My husband and I occasionally succumb to the draw of HGTV. Late at night, while snuggled in our bed, pillows acting as a cocoon, we sit together and find ourselves entranced for hours as the episodes tick by, watching the over-expectant house hunters search and search for the perfect place. We laugh together as silly first-time buyers ramble off a wish list one mile long that will never be fulfilled by their measly budget. And we roll our eyes and shake our heads as they pick the largest house 20 minutes out of town rather than the nicer, smaller apartment near public transportation.
But oh, how the tables have turned. We find ourselves now in a real-life episode of House Hunters International: Yokosuka. Of course when one looks for a home in a foreign land, they expect things to be different. And when nestled in bed 6,000 miles away, it’s easy to think, “of course it won’t be like America.” Or, “get over it!” But when you’re agreeing to live somewhere for the next three years, tiny kitchens, weird bathrooms, and 10’x10’ bedrooms are harder to stomach.
To guide our search, we enlist a trusty local realtor, Saito-san. She kindly listens to our wish list: three bedrooms, dog-friendly, near the train, and room for a piano (yes, I brought my piano – don’t judge). She smiles and nods as I speak. Then says, “Hmm, yes, hmm, no.” Then she smiles again and looks at me, waiting for my response.
Uh… yes-no? So I smile, nod, and say, “Ok?” And she smiles, nods, and says, “Ok.” So, language barriers aside, a-house-hunting we go, not sure what to expect or, frankly, what we just agreed to.
We immediately recognize that Japanese and Americans have many differing opinions about houses. Some differences are wonderful. Gorgeous wood floors everywhere, in every home. Mountain-side views that make you want to wake up in the morning and breathe in the fresh air. And traditional tatami mat rooms, referred to as washitsu (“Japanese-style rooms”), that give the homes both history and character.
But other features are harder to appreciate. First, what counts as a bedroom? We knew that everything would be smaller and packed accordingly, leaving behind our bulky furniture and drastically reducing the number of odds and ends that need to be stored. But I did not expect rooms to feel like closets. Many of the “bedrooms” we saw (and master bedrooms really aren’t a thing) would barely fit a double bed. Our realtor would spread her arms out a-la da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and then step one foot in front of the other to measure out where a bed would go. And then nod and smile proudly that it would, indeed, fit! Of course, nothing else will. No bedside table, no dresser, no TV, not even a small chair. With the bed, there’s less than eight inches on all sides to squeeze your way around the room.
Second, the kitchens are… different. Choose your poison: no dishwasher, no oven, no storage, no counter space, and no upgrades. Clearly, kitchens are not for cooking, because most didn’t even have electric plugs for our counter-top appliances. I’m not sure what they do in the kitchen, but I do know that they must eat out a lot!
And finally, the bathrooms. Well, I should clarify – there are toilets and also washrooms. Like much of Europe, if you ask someone where the bathroom is, they’ll believe you want to take a bath, which might creep them out (or maybe not, which might be worse!). But washrooms are their version of a shower and bathtub. It’s one room that is usually separated by a shower door from another tiled room with a sink and towel rods. But the washroom itself is like a little steam room. It’s very high-tech. You can set the temperature in the tub and step into a perfectly heated bath. Sounds relaxing, right? Well, the catch is that the tub is half the size of me. I am 5’2” on a good day, and I can only fit in the tub with my legs pulled up to my chest. There will be no long, luxurious baths in my future. And I doubt my taller family members will be able to partake of the bath at all.
But at least they can take a nice steam shower. That is, as long as they’re okay sitting on a plastic chair, soaping up their body, and then holding the nozzle in their hand to rinse off the lather. Bottom line: unless you’re three feet tall, it’s not really a shower.
Despite the differences, however, Alex and I thoroughly enjoyed the process. We’ve heard horror stories of months and months of searching to no avail. But we only needed to see seven homes before we made a decision. In homage to our favorite binge show, I shall quickly present the three best choices:
1. Apartment with an open-concept kitchen, dining, living room (unusual). Two washrooms (also unusual) and an actual master bedroom with enough space for our furniture all within a city neighborhood close to shopping and restaurants. Drawback: 25 minute walk to the train and no kitchen, minus a sink and two feet of counter space.
2. Town home in the hills of the city with breath-taking views. From the master bedroom you could see from one side of the peninsula to the other. And it included a beautiful entryway with a wide staircase. Downside: tiny (and I mean tiny) guest bedroom, no tatami room, and while it’s within a beautiful neighborhood, one must walk 25 minutes to the nearest transportation and restaurants.
3. Stand-alone home in the next city over. Also on a hill, the view is idyllic. And it boasts two tatami mat rooms, a larger-than-average master bedroom, and is just a two-minute walk to the train. The catch: it’s farther from work, and is an older house with all the brown and yellow 70’s accents you can handle.
So, which did we pick? Well, pending any contractual difficulties, we chose… the stand-alone home with traditional character and the two-minute walk to the station. While the view of the second home and the convenience of the first were tempting, our number one priority was train proximity so we could hop on at any time to explore this wonderful country. So, disagree with our decision if you wish, but should you ever come visit, you’ll be happy to hear we can offer you a unique, if slightly unsettling, bath/shower experience and your very own tatami mat room to call home!