I flew to Japan with two suitcases and a working-holiday visa a mere three weeks after taking my last university exam. I was betting everything on a month-long internship and had just about $3,000 to my name. As much as I would like people to think that I’m a risktaker, this is simply not true. So when settling down to get my life in Tokyo’s suburbs started, my only goal was to save as much money as possible.
Getting an apartment without a job history (or income, for that matter) was not an option. Not to mention that moving costs alone would’ve been more than what I had available to me. I had to settle for the next best thing: a sharehouse, the closest living arrangement you can find to the Western roommate experience. As you’ll soon see, though, not every Japanese sharehouse is filled with attractive musicians and models like Terrace House portrays it to be.
My Yokohama sharehouse cost me ¥45,000 per month, utilities and management fees included. And, something that made me and my parents at home feel safe, it was also an all-girls house. We had a washing machine, two refrigerators and it was located less than five minutes away from a local train station. The commute to the office was long and tiring but this house was affordable, even with my entry-level salary. I had convinced myself it was a good trade-off. (Today I know that, all things considered, I could’ve made a wiser decision.) Don’t let a single apple ruin the bunch, they say, but my experience in this sharehouse has completely eliminated the fantasy of a Friends-type of friendship for me. After the first eight months, the worse of each of my fellow roommates came through in a lack of consideration for others, rudeness, and just plain lack of common sense.
Not Every Sharehouse is a Terrace House House
First, there was the kitchen. It was filthy more often than not. Though we had a massive family-sized fridge and a medium-sized fridge to keep groceries, both were always filled to the brim. Even storing a single Parm ice cream bar while I ate my dinner was too much to ask. Then there were the bowls of stagnant vegetable water. For days on end, summer or winter, one of my roommates would let vegetables soak in one of our shared pans. Much like your family, you can’t pick your sharehouse roommates, so I decided to make do. But what happened next made me avoid the kitchen altogether.
It was August and I was on one of my health kicks. I had bought some small groceries, enough to prepare a few meals over the next couple of days. Nothing bulky or that would expire too quickly if refrigerated. Lucky for me, there happened to a free shelf in the fridge that day. I left my groceries there, taking only half the available space, in an easily identifiable reusable bag. The next morning, when I came down to cook myself some lunch to take to the office, my groceries, and the bag I had left them in, were gone. I looked to see if they had been moved to one of the other shelves, they hadn’t. I looked to see if they had been moved to one of the freezers, they hadn’t. I got dressed for the day and checked again before heading out. Nothing. I could only assume that one of my roommates had stolen my groceries sometime between when I got home the day prior and that morning. Frustrated, I left for work on an empty stomach and ended up with the same old Family Mart bento.
“If you’re going to steal my groceries, you might as well use them”
All that week, I avoided the kitchen like the plague, though I noticed a plastic bag left on the kitchen table. It was left there for a few days, in the blazing heat of the Japanese summer but I didn’t think much of it. The weekend came around and I decided that I should maybe take a look inside and get rid of it. I opened the bag only to see the very groceries I couldn’t find earlier that week, rotten.
The ground beef had turned black, the vegetables had softened and browned. My first thought? “If you’re going to steal my groceries, you might as well use them. This is me throwing away ¥3,000 worth of food.” I never figured out where my groceries had gone between the day I bought them and the day I found them rotten. I did look very thoroughly in the fridge when I was looking for them the first around. After that (and other incidents where I got mugs, utensils and cooking pans disappeared and reappeared in the garden of all places), I decided to not cook at home and would eat out or bring back convenience store food if I was eating at home.
Besides my room, all that was left was the shared bathroom though it wasn’t long before even that space became a source of anxiety and discomfort. I’m not sure if there was an etiquette here I wasn’t aware of, but even considering that we were all women living in this house, I would lock the bathroom door when I was showering. Yes, I don’t mind going to the onsen but at home, I still want that privacy. However, it seems that not every person in the house was on the same page. Just two weeks after the kitchen incident, I was showering on a weekday morning, roughly around 5 am. I had just entered the shower room when I heard somebody pulling on the door.
Allow me to attempt to pause and explain the layout of the first-floor bathroom. A door (which I had locked) lead to a sort of vestibule with the sink and washing machine. This is also where you would change in and out of your clothes. To your left, there was the shower room (which could not be locked!) and to the right, a separate smaller room for the toilet. Not an uncommon layout for a Japanese bathroom.
“Electrical tape had been put on the door to prevent anybody from locking it again”
So I had just entered the shower when I heard one of my roommates attempt to open the door from the hallway. I hear a sigh of frustration and decided to hurry up, knowing she might be wanting to go to the bathroom. (It’s worth noting that there was a second toilet room on the second floor that she could’ve used, but oh, well.)
As I stepped out, obviously naked and reaching for my body towel, I heard somebody come back to the door and unlock it from the outside with what looked like a knife. As I’m sure anybody would, I jumped in surprise and screamed.
I clumsily wrapped myself in my towel and my roommate grumpily walked to the toilet room to pee. On her way out, she told me not to lock the door in the future. When I came back home later that night, I saw electrical tape had been put on the door to prevent anybody from locking it again. From then on, there were many awkward encounters with other roommates, as we tried to shower in peace and hopefully not run into each other while naked or undressing.
The Last Straw
When our team at Tokyo Weekender made the switch to remote working in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, to many of my friends’ surprise I wasn’t worried about being stuck in a house with six other women. I had only spoken to some (not all) of them a handful of times at most. In fact, when I go down to the kitchen to refill my water bottle or to the bathroom for my morning shower, the house appeared to be vacant. There wasn’t a single sound that could’ve given away that we were seven young adults living in an old, small Japanese house. I felt safe knowing I would probably not run into them, breaking social distancing rules, and that I would be able to work in peace in the comfort of my room.
But as you might expect, what Covid-19 couldn’t prevent was my roommates acting up at a time when I couldn’t escape. My just-moved-in-next-door neighbor started taking singing lessons at 2 am, which made getting a good night’s sleep hard as the light sleeper that I am.
I also suspect my wallet, which I had forgotten on the kitchen table after washing my hands one day, was stolen by one of the roomates (I say “suspect” because I asked around about it and two of them said they had seen it but not taken it. Nobody returned it despite a note on the table and an email to the landlord.)
But the straw that broke the camel’s back was an electricity blackout that took an angry will-report-to-the-authorities email to get fixed after three days of being told to “wait it out.” In a time when I was working at home, my landlord just wasn’t interested in helping me figure out why my room and the hallway didn’t have power for 72 hours when the rest of the house did. That just did it for me. I moved out in June, and this time I was able to find an apartment which, though not without its problems, provides me with a much better place to call home.
General Advice on Finding a Sharehouse in Japan
I think many foreign residents forget that when moving abroad, your experience in your host country and how well you assimilate will depend on a variety of factors. One of them is your living situation. There is only so long that you can justify being uncomfortable and there is only so much stress that you can suppress before it starts manifesting. I didn’t plan on staying in a sharehouse for more than one year. In the last couple of months living there, I found myself dreading the last hours of work and the train ride back; more often than not, there were nights when I didn’t want to go home.
Because tenants don’t meet each other until they’ve moved in (if at all), your experience in a sharehouse relies solely on luck and sometimes peer reviews. I do know people that have only great things to say about their sharehouse experience. Practically speaking, sharehouses are great if you’re staying for one year or less. Because they deal with a more nomad clientele, leases can be as short as three months, move-in costs are extremely low, and utilities are included in your monthly payment. You usually don’t have to worry about acquiring basic appliances like refrigerators and stoves. In addition to a relatively straight-forward move-in, sharehouses might be an attractive option for those wanting to meet new people, though not all of your roommates will be social butterflies. It’s important to remember, however, that as a tenant in a sharehouse, you are sacrificing privacy and, potentially, good management for a cheaper cost of living. Do keep this in mind when thinking about if this type of accommodation is right for you.
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