Personal

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!

Birthday meal 2016 – Galvin la Chapelle

Each year, my parents treat me to a special meal for my birthday. This year, I chose Galvin la Chapelle in Spitalfields, a restaurant we’d been to before, but which I remembered as having a beautiful setting and great food. Thus, when I found Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road booked up as usual, I decided on la Chapelle.

The decor - It’s certainly one of the most memorable of London’s fine-dining restaurants, with its beautiful ceiling and floating mezzanine level, and the food was excellent, too. We opted for the Menu Gourmand, a seven-course tasting menu, and every dish was an excellent complement to the last.

     

Lasagne of Dorset crab, beurre Nantais and pea shoots - The first dish was a ‘lasagne’ of crab, which was a neat start to proceedings but probably the weakest moment of the meal. The crab meat was superb but the dish as a whole was a little on the tasteless side.

Ballotine of Landes fois gras, confit quince and brioche - Next came a very rich and well-balanced foie gras pate course, with soft but crispy brioche and the right amount of cutting sweetness from the confit. Very well-done, and I would have liked to have had more.

Risotto of Burgundy black truffle, Jerusalem artichoke and wood sorrel - The third course was risotto with black truffles, combining to make a very strong, almost garlicky flavour – it was a small dish but probably the best risotto I’ve ever eaten. I enjoy very strong flavours, and this hit the spot.

Wild sea bass, marinière of cockles, sea beets and Jersey oyster - The fish course was excellent. Sea bass is my favourite cooked fish in any case, but what really made this dish fantastic was the crispy skin. Everything combined into a very appealing centrepiece to this meal.

Denham Estate venison, lemon thyme white polenta and forest mushrooms - The climactic meat dish was venison – a better option than the pigeon that was on the website sample menu, I think! The flavours were strong and rich but somehow the balance seemed off here. There was too much in the sauce that was battling with the taste of the meat. So while still delicious, this was one I felt could have been better. I didn’t get a picture, but next came cheese – truffled brie de Meaux with confit William pear and truffle honey. A strong cheese and a nice balance, I was very pleased to have decent cheese for the first time in a while!

Apple tarte Tatin with Normandy crème fraîche - To finish the meal, we enjoyed a well-made tarte tatin, a favourite of mine. The crème fraîche was well-made and nothing was overpowering, but the dessert was not a stand-out – it didn’t seem markedly better than any tarte tatin from a local bakery. But that’s not to say it wasn’t very pleasant. The standard of every course here was high and the risotto really stood out as a cut above any other I’ve tried. A very fine meal, in a beautiful setting!

Memorial Symposium in Tokyo University

16-11-14-20-35-57-561_deco

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.

A Day Out in Kichijoji and Inokashira Park

20160105 01

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.
20160105 08

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!

New camera lens

The first thing I bought when my book advance came through was a new lens for myself! A nice 35mm prime that goes down to f2.0: a step up from the trusty old Nifty Fifty. After picking up some new figures and essentials for my apartment, I decided to give the lens a roadtest. 20150908 02   First pic isn’t a new purchase, it was just a chance to try out the shallow depth-of-field. 20150908 03 New Ikea lighting fixture- no more having to set off the motion detector to keep lights on! 20150908 04 Haikyuu! figurine – I’ve wanted this for a while! 20150908 05 New bunny bowl and Stitch tumblers!

Tokyo Michelin-starred restaurants #2: Fureika (plus a disastrous haircut)

Luckily, my hair has recovered. Picture by Acqua Models

Luckily, my hair has recovered. But in the video...ew...! [Picture by Acqua Models]

My second visit to a Michelin-starred restaurant in Tokyo. This time it was the more expensive but decidedly yummy dim sum menu at Chinese restaurant Fureika in Azabu-Juban. I was in the neighbourhood to get a haircut which…yeah, I can’t say went very well. Bleh!