Japan

Buying a Property in Japan

In a few days, it will be my two-year Japanniversary. Two years since I arrived in Japan and moved into my apartment in Shinjuku. I’ve had good times in the little place in the centre of town, but there are some big drawbacks to living in such a convenient place. First, my apartment is expensive but small – I only have a mini-fridge and a single hob, with no food preparation area. Second, Shinjuku gets a little too busy for comfort, especially on weekends. And lastly, the most important thing – in Tokyo, there’s an annoying system where if you stay in an apartment for 2 years, you get charged a ‘renewal fee’, or double rent for one month. No thank you!

Last year, my grandmother passed away. She was a real character and I miss her presence in my life, especially when Christmas comes. She had enough savings squirreled away that when it was distributed between family members, it became a possibility that I could buy a cheap house in Japan. I’ve been working in Japan since I arrived, with several sidelines like proofreading and random TV work, plus made some well-timed investments into Cryptocurrency, so for the first time in my life, I’m ready to get onto the property ladder. Thank you, Grandma!

Buying in Japan is in some ways surprisingly simple, and in others surprisingly difficult. Firstly, there are no legal restrictions on foreigners buying property, which makes sense when you consider that the Japanese economy will benefit from foreign investment, especially from China. On the other hand, someone like me who has been here for just two years on a working visa, unmarried and with an uneven income, has no chance of getting a mortgage. So while it was possible to buy a place, I couldn’t look at anything very luxurious that I would ordinarily fund with a mortgage.

On the other hand, I feel that if possible, buying outright is a much better investment choice. The debates between buying or renting largely revolve around whether mortgage interest repayments are effectively the same as renting anyway, with various inconveniences. Buying outright has very few disadvantages in investment terms.

So I began the property search. Helpfully, there are various agents in Japan that are eager to help foreign-language buyers, especially in English or Chinese. My Japanese is getting…passable by this stage, but I didn’t feel prepared to deal with the complexities of contract negotiation without someone to interpret! I found various agencies who were helpful, but ultimately a relatively new company called Beyond Borders was most helpful, bilingual agent Mori-san having been very helpful and accommodating throughout the process.

I started out by looking at apartments near where I was living, but didn’t fall in love with any of them. Everything changed when I viewed a house a little further out from the city, in Koenji. It was a great little property by the side of a river – and it reminded me that buying land is far better than an apartment in Japan, where property depreciates but land holds its value.

I made a bid on the house. In fact, I was the highest bidder. Sadly, the seller thought that dealing with a foreigner was too scary and turned down my bid. In other countries, this might be illegal on grounds of discrimination, but there’s no protection against this kind of decision in Japan. Whether renting or buying, watching out for ‘no dogs, no gaijin’-style messages is a necessity. I was angry at the time, but it’s the current social reality here.

That experience totally changed what I wanted in my property search, though. I had been putting price first, then location, with size last. I realised I would be happier commuting for a longer time every day if I could get a much bigger place. That’s why I decided on Edogawa, where land prices are cheap but the trainlines are well-connected. Plus there’s a famous fireworks festival there every summer, and it’s halfway to the airport. I made sure to look for places on relatively high ground because Edogawa is at risk of flooding, and eventually found a house that was big, sturdy, but because the road approaching it is too narrow, cannot be completely rebuilt – something that in Japan sends the property price tumbling. I can reinforce it against earthquakes, even entirely rebuild the structure within the same blueprint, but can’t tear it down and build something new. If a natural disaster completely destroys it, I’ll be in trouble, but that’s a risk I decided to take.

The actual process of buying has not been straightforward. Japan has a lot of odd traditions connected to buying property. For example, the 10% deposit at the beginning of negotiations has to be made in cash. For my house that was a fair wad of banknotes, but I imagine luxury apartments in the city centre must involve briefcases full of them. It’s lucky Japan has such low crime rates, because that’s a very risky system!

I also had to have a jitsu-in, an officially-registered wooden seal, made in my name. This was surprisingly fast and inexpensive, and it’s probable that it would be waived in most sales to foreigners, especially those who don’t even enter the country for negotiations, but it was something of an oddity.

Now, I’m waiting to move in. Unfortunately, the seller can’t hand the property over in good faith until the land has been surveyed, and it’s taken a very long time to schedule that survey. But it’s finally around the corner, my belongings are all packed, and all that remains is the final settlement – which will be slightly surreal. The seller, her agent, my agent and me will all gather in a bank, where I will make a transfer to the seller and a transfer to my agent under the watchful eyes of everyone involved. Then comes registration, connecting utilities, getting insurance and all the other necessities.

It hasn’t been a simple process, and there have been some big bumps along the road, but I’m about to move in and get decorating. Frankly, I can’t wait!

Memorial Symposium in Tokyo University

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At Tokyo University

Though many good things happened in my professional life, the past year has been a sad one for my family. My aunt died much too young in November, 2015 and then last month her mother, my grandmother, also passed away. By unfortunate coincidence, both were while I was in Japan, and at times I was unable to return to England to attend their funerals, so I haven’t honestly been able to feel I’ve had a chance to pay my respects or fully reflect on their lives. Next month, I’ll be returning to England, and will be able to visit their graves, but fortunately there was also a memorial event for my aunt yesterday in Tokyo University. My aunt was a prominent scholar of French literature and had attended a number of academic conferences here in Japan, as well as hosting many Japanese scholars who were interested in visiting the Samuel Beckett archives at Reading University. So her kind friends and colleagues over here in Tokyo arranged a memorial day, in conjunction with a memorial symposium a year after her death over in England. Since I’m living in Tokyo, it made sense for me to attend and deliver a message from my uncle, giving me a chance to pay my respects. My hosts set up a lovely event. This was my first time in the University of Tokyo, and the Komaba campus is small and pretty. After finding the correct building, I was led to a room full of scholars, some young but most older, with the somewhat languid air of lifelong academics. Most were Japanese, though there was one other Westerner, another Brit named David whose life, it seems, was intertwined with my aunt’s right from their undergraduate days.20161122-02 I was greeted very warmly, and though the event was in a typical academic meeting room, there was a smiling photograph of my aunt, a display of her books and pretty floral displays. The opening memorial service was touching. Friends of my aunt from her academic circle ran through her biography, and then gave their personal reminiscences, often with photographs - both of her visits to Japan and their visits to England. They found a particular significance and comfort in her last words being, ‘It’s exciting.’ I was invited to read my uncle’s message, which was received with appreciation, and later had a chance to give my own account, centred on memories of the family gathering at Christmastime. Even though I was in a room of strangers, we were all connected through my aunt, so I wa20161122-03s grateful to have such a chance to pay my respects. 20161122-05This was followed by an academic symposium responding to my aunt’s legacy. Admittedly, while I could follow the personal reminiscences, which other than my own had all been in Japanese, when it came to academic vocabulary and analysis I was mostly lost, really only able to follow one lecture on Samuel Beckett and Music. Nonetheless, I was pleased to be part of the event.20161122-04 Next, we went to nearby Shibuya to enjoy a meal in my aunt’s honour. As is traditional after a symposium, we went to an izakaya, a Japanese restaurant where the emphasis is on drinking, and my hosts had selected Gonpachi. Gonpachi is a famous chain in Japan with very traditional décor, a different branch made particularly famous recently as a location in Quentin Tarantino’s movie Kill Bill. We had a private room where we enjoyed an extended ‘Nabe course’, which culminated in a hot pot but mostly delighted me with the smaller dishes that came first – delicious sashimi, large korroke and a kind of Chinese-style dish slightly reminiscent of hairy prawns. It was a superb meal, accompanied by plenty of beer with which to toast my aunt. 20161122-06I didn’t speak much Japanese that evening, as I sat with David and listened to his stories about my aunt and his own interesting career. Like me, he studied at Cambridge, plays in a band and has a keen interest in progressive rock. I learned a
The flowers I was given from the event

The flowers I was given from the event

lot about Samuel Beckett, particularly regarding his interest in sport, and felt quite emboldened to be able to talk about my thesis for the first time since finishing it, as well as my book. I am grateful I had a chance to meet such an interesting group of people, and this was really my first time interacting with academia in Tokyo, so I feel quite grateful to have had the opportunity. I’m not sure if I will ever return to the university, or see any of the other campuses, but who knows? Perhaps in the future I’ll be able to return.

Takarazuka revue: Love & Dream

tiki-download_fileWhat could be more romantic for a young Japanese lady than for a handsome prince to whisk them away on a romantic adventure? Well, when that prince is actually a woman, apparently. Japan has a strong tradition of cross-dressing, from the female roles in Kabuki to the okama bars of Kabukicho, plus of course the elegant males of visual kei who with the help of huge amounts of makeup and far more photoshop are as convincing as any Thai ladyboy, plus more glamorous (though the illusion tends to shatter up close). But while josou – boys dressing as girls – tends to dominate, the opposite, referred to as dansou, is not uncommon. Prominent cosplayers are celebrated for pulling off the male look well, singers like Valshe look and sound like attractive pretty-boys – and then there is Takarazuka. In front of audiences that are at least 98% female, the various troupes of the Takarazuka Kageki-dan are all female. Half of them play female roles, half male. These all-female troupes put on high-camp musicals that take their melodramatic love stories very, very seriously, and showcase some extremely powerful voices. In heavy makeup and often elaborate costumes – usually sparkling with many, many sequins – the girls tease their audiences with love stories and over their 101-year history have of course courted controversy with overt homoeroticism. The audience is certainly not filled with lesbians, but something about the masculine otoko-yaku being a woman, clean-cut and charming and understanding the feminine heart, is deeply attractive to the adoring female fans. The idea of young female students having a crush on an older girl at school is very common in Japanese media, and in some ways this is an extension of that mildly thrilling bit of transgression. Interesting though the sociopolitics are, the performances themselves are very straightforward. Emotions are bombastic and direct, performances hammy and sets and costumes opulent. It’s romantic and overwrought and revels in that campy excess. In many ways the result is like a British pantomime, only less twee and more erotically-charged. Love & Dream was somewhat atypical – rather than a single story, this revue was divided into a Disney tribute and then a kind of best-of compilation from Takarazuka’s long history. Dealing in grand, overwrought emotions, Disney material is somewhat ideal for Takarazuka, and it was big emotional numbers with the chance for the singer to belt like ‘Part of Your World’, ‘Go the Distance’ and of course ‘Let It Go’ that showcased some extremely impressive singing talents. Songs that allowed the otoko-yaku to show some personality worked well, too, like ‘Friend Like Me’, and it was fun hearing these familiar songs in Japanese – it’s somewhat gratifying that they call Hercules ‘Heracles’, like we should. CO-xVWRWIAAdP4H Some parts were misfires, but the pacing was brisk enough that the awkward parts quickly segued into something else. Whoever thought ‘Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo’ needed a hard rock remix with guitar solo was misguided, and Mary Poppins numbers were a bit of a mess, needing much more elaborate choreography to work. But hey, when a dozen highly enthusiastic women come running out dressed as extremely camp pirates (to the theme from ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’) and launch into ‘Under the Sea’, one really has to embrace the absurdity of it and enjoy the silliness. The second half of the show was more of an authentic representation of what the Hoshigumi usually does, with various songs apparently familiar to Takarazuka aficionados that were as camp as just about anything Disney could put forward. The song I remember best was about being a vampire, though most of the content wasn’t quite that silly. There was a very funny comic interlude with a domineering sempai figure in a huge and absurd ballgown getting fussy about being upstaged by a young and cute idol-like group of girls, which quite bizarrely called heavily on the humour and tropes of drag – it was very much like having a drag queen or pantomime dame onstage, only in a female-only company. In addition to the interesting gender divide, watching the audience was quite fun. In common with most Japanese musical performances, there was what seemed to be a correct way to behave – everyone clapped together, and large numbers of fans had brought glowing Hs much like the glowsticks of idol concerts to swing side to side with the beat. The appearances of the main otoko-yaku stars also inspired much excitement and febrile attempts to get noticed with a two-handed wave. High camp, very silly and occasionally baffling, I’m pleased to have been to see Takarazuka in action. 20160110 02

A Day Out in Kichijoji and Inokashira Park

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Ramen, capybara and many many Guinea pigs in Kichijoji

Kichijoji, often ranked by locals as the best place to live in Tokyo, is a really pleasant suburb a few stops down the Chuo-Sobu line from me. I’ve been there before a few times – as a tourist to go to the Ghibli museum (though we didn’t see any of the surrounding park either time I went) and more recently with my band to record our album. But as yesterday was a beautifully sunny winter’s day, we decided to take a trip to see the park and zoo. I had an errand to run first – I wanted to go to Tokyo Fencers to get my épée rewired. Unfortunately, I don’t know how long the Japanese New Year’s break is and the shop was still closed. Better try again next week – and maybe go to the Ghibli Museum!
Ghibli museum visit in 2013!

Ghibli museum visit in 2013!

Headed to the park and the cute little zoo. It’s split into two parts, and the first part we found was the smaller bit mostly housing waterfowl, but also a little aquarium. We went there to coo at the giant salamander (not as big as the ones in Ueno Zoo) and the fire-bellied newts (much fatter than my pet ones!), then headed over to the main part. Hanako the elephant, Japan’s first and the oldest living Asian elephant, wasn’t anywhere to be seen – and has actually been subject to a lot of controversy lately, with British tabloids running sob stories about the elephant having been there for 50 years with a lot of unsubstantiated claims of it being violent or ill. I didn’t see the elephant so I can’t make any informed judgement, but I sincerely doubt its level of care or level of suffering is significantly different to that of the elephants in London Zoo used to be for 70 years. Or are we pretending to be enlightened because we moved those animals to Whipsnade in 2001 after they killed a man? With emotionally-loaded words in the media, memories are short. I think animals should get decent care, but my point is that I don’t think a badly-researched article or two leads to the definite conclusion that this particular creature is suffering or that its habitat is inappropriate compared with that of any number of other comparable animals. And given Hanako is currently the oldest Asian elephant in the world, surely the standard of care can’t be that dire? Anyway, elephants aside the zoo was small-scale and sweet. There was a focus on indigenous animals, with tanuki, Japanese foxes and flying squirrels on display, plus a very large, green expanse for some deer that looks like it might have been a good place for Hanako, given how much those articles complained about the concrete. I was a little surprised that a large monkey habitat was given to Rhesus Macaques instead of Japanese Macaques, but they’re quite hard for the layman to tell apart anyway. There were also some very cute penguins, owls and fennec foxes.
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And this stork

After the zoo, we went around some of the shops around Kichijoji station. There seems to be just about everything you could want there – the place has a small-town feel yet just about every shop you could want, which must be why it’s considered such a desirable place to live. We went to look for a place to eat in Harmonica Yokocho, with its pleasant smoky post-war feel, but everywhere was very crowded so we went to a ramen place we’d passed earlier and had no regrets, because it was absolutely delicious. Overall, our day in Kichijoji was great – will have to go back next week to try and get my épée rewired!
Scenic!

Scenic!

Moshi Moshi Nippon Festival, Tokyo 2015

20151201 02Last month I attended and participated in the Moshi Moshi Nippon Festival in the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium. A three-day event, it’s essentially a gig with the theme of cultural promotion. Thus, there are food stalls all around the venue, some fashion and entertainment brands with stalls near the entrance, and non-musical performers related to other elements of Japanese culture. I was there for all three days, and very happy to be a part of it! Friday’s theme was ‘Moshi Ani’ – the anime-themed day, and also the day I was onstage. I was part of the World Cosplay Summit’s performance slot, essentially one of several token foreigners there to highlight the ‘World’ part of WCS. I arrived early and already in cosplay, and there was no rehearsal, so I got my backstage wristband and went to watch what was happening onstage. Unfortunately only caught the very end of the Tempura Kidz’ opening show performance, but would see them several more times over the weekend, so that wasn’t a big issue for me. Also managed to wave at Pi-chan backstage, which was a nice moment! 01 After the opening show was Hachioji-P, a Vocaloid producer who’s been pretty successful. I watched about half his set before being called backstage again – I enjoyed what I saw, but I’d have been more interested to see OSTER Project, KID-P or Kikuo…though I guess Kikuo’s dark songs wouldn’t be all that appropriate for the bright, happy setting! Backstage we were given lots of free snacks and some tasty bento. It was fun seeing the other performers, though the bigger bands had their own dressing rooms. Eventually our time came and we took to the stage, striking poses and then lining up together. The stage was much bigger than I’d expected, and it was a thrill to have huge screens with our faces behind us – basically I feel I should have put in a bit more effort for this event than just borrowing a cosplay and using my real hair even though it wasn’t quite long enough to style like Ace and had visible roots! 20151106 05 Hey ho, it was great fun and I met some very lovely people who were also cosplaying. It’s a nice little community and I do hope to do more. For a while I was worried no photos would appear, but we got good ones in the end! 20151201 01 As with the similar event on Hallowe’en, Japan’s current WCS representatives, Mariko and Mahio did their impressive performance as Kouen and Hakuryuu from Magi, and I took the opportunity to tell them how jealous I was of their skills! 12274587_863764813722531_1768715188181182408_n Returned to the audience area to watch Livetune+. The DJ, KZ, is another popular Vocaloid producer, best known for ‘Packaged’, though my favourite is ‘Last Night, Good Night’. I didn’t recognise much, including the song with May’n, but it was a fun and energetic set. The day 1 headliners were SID. I didn’t know who they were when I saw them – a pretty standard-looking hard rock band who apparently used to be much more Visual Kei – but as they played more and more I realised why they were closing the anime-themed day. ‘Oh, that’s the ending for Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. Oh, and that’s the latest Kuroshitsuji opener. Ah! And I love that opening song for Magi!’ They were a polished and accomplished band, and while I wouldn’t go to see them elsewhere, I’m glad I got to see them perform and was impressed in particular by the singer’s voice. On day 2, ‘Moshi Pop’, there was a bit of confusion for me. A group of us went thinking we would be in some fashion event representing foreigners interested in various Japanese brands, but as it turned out, they just wanted us to go in a ‘Challenge Runway’, which was basically open to anyone to sign up and walk on the stage with. I would have been the only person with a Y chromosome in the whole show and there was next to zero coverage for it, plus I was wearing something pretty odd (Alice and the Pirates kodona-style cutesiness), so I bravely chickened out. Image24 I watched my friends take part, though – and some of the little nihon buyo performance afterwards. Then we did our own little mini photoshoot outside, which I was quite pleased with. After a diversion to Harajuku to eat pizza, I returned to the venue to watch some free music! 20151107 05 I got back in time to see a bit of Silent Siren, a cheerful Harajuku-kei girl band. That was followed by a slightly odd reveal of a competition for, as far as I could tell, providing the voice for a big bald miso soup mascot. Next came a performance from a DJ who seemed to like electroswing and broken beat, backed up by dancers from the Kawaii Monster Café – best of which was a big ole pink cat. Afterwards came the Tempura Kidz once again. Adorable as ever, with their precise dance moves and silly gurning. Compared with when I saw them in Harajuku, this event had the advantage of having a section of the audience reserved for us gaijin (slightly odd to be segregated, but I didn’t mind) so I could see everything from as close as it was possible to get! And with the day’s performers very much based on visual impact, that was a distinct advantage. DSC2611 Oddly enough, the next segment was an advert for a television, but it made a degree of sense when it was revealed that Kyari Pamyu Pamyu had just filmed the CM for the product and was being interviewed for it. Was fun to see her, especially in a much more eccentric outfit than she wore for her actual performance the next day, but still felt a bit odd to have her flogging a TV in the middle of what was essentially a gig. japanese-fashion-model-and-signer-kyary-pamyu-pamyu-promotes-sharp-f5rg71 Back to the music next, with girl group 9nine, who had some very enthusiastic fans in the audience. The hardcore fans’ genders switched for poppy visual kei boyband Kameleo, who I wanted to see earlier in the year. They only played three songs, the best of which was ‘Dame Otoko’, and they’ve reached a curious and unique situation where they’re half actual band and half boy-band, so that some songs have them on instruments and others don’t. I still really like the band and their silly, goofy way of having fun – including making everyone in the audience shout about nose hair. 20151119_kameleo_01 Next, after an impressive parade of fine kimono, was solo singer Natsume Mito, with a fun dance using traditional paper fans with a Fuujin and Raijin masked dancer on either side. She was cute with her Sarang-chan hairstyle and obviously had a lot of love from her fans, but maybe needs more catchy songs. Next, rather killing the momentum of the show, we had some live hairstyling, which I confess largely left me baffled. However, by then a huge crowd had gathered for the day’s headliner – who perhaps fit the Sunday theme better than Saturdays and could have swapped with Kyari. I had of course heard of them as they’re pretty ubiquitous in Japan, constantly appearing on variety shows, but this was my first actual exposure to the music of Golden Bomber. 18 I had no idea what to expect, so initially I was baffled. They came out miming very, very badly to the track playing. The guitarist kept stopping his miming and the drummer didn’t even bother to hit the cymbals with his weird thick sticks. My first thought was that this was terrible – and looking at all the girls headbanging as though they were listening to Pantera, I wondered if they could possibly think this was a real band and be so clueless about music. Then of course it became very obvious that, in fact, that was the joke. I didn’t realise that Golden Bomber were not only a joke band, but a band that exists to poke fun at the clichés of pop-rock and the lack of substance in visual kei. The concept is actually quite an ingenious one, and the fact that these guys get to have an absolute blast while they skewer the bands around them who take miming to other people’s music oh so seriously. The singer actually performs, and has an impressive voice, and two of the other members have the bodies of professional models, which of course helps with the appeal to the ladies. Essentially, the band’s concept is attractive men pissing about pretending very badly to play music while decent if generic rock music plays in the background – interspersed with some very funny comedy skits usually revolving around making the drummer show his bum or wear a dress. It’s refreshing, very silly indeed and extremely fun to watch. I was won over very quickly and think they’re brilliant. On Sunday I had to work and also get some writing done, so even though I wanted to watch the brilliant synchronized dancing of World Order, I had to skip them. Instead I arrived for Capsule, who were loud. I only know their song ‘Starry Sky’, because it was in the ‘Nanairo no Nico Nico Douga’ medley, but I certainly enjoyed that. c-nishida-moshi-moshi-f-20151111-870x489 Then of course came the headliner, who had drawn a far bigger gaijin crowd than anyone else over the weekend – Kyari Pamyu Pamyu. Her set wasn’t an obvious one – no ‘Pon Pon Pon’ or ‘Mondai Girl’ – but seeing her perform ‘Ninja Re Bang Bang’, I think that became my favourite song of hers. Kyari has a very interesting charm. She’s clearly not a consummate musician. Nor is she a dancer. She mimes her lyrics as she does simplified versions of her backing dancers’ moves. She’s almost lazy in her delivery and her songs are known for being childish and simple. But that’s part of the complete package, which works very well. Essentially, she’s an aspirational fantasy, not for those who want to work hard and meticulously perfect their craft (which isn’t to say behind the scenes Kyari has not done these things) but for the fantasy of lazily drifting into an incredibly cute world where everything revolves around you with very little effort on your part. Which is actually a common and compelling fantasy! The music is superbly-produced, her new Hallowe’en song was daft and adorable – par for the course – and though I would have quite liked a Tempura Kidz reunion dance, there was no faulting the enthusiasm and expressiveness of her current dancers. I enjoy that facial expressions are very much part and parcel of that Harajuku-kei backup dance scene. 012 Overall, Moshi Moshi Nippon’s weekend was a pretty remarkable event, an impressive mini-festival with a lot of variety, prominent musicians and an extremely high entertainment factor. I would absolutely go again – and was honoured to have taken part in my small way! Pic sources: https://www.facebook.com/ksuke.shibata ww.moshimoshi-nippon.jp www.alamy.com http://v-kei.jp/ www.japantimes.co.jp http://anz-media.com/