on what could have been an acceptable choice, opting instead to keep looking. And maybe we wouldn’t have found anything as good, who knows.

However, this was not just about that. Buying a house is cool. It’s fun. Yes, there is worry, stress, second-guessing–but all of that is ameliorated by the joy of buying a home you can call your own.

That joy was pretty much crushed by what the agent did to us, souring the entire experience. I am pretty sure that we would have bought this house anyway–but now I cannot be absolutely sure. I will always think back on the purchase of this home as possibly being a decision that was coerced.

Furthermore, since we were committed to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, we suddenly had no negotiation leverage. For example, the house was not supplied with some amenities that houses sometimes come with–screen doors, hanger rods in the closets, little stuff like that. Things that would cost us much more than it would the developer, stuff we could not include in the loan and would have to be paid for up-front. I was mentioning some of these things to the realtor in the context of getting the developer to throw them in as part of the package–and that’s probably what prompted him to let on to what he had done to us.

Maybe it was just this one agent, maybe this kind of thing happens wherever you go. But my advice: steer clear of Seibu Kaihatsu. And whatever agency you do choose, don’t sign a thing and don’t hand over a single yen unless you know you’re ready to buy. Maybe this would have been obvious to you and we were just dumb hicks, but all the same, keep in mind that the agent is not your friend.

That drama aside, let’s get back to the general narrative on home-buying.

So, we decided to buy a house, not a mansion; we settled on the Hibarigaoka area; and we knew what our general price range was.

There are three common options you can go for in buying a house: used, pre-built, and building on land.

Used is difficult, as homes for sale tend to be older and flawed in some ways. Structural damage, musty smells, custom changes by previous owners which may not suit you, etc. We visited some used properties, but didn’t see any used buildings that had been renovated and looked like new. No warranties on the structure. Insurance would likely cost more. Older structures often don’t live up to current building codes, and might not weather things like earthquakes as well. The building might not take more modern accessories, like fiber optic cabling or cable TV connections. Locations were good and prices were low, but the houses were no great deals.

Buying land is a nice option, if you can find the land, get a builder you can trust, and get the design you want. That way, you get to design the house yourself and ask for the little custom changes that you might not get otherwise. A little room under the stairs for the dog. A bath closer to the master bedroom. Exactly the garden space you hoped for. A door from the kitchen to the outside. A dishwashing machine or western-style oven. A better living-dining layout to take the best advantage of space. More closet space. A small loft. The home office in just the right place. Ethernet jacks throughout the house. An electrical socket outside for outdoor tool use or even Christmas lights. And so on. There are firms that will listen to all the things you want and design a place to your specifications. It might end up costing a little more, but might be worth it in the end. We were following this parallel track until the agent derailed us with his “misunderstanding” about the deposit.

The last option is to buy a pre-made home. Developers will buy a property and build homes, based on what I don’t know, but I assume that at least part of it is based on what they can assemble most economically. The big advantages are in terms of overall price and immediate move-in–you don’t have to start monthly mortgage payments to the bank while the structure is planned and built. On the other hand, it will probably never be exactly what you wanted in a house. In our place, for example, I don’t think I would have made the shower in a straight line-of-sight with the front door, so as to cause an accidental flashing if a shower exit, open bathroom door, and unexpected caller all happen at the same time. Smaller details about the pre-built home might not fit exactly–the shade or quality of the flooring, the type of wall coverings, the moldings or railings, the choices for built-in appliances, etc.

You might want to look for any possible deals among those categories, not ruling any one of them out.

After those basic decisions, it’s a matter of looking and getting to understand the details involved. there are a lot of variables, and you have to weigh them all in your final decision. Here’s a basic list:

Distance from the station: a classic Japanese consideration. Unless you plan on having and regularly using a car or cars, this will be something you will have to take into account. You don’t want to be so far away that it is a major trek, especially as shopping tends to be clustered around stations. However, the closer you are to the station, the closer you may be to train noise, including railroad crossing alarms. We wanted something closer in than a 15-minute walk, but preferred closer than 10.

General neighborhood: what shops are close by? What is the general quality of the area? Are there things that could affect resale value? For example, our house is built on land that could, in twenty years, be bought by the city to put in new roads. It’s part of a city plan that may or may not ever come to fruition. Even the address can make a difference–we live a block away from Niiza City in Saitama Prefecture–but our Nishi-Tokyo address, in Tokyo Prefecture, adds value to our home.

Immediate neighborhood: Japan often has irregular zoning. Your house might be next to a small factory, a schoolyard, a cemetery, or a karaoke bar. Is there any business nearby which has trucks coming in at 4:00 a.m., making loud beeping sounds? Do the neighbors have little kids? Are there noisy pets? Our place is right next to the parking lot of a fitness center; the cars don’t make much noise, but the warning buzzer as cars leave is a bit of an annoyance. There’s also a Muay Thai gym a few doors down across the way; you can hear the punching and kicking in the evening if you have the windows open. But we’re OK with these, for the most part. (Mostly we’re waiting for the new home construction next door to stop.) Access is also an issue–we’re rather easy to find, but we earlier turned down a place that would have involved difficult directions and resulted in many a lost house guest.

You have to look at the location in four dimensions, in fact. A private parking lot just to the south could become a construction site at any time, and if it’s big enough, it might be a mansion that will block out the sun or at least ruin the view, if you have one. Our south side has another house under construction, so we know what will be there, for the near future in any case.

Size of the plot of land: We hoped for at least 100 square meters (1076 square feet). One thing to keep in mind is what amount you are allowed to build on. Many properties restrict the footprint of the building to be no more than 50% of the property area. Others allowed 80%. The size of the plot also restricts the total floor space in the building–often restricted to no more than double the maximum footprint. If you get a plot of land too small, you can’t always just build higher; it may determine the floor space available to you.

Shape of the plot of land: Some land plots are not your basic rectangles. Some have arms stretching out to give street access. You might have a larger plot but be unable to utilize a good chunk of it. Also watch out for regulations about certain areas required to be empty on the street side, or leaving clearance to adjacent lots, etc.

Outdoor amenities: Is there a parking space? Most places have one, but often it’s noting more than just concrete to squeeze a car onto it. Is there a garden space, and if so, is it in sunlight enough to plant what you want? Is the balcony space what you need? Where will you park your bikes? Can you put a shed somewhere if you want?

Layout: How is the house interior designed? That living-dining area may look spacious, but when you actually try to place furniture in it, you might find that a good amount of that area is unusable–you can’t put anything there without blocking passage, and it just winds up being wasted space. Look at the living room–where will the TV, sofa, chairs, etc. go? There may not actually be a way to set things up the way you imagined. My solution was to set up the floor plan on InDesign, where I could measure things down to the centimeter, and then try putting furniture in there. That saved me a bad purchase at one point–the floor plan looked nice, but would have been a nightmare to live in. Then there are considerations I mentioned above, like shower-front door placement, and proximity of the bath to the bedroom.

Rooms: What will you use the rooms for? Where will all your stuff go? Will everything really fit? With housing being as cramped as it is in Japan, that’s a real problem sometimes. Will the kitchen be too narrow after those cabinets go in? What space will be left over once you put that double bed where you want it?

I’m sure there are things I am missing here, but these come to me right now as being some of the bigger considerations.

When you are looking, unless there is some pressing deadline you have no say about, take your time. Don’t feel pressure to take the first acceptable place you see. Ignore the realtor when he claims that most people, in retrospect, realize that the first place they saw was actually the best. Don’t worry about somebody else snatching up the place; that may happen, and so be it. Make yourself comfortable with spending a full year or more looking at places, if need be. Consider it a part-time hobby. Sure, maybe a better place than this one your found won’t come along–but time is usually on your side, or at least this is my impression.

Don’t be afraid to ask any and all questions, or to ask to visit the developer’s office, where they’ll explain everything about construction methods, how the house passed inspections, where it rates in terms of those checks, and what features there are–for example, the earthquake-proofing, the insulation methods (our place: styrofoam, apparently), or the techniques to protect against mold or termite damage, and so on.

When you do find a place that you like, then you will do what we were misled into doing too soon: you’ll be asked to put down money as a deposit while the bank considers your loan. The contract is long, and you go over every section with the realtor.

You are going to need a hanko, a “chop,” or seal with your name on it. Usually these are wood or some artificial substitute, about a centimeter in diameter and maybe four or five centimeters long, with a kanji (possibly katakana) impression of your name on the stamp side. It must be registered with the city office–though be careful after that, as the chop will then equal your signature, and if someone dishonest gets it, you could be screwed. In a home purchase, you will be using this chop a lot. I mean, seriously, a lot. Sometimes it seems like every piece of paper needs to be stamped, twice–and there are lots of papers. You will also learn your address pretty darned well, as you will have to write that personally a lot, in this step and most others. And no, no one else can do it for you, it has to be in your hand.

You then hand over the deposit (ours was a million yen, I don’t know if that’s typical but I assume so), and wait for the loan approval. This involves a visit to the bank to make the formal application, with the usual dozens of forms and stamps. You get a lecture on interest rates, and how you can switch between low variable and higher fixed rates for varying periods of time.

After this happens, you’ll also be required to decide on insurance. The cost is pre-paid and is covered by the loan. The main structure of the house comes under a 10-year warranty if you buy new, but you will want insurance to cover various types of damage, including fire, theft, flood, etc. Insurance to pay for damage to other homes if a fire from your home damages them. Optional earthquake insurance, in five-year chunks instead of the twenty for the main insurance. Do you want insurance for the structure only, or for your personal possessions as well? How much coverage?

If the bank approves, then the sale goes forward. If not, then you’re in trouble–because if one bank turns you down for reasons you cannot change (health, financial standing, etc.) then it is considered unlikely that other banks will approve you. Nonetheless, you can try; I was ready to try Citibank, for example, should the Japanese banks say no for some reason. I have no actual idea if they would have been any different, but I would not have given up.

When the loan was approved, we went back to the bank, and, once again, went through an hour or so of writing my name and address a dozen times and applying my chop to each form.

So, now we have our place–or, at least, are beginning to pay off the 33-year loan. Two payments down, 394 to go. Unless we pay off more quickly–you can pay more than is scheduled, along certain rules and plans. I hope that we can do this, otherwise we won’t own the house until we’re 79 years old. I asked the bank, by the way, if they would agree to a base plan where I paid more per month over a shorter time. They said no.

So now, including property tax and other expenses, we’re paying less per month than we were paying in rent at our last apartment–with roughly the same floor space (some of it wasted on stairs, but not too much). On paper, the place looks small, but as it turns out, the rooms are about exactly what we need–less space would cramp us badly, but more space would not be necessary, so we don’t miss it much. The house has an “LDK”–Living room, dining room, kitchen–plus a spare room (Sachi will use for her home business) on the first floor. On the second floor are three rooms–the master bedroom, my home office, and a third room we use as an upstairs living room, with reclining sofa-chairs and the TV and media stuff. There are toilets on both floors, and the shower/bath/dressing room is on the first floor.

Small things have come up. After the earthquake and resulting power crisis (that hit just after we found ourselves semi-committed, further complicating things), the train lines were irregular for some time–and when they came back to full schedules, they had taken the opportunity to change things. One change: they limited the number of through trains to the Fukutoshin. This is a pain, as now my options are less than they were before. But not a travesty or anything.

That buzzer in the parking lot next door is proving to be more of a pain than it seemed when we were looking at the place before we bought it. It’s livable, and I will probably stop noticing it after a while. But for now, it’s a tad grating. I’d consider going to the place and asking them to consider toning it down, replacing it with something else, or even eliminating it–I’m not sure if it is legally required or not–but I have the feeling it won’t be something they’ll change. Maybe a baffle or dish to focus the sound away from us.

Otherwise, we’re happy. The interior soundproofing is pretty good, so we have relative quiet indoors. Too good, in fact, sometimes–Sachi was yelling at me to come down for dinner and I couldn’t hear her, especially if I was wearing headphones, but even without. It was leading to friction until I went to a home center and bought a wireless ringer–when Sachi presses a button in the kitchen now, I get a chime and flashing light.

The doors are nice–they close silently, and have cool little magnetized gizmos set in the floor to hold them fully open. Water pressure is great, and it only takes a few seconds for hot water to come out-mostly because the water heater (in Japan, it’s just that–it immediately heats the water, and has no holding tank) is situated close to the bath and kitchen. However, aside from the toilet and its hand washlet, there is no running water upstairs. The toilet seats, as I feared when we first saw the finished place, are a shade smaller than usual (a problem for me, not for Sachi), and the bowls are shallow at the front (also a problem for me but not Sachi–now if I lean forward too much, there’s a cold shock!). But the flush is well-designed, and the bathrooms, though lacking ventilation fans, somehow don’t hold odors like our old apartment toilets did.

And finally, sometimes you just realize that this is your house, and that’s pretty cool. Everything is working fine–and yes, I know, wait ten years and things will change–but for now, it’s a new house.

So far, so good.

Categories: Hibarigaoka Tags:

Gardening, So to Speak

May 23rd, 2011 3 comments


It’s not much of a garden, even by Japanese standards, but it’s what we’ve got and it’s there. It’s a patch of dirt which measures 22 feet by 6 feet along the south side of the house, and despite there being a house just inches beyond it, it still gets a respectable amount of sunlight–quite a bit in the summer, in fact. So we wanted to do something with it, make it much more presentable.

When we got the house, it was loose dirt, but after a few rains, became somewhat more caked, and moss and weeds started growing. It would likely soon become a wild mini-weed-field soon enough. Our plan was to add planters and stepping bricks, and then fill the rest with garden stones. The stones are often used in Japan as a security feature–someone prowling around outside will make themselves known by the crunching sounds.

In any case, after scouting a few materials, Sachi sketched out an idea and I took it to InDesign and made a basic layout:


We went to a “Home Center,” the type of store in japan that specializes in this kind of stuff (like a “Home Depot,” I suppose), and found the exact stuff we wanted. We got some Goldcrest conifer shrubs and flower bushes, some low, curved brick enclosures, bricks to use as stepping stones, and a truckload of 10kg bags of the landscaping stones. We needed at least 50 bags of the stones; they were a bit less than ¥300 each. The materials arrived in the middle of the week, and have been sitting there waiting for us since then.


We set aside Saturday to do the work, and fortunately, it was nice weather, if a bit hot. First, we placed the faux-brick enclosures. Since the ground had dried unevenly, I had to dig up the dirt (which smelled uncomfortably like fish parts) and level it out before we could place them.


Next, we placed the stepping bricks as we wanted them to be, but they also sat unevenly, so it was back to churning up and the flattening out the dirt beneath them as well.





Then we were ready to lay out the stones; Sachi opened the bags, and I took them in and spread them out over the area.


We had just about enough for the minimum, but could probably use more–maybe another 20 bags to make the stones deeper where we’d like, and a few more bags to fill in the narrow dirt area on the other side, at least near the front.

When we finished, it looked pretty nice.


Later, I got a view from overhead (after it started to rain and the stones took on more color), and stitched together a few photos to see how close we came to the plan I made at the beginning:



Eventually Sachi wants to get a wire arch for the entryway (at left in the above diagram/image) which will have rosebushes growing over it. Should look nice! Now all we have to do is keep the plants alive…

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(Mostly) Moved In

April 17th, 2011 5 comments

This kind of time is always pretty hectic. Previous to the 15th, Sachi and I were packing everything we owned into boxes, not a trivial task. Whenever I had to make a run to the new house, I would load up two backpacks and sometimes another carry bag with stuff to bring, and cart it over on my scooter, as a way to get things done just a bit more quickly. We had to stop electricity, water, gas, Internet, cable TV, and probably another service or two I am forgetting. Inform the post office and file all kinds of forms.

Two days before moving day, we had construction crews at the new place installing hanger poles in the closets, curtain rods on every window, and a shelf above the door in the bath anteroom (there is almost no storage there). In the meantime, the moving crew’s electrical team came to take down the air conditioners and remove the washlet on the toilet.

On moving day, there was the predictable task of disconnecting and pre-packing the final bits, the stuff we wanted to use until the last day, and then help the movers and clean up after. In the meantime, the cable guy came to take away the old tuner. As they finished loading up the truck for the first of two trips, Sachi stayed at the old place to organize and clean, while I went to the new place to receive them and tell them where to put everything.

However, between the two trips, the cable TV guys came too early and the movers were late; while we had the TV at the new place, the power cords were in a box waiting to be brought on the second trip. So the cable guys instead did everything short of connecting the tuner–they hung cable from the street, added a booster in the space above the bath where the cables split, and brought in all the stuff. Then they had to wait, as the movers were late coming–a team of four or five guys just sitting in their vans.

When the movers finally came, they claimed that the boxes were not too far back, and they would get to them as fast as they could. But as the cable team waited, the movers not only went at a normal pace, they cleared out every other item aside from the boxes–which were crammed into the very back of the truck–and when they got to the boxes, made no effort to uncover enough so I could find the box in question. So I had to keep the cable guys waiting more than an hour before they could come in and install the tuner box.

While all that was happening, the gas guy came to get that started, and the guy who installs the screen doors came two days early. So we had, at one point, four different teams coming in and out at the same time.

After that, we faced un-boxing everything. Still maybe a quarter or a fifth of the boxes are not unpacked, but we’ve done enough over the past two days to make it look like we’re not drowning in them.

Today, the guys came to install the air conditioners–not an easy task as the house has nothing but electrical sockets for the machines. So they had to install the frames, hang the units, set up the piping–but most of all, they had to drill through the walls. We opted for covers for the outside so the piping didn’t look horrendous and the elements don’t wear down the pipes too quickly; I have to say, it looks a lot nicer than it otherwise would have.

The hole-drilling, however, left a find residue of plaster dust, like chalk dust, everywhere in the rooms they did the drilling–nearly everywhere, that is. As they were doing this, we discovered that a dresser was misplaced on the first floor–it should have been on the second floor–and the dresser was damned heavy, had drawers you can’t remove, and had no handles or bevels for getting a purchase. Nevertheless, we managed to get it up the stairs one step at a time.

We still have to unpack a few dozen boxes. Internet, as I mentioned, comes mid-week. A whole set of furniture we ordered–a reclining chair, reclining sofa, bedroom dresser, and three kitchen pieces–won’t come until the 25th, at which time I will have to assemble most of it. And we’ll have to go to the local police station to have ID cards amended. And, of course, a whole bunch of smaller projects–for example, I want to try to install carpet on all the stairs to improve purchase on them, but it will involve a lot of sizing and precise cutting and laying. Lots of little stuff like that.

So it’s a bit too early to call it a complete home yet, but at least it’s taking shape. Maybe by the end of the month, it’ll be ready.

Even as such, having your own home feels good. Park in your own driveway, do whatever you want to the walls without involving a landlord, and generally you just have your own house.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2011, Hibarigaoka Tags:

Moving Day

April 15th, 2011 4 comments

We woke up at 5:30 am to get a fresh start, and spent much of the time until 8 am finishing the last of the packing–the phones, WiFi, TV and video boxes, computers, all the stuff we wanted to use to the last day.

The movers arrived promptly at eight, and we got started closing up boxes and setting stuff up while the blue-walled everything and started wrapping up the furniture. Because the new house is so close to the old apartment, they’re using only one truck, making two goes. As I write this, they are finishing up the first round and we’re about to break for lunch.

These guys have this down to a science. They make sure that they tell you in advance all the dents and scuff marks on the furniture and the walls and floors so you’ll know they didn’t put them there. They seem to know exactly what order everything has to go in so they can cram it all into the relatively small truck. Before they make the truck run, they show you numbered plastic bands that they attach to the doors, and make sure you OK them when they are taken off at the destination, so you know they that didn’t stop and unload anything along the way.

So far, they’ve dropped a few things (like drawers falling from desks which are moved), but nothing is damaged, and as is common (though not universal; Ark was good, but Heart was not so great) with moving companies, they tend to be cheerful, helpful, and efficient.




Categories: Focus on Japan 2011, Hibarigaoka Tags:

First Flower

March 30th, 2011 1 comment

For the past few days, the cherry blossoms in the trees outside our apartment have been showing buds, almost ready to blossom. The weather this week is sunny, and for the next few days at least, is middling-to-warm–good weather for the trees to open.


Today, in fact, the first one opened. It looked like it would yesterday evening, and as it turns out, we were right.


In a day or two, the trees should start to look nice and fluffy, but will likely be gone before we move out. We closed on the new home today–got the keys and everything–and appropriate timing too, just as the first blossom arrived.

Click on either image to enlarge.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2011, Hibarigaoka Tags:

Signing, a Year Later

March 23rd, 2011 2 comments

Last March–exactly a year ago today, in fact–we laid a claim to the apartment we’re now occupying, so we could move into the place in early May. Well, less than a year later, we’re moving out, unless Fukushima erupts in a manner that would shock even Troy. (My guest, not the ancient city.) This morning, we went to the bank to sign papers for the house loan. We will close the deal in one week, barring something catastrophic, which, by my reckoning, will happen about 15 minutes after we close the deal.

If all goes well, we will be moving house in mid-April, moving into the new place–hopefully the last move in a long time.

The shortest time I have stayed in one place in Japan was when I rented an apartment in Tachikawa for one year back in 1989. The longest was my stay in Inagi, from 2000 to 2007. Our stay in Hibarigaoka will be the shortest yet, followed by the longest to be–also in Hibarigaoka, but to the north of the station. Close enough that we can almost walk our belongings over. Well, not quite, but I figure I can get some smaller stuff over in a series of quick scooter rides–I haven’t timed it, but I bet I could make the run in less than five minutes.

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March 21st, 2011 4 comments

The big full moon is out. I don’t have a telescope, but a 300mm zoom lens will do OK for tonight. Here are some pictures as the moon dodged in and out of fast-moving clouds. Really very pretty, even if it did look quite different to the naked eye. The second to last has a larger version on click.








And then here’s a video of the clouds moving in front of the moon. Don’t be fooled by the poster image for the video, the quality is better than that–but not great. It’s taken with the iPhone 4, no zoom, but imported into iMovie which can crop & zoom. Still, it gives you a small idea of how lovely it was. Just gotta use your imagination a little…

Categories: Focus on Japan 2011, Hibarigaoka Tags:


May 24th, 2010 5 comments

Just got finished with a day of furniture construction. I already made several pieces of furniture following our move, including a 6-foot by 3-foot shoe cabinet, which was a bear to get done. After a day of wrenching screws in with the screwdriver, I wanted no more of it. Later, when Sachi and I visited a “home center” (a Japanese “Home Depot” kind of store), I looked at power drivers for the hell of it–and was surprised to see that they sold for as little as $25. Hell, I thought, that would be totally worth it! So when the big desk I’d ordered came in, I went out and bought one. Very good choice–it sped things up and was way easier than doing it by hand.

First, today, I put together a cabinet we bought for the toilet room, which has a big, open alcove behind the seat, perfect for placing a cabinet to take advantage of all the vertical space. I measured the alcove’s width to be 91cm, and we ordered a cabinet which was 88cm wide, which I thought would fit nice and snug. What I neglected to consider was how we’d get it into place. Too wide to fit in the door, we had to turn it first–and that’s when I realized that the whole room was 91cm wide, and turning back an 88cm-wide cabinet with any depth to it just won’t work. But no problem–we discovered the cabinet looks great in the living room.

My desk was a much bigger task. I still have my old PC desk, but wanted something more, so my cabinets and shelf space wouldn’t be jammed full of stuff. So I went for a second desk in one room. I bought it for $300 online, and like all the other furniture we got, it’s a project you have to piece together from parts. And this was a nice, big desk–150cm wide, 60 cm deep, and 145 cm tall. It comes with shelf space on top, sliding panels for a keyboard and photo scanner under the desktop, and a separate file cabinet on casters below it. It took most of the day, but the power driver helped speed it up–but still, I finished at about 10:30 pm, and it took me another hour to clean up and rearrange. But now, this is what the room looks like now (stitched panorama to show more):


It’s a bit crowded, but it’s a room for me to sit in, not to play badminton in. I sit in the office chair and have desks on either side–one with my iMac, and the other nicely serving as a place for my MacBook Pro. The new desk:


In case you’re wondering, the blue banner with stars behind it is the Admiral’s flag from the USS Blue Ridge, the flag ship of the U.S. Seventh Fleet. A student of mine who is recently out of the Navy gave it to me (a very much appreciated gift), and it makes a very nice backdrop for the desk.

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Moved In

May 5th, 2010 10 comments

Sorry to be offline for so long. We’ve been busy, understandably. The move went pretty well, and the movers we chose, Ark, seem to be a good outfit. I explained before how their rep handled himself well, and the moving staff did the same. They arrived a half hour earlier than their estimated start time, did a good job of familiarizing themselves with the plan, and got to work right away. Any request we made was instantly carried out. They wrapped everything up well, and nothing was damaged or lost (at least as far as we can determine so far).

The day before the move, their air conditioner guy had come over and uninstalled our two units, setting them on the floor for moving, so that was all ready to go. On the day of the move, everything got transported, no problem with space in the trucks, and no difficulties in terms of logistics. (The Heart guys in Inagi were almost churlish about squeezing all of my stuff in the truck.) Within three hours, they were all packed up and ready to go. Sachi stayed behind to clean up while I scooted over to the new place so I could let them in. This is what it looked like the last time I saw it:

Vanguard Panorama 600

Now, the last time I moved, when we finished getting the trucks packed up and moved to the new place, the movers (an outfit called “Heart,” as I recall) were slow; on my scooter, I stopped by work on the way back, and still the movers did not get there until about a half hour after I did. This time, though, even without a delay more than a quick gas station pit stop, the movers got there within minutes of me–taking normal roads, no less. The Heart guys also were poor at installing stuff; they just dumped our washer-drier in its space, and said they didn’t do connections, leaving us in a pinch, as the hoses didn’t match the new setup at the time. But the Ark guys this time took care of everything, and made sure we were set up.

By the time Sachi finished up and got to our new place, the movers were mostly finished. But the place was cluttered with stuff, mostly boxes–it seemed like there was way too much stuff. It just looks like that when all your stuff is out and boxed, I guess. After the movers left, we had other visitors–delivery people, cable TV people, and a few others, to help us get started with everything. By the end of the day, we had phone, Internet, and cable TV in addition to the necessary water, gas, and electric. We were way too tired after that to do much unpacking.

The next two days were torrents of comings and goings. Two different air conditioner installers came; one to reinstall the ones we had previously, and one to install two new ones we just bought (for a bargain 35,000 yen each, a sale we found a few weeks ago). Another guy came to install the heated toilet seat with bidet (can’t do without that), and a variety of other goods were brought to us–a 6 x 3 foot shoes cabinet for the foyer (which I spent most of yesterday putting together), shelves for a kitchen spot, lamps for two rooms that needed them, and I forget what else. Oh yeah, a gas stove/range, which I installed. Later, while I installed lamps and laid wires, Sachi laid new topsoil for all the potted plants, which we hope will do away with the infestation of fungus gnats which we believe breed there. They’ve been in our faces for two years now; I hope we got rid of them. And then there was the unpacking, which we’re still only about 80% of the way through–but enough so that we don’t have to dodge boxes wherever we walk so much anymore.

So today we went out to visit home centers, hoping to find little “furniture” items that could help hold all the stuff we want to put in certain places, and take advantage of otherwise blank spaces in the apartment. Like this large counter space behind the toilet that would just be a big, empty, wasted space, or the ledge next to the washer & drier which we need to hold much more stuff. The kitchen pantry is great, but has way too much wasted vertical space, so we’re trying to find smaller shelving and boxes to add to it. We found some good stuff, but decided that it’d be cheaper, faster, and much easier to buy it online. But hey, home center stores are great fun anyway.

After that, we did the obligatory visit to the neighbors with little gifts, what you’re supposed to do in Japan when you move in somewhere. Two people were home, another two were out, and the last place seems to be in mothballs. Still, the neighbors seem like decent folks. Over the next week or two, we’ll have to finish up notifying all businesses and government offices of our new address.

The apartment: we’ve only been here for 3 days, but already several points are becoming apparent. First, it’s a big place. Great for spreading out, bad for trying to find Sachi to talk to her about something. Closet space is fantastic–we have five full-sized closets, and one small one. The small one is in the toilet-bath-laundry area, which is contrarily lacking in storage space, a lot less roomy than our old place–ironic, because it seems to take up more space in the new place. So while we’re struggling to figure out where to jam stuff in the bath area, we’ve got tons of closet space elsewhere.

The water pressure is so-so, and we’re back to having a system where we have to turn on the gas heater to get warm water. My solution back in inagi was simple: leave it on all the time. Sachi originally thought about turning it on and off every time we used warm water, but I balked and so now we turn it on in the morning and off at night or when we both leave for a few hours. The toilet room is OK–more isolated from the rest of the place, though not as well soundproofed–but it kinda has that new-apartment mildew smell to it, which I think this building is prone to. I’m not worried, Sachi has an innate (neurotic) sense for fighting stuff like that.

The soundproofing for the whole place is rather weak. Internal walls and doors are easy to hear through, and we could even hear stuff that neighbors are doing at their loudest–a switch from our last place, which was built more fortress-mansion-like. Still, it’s not so bad. However, I would not want to live with more than my wife here with the noise like that. Interestingly, the place could potentially house a family of five easily, six if you use what seems to be the foundation for a partition to make part of the living room a small extra room. If every room had two people, that would mean as many as 10 people in the place. I’m actually a bit surprised that poorer East Asian immigrant tenants, sometimes known for loading up in apartments, haven’t moved in to one of these units (people who don’t mind living in other people’s noise); rent would work out to about $150 per person, a steal for Tokyo. I only mention it because it almost seems like the place was designed for that. Or at least a large (for Japan) family with grandparents shacking up with them.

The sunlight is not too bad, but nothing direct enters the apartment. Most of the time it’s bright enough, but the dining room does get dark in the daytime sometimes; Sachi commented that a skylight would be perfect for the dining area, and I agree.

The neighborhood is pretty good. There’s a fantastic yakitori joint across the street from us which has terrific chicken on a stick, and they do take-out. We ate from there the first two nights. It’s 100 yen per stick, and they’re not chintzy on the meat.


Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be too many other eateries too close, but I’m sure we’ll unearth some good places nearby soon. Denny’s is right across from us, and they’re not bad. As I think I mentioned before, there’s a big supermarket with large drug store and dollar shop around the block (a rather large block), open till 9 (the market until 10:45pm), and a smaller 24-hour supermarket much closer, almost across the street.


And there seem to be four home centers within a 20-minute bike ride, a long with a lot of other stuff.

One more nice point: while our south-facing windows mostly look out on a 15-story bank of danchi, when we leave the apartment, the hallway overlooks a nice park, seen in panorama below. Down point: lots of kids making noise during the day, and a hangout for older kids later in the evening (which has me worried about the bicycles and the scooter). But nice to look at most of the time.

Hibari Park Panorama 600

Overall, it’s a good move. We miss some of the nicer appointments of Vanguard Tower, but for a place that’s saving us a relative thousand bucks a month, we haven’t traded down nearly so far as it might sound.

Categories: Hibarigaoka, Ikebukuro Tags:


April 17th, 2010 1 comment

Today, Sachi and I took on the moving company situation. Sachi did most of the work, actually. She called several places, and only two were willing or able to send people over today. So we saw one at about noon, and the other just past 3 pm, and got estimates.

The first guy failed to impress us from the start. To begin with, he ran about an hour late. Worse, he didn’t contact us to let us know; about 45 minutes after the appointed time, we finally called the company to find out what was up. Soon after, the guy called us, no doubt having received a call from his office in response to our own call.

When these guys come to your apartment, they go through the place counting everything up. Each item has a point value assigned to it, and the total number of points determines the number of trucks and how big they are, and in the end, the price. As an interesting side point, it brought up how Japanese and Americans tally numbers differently. In the U.S., we make four vertical lines, and then cross them with one diagonal stroke to make a group of five; in Japan, they spell out the kanji “,” which has five strokes, one stroke being drawn at a time as a way of counting each item.

Anyhow, after the guy finishes the count, we all sit down and he hands us some reading materials while he adds things up. There are a lot of variables: air conditioners cost extra to take down and re-install; they will take care of throwing out stuff you don’t need (like furniture), but that also comes at a fee; then there are four or five different sizes of trucks, and buildings often restrict the size (in our case, we are not allowed to bring in any truck over 3 tons). So we spend time talking about that as well.

So this first guy comes forward with an offer: 300,000 yen. Yikes! I blanched when I saw that–$3250 for a move about 12 miles distant. I am pretty certain, however, that this guy was intentionally giving us a high figure. We live in a pricey location, so he maybe thought we’d pay the amount without thinking. If not, he could then slash the price and act like he’s doing us a special favor. In the end, he went down to 190,000 yen (a bit over $2000). However, it was a bit of a struggle, with him constantly calling his office and asking about availability of trucks. He had this crazy scheme of of using three trucks–two 2-ton trucks and one 4-ton truck–and using the 2-ton trucks to carry stuff out of our apartment, meet up with the 4-ton truck to load it up, and then send the 2-ton trucks back for a second load, and all three would then go and unload at the new place. Weird.

We also came up against another hitch in terms of the moving day: the auspiciousness of the day involved. In Japan, there is a kind of astrology of sorts for the calendar called Rokuyo, with each day having one of six designations. Taian days are the luckiest; that’s when everyone wants to do stuff. Especially weddings–Sachi and I got married (both civil and ceremonial weddings) on Taian days. Butsumetsu are considered unluckiest. When we were discussing which day to move, the 3rd of May came up, but Sachi was very reluctant: that’s Butsumetsu. And it wasn’t just her; the moving company charged least for that day, doubtless because nobody in Japan wants to move on that day. We only got the price down to 190,000 yen by getting the salesman to give us the Butsumetsu rates for the day before.

Later, the second guy comes. He also is late, but immediately calls us at the appointed time to let us know how late he’ll be. (Just 15 minutes, as opposed to an hour late for the other guy). He goes through the same routine, albeit with a nicer, easier manner than the first guy. Chats at first, then counts the stuff, then sits down and calculates while we go over the time-killing materials. Then he gives us an estimate: about 190,000 yen. Very promising: he started where the other guy finished. Sachi, fortunately, is very good at haggling (a particular weakness where I am concerned), and talked the guy down to 157,500 ($1700). I am pretty sure that, like most salesmen, he had this figure pretty much set from the start based on some formula or another. We figured that we would probably not get a better deal elsewhere, so we signed. The guy brought up some cardboard boxes and tape and we committed.

Both salesmen asked how much the other one bid, with the first guy desperately trying to find out if he could salvage the deal when we called him up later to tell him the bad news. Maybe if we were a bit more ruthless, we could have played them off of each other, but neither of us is that “good” at negotiating–or at least, we don’t want to be.

So now the move date is set; we went downstairs and handed in the papers informing our current building when we’ll leave. But there are now a tsunami of other things to handle, packing just being one of them. We have to now cancel phone, electric, water, cable, and Internet service, and get them arranged for the new place. Then there are the official papers–tax and residency registrations, licenses and IDs, bank and other notifications that have to be dealt with. A ton of paperwork, in short. Then we have to finish buying stuff for the new place–an electronic toilet seat and washlet/bidet, a gas stove/range for the kitchen, lamps for the ceiling, and various furniture (cabinets, desks, chairs, etc.) that will be appropriate for the new place. Thank goodness we have about $7500 in deposit money coming back–we’ll need it. The deposit for the new place is a lot less as the rent is less, and will be payable over three years. That, plus the $1000-a-month savings in rent will more than cover all the expenses.

Categories: Hibarigaoka Tags:

Hibarigaoka It Is

April 16th, 2010 1 comment

Looking for a nice apartment? One is about to open up in Ikebukuro. A 2LDK, about 70 square meters, building is less than three years old. Nice hardwood floors, under-floor heating, 21st-floor view from northeast to the south, plenty of balcony space. It’s opening up after we leave around the start of May. Down side: pricey, at 250,000 yen a month. (Ouch! Did we pay that much for so long? What were we thinking?)

We got the Ikebukuro place when we still had two incomes, and could easily afford it. Not any more… so we’re moving farther out, to Hibarigaoka, as I mentioned earlier. Not that we absolutely have to, but it’s hard to justify living in the place we do any more. After my permanent residency comes through, and we find a bank that’ll give us a loan, we’ll start looking again for a house to buy–but that could take a while, and this will be our domicile until we move into a place we own. The apartment we decided on is the same place I outlined in this blog post. But today we were able to go inside after the renovation was finished, and decided that, yes, this would do for the next year or so.

Here’s a stitched-panorama shot taken from the south-west corner (lower left corner of the yellow-colored living/dining room as seen in the map below):


Below is a view from the room marked “Poza Room” on the map above, looking west to “Luis’ Room”; as you can see, we can slide open the doors between them, and even remove the doors completely so as to make one big room:


The down point: we’ll have to buy some new stuff. We have two air conditioners, but the new place needs at least four. On our way home, we stopped at “Labi” and found a model on sale for 35,000 yen–a very low price for a heating/cooling conditioner, and that price comes with installation. We still have to purchase at least two more ceiling lamps, a gas cooking stove, a shoes cabinet for Sachi, and a few other pieces of furniture. Tomorrow about 3 different movers will come through and give us estimates on how much it’ll cost to pack up and transport all of our stuff to the new place. Due to size restrictions on visiting trucks, we’ll have to limit ourselves to 2-ton vehicles; it’ll take at least two to make the trip.

After we get a mover who’ll commit to a moving day during Golden Week, we will sign the contract with UR and officially give notice on moving out of our current place.

Categories: Hibarigaoka Tags:

Signed, Not Yet Sealed

March 23rd, 2010 1 comment

Well, we laid our claim on the apartment with UR yesterday, so if we find that we indeed like the place, and if we don’t find a better place in the next month, we will likely be moving in sometime in late April or early May. We still want to look at a few places we’ve singled out from UR’s rather considerable inventory, in particular a place 9 minutes’ walk from Kokuryo Station on the Keio Line. However, I must say that I am more and more enamored of the Hibarigaoka situation–the large apartment, the quiet surroundings, the nearby shopping, the station and line. But something better could pop up, you never know. For example, there’s a building at a station called Oizumi Gakuen on the Seibu Ikebukuro; it is virtually right next to the station, and the area looks nice. Alas, when we asked, no units of the size we’re looking for were available. However, should something come up, we will be interested. And something else could crop up elsewhere that we didn’t expect.

Right now, we’re just biding our time on Hibarigaoka. The current people move out in three days (we saw moving boxes stacked up in the windows when we were in the area), and then UR will reform the place until April 16. We will not be allowed to view the actual apartment interior until then. We could, in theory, see it that day, make our decision, and sign the contract all at once, and then we could move in no sooner than one week later. That would allow us to move before Golden Week, and before I start working again after the Spring Break.

The problem is leaving our current place. We must give 2 week’s notice, and once given, we can’t take it back. So if we were to move into the new place on April 23 or 24, we would need to give notice of leaving our current place around April 10–a week before we even see the new place. And if, for some unforeseen reason, we don’t like the new place, we would be stuck–forced to move out of our current place a week later, and would have no place to move into. So, instead, just to be 100% safe, we will hold off canceling our current lease until after we’ve seen the Hibarigaoka unit, and instead will move either during Golden Week (should we be able to get a moving company to take us then), or just after. Less than ideal, but not unworkable.

Just for fun, here are some photos from our trips to check out the apartment and the neighborhood. First, the stairs to the third floor: the first and second floors are 2-story “maisonettes,” so the stairs go straight up to the third floor:

Hg 3F Walk 01

Alternately, the elevator is in the next building over. See the little map below; the stairs start from the lower left side (where one comes in from the street); to take the elevator, you keep going to the next building, take the elevator up to the 3rd floor, then cross over that little circular building between.

Hg Elevator Path

Here’s the circular building, with the garden on top.

Hg 3F Green 01

Doesn’t look like much now, but later in spring it should green up nicely. The bird feeder is in there, and it seems like a nice little spot to sit and rest outdoors in nice weather.

Hg 3F Green 02

From there, you cross a small plexiglass-sided bridge to get to our unit.

Hg 3F Walk 02

Here’s a shot of the taller building to the south of the place we signed up for, from the bus stop across the street. Our place is just out of frame to the left.

Hg Bus 02

The bus stop has a radio connection and a timer telling you how long before the bus gets there. I would presume that it is in contact with the bus and lets you know how far out it is (I saw the same system in Inagi), but as we watched, it went down to 0 minutes … then no bus … and then it went to 9 minutes … and then the bus came a minute or two later. So we’ll have to see about that. If it is just a slightly-off system and we get used to its quirks, it’ll be nice to know exactly when the next bus will be along.

Hg Bus 01

Here’s a shot of the Daiso. It’s around a largish city block, and so maybe 4-5 minutes’ walk away. But it’s a very nice and very large supermarket, a sizable pharmacy, and a huge discount shop–effectively a 100-yen shop, but with items going up in price to 1000 yen.

Hg Daiso 02

One nice thing about this is that the Costco run will be easier for me. In Inagi, it was a dead-simple 20-minute run over wide, straight country roads (alas, speed trap-infested ones), but from Ikebukuro, I have to plow through most of Tokyo’s traffic to get to the closest Kawasaki branch. From Hibarigaoka, however, the Iruma Costco is close enough so that the drive may be cut down to 30-40 minutes. This coming weekend, I may ride out to Hibarigaoka to check out the neighborhood again, but then ride out to Iruma and time the ride. Alas, it’s even farther from the train station than is usual for a Costco, so train runs might not be an option.

It may sound like work, but for me, it’s always fun to check out new living areas.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2010, Hibarigaoka Tags:

Domicile Hunt, Part II

March 21st, 2010 7 comments

As is usual with a house-hunt, plans have changed a bit. Nothing final, but some developments. First, Sachi and I have switched preference from the first apartment I featured here a few days back. While it was a nice apartment, there were a few minor down points. While we were OK with the first floor, that was not a big plus for us. It was a touch on the small side for us, though it would have sufficed, to be sure. The toilet room was placed too centrally for my taste; I don’t like toilet rooms that feature sound from that room so prominently to the rest of the apartment. All these are minor points. A slightly bigger problem was location; at the far side of the development, it was pushing more than 15 minutes in walking distance to the train station. A potential problem was a construction site on the other side of the building. Plus points were the fact that it was brand-new, there was a Seiyu supermarket a few minutes away, and it was among park-like territory, with nice birds flying about.

Sachi and I can’t move house until at least mid-April, however, and putting a claim on the apartment would have necessitated that we move in earlier than that. So we waited for a week (risking the place being snapped up), and in that time, did a bit more looking around. One thing we found was another project in Hibarigaoka–same station area–but an older development, this one about ten years old. But we found that for just about ¥14,000 a month extra, we could upgrade from a 3LDK to a 4LDK–from 84 m2 to 89 m2.

The problem: we can’t even see the place until mid-April. The current tenants won’t move out for another 5 days or so, and UR won’t give us a peek until the reforming is done on April 16th. We’d love to tell them it’s OK, we won’t be scared by a little mold on the walls–but they were sticklers about it. So all we have to go on is the floor plan and a look at the unit from the outside. Here’s the floor plan:


The “Poza Room” is where Sachi does her aromatherapy / reflexology stuff. Sachi and I would each have a room to ourselves to use as office / den / workrooms. Sachi might use the feature of opening up the rooms between her work room and the “Poza Room.” (I might use the door space for shelves.)

Here’s a view from above:

2Goto 01

The new place in Hibarigaoka has some nice pluses. It’s on the top floor of the building; admittedly, it’s a three-story building, but noise from above tends to be the most notable, so having no one above is nice. It’s big, with a significantly sized living-dining room combo and a kitchen with an open counter to the dining room, and four rooms aside from that. The three smaller rooms are together and actually can be semi-combined by opening sliding doors. The hallway space is mostly adjunct to the other rooms, opening things up more. The kitchen opens to both sides, as does the bath, accessible directly from the master bedroom. There’s a small park on one side, the rest of the development on the other. There’s even an elevated nature area right outside, complete with bird feeder, which I think I could load and attract some nice birds with.

The down sides include the age of the building–at ten years, it’s not new. There’s a lot of green–including on top of the building–though as you can see above, it mostly turns brown and bare in the winter. The park outside is nice, but it was filled with kids at the time we were there, a bit of a noise potential. And the 14-story buildings are right in the southern-facing view; not only does a third-story apartment lack a good view, it is easily blocked.

However, the sun mostly stays above the buildings to the south, and strategically-placed trees help with the general effect. Moreover, the local amenities are not to be sneezed at: it’s on Yato Blvd., a good north-south road leading straight to Hibarigaoka and Tanashi Stations; there’s a bus station right out front; there’s a 24-hour supermarket right across the street, and on the far side of that block, a large combination supermarket / pharmacy / Daiso (discount store) open till almost 11pm.

The distance from the station is roughly equivalent to the place from last week–at 12 minutes walking (I timed it), it’s at least a few minutes closer, and along the main road too.

In the development in question, we were able to see a room–but only one that was a bit small for us. It was, however, on the 13th of 14 floors. The view was magnificent–north of Tokyo laid out behind you as you come in the front door, and from the balcony, all of south Tokyo laid out–from the skyscrapers of Shinjuku on the left, to Mt. Fuji on the right. Fuji was even in view when we visited:

Fuji Hibari

But then we thought back on the two and a half years we’ve spent in Ikebukuro: despite having a great view, we almost never actually look at it. We do, however, use the floor space in our apartment on a regular basis. So as nice as the view may be, floor space trumps it.

In the room we saw, though, we could get an idea of how ten years looks on the building, and what the fittings are like. Similar to many UR housing developments, the materials are pretty basic and relatively unattractive. Still, it’ll do.

So, will we go with the new place? Probably what we’ll do is put our claim on it. Since it is just now opening up, it gives us more time to look for another place. UR allows you to place a claim on a room, but if it’s open, you must make a final decision within a week. However, since this place won’t be open for viewing until mid-April, we get to keep our hold without a commitment until then, allowing us to spend the next month looking at possible alternatives, seeing if anything else opens up.

So, that’s probably what we’ll do–pass on the place I blogged about last week, and sign up for this other place tomorrow–then take our time looking at still more places. Whee!

Domicile Hunt

March 18th, 2010 5 comments

(This post covers the move Sachi and I plan to make soon; if you know much about the location or anything else we’re considering here, advice, information, or other input in the comments would be greatly appreciated!)

At the beginning of this year, Sachi and I decided that it was time to move. For two and a half years we have been living in our apartment in Ikebukuro, and that’s much too long. Don’t get me wrong, we love it–but it’s way too pricey. When we moved in, we had two incomes and could easily afford it–it actually was less than our previous rents combined. But then Sachi stopped working, for a short time we thought, but then the short time got longer. We really should have moved to a new place a year ago, but I guess we just got complacent. As a result, we’ve been treading water financially–at least in terms of salary and the bank account, with the Apple stock taking over as the only factor increasing our assets.

So from the beginning of the year, we started looking into the idea of buying a home. We chose an initial direction–Musashi Kosugi, just on the other side of the Tama River from Tokyo on a good train line–and started to look around. We got a realtor we liked who started looking into properties for us, and began the process of applying for a bank loan.

As it turned out, the loan didn’t go through; what may eventually decide it for us is my obtaining permanent residency in Japan. That should not be a problem–after 12 straight years living here, with the career of college professor, and married to a Japanese national, I’m more or less a shoo-in. I applied a few weeks ago, but it could take 3-6 months, and even after that, the loan could take a bit more to clear, and then just finding a place we’d like to buy could take even longer–maybe even a year or more. Meanwhile, our money is going down the rent drain.

So we’ve decided to move to a new place in the meantime, and mid-April–when I have a break from school, and Sachi finishes getting her license in aromatherapy–seems like the perfect time. It’ll mean moving out of Ikebukuro, where we have enjoyed the benefits of living in central Tokyo, not to mention a nice apartment on the 21st floor with a great view–but you get what you pay for, and pay for what you get.

One of the nice things about the place we have is the landlord–or the lack of one. We live in a building run by “UR” (Urban Renaissance), a public agency which has the very attractive features of solid, modern units, relatively low rents, no usurious “gift money” for landlords or commission for real estate agents (which combined is usually equal to three months’ rent!), and absolutely no problems with being a foreigner. You do pay three months’ rent as a deposit, but they are very honest about refunding it–they gave me back nearly all my deposit when I left my place in Inagi, despite a lot of damage to the place over time. If we move out of this UR apartment and into another one, we’ll actually come out with more money, as the rent will be lower and the deposit difference will be well in our favor.

After checking around, we have found what looks to be a good candidate, in a place called Hibarigaoka. It’s on the Seibu Ikebukuro Line, the second express stop out, just 15 minutes from Ikebukuro. Even better, there seem to be four trains per hour that run through to the Fukutoshin Line, which goes more or less straight to my work–two of them express trains (at worst, the train ride would be 40 minutes–perfect for watching a TV episode on an iPad…). The station area is pretty nice, with a fair amount of shopping and resources. It is a bit far out, roughly as far as Tanashi, Koganei, and Chofu–even almost as far out as Inagi, where I used to live, but on a much more straight line in to central Tokyo. Ome Boulevard runs right past that area, and to test it out I rode my scooter from Hibarigaoka to my school, and it took only a bit longer than half an hour–as with Inagi, the scooter would be faster. Catch a few lights, and it’d be a bit under 30 minutes. As an added bonus, it might even get me back to birdwatching; the place we’re looking at seems to have good birds right where it is, but the location is also a very short scooter ride from Koganei Park and Tama Reien, two good birding spots.

The apartment we’re thinking of is part of a renovation project they’re undertaking in Hibarigaoka, and about time. There’s a very old housing project there consisting of almost 200 buildings, and they look horrifyingly bad–just completely rusted, stained, run-down–as close to “slum-like” as I’ve ever seen in Japan. These are being torn down and replaced with new buildings.

We were first drawn to a unit which looked great–93 square meters, 4LDK (four rooms in addition to the main “LDK,” the living-dining-kitchen). And it is a good unit–but there’s a reason it hasn’t been snapped up yet: noise. It is right on a well-traveled road with buses constantly running through, and there’s a huge construction project going up right across the street. The windows are all double-paned glass and it’s not that bad, but it’s too much of a risk to take on just a short inspection. Too bad–as the unit is also just a few feet away from the neighborhood supermarket. But if noise were not a problem, it would have been snapped up by someone in any case, and still not an option for us.

Apt-Floorplan-01But when we came to check that one out, we also took a look at another unit which is now our prime candidate (pictured at right). It’s 85 square meters, 3LDK with a good-sized bedroom. Although the living-dining area is a tad smaller than our current place, it is bigger overall by about 12 square meters. We would use the extra room as an office or den, where my computer and other stuff would be set up; what I marked as “Sachi’s Room” is where she’d do her business with visiting clients. The rooms are all quite large–most places have rooms that max out at 6 tatami, whereas these rooms start at almost that size.

The unit is on the first floor, but it’s away from major traffic and has very nice landscaping all around (tons of cherry blossom and other nice trees). There’s a unit above us, but that’s it; the apartment is at one end of the building, and the other side is the entrance hall, so no neighbors to make noise there. Three sides of the apartment is windowed and it looks very nice. The terrace is wide enough to put a table and eat outside when it’s nice. They even have screen doors installed–something most apartments don’t have, and that costs you more. It’s a bit farther out from things–about 14 minutes’ walk from the station as opposed to the 10 minutes for the unit we originally were interested in, and it’s a 3-4 minute walk from the supermarket (a nice, large Seiyu open till 1 am), but that’s not a big problem. There will be construction one building over (the next stage of the renovation of the project), but it’s on the far side of the building and so shouldn’t be too bad. We probably won’t even have trouble with neighbors’ cigarette smoke drifting in (knock on wood).

There is one big down point: the toilet. Note from the map that it’s smack in the middle of the apartment, where the, um, toilet noises will be quite audible for most of the apartment. Worse, the toilet is plain-jane, no washlet with electric seat and bidet, something which Sachi and I now would have a very hard time doing without. But the noise issue is something we can live with I guess, and we can always buy a washlet–expensive, but not overly so.

One nice thing: the rent is $1000 per month lower than what we pay now. Not only will that save us a bundle in rent money on a monthly basis, helping to save up for the down payment on the house we’ll eventually buy, but it also means that when we move, if we get our full deposit back (which I suspect we will), we’ll have $3000 left over after paying up the new deposit. That’ll help pay for the washlet, the moving costs, and leave a nice chunk of change left over.

An interesting addendum: the unit I just described is in Higashi-Kurume City. Interestingly, the first unit we were interested in is in Nishi-Tokyo City–the city limit cuts through the development, with different city rules and regs–trash pickup is different, for instance, and we would get to use the local library almost across the street from us–only available for nice Higashi-Kurume folk, not those shifty Nishi-Tokyo riffraff.

If we move to this place, it’ll probably be around April 15~20, when I’m on break and after Sachi finishes her current training, so the timing would be good. We might even be greeted by the cherry blossoms, I’d have to check when they’re in bloom this year.

So, anyone have any input? Higashi-Kurume, Hibarigaoka Station on the Seibu-Ikebukuro Line, a UR apartment, 1st floor in a new building, etc. We haven’t committed yet, but will have to soon if we want it.