Moving into your first apartment is never easy. I’d like to argue that moving into your first apartment in Japan, on the other hand, can be a complete nightmare – unless you have a good Japanese friend on speed-dial.
But to save you a little bit of time (and sanity) here are the top 8 things that surprised me/scared me the most about living in a Japanese apartment (from what-is-happening-please-make-it-stop to this-isn’t-TOO-bad).
1. The steam from your shower can and will activate the fire alarm. Not just in the winter, this happens in the summer too.
How to avoid it: Keep the door shut when you shower. Not cracked, shut. If you have a fan in your bathroom, turn it on. When you exit the bathroom after your shower, shut the door behind you and keep it shut for at least thirty minutes. Small amounts of steam won’t set off the alarm, but if you leave the door open, it might.
After about an hour (especially in the winter), most of the steam should be gone. It is ok to open the bathroom door and air out the shower.
If you alarm DOES go off, find the small white beeping cone and yank the cord. It doesn’t blink or look like a fire alarm, but it is.
2. If you use too much electricity at one time, it will set off the breaker. The electricity usage capacity for my apartment is surprisingly low. If I have the AC running, my refrigerator on, and turn on the stove to cook, something clicks and the breaker at my apartment switches off, leaving me in the dark.
How to fix it: Find the breaker box. It should be near the genkon entrance of your apartment. Mine is a bright yellow box with a couple small buttons and a single enormous, black switch. That ‘click’ I was talking about earlier was the sound of the breaker box turning the electricity off with the black switch. To turn the electricity back on, just flip the switch.
Your electricity should turn back on. In the future, be careful about how much electricity you use at one time. General rule, if you’re using the AC or heater, it’s easy to set off the breaker.
3. Buy the correct garbage bags for your district and put your trash out on the correct days. Each district has a different color trash bag; rather than paying for a service to pick up your trash, you pay for the bags and they pick up for free. That way, people are directly charged based on how much trash they physically produce.
What you need to know: Trash must be correctly shorted. Burnable trash (food, paper) is picked up twice a week, plastic trash (bags, packaging) once a week, non-burnable (anything else) every other week, cans/plastic bottles once a week, cardboard/magazines once a week, and old clothes/linens once a week.
There are two types of bags: burnable and plastics/non-burnable. Even though plastic and non-burnable garbage share the same type of bags, they are collected on different days. Trash collectors will briefly examine or search your trash bag. If they do not think it meets the criteria (there is a piece of plastic in the burnable garbage or there is paper in the non-burnable garbage) they will not take your trash. Instead, they will tape a note to the outside of your trash bag telling you why it was rejected. Then, you have to re-open the bag and sort the trash before the next garbage day.
You put your trash in a “trash box” or fenced in area the night before the collection day. Trash is collected at around 8am. Most large apartments lock their “trash boxes” overnight, to prevent people from illegally dumping trash overnight.
You can buy trash bags at nearly every convenience or grocery store. A pack of 10 “small” bags (a bit smaller than a normal grocery bag) costs 200 yen, about $2. Be careful, I live on the edge of my district, Koganei. The four closes grocery stores actually don’t sell Koganei garbage bags. They sell Mitaka garbage bags. If I tried to use the Mitaka garbage bags, the Koganei city garbage collectors would not accept my trash. I have to bike 15 minutes to buy Koganei city garbage bags.
The garbage bags in Koganei are Yellow (burnable) and Blue (plastic/non burnable). Mitaka city garbage bags are green and purple. When you move into your Japanese apartment, check to see the color of bags in the trash box before you buy your own garbage bags. You don’t want to make that mistake.
4. Futons will “sweat” every night and stain the floor. My apartment doesn’t have a bed. I sleep on a futon on the floor. And anyone who sleeps on a futon can tell you that futons “sweat” every night. I don’t know why. Every morning, though, when I pull my futon up, the bottom is wet. If you don’t hang your futon up every day, the futon “sweat” will stain the floor.
How to avoid it: When you wake up, get the futon off the floor. You don’t have to hang it up outside every day. No one has time for that. All you need to do is flip it over or drape it over a chair.
I made a mistake my first month in Japan; I didn’t know my futon sweat. It’s a mattress on the floor. Mattresses don’t sweat, right? Wrong.
I didn’t air my futon out for three weeks. When my fiancé came to visit one day and aired my futon out while I was in class, he discovered a discolored stain on the floor. Eight months and several cleaning treatments later, the stain is still there.
I don’t think I’m getting my security deposit back.
5. The toilet, shower drain, and drain in the corner of the bathroom floor are all connected. The problem with the connection is if one gets clogged up, they all get clogged up.
How to avoid a clog: About once a week, empty the tank on top of the toilet with one massive, clog-dislodging burst. Unlike American toilets, with a set flush size, Japanese toilets have a lever you hold down until your “mess” is gone. It is much more cost and energy efficient. Unfortunately, it is also easy for clogs to occur.
And if a clog does happen, that means whatever you flushed down that toilet in the last couple days is going to come up – through your shower drain and that large drain in the corner of the bathroom. It is the most disgusting thing I have ever experienced.
6. Decide between IH and gas burner and buy the correct pots and pans. IH stands for Induction Heating, it uses electromagnetic induction to heat a pot full of soup or whatever else you want to cook. All you need to know is that a high frequency current is passed between your small, square IH heater to your special IH pan, and heat is generated.
IH is efficient (energy-wise), cheap, and safe. For instance, I can heat up a can of soup boil, pour it into a bowl, put the pan in the sink, go back and place my palm on the top of the heater and it is already cool.
The only downside is that you have to buy specific IH pot and pans. For the high frequency current to work, you have to combine an IH heater with an IH pan. On the bright side, the IH heater was about 2,000 yen, the pot was 1,000 yen, and the pan was 700 yen. It was pretty cheap.
7. There is no centralized heating or cooling; everything is done by the AC unit on the wall. This is pretty self-explanatory.
On the bright side, it’s cheap. I only ever heat/cool one room.
On the other hand, every time I have to cook, go to the bathroom, or go into the other room, I’m freezing. Even if I wanted to throw away a bunch of money and heat both rooms of my apartment, the AC unit isn’t physically strong enough. I can’t do it.
So I just save the money and only control the temperature in one room. It works lovely.
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