The apartment is chosen: spacious, ultra clean, as cheap as our current place, fully-furnished, and bathed in gorgeous natural light. Before making our final decision, we dealt with 3 English-speaking real estate agents and 1 Japanese real estate company; a company I’d inadvertently gotten us involved with after answering an English-language ad online that said, “I will help you find apartment anywhere, any price, speaking English!”

The company’s offices were festooned with an adorable cartoon monkey wearing an Elvis jumpsuit and wiggling his fanny from a television screen that played the company’s commercial on loop the entire time Sean and I were in the office.

“If you take an apartment,” beamed T-san, the English-speaking interpreter from the ad, “You can get free monkey napkin.”

Perhaps it was the Japanese people surrounding me, but I’d immediately sensed that this real estate agency was typical Japanese style; i.e., loads of fees, commission and the dreaded key money. As if to cement my suspicion, T-san dashed behind a partition to whisk out a conveniently-stashed tray laden with iced tea-filled glasses.

“This is Japanese office!” she said proudly. “You must drink tea.”

Sigh. Tea; right there in front of us. We were caught now and there was nothing we could do. Still, it couldn’t hurt to listen. For the most part, unless they have a lucky hookup, foreigners in Japan are limited to dealing with real estate agents who cater to the Western mentality. This means pickings can be very slim. At least talking to this Japanese real estate agency we’d get access to a wider scope utilizing the Japanese information network. It was worth a shot.

The other staff members didn’t speak English but quickly discovered that Sean is quite capable at speaking Japanese, so they knew to maintain calm when Sean told them we were looking for a two bedroom place near a train station for under 80,000 yen that would require, “if possible,” no key money. They managed to dig up a few, rattling off information about rent and fire insurance and lock changing fees and maintenance charges. I listened intently, catching most but not all, “hmm”ing and “ah so!”ing at intervals to make believe I was up to speed. Sean tutted and asked questions, pointing at the columns of figures. I couldn’t help but watch him admiringly; how fluidly the Japanese seems to roll off his tongue.

Eventually, the realtors scared up 4 apartments we could look at and herded us into a tiny blue K-car to take us on a tour. On the drive, they asked polite questions. Intelligently, they directed most of their questions to Sean.

“Sean-san,” they said. “Why are you in Japan?”

” *** karate *** I don’t know.” he replied.

“Ehhhhhhh!” they said. “Your Japanese is so skillful.”

Sean, ever humble, said nothing.

K and T-sans showed us several old, poorly kept apartments in various parts of town. They were Japanese-style with paper thin walls, cedar-pungent tatami rooms, antideluvian air conditioners, and sliding doors that didn’t close properly. Sean had to stoop to enter each room.

“Sean-san!” they giggled. “How tall are you?”

Sean quickly calculated the metric measurement. “Ah … 182.”

“Ehhhhhh! Fantastic!” they breathed.

T-san wanted us to take the 83,000 yen (~800) apartment that was steps away from Abeno’s hottest night life spots and would cost nearly 2000 dollars (including key money) to move into. K-san was practically desperate for us to take the 75,000 yen apartment. So desperate, in fact, that he knocked the rent down to 63,000 a month and waived all key money. However, totaling up all the maintenance, fire insurance, lock change, and other fees, the apartment would still take about 1600 to move into. Unfurnished. In poor condition. No internet set up. Stinking of pet store. I’m sorry – tatami looks beautiful but I just can’t take the smell.

“Which one do you like better? Which one do you think you will take?” they asked. “It’s good price. Very good price.”

“We will think a little,” Sean said firmly. “We will email or call you.”

There was a time when I would have converted to Scientology for the chance to rent a slightly decrepit, pet store-stinking, unfurnished apartment with no major or minor appliances for only 400 dollars a month and about 1000 bucks, nonrefundable, upfront. L. Ron Hubbard GRRRL 4 EVA, on my forehead, in painful permanent ink. But living in Japan has spoiled me: why choose an apartment like that when I know that I can also get a fully furnished, glistening apartment for about 300 a month and only about 500 upfront? I figure I deserve a little break for all of the years I was thankful to get screwed over just for the privilege of living in Manhattan. Plus, Sean and I both work part time and aren’t saving money the way we used to; every little bit helps.

“Dear T and K-san,” we wrote the next day, flinching with each key stroke. Naturally, real estate agents know that many people who come in for a consultation won’t go with the apartments they see but given all the time they’d spent showing us places and working hard to find apartments that fit our specifications, we couldn’t help but feel guilty. “Thank you so much for showing us your lovely apartments! Unfortunately, we have decided to go with an apartment we saw earlier this week. We greatly appreciate all of your time; you were very kind.”

No reply. And certainly no complimentary caped monkey napkin.

The apartment we eventually went with was one about 20 minutes south of where we live now. This will make our commutes a little more annoying but that’s how it goes. The neighborhood is clean, quiet and our apartment is steps away from a Supa Tamade; discount grocery store extraordinaire. Plus, we couldn’t help but take an immediate liking to our new landlord, Matsubara-san. He is a funny little middle aged man whose English is competent, if a bit labored. He owns a yakitori restaurant that is, strangely enough, across the street from our current apartment in Korea Town. He met us at the train station and, unlike the folks at the Japanese real estate company, didn’t ask if Sean and I were a married couple. He was quick to point out that the apartment has a Western-style toilet and, after we had wandered around the place grinning like fools at how clean, cheap and sunny it was, he bowed and said: “I hope very much you will take the apartment.”

“Who do we call if we have a problem?” I asked.


“Yes … if the air conditioner or stove breaks. Who do we call?”

“Ah,” said Matsubara-san. “You will call my boss. She is …” he glanced at his cell phone, scrolling through the numbers.

“I am very sorry. I can’t find number.” he said. And then, pausing carefully, he added: “Oh my gad.”

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