You’ve probably heard a lot of horror stories about Japanese apartments: cockroach infested one room hovels in Tokyo that rent for US$ 800 a month, paying five or six months rent in non-refundable deposits, real-estate agent’s fees, and key money up front for an apartment, and Gaijin houses filled with hostesses, illegal phone card vendors, and worse. The stories are probably all true, too. Finding long-term accommodation in Japan can be a nightmare .

If you are willing to do a bit of legwork, and can speak a bit of the language (or have a Japanese friend that is willing to help you) however, there are other options.

Geshuku

Geshuku (下宿) is the Japanese word for boarding house. Most people who live in boarding houses are students, but many take in people who are working. The rent can be astoundingly cheap, as little as 30,000 yen a month, and 55,000 on average. They are generally clean and comfortable, offer a private room, give you lots of chances to practice your Japanese, and are a great way to make friends with ordinary Japanese people. For those of us who skipped one too many home-ec. classes, they are ideal because most of them provide two meals a day.

There are two main areas for Geshuku in Tokyo, one near Tokyo University downtown, and the other near Waseda in Shinjuku. The Geshuku in Waseda are much more Gaijin friendly than those downtown. Surprisingly, there seem to be more Geshuku outside Tokyo. For example, The Geshuku section in the Sapporo Yellow pages is about the same length as it’s Tokyo counterpart, even though Sapporo is only about a tenth the size of Tokyo.

There are some things to think about before one moves into a Geshuku however. Although every one is different, before you move in, you should find out about curfews, guests, overnight guests, special rules, and most importantly, whether or not they have a bath. Some Geshuku, especially in Tokyo, do not have baths or showers, so you may have to go to the Sento (public bath house) adding three hundred yen per day to your rent and making your life less convenient.

When I was Geshuku hunting, I always had better luck when I went in person than when I phoned. Some owners may never have rented to foreigners before, so they may be reluctant to let you stay there, but it is always harder to say no to a person’s face than a voice on the phone.

Homestays

There are three kinds of people who take in foreigner into their homes: those who want to learn more about foreign cultures, make friends, and practice their English; those who want money; and those who want a pet Gaijin – someone funny and entertaining that they can roll out to impress their neighbors and guests, take shopping to introduce to the butcher, and provide free English lessons for their children. Fortunately, 95% of homestay families fall into the first category.

Living with a Japanese family is a wonderful opportunity to experience Japanese culture, the food is usually delicious, you get a chance to practice Japanese, and the chances are that you may have unique experiences like participating in a festival, playing with their kids, or attending a wedding.

As in so many other areas of life, the secret to a successful homestay experience is good communication skills. That doesn’t mean that you have to speak perfect Japanese or find a host family that speaks perfect English. It means that you have to be open and honest with them, speak up if there is a problem (but of course do it politely) and encourage them to do the same with you.

To avoid problems, before you move in, it is imperative that you wrangle an invitation to the house and meet the entire family and spend some time with them so that you don’t get any nasty shocks when you discover you have to share your accommodation with a foreigner hating grandmother, or future-Yakuza son.

Finding a homestay can be difficult. If you are a student, then there are a seemingly limitless number of groups and organizations that will help you find a host family, but if you are an English teacher or ex-pat, it can be more difficult. For students, your school will often help you to find a homestay and if that is not possible, go to your local ward or city office. Many of them have ‘International Friendship Associations’ which bring students and Japanese families together. For non-students, check friendship associations, classified ads, local Japanese schools, and bulletin boards. If you can’t find one that way, consider putting up an ad somewhere, and start asking your friends and co-workers if they know anyone who would be interested in taking in a foreigner.

Although some homestay families are willing to take in guests on a long-term basis (students’ homestays are more likely to be long-term), often you will initially be invited for just a month or two. If you all get along well, you will probably be invited to stay longer.

As with Geshuku stays, there are some things to be considered before one moves in. Homestays can put a crimp in your social or love life, because the family might not want you coming home at all hours of the night or bringing home members of the opposite sex, so it is very important to make subtle inquiries when you meet the family. There can also be conflicts over smoking, cleanliness, cultural differences and many other things, so think carefully before you decide to move in and be careful. That said, homestays really are a great experience, and the conflicts always seem minor compared to the great experiences you have and the wonderful friends you make.

Apartments Without Guarantors and Key Money

There aren’t so many of these in Tokyo, but if you live in other areas, you may be surprised at how easy it is to find accommodation without key money, real estate agents’ fees, or a guarantor.

At the risk of sounding like the TV infomercial where the man with the red Porsche parked in the driveway of his million dollar house tells you that he bought the mansion for $400 and the car for 50 cents, the secret is to find someone who is desperate. As the recession in Japan deepens it is becoming easier and easier to find people who invested in real estate during the bubble economy, and find themselves faced with empty apartments.

You won’t find these apartments by going to a real estate agent. The only way to find them is by going to the neighborhood in which you want to live and walking around, looking for hand written “For Rent” signs on telephone poles or buildings. Printed signs are usually put up by real estate agents, whereas the hand written variety are put up by the landlords themselves. They will of course, be written in Japanese, but one sees the same Kanji over and over so they soon become easy to read. The rents on the signs are often negotiable, so don’t be afraid to ask. The worst thing that can happen is they’ll say no.

April is “moving season” in Japan, and this is the easiest time to find an apartment if you are going through a traditional real-estate agent, but if you are looking for a desperate landlord, the middle of winter and the times around summer vacation are best. You will, of course, run into some people who don’t want to rent to foreigners, and you will probably get shown a couple of pretty horrible places, but there are also a lot of nice ones out there, so don’t get discouraged.

Another way to find long-term accommodation in Japan without having to cough up key money is UR Chintai, which we have written about here.

Vacation Rentals

If none of the above options appeals to you, for example because you are not planning to stay for more than a few months, vacation rentals might be a better choice.

On Booking or HomeAway you can find whatever mid-term option that fits your budget and preferences, from cheap dorm rooms to luxurious hotel suite. On HomeAway, you can get 8% off accommodation when you use SAVE8 at checkout (until Dec 31st, 2017).

And of course, no article about long-term accommodation in Japan would be complete without mentioning AirBnB, which has become many people’s go-to site for (mostly) private-run vacation rentals.

Photo credit: kalleboo