Idiot's guide to Japanese apartments

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I plan to have tatami all over my won-the-lottery house, it’s so nice.


Irrelevant detail but the lady in the picture triggers uncanny valley. Shot angle makes it look like her neck goes all the way to her mouth.


Tatami is wonderful.
Sleeping on futon beds on tatami that have to be rolled up every night because your apartment is so tiny: not so wonderful.


Tip #1: A mansion isn’t what you think it is.


My brother has been in his same Osaka efficiency apartment for roughly 15 years. It’s unbelievably tiny compared to US standards with just 2 rooms - bedroom + entry/dining/kitchen/living room plus a tiny broom closet sized toilet. All together it is probably 300 sq ft total. It’s a bit like living in a camper without the convenience of being portable.

He would like to move but the barriers are steep. It’s typical to have to pay approx. 1 year rent up front plus a non-refundable “gratuity” to the landlord which is equal to several month’s rent all in advance. Combined with the fact that without a car it’s hard to move your furniture across town. When I visit I don’t even try to stay with him and just get a hotel room nearby (my hotel room is often bigger than his flat anyway).


With respect* given the small space, how much furniture does he have which would necessitate using something bigger than a car to move?

*and no small amount of envy as living in Japan would rock if I could think of a way to manage it


Not all places look like this.

When I was living in Japan*, my apartment was slightly less technologically sophisticated. For one, I didn’t have a flush toilet. Just a whole that was covered with a plastic shell that looked kinda like a toilet. I had to call the shit sucker** every 4 months or so to clean it out. It was always very obvious when the truck had been around. I also had no running hot water. There was a tank next to the sink that I could turn on and get a little hot water for washing dishes. It ran on kerosene. Also, I had kerosene heaters for the entire house. In the winter, I needed to leave the tap on the sink dripping over night or else the pipes would freeze.

But, I had lots of tatami mats.

I lived in an Onsen town (a town with natural hot springs), so I never used my own bath. I just went to the bath house 3-4 times a week. The people were great. As one of only 2 native English speakers in town, everyone knew me and I was treated well. It was fantastic.

Living in rural Japan is an other worldly experience.

* 1998-2000, but on my last visit in 2013, not much had changed.
** Not the official job title.


AKA - the “Honey Wagon”

Of course, in typical Japanese fashion they have found a way to make this a bit more pleasant:


That sounds fantastic. I desperately wanted to visit an onsen town when I was traveling in Japan, but my local guide told me he was afraid Americans wouldn’t be welcome.


Hmmm…that’s too bad. You missed out. There is a whole undercurrent of racism in Japan, especially in small towns. From what I understand, the racism is both getting better and worse at the same time. Not too much different from small towns anywhere, I guess.

There was never a moment when I thought that Gaijin as tourists weren’t welcome somewhere, but there were many situations where I felt like there was a wall between me and some of the locals. I could never really be accepted as a local because I wasn’t ethnically Japanese. Those who’d travelled outside of the country acted differently, but there weren’t many of those in my town.

It was a complicated situation, but for the most part, my neighbours were wonderful.


ps- out of curiousity, where were you traveling?

I was staying with a friend in Tokyo (I forget which prefecture, it’s been 10 years) and making day trips to Yokohama and Kyoto. My friend was an American working in Japan as a localization translator for a video game, and was very concerned with Japanese racism. I’d love to go back sometime to see the more rural areas. My fondest memories are of the Kiyomizu-dera temple in Kyoto, Ueno Park and zoo, the Ghibli Museum, and the surreal Namjatown.


Kyoto is just a fantastically awesome city. It’s very difficult to travel through Japan without at least a basic grasp of the language. I’m surprised that your friend was so concerned about racism. My experience was that all the racism was very, very subtle. Unless and until you had experience with a place you are likely to just miss it. And what I did see was not really about threatening, but that certain metaphorical doors would suddenly appear and remain locked and closed forever.

I’m guessing that your friend had bad experience that was quite different from mine.


I definitely found this to be the case. It was extremely helpful to have someone with me who was fluent; on the days I was by myself in Kyoto, I felt very helpless without a bit of the language under my belt. It’s not a place I could see backpacking around solo without being able to speak to people a bit.

I think my friend was paranoid; I’m honestly not sure what affected his attitude. I remember being in a restaurant once when the waiter smiled and said something to me in Japanese. My friend said “he complimented your chopstick skills. That’s how they insult Americans. He’s mocking you.” I wasn’t sure if that was a realistic observation or not, but if I go back, I’m looking forward to seeing the country through other eyes.


I was there in October for a little over two weeks. We spent many nights in hotels with onsen while touring and hiking the Kumano Kodo trail. Mostly we stayed in small hotels where we were the only guests, but we also stayed at a rather large seaside resort called Urashima. Our group of ~12 were the only non-ethnically-Japanese in the entire place, as it was quite far from large cities. The worst overt racism I encountered was a dirty look from an older Japanese man in the change room at the onsen. It could have just been RBF, but I don’t think so. Plenty of subtle things though, like assuming we were too stupid to figure things out, or only speaking to us in English even though some of us knew a fair bit of Japanese (but not me).

Next time I go, I’ll bring my own slippers and robe, the provided ones were often comically too small on me.


My brother has lived in Japan for more than 20 years - he moved there in the early 90’s and has lived in several prefectures. He was in a rural area of Tokushima for several years before settling in Osaka. I’ve probably visited him a half dozen times over the years.

He has always described an undercurrent of racial separation between local Japanese and foreigners - but it is very, very subtle and never overt as that would be extremely rude - which is a far worse offense. The racism is more often expressed as viewing others as “outsiders” even if they can speak the language fluently or lived there for decades. It’s just an insular culture that is governed by strong norms and traditions that are very conservative at its core. Proper treatment of guests will always outweigh any personal feelings of class or racial prejudice.

That “wall” as you describe will probably always be the case but the secret is not to take it personally or be offended because it doesn’t mean you are treated any differently. Because of their extreme politeness, Japanese are very conscientious and accepting of foreigners and are genuine in their friendliness. I suppose this can be viewed as a dichotomy but it’s an entirely different paradigm that is hard for us to understand. It’s just not the same kind of “racism” that we are used to in the West because there’s no malice associated with it.

I highly doubt the waiter was “mocking” you - that was your friend’s interpretation of the racial stereotype based on his reference of Western racism that ascribed a negative connotation to the exchange. I believe the waiter was actually being very genuine in his complement as that would be more typical than overtly insulting a guest.

I dunno…I’ve traveled extensively by myself and have never felt it difficult to find my way around. Everything is so pictorial there that you can easily navigate based on the signage. Even then, there is always someone there who will go out of their way (literally) to help you.

We had a Japanese businessman in a 3 piece suit guide us thru several levels of Tokyo Grand Central station at the height of rush hour. He quite literally took me by the sleeve and steered us to the right Shinkansen platform.


The dirty look you got was probably because you didn’t follow the rules properly - like not respecting the solemnity of the onsen or not wearing the right slippers when you’re supposed to (red slippers for general areas, green slippers for the toilet). Something as basic as wearing a swimsuit or wrapping a towel around you instead of being fully naked can also draw a sideways glance.

I highly doubt they assumed your were stupid - that’s just your interpretation. Every Japanese person I have ever met is more honored to demonstrate their (relatively) poor English skills as a show of respect even if you are fluent in Japanese. This is more typical of the culture vs. say in France you are derided and mocked for not speaking French.


I was hoping to learn a bit of Japanese while I was there, but everyone (especially little kids) seemed excited to try out their English on me. I remember a big crowd of little kids in Kyoto running up and yelling HELLO! HELLO! GOOD MORNING! and when I said “ohayo!” they thought it was hilarious. Everyone I met there was incredibly nice and friendly and helpful to a fault.

The only time I got laughed at was when an old grandma saw me trying to eat a natto roll I’d bought at Lawson. She said “you eat that?” and I sort of shrugged gamely, and she got a big kick out of that.


I was at a street market shopping for a suit for my son (who is a skinny bean pole compared to me). Because I had no idea how to translate the different sizes I kept holding up various suit jackets. The shopkeeper was just beside herself with laughter and kept telling my brother in Japanese - “He too fat! He too fat!”

I suppose I could have been offended and interpreted her laughter as rude but really she was just honestly concerned about the fact that the suit wouldn’t fit me and she didn’t understand why I was looking at the skinny sizes.