Thursday, March 27, 2014

New Apartment

Here's a diagram of what we hope will be our new apartment.  It's on the 11th floor of a building that is just about equidistant between the two base entrances.  It's on a road that's about a 5 minute walk from the main train station in town.  About 10 minutes gets you to the local mall.  Most of the apartments in this building are rectangular with the only real windows facing out over the balcony.  This one is different because it's on the side of the building, and that means more windows.  The genkan (entrance) has lots of storage space for shoes and other stuff, and there's a small alcove with a window directly across from the front door.  The area is fairly narrow, but as you turn right and proceed into the apartment, the walls V out and expand resulting in a fairly powerful psychological effect that makes the living room area feel more spacious than it probably is.  There is a large window to the left the looks out over the city, and you can see Tokyo bay in the distance dotted with ships, and Sarushima (Monkey Island) as well.  There is an odd large closet that was passed by earlier on the left.  We have contemplated making it Rowan's room, but I don't think he'd appreciate it.  The kitchen is essentially part of the same room, which Kerri likes, and I'm not quite sure if we will have a proper "dining" area.  We might go with a kitchen island with bar stools.  The tatami room is ours (of course), and Rowan will get the adjacent room.  There is no carpet (thank goodness), and we'll probably have to get a bed from Rowan's room.  Kerri and I will sleep on the tatami using futons, and we'll put them away during the day and use the room with our kotatsu (low table) for schoolwork or whatever.  The balcony looks in towards the city, but there's not much of a view that way.

It will cost about $1180 a month (that's including a $150 maintenance fee), and we are hoping to get a base parking spot which will save us about $300 a month in parking fees.

They are going to put a single air-conditioner in (not sure where), so we'll probably need to get another one on our own dime.  Additionally we'll need to buy a range (standalone ovens being somewhat unheard of here) and possibly light fixtures.  Otherwise we have most everything we need already.  We were thinking about hiring  movers (something we've never done), but now it looks like we'll get to overlap significantly with our current house and be able to move leisurely.

The apartment hunt began in earnest at the beginning of the year.  We scoured various online sites and saw several good candidates and sent off our inquiries.  We got to see a few places at first and were pretty disappointed by what we saw.  The apartments were small, cramped, old and dingy, and were going for about $1000 to $1500.  And that was a Japanese lease.  A $1000 apartment jumped to $2000 when it was converted to a "Navy Base Lease."  The main difference between the two types of leases is that the navy lease allows us to break the lease with 10 days notice, and we're pretty much guaranteed to get our deposit back (barring egregious damage).  Also, we don't need a japanese guarantor (japanese citizen or company willing to pay your rent if you flake out).  Needless to say, we decided early on we'd probably end up needing to get a japanese lease if we wanted to realize significant savings.  We figured we'd get a guarantor company to cover the guarantor requirement.

We had a falling out with one of the first agents that showed us around.  I could never quite figure out what his issue with us was, but it was the first time I'd ever encountered such unprofessionalism from a Japanese agent.  He flat refused to show us any more apartments and we were very disappointed as that company seemed to have all the apartments we were interested in.  We proceeded with other contacts for a while, and then we took a break as I had to travel to Bahrain for work for 3 weeks.

After returning, we started up again, contacting our current agent for our house (who we love and would like to keep working with) to see if she had anything.  She showed us one apartment that was again disappointing, but we wanted to take one more shot with the previous company to see if we could see some of the apartments we were most interested in.  I called the main Tokyo office and requested to not speak with the person they would usually refer us to.  The gentlemen who ended up helping us was very nice (an American citizen but 2nd or 3rd generation Japanese Hawaiian) and came down to Yokosuka one saturday to show us several apartments.  There was one that Kerri absolutely loved, but it was a little far from town and the base.  Then there was the one that we settled on above.  There were actually 5 or so different apartments in this building available, but we liked this one the best.

Kerri made us wait 24 hours before deciding, and then we told the agent we wanted it.  Since then there have been some hiccups, but hopefully everything will work out.  First, the guarantor company that the building accepts rejected us, probably due to our strange visa situation (we don't fit in any of the normal boxes).  So we asked some friends that we have made here if the wife would be our guarantor (she's Japanese).  They said yes, so we go their info to the agent.  I need to get a "signature certificate" from the US Embassy tomorrow morning which is in Tokyo.  This is a notarized document that says my signature is actually mine.  Here in Japan they use official seal stamps for important things like buying a car or getting a new apartment, and since I don't have one my signature has to do the same thing.  This enables that to be official.  Also, we were told by our agent that he found out our apartment is actually owned by the prefecture, so it would take longer to process everything.  This has us a bit worried as I've scheduled our current lease and payment cancellations for next week.  We are hoping to hear something more solid before then, otherwise we might postpone.

So that's where we are at the moment.  When we get in we'll take some pictures and post them.  For now, there is the layout above, and here's a picture of the building.  Our apartment is the 3rd from the top on the side closest:

Moving time

We have found an apartment closer to base and are looking forward to moving in soon (hopefully!).

Per some previous comments, some of you wanted an idea as to why we would do something so unexpected.  We've always said that we didn't want to live too near the base as we really wanted to feel like we were "living" in the country and not be too dependent on the base.  While the sentiment remains true, since living here for 2 plus years now I think we've been able to reformulate just what constitutes "living" here.  What follows are my attempts to break down the various reasons for why we have changed our minds about living in Yokosuka.

1)  City life:  In our experience, the areas close to a US base tend to cater to the baser needs of that community, resulting in some of the seedier neighborhoods we've encountered (encrustations I've called them).  We assumed that was what Yokosuka would be like.  However, in reality stepping off base is really like stepping into Japan, literally into the center of Yokosuka city.  There is a particular street/area that is known to cater to the young sailor types, but it's actually very small and there have been some attempts to make it nicer.  But beyond that, Yokosuka really has its own identity separate from the base, and it's the closest thing to a "city" that we have around here.  It has the most restaurants, the closest mall with movie theaters, and the closest thing to a real "vibe".  And it's pretty darn cool, no matter how you look at it, to glance over at the bay and see ships, submarines and an aircraft carrier on any given day.  My personal preference has always been city life and while we have enjoyed our house in a small fishing village, the call of the city definitely pulls on me.  Since moving to Yokohama or Tokyo (which some of my coworkers have done) would also mean an even longer commute, the closest thing to "city life" going on here is Yokosuka.

2)  Activity vortex:  We currently live about 30-45 minutes from the base (depending on mode of transport and traffic).  We don't really know any of our neighbors and there are no kids nearby.  We have zero social reasons to be where we are currently.  Kerri and Rowan are very frequently driving in to the base or the other area where people from base live (Ikego) to meet with the homeschool group for activities.  Consequently we are *always* at the base regardless of our preferences.  The reality is, 90% of our weekly/daily activities really do revolve around the base, so exiling ourselves 30 minutes away for no good reason has started to make less and less sense.  Also, we are never able to really stay and enjoy Yokosuka because we always have to "get home".  I can count the times we've had dinner there on one hand.  I'd rather live close to the base so that I can be home quickly, and then still have energy to go out and explore the city.

3)  Cost savings:  We currently pay about $2000 a month for our house.  It's a really good price for the place, given it has 6 rooms and 2 toilets.  Of course, there are only 3 of us.  It just doesn't add up.  And anyone who knows me knows I have an aversion to big places as we will inevitably fill them up with junk we don't need.  How did we get here?  Well, when we arrived, it was confusing due to the fact that I was told one thing about how I would be paid housing, and then it was changed as soon as I arrived.  But we didn't really have enough time to understand the implications of the change, plus we didn't have much of a context with which to evaluate the available options when it comes to housing.  Most people here are paid a set amount for housing based on their "grade" or "rank".  We were going to be under that system originally and figured we would get X amount of money per month to spend on housing, or we would lose it.  We budgeted between $1800 and $2000, and found a place that fit our budget.  Also, Kerri really wanted a house, so we weren't looking at apartments.  Again, for the price, it's a great place. contract changed (I was the first one to sign it) the week we arrived, and actually we are paid our housing as a set amount that is lumped in with our paycheck, and we get to keep whatever we don't spend.  Now, we didn't really think we could find a place much cheaper than what we had, but as time went by and we became more educated on what was available, we realized we could probably find an apartment that actually fit our family size for somewhere between $1000 and $1500.  That's a lot of savings to be had, money we could be putting towards retirement or at least preparing for a future in which we don't make as much as we do now.  If you also include my personal desire that we might eventually get rid of our car, and the savings add up that much more (closer to base/city = less need for a car).  When I really got our budget under control last year (thank you YNAB), the sheer magnitude of how much we could be saving really hit me.

4)  Adoption and the future:  About a year ago, we started the adoption process that eventually ended in disappointment.  Part of our motivation for that was to see if we had this big house for a reason.  Maybe we were meant to focus on having another child and building our family life there.  But as anyone who has kept up with this blog knows, that didn't happen.  While we were saddened, it was also freeing in pointing us towards the direction we are now headed in of consolidating, getting smaller, saving more and getting ready for the eventual move out into Japan separate from the base.  Oddly, moving closer to the base is going to help us be better prepared for that eventual separation.  Meanwhile, Rowan's friends and activities are all base centric, and for the next 5 or so years he's going to need some stability in his life.  We are aiming to stay put until Rowan is out of the house and embarked on his own life, and we think it will be better for him if he's closer to the locus of his activities.

There is still a chance this current apartment will fall through, but so far so good.  I'll do another post on the process.