I used to (and still do!) dream about finding the perfect apartment in Japan.
Before moving to Japan, I became addicted to Shiawase! Bonbi Girl and watched it religiously for my future apartment search. It is a variety show focusing on young women on a budget. It has segments about DIY projects, features women living in affordable housing, and sometimes entrepreneurs planning out their businesses. But the part I was most interested in was 上京ガール (Joukyou Girl), where the TV crew would tag along with young women moving to Tokyo from other parts of Japan and in search of their first apartment in the city.
I tried to remember as many key points and tips as I could from this show in hopes that it would help me find my own perfect place in Japan.
After landing in Tokyo, I was first housed in a monthly apartment and informed that I had to look for a place on my own soon after. With the help of my aunt, I went on my first property search (way before I started working for Real Estate Japan!). Even though I thought I already knew what to expect, going through everything on my own was different and introduced me to way more things than a TV show could.
Below, I’m going to go over eight features that are unique to apartments in Japan (or have a twist that you might not expect when coming from another country!).
Lofts are something that I already knew about (and of course, lofts are also a feature of apartments in many cities where space is at a premium). Since Japanese apartments are notoriously tiny, they’re made specifically for utilizing space. When you can’t expand horizontally, you opt to make things taller. That’s why lofts are so abundant.
Lofts in other countries, I presume come with actual stairs that are built in, leading to a second floor that isn’t completely separated from the first. Lofts in Japan, especially Tokyo, however, are connected by ladders that are sometimes detachable. This feature surprisingly comes in handy, particularly when you have to make space for furniture or when guests come over.
Loft space in studio apartments can range from somewhere between two tatami mats (畳) to seven depending on the size. A tatami mat is equal to about 1.53-square meters or 16.5-square feet.While most people choose to use this space as their ‘bedroom,’ others opt to use it as a storage space instead. That makes sense if you were scared of heights, I guess!
A maisonette (メゾネット) type property is basically a unit on the second floor with an entrance on the first. A maisonette can also describe a two-floor apartment unit where the bedroom is on the second floor and accessible by an interior stairway.
I know there are people who dislike having their bedroom visible right away when you open the front door, so a maisonette apartment would be ideal for them. It also offers peace of mind knowing your outside shoes are far from your actual living space.
Living in a maisonette might be kind of a bother if you come home tired from a long day’s work, though. It also makes carrying larger items or appliances difficult, but if you are all right with these points, then a maisonette type property might be for you!
#3 Appliances next to the entrance
Again, with the need to maximize space efficiency, there are properties designed specifically to cater to appliance size and where they’re meant to be placed.
I personally live in an apartment where the washing machine space is right next to the entrance. While I think this might not be a huge bother to some, it may be a concern to people who are particular with their hygiene. So that’s one thing to take note of!
#4 Washing machine outside the front door or on the balcony
While the norm is to have your washing machine installed inside, smaller (and less expensive) properties will sometimes have designated washing machine spaces outside the room, whether it is on the balcony or right outside the front door.
While this might be a concern for people wanting to avoid theft (or getting wet during the rainy season while doing your laundry), if you think you can risk it, you can save a little on rent if you look for apartments with balcony or outside-the-front-door washing machine spaces.
#5 No pre-installed appliances
When viewing photos online or in person, you may be surprised to find that many apartments for rent in Japan don’t come with stoves, lights, or air conditioners. The reason for this is because sometimes tenants have specific preferences and prefer to purchase on their own.
When you are inquiring about or viewing an apartment, make sure to clarify with the property management whether the property has these the features and/or appliances you want pre-installed. Otherwise, you should budget for them in your move-in costs. In general, most rental properties in Tokyo tend to have air conditioning installed already.
Bathrooms in Japanese Apartments
I think it’s important for bathrooms to have their own section for discussion! Japanese people are particular about how they bathe, and it’s interesting for people coming over to know the features common to properties here. Below are a few that you should know!
#6 Toilets separated from the bathroom (bathtub/shower room)
This is the most common feature of Japanese bathrooms that many people may be surprised by. It’s standard for apartments in a certain rental price range in Japan to have the bathroom and toilet separated.
If you think about it, it makes sense to have them apart. You don’t really want the space where you’re dirtiest to be right next to where you clean yourself. That’s why there are separate rooms for them! However, not all people are bothered by this.
In some budget apartments, the bathroom will be what is called a unit bath. A unit bath is a bathroom in which the entire room (tub, ceiling, walls and floor) is pre-fabricated and then installed as a unit in the apartment.
#7 There is (almost) always a bathtub
Japanese people like to take baths. Onsen (hot springs) are a big part of the culture, and people generally like to soak in the tub at night as quick relaxation after a long day’s work. That is why you’ll often see bathtubs crammed into the tiniest bathrooms.
Coming from a tropical country, I’ve always wondered why they don’t just make single shower units but that’s actually not true.
Newer buildings made specifically for young, single people at accessible price points have shower stalls installed instead of full bathrooms, as tenants have started to prioritize saving time and money over the luxury of soaking head to toe in a bath.
#8 “Balance kettle” bathtubs
This is a feature commonly found in older (Showa-era) houses or apartments. Basically, water is heated up and flows through a machine outside the bathtub. You can choose whether the water flows directly to the faucet or to your shower head. This is basically what we already have in modern bathrooms except in a completely separate mechanism (that isn’t hidden behind your bathroom wall, as in modern apartments).
While it might be confusing at first, properties with balance kettles typically go for lower than ones renovated bathrooms. If this is something you’re okay with, then it’s definitely something to consider. You’ll also get to experience ‘retro’ Japan!
These are apartment features that I think are unique to Japan! I’m sure there are still other points that I missed, so please leave a comment below if there are other features worth pointing out!
Cindy works for the GaijinPot Housing Service, helping foreigners find their home in Japan. She relocated to Japan after graduating from De La Salle University in the Philippines. Read Cindy’s self-intro to find out what brought her here!
Lead photo: iStock