Finding an Apartment in Japan

I made a lot of mistakes when I went to Japan. In the end those (financial) mistakes stacked up enough that I went home early instead of staying to complete the full year of study abroad. I suffered through a lot of stressful situations that I could have avoided if I had planned just a bit more. So here is a story of my experience with finding a place to live in Japan. After the story is a list of the main stuff that I wish I had known.

How I found my apartment:

Students studying abroad at my university were expected to live in a dorm, and there were forms and procedures to make that the easiest option. However, due to my health issues I thought an apartment would be better for me. Trying to find an apartment while on the other side of the world, and with no knowledge of the areas you're looking at, can be quite the challenge. After looking around and researching, I decided that I would have to go with a “foreigner-friendly” apartment.

In Japan apartments are a big deal. You need a guarantor, key money, deposits, etc. Basically, you need to drop 2-3 months of rent just to be able to rent an apartment, AND you need some company or institution that will vouch for you and pay if you skip town*. This is for a “normal” apartment. An apartment “for foreigners” will drop some or all of these requirements and will often be able to talk to you in English. Now, sure, you're going to Japan for Japanese – but we're talking thousands of dollars on the line, so it's good to have English as a fallback.

*Individuals can also sign as a guarantor, but you should know that it is a BIG deal to ask someone to sign for you. In other words, you better be really, REALLY close before you even think of asking - and then you should probably not ask anyways.

So for foreigner apartments there were many options. Most of them have “house” in the name. So we're talking Sakura House, Bamboo House, and Oak House. There's also Leopalace21 which one of the former study abroad students had used. They have share-houses, dormitories, and apartments. Some include the utilities in the cost, or come with internet, etc. They have a lot of options, and I wish had gone with a cheaper place from one of those sites.

Now, as I said, I had no clue about how Tokyo was arranged or where I should live. The only thing I knew was that my university was in Shibuya, so getting as close to Shibuya as possible was my goal. In the end I found Tokyo Rent. They had an apartment in Ikebukuro, which was a mere 15 minute train ride from Shibuya. So I contacted them and signed the lease from my house in America. I had to give them a deposit via PayPal as well.

I had an apartment secured and requested that they get my utilities set up for me. This part was critical! Be sure to have your utilities arranged before you arrive! It really saved me. They would not arrange for my internet to already be connected, so I had to endure 3 weeks with no internet (while completely alone in a foreign country). It was rough. Definitely get internet set up if possible. Oh, and I also paid extra for furnishings – which saved my ass.

So I had the apartment selected and secured. The only issue was getting to it. I thought I was prepared for finding the apartment. I mean, I printed out some maps, used Google street view, etc. I THOUGHT that I knew what I was doing. As it turns out, navigating Tokyo on the ground is nothing like looking at a map. I also discovered that I didn't know how to use trains. This is where knowing Japanese really paid off.

Getting to the apartment was an adventure. When the plane landed I had been awake for probably 24 hours. Traveling alone to the other side of the world as a hardcore introvert... not my best idea. So I calm down a bit, head out and get processed into the country. By this point nobody else was left, so I didn't have to wait in line. They checked my visa information and gave me a residence card. This card is the one you need to have with you at all times (or your passport).

After that I had to grab my luggage, which was massive. There is no possible way that I was getting it through the city on foot. I took it to one of the counters in the airport and asked for delivery to my apartment. I didn't understand Japanese addresses at the time, so they kindly filled in the paperwork for me. This was another GOOD IDEA! I don't have many of them, so I'll celebrate when I can. However, taking some clean clothes out first would have been a BETTER idea. Oh well.

I knew I would be taking a rather expensive train to reach the main city, but didn't really know the specifics. I just showed my apartment address to the woman at the ticket desk and asked for the best way to reach it. She printed me a ticket for the Skyliner (40 minute train ride into central Tokyo) and a Yamanote Line ticket to reach Ikebukuro. With those I was able to slowly find my way to the right trains and eventually reach Ikebukuro.

Navigating Ikebukuro was yet another challenge. There are many, MANY exits from the station. I had no idea which one I was supposed to take, so I ended up wandering around the station for like an hour. The station is, of course, underground – meaning I was utterly lost. Eventually I gave up and stopped in a random train information booth to ask for directions. The guy working took a while to figure out my map, and then directed me to the proper exit. Gotta love those guys.

Once I reached the exit I found myself in a bustling city street. You can probably Google search Ikebukuro Station East Gate and find pictures of it. I was lost again! I was walking around outside the station trying to make sense of my map, but it didn't help at all. So once more, I gave up and asked for help. I found a police box and asked the officer inside for help. He whipped out a big book of maps (which I would see many, many times in the future) and then drew out a map and directions for me. If it wasn't for him, I probably would never have found the place.

With the map I was able to reach the apartment and get inside. No electricity. I was exhausted and sweaty. I took a cold shower in the dark, then got dressed again went out to find internet. I found a Starbucks, which any American knows to mean Free WiFi! Unfortunately, Starbucks Japan requires an account to access, but you need your own internet access to make the account BEFORE you can get online! So basically I was unable to access, despite wasting $5 on some drink that I didn't feel up to actually drinking.

Someone took pity on me though, because I found a weak connection that allowed me to iPhone message my dad back home. I checked in with my parents and told them of my lack of electricity. I then contacted one of the girls that was also studying abroad and told her of my problem. She asked if I turned on the breaker. Oh.... So I went back to the apartment and searched all over the place for the breaker box, and once I flipped the switch I gained electricity. Woo!

I could now see the stuff that was furnished in the apartment. I had a mini-fridge with a freezer, a small table with two chairs, a microwave, and a floor futon. I was worn out, so I tried to set up the futon. Unfortunately I was too sleep-deprived to actually understand how the sheets wrapped the cushion, so in the end I just curled up in a ball of sheets and passed out. The loneliness was so much worse than I imagined.

So that's the tale of finding an apartment in Tokyo. I had to find the rental office the next day, which was even more difficult than finding the apartment itself. If you're going to Tokyo, get used to looking for police boxes and asking for directions.

Lessons Learned:

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