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2. Old Japanese houses
About a month after arriving in Tokyo I began to share an old wooden house with a group of four other gaijin. With the house scheduled for demolition within two years time, the incredibly cheap rent we paid was a reflection of the poor condition of the house. Living in Tokyo and only paying $100 a month rent was something I never imagined could be possible!
During December and January it’s not unusual for the thermometer to dip below freezing in Tokyo, and I had my own way of checking the temperature on winter mornings. I pulled back the curtain and gauged the thickness of the ice on the single pane rattling window in my room. With no insulation and houses purposely designed to allow for a free flow of air, when it was cold outside you really knew it!
Another small winter inconvenience was the total lack of central heating. Central heating is a concept that has yet to warm the Japanese heart. I always chuckle when I’m outside Japan and someone remarks, “My goodness the Japanese have heated toilet seats. What an extravagance!” My usual reply being “With no heat in the hallways or toilet during winter, a heated seat is not nearly as extravagant as you might think!”
Nowadays housing has improved dramatically, but there’s still no central heating. “Back in the day” most people had kerosene space heaters warming various rooms in their house. This was not a solution anyone cared for, but in old wooden houses electric heaters were considered too dangerous.
Our house had four tiny bedrooms on the second floor. My bedroom measured 5ft.(150cm) X 9ft.(270cm). I was thankful to not have many possessions at the time.
We had one very small room with a porcelain squat toilet, and getting to do numerous deep knee bends a day, helped all of us stay in good shape.
No one had to wait in line in the morning to brush their teeth, because we didn’t have a bathroom sink. We brushed our teeth in the kitchen. The same room we took a shower in.
You see, with the house not having a shower when first built, previous tenants had made their own. There was a door in the kitchen leading out to a tiny back yard. The entry way by the door was about 2 ft.(60cm) square, and about 6 inches (15cm.) lower than the main floor of the kitchen. This area is the place where you’re meant to take off your shoes when entering. In our house this space was magically transformed into a shower stall! You turned on the water like when washing dishes, and then rotated a cutoff valve to send water up around and over to a makeshift shower head attached to the wall just above the door. Since there wasn’t any drain, what you’d do was shower until the water built up and was about to overflow onto the kitchen floor. Then you’d open the door and sweep the water outside with a small broom.
As I was taking a shower one winter evening the kerosene delivery man came round to the back of the house to deliver fuel. He knocked once on the kitchen door and opened it without waiting for a reply. There I stood with my hair all lathered up and my eyes closed to keep the soap out. I can’t tell you who was more surprised, but I can tell you he never entered our house again unless he heard one of us clearly invite him in!
Such was my early life in Japan. Simple, adventurous, and filled with many surprises.