I've been in Tokyo a week now.
It doesn't really feel like a week, but I couldn't tell you what it feels like either. Time feels mushy. Mostly it seems that I've never been anywhere else. Minneapolis is distant. I think my mind is busy adjusting and doesn't really have time to reminisce at the moment, so maybe I'll get a wave of nostalgia sometime in October. For now simply coping is a full-time occupation. I've been training every day and squeezing Japanese study into the gaps. After training I usually have some kind of Berlitz-related homework and then I eat dinner and usually conk out at about ten.
Yesterday was a day off, though it didn't really feel like it. I met with two different realtors. A few days ago I gave my month's notice to my current landlord, so the pressure is on to find a new place. It's a bit worrying, really, but a month should be enough. In a city as large as Tokyo there's always apartments turning over, but in the meantime it's stressful. I would call my landlord and try to take back my month's notice except that everyone, Japanese and gaijin alike, seems to think that I am getting ripped off. It's the neighborhood; Shimokitazawa is very hip, apparently, and so even the lousiest den can command unreasonably high prices. I was talking to a bartender who lives in the area and shares a one-bedroom apartment with two other guys.
I had asked the first realtor about apartments in the neighborhood so he met me at Shimokitazawa station and we walked to a nearby unit. It was shabby as hell and there was a hefty deposit and "key money" as well. Key money is like a deposit except you don't get it back at the end of your lease. It is a uniquely Japanese institution that infuriates foreign residents. For obvious reasons: you're paying someone for the privilege of then paying them rent.
So in the case of the Shimo apartment I viewed, rent and "management fee" was ¥82,000 (not quite $800) per month, but the deposit and key money were both equal to two months' rent. Plus a month's rent for the agency fee. Plus the first month's rent, plus fire insurance, and I've probably forgotten one or two other additional fees. If you're doing the math with me, we're at almost $4800 just to move in, $2400 of which I will never see again. Plus of course a cleaning fee when I move out, plus a cancellation fee if I don't stay for two years. Etc. And it's unfurnished--I still need a bed, refrigerator, and everything else I didn't bring with me from Minneapolis.
I didn't take it.
The second agent was more helpful. He showed me there were some deals out there. He was able to find several departments without a deposit and without key money, which the previous agent was unable to do. The second guy was named Nomura and he spoke decent English, though we switched to Japanese after he found out I could speak it. And speak it I did, with an ease that is improving every day. It's coming back!
When you're a foreigner looking for an apartment with no key money and no deposit in a cool part of Tokyo... well, you get what you pay for. More importantly, you don't get what you don't pay for and at first Nomura didn't really have any good news, trotting out floorplan after floorplan of hellholes without refrigerators for ¥87,000 or whatever. In my head I was already composing the cringing email to my current landlord begging for my room back, if he hadn't already given it away.
Then suddenly Nomura found something: a virtually brand-new studio in Ikebukuro with no deposit and no key money. The rent was ¥85,000--what I'm paying now. There was an additional maintenance fee (of course) of ¥15,000 per month. That brought it up to almost a thousand dollars per month (at current exchange rates I suppose it's more like $900). That seems like a lot, but it isn't much more than I'm paying for this crappy room in this crappy guest house and I'd have my own place in a pretty bustling area of Tokyo. The building was built in 2006 so it's not only squeaky-clean but it's also up-to-code as far as earthquake safety, which has been much on my mind of late. Not only that but for another ¥10,000 a month it would be fully furnished with a bed, covers and futon, HDTV, refrigerator, microwave and clothes washer.
A thousand dollars a month. I was almost certain I couldn't do it, no matter how nice the place was or how good a deal, and I tried to dissuade him from showing me the apartment. I suggested that I would think about it and tell him tomorrow if I was interested, at which point we could go and view it. I didn't want to waste his time. But he seemed quite intent and after a few attempts at refusing I relented and off we went to Ikebukuro. I figured I had dropped enough hints; he couldn't be mad at me when I didn't take the apartment. I had never been to Ikebukuro and I had nothing better to do that afternoon. He also wanted to show me another place for almost the same price and it would be useful to have some kind of baseline for later apartment searches.
As he promised, the apartment was beautiful. Shiny floors, fresh paint, big bathtub and shower with a separate toilet. There was a balcony, a washing machine, a pretty HDTV. A big closet, a desk to study at, 24-hour management help and a good security system. A gated lot for parking bikes. A bed with a futon. All I would need to buy was sheets. As far as deals go, this was a great one; the price was right and it saved me a lot of trouble and expense (in the short term). There was no key money, only first month's rent, an agency fee of one month's rent (this is inescapable no matter what you rent or where; it's the system) and a guarantor's fee of half a month's rent.
And yet. Ikebukuro seemed like a decent neighborhood but I wasn't that enthusiastic about it. It was fine, I guess, but I wanted more than "fine" for a grand a month. Nor was it especially convenient for work; it wasn't very close and I would have had to transfer every morning at Shinjuku station, the busiest train station in the world. 4 million people a day use it; it's one of the stations where begloved platform attendants still have to physically cram people into trains every morning. The Ikebukuro-Shinjuku line is probably the most heavily-used line in Tokyo. That wasn't quite what I was looking for.
If I had been certain that my salary with Berlitz would cover it I might have pulled the trigger despite these considerations, but while I'm reasonably certain that I will be working a lot I don't know for sure yet. The last thing I wanted was to be locked into a two-year contract and hemorrhage money on some fancy apartment. As good a deal as this place was, I knew I didn't need an expensive nice apartment, I needed a cheap crappy one. It was an agonizing decision but I refused the apartment.
As if to underscore what I would be passing up, the next apartment we saw was lousy. The building was not very nice, located in a shabby neighborhood quite far from the station. It was easy to refuse. Curiously it was only about ¥7,000 cheaper than the other place. Again, no key money or deposit.
So I didn't get an apartment yesterday. I did get a five-hour tour of Tokyo and some Japanese practice as well as a few ideas of what to expect from my apartment search: lots of crap punctuated by the occasional good deal. I did not, however, call up my landlord and ask for my room back. I have a friend who is also looking for an apartment and we have decided to join forces and split a two-bedroom place. Based on prices we've seen, we will be able to get something much nicer together than we could afford on our own. We're going back to the same company tomorrow to look into 2DKs (2BR+dining+kitchen) and see if we can't find something for about ¥75,000 each. As long as we don't want Shimokitazawa I think we'll find something.