My apartment building used to be called “Young Leaves Heights” (若葉ハイツ ). Many old and rundown apartments in Japan have fancy names like “Heights” and “Corpos”, “Maisons” and “Palaces”. My apartment building is pretty old too, but it got renovated inside and out, and made as new as could be. It got a fancy new name too, that I am not going to tell you, for obvious reasons. I was the first tenant to move into my unit after it had been renovated, and I am loving it so far.
To say that it was easy to rent this apartment would be an understatement. Let me start at the beginning.
Last year in June, when I left for Kenya, I cancelled my then apartment’s lease and used my friend’s address to receive my mail. Her address also acted as my residence “on paper”. I used it for all the paperwork I had to do during maternity leave – so much paperwork – including applying for daycare.
In February, when I came back to Japan, I needed a place to crash while I re-settled and looked for a new place to rent. Luckily, my friend was out of the country and said I could use her place while I searched for a new apartment. I was pretty busy that month, just trying to establish a routine, preparing for daycare for K, preparing to go back to work in April, finding a school for Jeremy and applying for his certificate of eligibility so I could renew his (Jeremy’s) residency; all these in addition to looking for an apartment.
Her apartment was a spacious 1K – one room (1) and a separate space for a kitchen (K) – not bad for one person. It wasn’t too bad with the baby either, as we often went out to play and to run our very many errands. We’d come home to eat, shower, and sleep, then out again the following day.
It wasn’t long before trouble started.
One morning, there was a knock on the door. The apartment didn’t have an intercom so I just shouted, who’s there? I basically don’t open doors in Japan unless I know the person or it’s a delivery. Sure, Japan is safe but.
“It’s the management company.”
“What is it?” I asked through closed doors.
“We heard there’s a baby here. Are you living here with a baby? Your neighbours are complaining. Of course if there is a child there will be noise and it can’t be helped but you can’t have a baby in here. Please open the door.”
I was in shock. I refused to open the door.
I am not lying when I tell you that Kai is not a cry baby. He sleeps all night. Sure, he does feed frequently at night, but in his sleep. He makes a lot of (happy) baby noises once he wakes up, that’s true. Who would complain about that? The quiet lady next door or the couple upstairs? Regardless, I needed to find a new apartment sooner than later, but this did not bode well with me.
A few days later, on a Saturday afternoon, a couple of friends who lived nearby brought me lunch and as we were talking, in normal voices (none of us naturally loud), we heard another knock. Again, the lady from management company. She said our voices were too loud, that the neighbours were getting disturbed. Could we keep it down?
It was like 4pm in the afternoon. We were not playing music. No TV. Just three people having a conversation. Clearly, someone hated me and my baby’s presence in that building, and seeing my friends over was driving them crazy. The person had even moved my friend’s bike out of the compound onto the side of the road.
The next time I was at the station, I saw a Hebel Haus agent right in front of me and I walked in and asked them if they were also listing apartments for rent. The man at the desk didn’t seem too interested in having me as a client. Instead, he just had me fill a form with information on what I was looking for and said he would email me some options. I never heard from him.
When I didn’t get any emails, I turned to suumo.co.jp, hoping to find a foreigner-friendly agent. UR Housing are foreigner-friendly, I have heard, but there were no UR apartments in my target radius.
I was looking for
- a 2/3 DK/LDK “mansion”, here meaning a stone, higher quality apartment and not a wooden apartment, called apato
- ground floor (I don’t need complaints from downstairs neighbours, thank you very much)
- walking distance to the daycare as I don’t have a mama chari
- accessible to the school I found for J
- I was willing to take a bus to the station – with the pandemic we are mostly working from home so nearness to the station wasn’t a priority. Besides, my employer covers transport allowance, including bus fare.
- near supermarkets and other amenities
- within my budget
I found a few places of interest and sent inquiries. The places listed on suumo are handled by different agents. I soon got calls from three agents, and I ended up finding this Young Leaves apartment with the first guy who called me. The others wanted to know what my job was, how much was my income, what my nationality was, etc, this was even before I could finish saying moshi moshi (hello).
Let’s call the first agent E-san. E-san was very kind and helpful, and makes up for all the slimy real estate agents out here, and there are many. He asked me if it was possible to go in person the following day. When I arrived, he confirmed with me again what I was looking for, showed me a list of several potential places, gave me detailed advice on which places to pick and, did not do the sucking in of teeth – sssss – when I said I was a single parent. It is hard enough renting a place as a foreigner and a black African at that, hard enough as a woman, let alone as a single parent. It helped that I have a job with a reputable Japanese company and I speak Japanese, but I could tell the odds were certainly not in my favour.
Since I needed to move out ASAP, we narrowed it down to two places, and we immediately went to see them.
The first apartment we saw was 3 LDK. It was an apato, but of very high quality. It had double glazed windows, the living room had heated flooring (yukadanbo) and it had a spacious patio where the kids could play or we where could even have a BBQ. The patio faced a little forest, so it offered privacy. It was in a nice, quiet place, surrounded by equally beautiful houses, and had plenty of parking space for bicycles. There was also space for a car. However, it was slightly expensive and had steep move-in costs (close to half a million yen. You need an upfront amount 3-5x the rent when moving in the first time ). It was a 7 minute walk from the bus stop, and a 15 min walk to the daycare (in bad weather could be hard) and the supermarket (with groceries, could be a long walk). E-san told me if I was going to stay in Japan for a long, long time, I should consider this apartment, as the kids would easily have enough space while growing up, and the schools were not too far away.
The second apartment we looked at was the one I am living in now. A 2 LDK. It was gleaming in that post-renovation glow. Everything inside was, still is, new. The flooring is PVC. I would have preferred wooden like in my previous mansion, but I have kids anyway so it wasn’t a priority. The white PVC reflected the sunlight, flooding the whole apartment with light. Although it is summer now so I keep the curtains closed lest spontaneous combustion occurs! Two rooms (the living/dining and a bedroom) face South to a shared balcony, where Kai sometimes plays in an inflatable plastic pool. The bedroom, my bedroom, is currently my library and office.
The other room that faces North actually gets plenty of light too, especially in the evening. It’s a tatami room. I’ve made it the kids room, but I sleep there for now until the day Kai can regularly do all nighters, then I can move to my bedroom.
The kitchen window faces East and I take in the morning sun as I prepare breakfast for my kids. It has a preinstalled gas cooker and plenty of storage for pots and pans. There is hardly any counter space, but that’s Japan for you.
The toilet is new and automatically flushes when you stand up. Finally, a toilet whose buttons I can comfortably push to wash my bits. I can’t do that in public toilets. I once accidentally saw the nozzle in a public toilet – it didn’t retreat fast enough – and it was coated in slime. I can throw up just thinking about it. Self cleaning, na-uh.
This apartment had cheaper move in costs, over 350K, although it wasn’t as fancy as the first one. It also isn’t that well insulated, but it’s new and feels nice.
The best part is it fulfilled all my requirements, except the mansion part:
- 2LDK – check
- Kid-friendly – OK. It was the first thing I asked.
- It’s on the ground floor, and at the corner. The building has only 4 units, so less people to deal with.
- It is a 2 minutes’ walk to the daycare!!!!! This is the best part.
- It’s a 4 minutes’ walk to the bus stop, which makes it accessible to J who takes the bus to school.
- From the bus stop, it’s 7 minutes by bus to the station. This particular station is 2 stops away from my office.
- It 4 minutes away from Sugi Drugstore, Gyomu Supermarket, 7-11, Lawson 100 Yen Store, and JP Post & Bank.
- Under my budget by 4,000 Yen, and no key money was required.
- The recent renovation makes it feel very new
- Free internet!!!! (It saved me a lot the pain of calling internet companies to install the internet)
- 2 children’s parks 5 minutes away. One of the parks includes a huge ball park, so J has been enjoying it. If you walk a bit further in different directions, you will find 3 more little parks.
- Our very own car park, paid of course, but I don’t need a car right now
- Spacious bicycle parking
- The neighbours are nice, I’ve met them. Not just the ones we share the building with, but I’ve been slowly getting to know the people living in the houses around us and I feel good vibes from them.
- It’s a 20 minutes walk to the station. Saving the walk for those beautiful spring/autumn days.
So back to the day of the showing. E-san told me to pick this apartment, as he thought that it would be harder for me to get the first one (he didn’t have to say that it’s due to my foreignness and singleparenthoodness). But we would submit applications for both places, just in case. We want back to the office and filled in several forms.
Then I went home to the shitty apartment with the crappy neighbours to wait. The situation was getting worse. Now that I am writing about it, I am realizing how hard it is for me to relive those brief memories. There were two more incidents, and I felt very unsafe. The man who was living upstairs one day came to my door during the day and knocked. He said I was being noisy, which I wasn’t, and anyway it was during the day. I told him to fuck off and that I was going to call the police if he didn’t. He called the management company, who came and again and told me to consider moving out.
I was afraid the man upstairs was crazy and was concerned for Kai’s safety. The man clearly hated children, and the management company had decided to side with him, even before talking to me to find out what was going on, why there was a child in a previously single-person apartment. It was so stressful, I had to check that the outside was safe before any time I wanted to get out of the apartment. I called my friend to come stay with me for the following couple of days. The friend who had rented the apartment was still out of the country, and she had no plans of returning soon.
Meanwhile, E-san called me with the results of my application. He said I had passed the credit check or whatever it is the guarantor company checks for. But the landlord had some concerns. He had never rented to a foreigner before. He was a little worried. He wanted someone Japanese who worked at my company to be a co-guarantor, even though I was going to pay fees to use the services of a guarantor company. In lieu of a boss/co-worker, the landlord was willing to consider my ex-husband. It was assumed I was divorced. I spoke to Kai’s father and he agree to be the co-guarantor. E-san said the landlord was okay with that, but he still had a few questions, like I had said that I came to Japan in 2014, but I started at my company in 2019, what did I in that 5 year gap? These questions would make my blood boil but I needed the apartment more than the landlord needed me as a tenant. E-san and I exchanged emails several times a day. I told them I did a PhD in information science in that period, although not many people in Japan seem to know what 博士課程 is. The landlord then finally said that the management company should meet me to see what kind of person I was, E-san emailed. He had talked me up, not to worry, but they just needed to “see my face”. So I made my way to the management company’s offices and they were pleasant enough. Signed more forms and they explained the contract and gave me the keys to the apartment on March 31st. The landlord was finally able to overcome his prejudice and he even threw in a one-day discount. I started paying rent from April 1st, instead of March 31st.
There was still some time before I could move. For two days in the old apartment, my friend slept on a spare futon and was a witness to the final incident by the crazy man upstairs. I had considered going to the police but I knew that the police are not very helpful in situations like this, where violence has not actually occurred. Being a foreigner, I knew they would question me a lot and may not even speak to the man. My best option was getting out of there ASAP. On that day, the man came to the door on Saturday morning at 10am, knocked and said yet again that we were being noisy. We told him we’d call the police. He went upstairs and banged things on the floor. Then he got on his scooter and left. That day, I left for Ishikawa and stayed there for a few days with my host parents, celebrated Kai’s birthday, then came back to Tokyo once the landlord had accepted my application.
My friend who had rented the apartment decided to cancel the lease on account of how horribly the management company had handled the case. She wasn’t sure when if ever she was coming back to Japan, so I had clear out her apartment and take over most of her furniture and appliances.
Now to execute the move. If you live in Japan, you know that the end of March/early April is PEAK moving season. I couldn’t afford to hire a moving company, but I have a driving license and decided to hire a Kei truck, only to find nothing was available from any rental company at the time.
That’s when I remembered that I follow Derek Wessman on twitter who has a Kei truck. He kindly lent me his truck. With the help of some friends from Zimbabwe, we moved 8 minutes away from that dark apartment, to Young Leaves Heights that’s full of flight. When Jeremy joined us at the end of April, we had already settled in.
I want to add that that experience of being harassed by the crazy man and the property management company siding with him, has not put a damper on how much I am enjoying being back in Tokyo. I love having both my kids with me, enjoying this new apartment and watching them have a lot of new experiences. I have loved getting back to work, ready to see what I will achieve in my career that’s only just beginning. I still feel generally safe but my door is always locked. I meet a lot of good and kind people each and every day. There will be assholes in each society, I don’t believe there’s a place that’s free of them. In Japan, I’m not afraid of everyday burglary, I’m afraid of being a specific target by some mentally unstable guy, and there are many of those around, like the lone gunman that shot Abe. (One moment he was so alive, and gone the next, while we all just watched it unravel in horror and shock, helpless to do anything. I felt so sad.)