Japan is a country about the size of California (and 75% of that is mountainous), yet has a population of about 126 million (nearly half the US population). 25% of the population lives in the Tokyo area (Kanto) and over 50% of the population lives between the Osaka area (Kansai) and Kanto. As soon as you arrive, you’ll be faced with the next big challenge if you plan to stay here: finding a place to live. When you come to Japan you should bring at least US$5,000, and several thousand more if you need to get your own place in a big city like Tokyo or Osaka (where most of the jobs are).
Moving to Japan isn’t cheap, and living here certainly isn’t. If the school/company you’ll work for already has an apartment/dorm set up, you’re in luck — this’ll save you from a big hassle, but you won’t be able to choose where you live. If not, you’re on your own. Apartments in Japan are found through real-estate agents (fudosan). Many have ads of available apartments pasted on their windows, and magazines for apartment-seekers exist as well.
For your first few nights, you may need to stay in a hotel or youth hostel. For hotels, you have 4 cheaper options — a “Love Hotel”, a capsule hotel, a Ryokan, and a Business Hotel. A business hotel is the most straightforward — it is just a spartan hotel with your own room. A ryokan, or Japanese inn, is cheaper though and you may or may not have your own room. Hygiene also varies. Youth hostels are a cheap alternative but privacy is often lacking. That said, staying in one can be fun and you can pick up a lot of good info from others there. Availability can be a big problem though. A capsule hotel is perhaps the cheapest with a coffin-sized room for you to sleep in. There may be a sauna in the hotel also. However, most if not all these hotels are for men only. The last option, the love hotel, is a hotel you can use for a few hours or a full night, for obvious reasons.
Afterward, you’ll probably end up in your own apartment, a “weekly manshon”, or a “gaijin house”. Weekly manshon are like apartments or small condos you rent on a weekly basis — they are cheaper than a hotel but more expensive than a regular apartment. They may provide a temporary home but will drain your financial reserves if you stay too long. The gaijin house is like a college dormitory and can be fun and informative also. You can also escape the huge fees of moving into an apartment until you earn enough money; on the flip side, they’re only available in the largest cities, and security of your items may be an issue. Costs range from 40,000 yen a month and up.
For looking for housing, try The Japan Times or regional ex-pat magazines.
When choosing an apartment a few things to consider are: How close it is to a bus or train station? How close it is to a supermarket, post office, restaurant or laundromat? Is it on a busy street? (Many motorcycle gangs called “bosozoku” love blowing your eardrums out at all hours of the night by revving their engines). Is it near a hostess-bar (“sunakku”)? Then I hope you like the drunken wails of old men who actually think they can sing. Is the place old? Then you might have lots of roaches in the summer who want to party with you. Is it on a slope? Japanese bicycle brakes will make your ears bleed. Is there any building construction going on in the area? Can you adapt to the Japanese toilet? Does the place face south where more sun shines in? Is the place smaller than your closet back home? Can you afford it? These are some things to think over carefully.
Rooms are measured according to how many tatami mats fit into it. A tatami mat (-jo) is 1.8m x 90cm, and a typical room has 6-jo, or about 10 square meters. A 1K apt. has one 6-jo room, 1DK has that plus a kitchen room, 1LDK has that plus a living room. Other apartments have 2DK which means 2 6-jo rooms and kitchen room, etc. A small one-person apt. in Tokyo can easily cost over $800/month in rent excluding utilities. Your next hurdle is finding a fudosan which will actually serve you. Some fudosan refuse foreigners, or drag their feet and make excuses until you go away. At this point screaming about discrimination and “My Rights” until your face turns purple won’t help you. In many cases it’s actually the landlord who doesn’t want you, not the fudosan. Assuming you find a fudosan that’ll help you, most will show you whatever places they have open for no fee — you only pay if you decide to move in.
Now comes the sticker shock: in most places, before you can move in, you have to pay your first months rent, an amount of one month’s rent as commission to the fudosan, 2 months’ worth as a deposit (shikikin), and 2 months’ worth to show your deep thanks (read: BRIBE) called “reikin”. When you leave, if your place is in pristine condition you might get some of your deposit back, in many cases you’ll get little or none at all. To get the apartment you’ll also need a guarantor. It can be the same person who guarantees your visa or someone else. To sign the contract you may be asked to use a personal name stamp (called “inkan” or “hanko”) You can have one carved up for you at a shop that deals in them for around 2000 yen or so. Both you and the fudosan should receive a copy of the contract. Read through or have every provision carefully explained to you before you sign. And before you sign, make sure you note down whatever wear & tear/damage is in the apartment first and have that acknowledged in the contract or else YOU might be paying for it when you move out.
If you change apartments, some owners require at least a one-month advance notice or you may have to pay a penalty.
Setting up your apartment — Utilities
So now you’re in your new place, nearly broke, and tired after moving lots of stuff. What’s next? Getting your utilities installed — the phone, electricity, water, gas. Your fudosan can help you in getting some of these items taken care of quickly. First the electricity — on the circuit breaker there should be a post card with the last meter reading, the last person living there, etc. Use this tag as your application for your electricity. Fill it out and mail it or take it to your electric company. For water, notify your local waterworks bureau in your district (ku). Do the same for your local gas company but first make sure there are no abnormalities in your gas equipment.
The telephone is a little more complicated. First you need to get a “subscription right”. You can buy one straight from NTT, or a broker or another individual can sell you theirs for less. Another option is renting phone service from a separate company, but in that case you might not be able to make international calls. A subscription right from NTT costs 74,984 yen — you’ll need an ID to apply. On top of that are installation charges, which if the phone wiring already exists will cost 2,000 yen (+5% consumption tax). To sell your subscription right to another, you need your ID, the other party’s ID, and have to pay 840 yen. Phone options include: touch-tone phone: 390 yen/month+tax (and 2000 yen installation fee), call-waiting: 300/month+tax yen (if you also have a touch-tone service with this, 50 will be discounted), 3-way calling: 500 yen/month+tax, etc. For free information in English on all this dial 0120-019116, then push 1 for a voice message or 2 for receiving a fax. Bringing your own phone/answering machine to Japan would be a good money-saving idea.
The basic fee for your phone bill will be about 2310 yen before you make any phone calls.
The costs for phone calls from a residential home are:
Within same district (ku): 9 yen per 3 min.
To adjacent district (ku): 10 yen per 90 sec.
up to 20km 10 yen per 90 sec.
up to 30km 10 yen per 45 sec.
up to 60km 10 yen per 36 sec.
up to 100km 10 yen per 22.5 sec.
over 100km 10 yen per 10 sec.
* On weekday evenings (7-11PM):
up to 60km 10 yen per 30 sec.
over 100 km 10 yen per 22.5sec.
* Late night (11PM-8AM)
Within district: 10 yen per 4 min.
To adjacent district: 10 yen per 2 min.
up to 20km 10 yen per 120 sec.
up to 30km 10 yen per 60 sec.
up to 60km 10 yen per 60 sec.
up to 100km 10 yen per 45 sec.
over 100km 10 yen per 30 sec.
NOTE: The prices are different for pay phones, which charge 10 yen per minute for calls within the city.
Cheaper companies for domestic long distance calls in Japan also exist, such as Daini Denden (Tel. (811) 2011 0077), Japan Telecom (Tel. (811) 2000 8882) and Nippon Kosoku Tsushin (Tel. (811) 20030070).
Now that you have your new apartment, you’ll need to put stuff in it. If you’re not too genteel, there’s one other alternative. One night of every month (varying from area to area) people dump their large, non-burnable trash (sodai gomi). Many people throw out perfectly usable electric appliances, chairs, bikes, shelf units, etc. Many old men run around in small trucks like vultures hoping to get something good. You might too. But the early bird gets the worm.