Finding an apartment in Tokyo

Hi friends! So I’m just about settled in my new apartment in Japan – I’ve done the Nitori and IKEA runs, I’ve shopped around the 100 yen stores and I think I’ve finally got a grip of the trash and recycling rules! I’ve posted here before about how I got to Japan – long story short, I came over on the JET Programme. Because my school placement was in Tokyo, I had to find an apartment, fund the move (more on that later) and fully furnish my place. This differs slightly from prefectural JETs who often inherit apartments from their predecessors and which can be significantly subsided (sometimes even free!). 

Viewing apartments in Tokyo and securing mine happened really quickly – between 2-3 days at most – but the research and thought that went into the apartment I wanted goes WAY back, and it paid dividends because now I’m in an apartment I really love in a great location! If you’re looking to move to Japan and need some tips on apartment-hunting, particularly in Tokyo, then hopefully this post will help you. 

Secure a guarantor

Because I came with the JET Programme, a lot of the legwork was done for me by a company called Relocation Japan, and they are one of many companies whose services include acting as guarantors for foreigners wishing to rent in Japan. In order to move into an apartment or house here, you need a guarantor. Unlike perhaps your home country where this could just be an individual (such as a parent), in Japan it must be a corporate body set up for this purpose. As such, I would strongly recommend reaching out to Relocation Japan or researching other, similar companies who can assist with the guarantor bit of your apartment hunt. Heads up – most of them will charge at least one month’s rent for their services, and some may charge this every year on a rolling basis. Bear this in mind when considering your moving in costs.

Prepare for crazy upfront costs

This came as a complete shock to many Tokyo JETs (myself included) and will apply to anyone looking to rent in Japan. Here, there are a number of fees and costs that you will need to pay in order to move into your apartment, and this is in addition to your rent. Most apartments will require at least 1 months’ rent as a deposit, but they may also require at least 1 months’ rent as ‘key money’, an agency fee (if an agent was used) of at least 1 months’ rent + consumption tax (10% from October 2019), the guarantor fee I mentioned and then 1 or 2 months’ rent upfront. Sounds crazy right? This can mean that, in order to move into your apartment, you may need 5-6 times the amount of monthly rent. This is something really important for you to consider – you might decide you can afford ¥100,000 a month in rent, but can you afford ¥600,000 in fees before you’ve even moved in?

Check listings online everyday and be ready to say ‘yes’ quickly

Before I got here I had read that Tokyo apartments are snapped up quickly. I didn’t really believe it would be that much of an issue. However, be warned – I know of several JETs who missed out on their ideal apartments because they waited 1-2 days before taking them (and some landlords will favour Japanese nationals over foreigners – sad but true unfortunately). If you like the apartment, it ticks all of your boxes, the landlord accepts foreigners and you can afford the rent and upfront costs, tell your agent or the landlord and get things moving ASAP, preferably the same day you see it. If you sit on your hands, I guarantee it will disappear within 48 hours. The flip side of this is that lots of apartments become available quickly – check At Home and Suumo (these are the listing sites most real estate agents here use) every day and be proactive in arranging to see apartments. Don’t have enough Japanese? Get the help of an agent who can make the appointments for you. They’ll even help set up your water, gas and electric. Top tip: you can usually combine electricity and gas so that it’s with one company (and on one bill) for a 5% discount. I used an agent but found my apartment myself on the At Home website – within 24 hours I’d sent the agent a link, they arranged for me to view it and I made my application for it!

Find second-hand goods where possible 

Furniture here isn’t that expensive – there’s plenty of IKEA stores dotted around (and they are vastly outnumbered by Nitori, a Japanese low-cost furniture store) and 100 yen stores – but that doesn’t mean furnishing an entire apartment will be cheap. There’s rarely such thing as ‘free delivery’, so be prepared for anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 yen in delivery fees. You may prefer to shop for second hand furniture where possible to save on furniture costs. There are several Facebook groups such as Tokyo Sayonara Sales or Mottainai Japan as well as places like Treasure Factory where you can pick up appliances and furniture for half of the ‘new’ price. I really liked Treasure Factory – I went in just before it closed that day and in the 20 minutes I had (à la Supermarket Sweep!) I bought a fridge and a washing machine for under £150 to be delivered and installed 4 days later (though there was a 5,000 delivery fee). Such stores are a great alternative if you can’t transport goods sold in the Facebook groups.

Amazon Japan is your best friend

Because you can’t migrate Amazon accounts from the UK/US to Japan, you have to make a new account when you get here. Annoying, right? Wrong – hello free Prime trial! Time this right and you can get free next day delivery on most things for a month after you move in. This saved my bacon a few times – I ordered my curtains and bedding the night before I moved in, and as and when I needed things (packing string for cardboard, a hammer to build furniture, for example), I just ordered it and it was with me the next morning. Amazon has been incredibly useful. I used my Monzo card initially because I didn’t have a Japanese bank account set up, and Monzo doesn’t charge for overseas spending (plus the exchange rate is really good). If you don’t have a similar account and want to dodge the bank fees for paying in ¥, you can actually pay for things in cash at the conbinis (such as 7/11, Family Mart and Lawsons) which are dotted all around Japan! Just show them the code or barcode you’re sent via email and they’ll know what to do. This is true for household bills, too. Easy peasy.

When in Japan, do as the Japanese do

I was quite surprised at the number of cultural differences between daily home life in my country (Britain) and Japan. Quirks include everyone insisting on having voiles and curtains up at the window to protect their privacy, built in bidets and warm toilet seats if you got a fancy apartment, toaster ovens (I’ve only used mine to reheat chicken nuggets – please don’t judge – but apparently they do pizza, bread and all sorts), earthquake furniture braces, tiny fridges, futons instead of beds, tatami (I dodged this entirely in my apartment, thankfully), really specific rules about trash and recycling, 1K/1DK/1LDK and all the other layout jargon they use here, and not wearing shoes indoors. There are so many intriguing aspects of Japanese home life – if you’re planning to move here, I would heartily recommend trying out most of them. I wanted my apartment to include little pieces of my Western background (such as a full size bed) but constant reminders that I lived in Japan, such as a bidet.

In terms of practical tips for finding an actual apartment, I would recommend to most people the following ‘wish list’:

  • 2nd floor or higher – this is to dodge any bug problems as roaches and other creepy crawlies usually stay on the first and second floors (but can come up anywhere). On that subject, do feel free to ask the real estate agent or landlord if the building has a history of bug problems. They’re legally obliged to tell you the truth!
  • No tatami flooring – it’s a pretty, traditional Japanese feature but it sounds a complete nightmare to maintain (with dire consequences if not done properly)
  • 1K layout, at least – I wanted to ensure the kitchen and bedroom were separate!
  • No LPG supply – changing gas canisters is a pain
  • Can accept high speed internet – not all buildings can
  • Less than 10 years old
  • Air conditioning 
  • Elevator

The system here is so different to what I’m used to coming from Britain and I have tried to impart almost everything I’d learned over the last few weeks in the hopes it makes your move to Japan smooth and as painless as possible, but if you have any questions at all, please feel free to pop them in a comment below, send me an email or message me on social media. 

I’ll be posting every now and then on Tokyo life, grocery shopping in Japan, skincare finds and more in addition to my usual beauty and lifestyle content, so be sure to subscribe for email updates!

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