If you’ve already firmed up a job or study program in Tokyo, it will simplify your housing search. Ask yourself the following key questions: How far am I willing to commute? (The average Tokyoite commutes an hour each way to work or school, and two hours is not unusual.) What’s my budget? What kind of neighborhood do I want to live in? How close do I need to be to the train station, parks, rivers, airport, and schools? Housing decisions often come down to a question of convenience versus affordability.
Japanese listings always specify how many minutes it takes to walk to the nearest train station and how many minutes it takes by train to central Tokyo. When calculating your commute, note how many times you will need to transfer to another line. A 90-minute commute on a single train is less tiring than three 25-minute rides with three transfers, especially if one involves a 15-minute hike underground—and you must repeat it all on the way home. Note if there are elevators, escalators, or only stairs in the closest station. Unfortunately, Tokyo transit has many barriers for people in wheelchairs and those who can’t walk the many steps. If you have the luxury of flextime and can avoid rush hour, that makes a longer commute much more tolerable.
Wards, Neighborhoods, and Suburbs of Tokyo
Chiyoda-ku and Minato-ku
Of the four wards, or cities, located within the JR Yamanote loop, Chiyoda- and Minato-ku are considered prime real estate because of their proximity to the political, economic, and financial districts. Minato city has the fourth largest registered foreign population in Tokyo, with about 16,000. Roppongi, Azabu, and Hiro are areas popular with Westerners. If your company is transferring you to Tokyo with all expenses paid, or if cost is not an issue, there is an attractive and convenient array of housing close to American-style supermarkets, private international schools, and fancy nightclubs where you can meet many other expatriates. However, the downside of living among concentrations of foreigners is the lack of urgency to learn Japanese, as well as fewer opportunities to interact with Japanese neighbors.
Roppongi Residences in Minato-ku has 1LDK and 2LDK units starting at ¥172,000/$2,150 a month with a ¥10,000/$125 monthly maintenance fee. Moving into a 43-square-meter (433-square-foot) unit requires a ¥344,000/$4,300 deposit, ¥172,000/$2,150 agent fee, and ¥52,500/$650 per month for parking. Shiba Heights in Hamamatsu-cho near Tokyo bay has two-bedroom apartments for ¥245,000/$3,062 with a two-month equivalent deposit and ¥245,000/$3,062 agent fee. This 30-year-old manshon is an eight-minute walk from JR and Toei subway lines. Upscale Western-style apartments and houses in this area can cost as much as ¥3 million/$37,500 per month for 2,000 to 3,000 square feet of living space (parking included). When you pay that kind of rent, you’re paying for a fashionable address in central Tokyo where you can walk to an international school or a job in the financial district and shop for American food at the supermarket. The U.S. Embassy, Tokyo American Club, Nishimachi International School, Sacred Heart International School, the British School, and Meidiya (American-style) Supermarket are all located in this district.
Shibuya-Ku and Southwest Suburbs
Shibuya station is a major hub on the southwest side of the Yamanote loop and is a transfer point to subways and private train lines heading toward suburban districts to the west. Shibuya station is a mad scramble of people with boutiques, cinemas, cafés, and hundreds of people crowded around looking for their friends by the statue of a dog named Hachiko, a popular meeting spot. The sidewalks are so crowded that sometimes you can’t walk in the direction you want to go.
Harajuku is one stop north of Shibuya on the Yamanote line, and another great place for people watching. On Sundays, you can mingle with the crowds of young Japanese girls (and boys) dressed in Gothic or Little Bo Peep costumes, and watch impromptu band performances. Right across the bridge are Yoyogi Park and the Meiji Shrine grounds.
Heading southwest from Shibuya, the Toyoko line takes you to suburban and western Meguro, which was built with lots of space and greenery. This area is popular with well-to-do Japanese and Westerners who can afford it. You could live in a studio with 33 square meters (355 square feet) for ¥152,000/$1,900 plus ¥10,00/$125 maintenance fee, along with two months’ equivalent deposit and ¥152,000/$1,900 agent fee, or in a spacious 230-square meter (2,500-square foot) penthouse with stunning view of the metropolis for ¥1,750,000 /$21,875 per month (the deposit is ¥7 million/$87,500). Century 21 offers three-bedroom houses from ¥450,000/$5,625 and up per month with parking space for one car. Aoba International School, Daiei Supermarket, and Tokyo Kyosai Hospital are located in this district.
Shinjuku-, Nakano-, and Suginami-ku
Nakano-ku and Suginami-ku, located west of Shinjuku on the Chuo line, are convenient areas to live in if you work or go to school in Shinjuku or anywhere in central Tokyo. JR lines, private train lines, and the Shinjuku, Oedo, Marunouichi subway lines cover the area. Shinjuku city has the largest population of foreign residents in the metropolis. Thirty-thousand Korean and other nationalities live here. Excellent Korean restaurants and shops are clustered around Shin-Okubo station on the Yamanote line. Waseda University on the east side of Yamanote attracts many foreign students. The Metropolitan Tokyo government buildings, hotels, and high-rise office buildings dominate the west Shinjuku skyline. Shinjuku Gyoen Gardens in east Shinjuku provide a quiet retreat from the crowds and noise.
Shinjuku-ku offers attractive manshon (condominiums) for sale. For example, you could purchase a 1LDK condo in west Shinjuku with 50 square meters (538 square feet) of floor space for ¥26.5 million/$315,000 plus ¥12,800/$160 monthly maintenance fee. As for rentals, if you don’t mind a one-room or very small two-room apartment some distance from the train station, you may find one for ¥100,000/$1,250 and up. Proximity to the popular Chuo line and Yamanote loop requires a larger housing budget, but cheaper rentals can be found in older buildings. My brother lives in Suginami-ku on the Chuo line with quick access to Shinjuku. His tiny apartment in a 30-year-old three-story wood and stucco building is ¥90,000 ($1,125) per month for 355 square feet. The Aoba Japanese International School and Tokyo Korean School are located in Shinjuku, with numerous large department stores and two Kinokuniya bookstores carrying English and other foreign language books and magazines.
Arakawa-, Kita-, Itabashi-, and Nerima-ku
If you’re looking for more affordable housing, check out the eastern, northern, and northwestern areas of Tokyo. Cheap apartments are usually older and smaller, but if you’re close to a river with jogging and cycling paths, or neighborhood parks with cherry trees, you might not mind the limited space. In exchange, you have the convenience of walking to all the essential shops, and with no skyscrapers, you get a better view of the sky.
I lived in Itabashi city in northern Tokyo for three years and I was puzzled when people said, “Itabashi-ku is rural Tokyo.” The 13-story manshon and truck-choked Route 17 didn’t strike me as country living. But after looking at apartments with an agent I found a two-room unit on a quiet side street just a five minute walk from the subway. Central Tokyo was less than 30 minutes away on the Mita line. Two six-mat (9-by-12-foot) rooms with a small kitchen, and bath and storage, were ¥83,000/$1,038 a month. There were also move-in fees. You can rent a 2LDK from ¥115,000/$1,438 and up, including a compact three-story house with space for one car for ¥200,000/$2,500 a month. After paying a deposit equivalent to one month and a ¥400,000/$5,000 landlord’s fee you can enjoy 75 square meters (807 square feet) of living space.
If you want to buy a property, Itabashi manshon condos start at around ¥21 million/$ 262,500 for a 1LDK with 35 square meters (377 square feet) in Shimura 3-chome. Fifteen minutes on foot from Ikebukuro, a 51-square-meter (550-squarefoot) 3LDK lists for ¥46.6 million/$582,500. It’s close to the Yamanote loop line with a 24-hour supermarket nearby. Single-family homes are increasingly scarce, as most of them have been torn down and replaced with up to four “houses” on a postage-stamp-size plot. The houses are three stories tall, with one room on each floor, and barely wider than the minivan parked on the ground floor. If you stretch, you can reach your neighbor’s wall.
Student Housing Near Universities
If you’re planning to study at one of Tokyo’s many universities, you may be interested to know how Japanese university students can afford to rent a place. There are still a number of older, very small apartments and boarding houses near universities with one room, a toilet, and no bath, for around ¥50,000 ($625) a month. The shared kitchen is down the hall. How do you take a bath, you ask? At the sento, or public bath, down the street. To find it, look for someone carrying a basin and towel in the evening, and follow him or her (men and women bathe separately). You can bathe for ¥400 ($5) or so, and even do your laundry at the same time at the coin laundry in the same building. You can find such minimalist rooms in rental magazines such as Chintai or Isize (published in Japanese) at bookstores and train station kiosks. Another option is walking around different neighborhoods looking at vacancies posted on realtors’ office windows.
North of Tokyo: Saitama-ken and Chiba-ken
Another option for cheaper housing is to do what so many Tokyo commuters do—live in Saitama-ken (Saitama prefecture) north of Tokyo, Chiba-ken to the east, or Kanagawa-ken (near Yokohama) in the south. You will have to endure a longer commute to work or school in Tokyo. Or get a local job. In Funabashi city, just 40 minutes from Tokyo station on the Tozai subway line, a 2DK unit in a 20-year-old reinforced concrete manshon is available for ¥82,000/$1,025 a month. The security deposit (equal to two months’ rent) is refundable with no landlord’s fee. A benefit of living outside Tokyo is that you are closer to the sea and mountains, or at least you can get there faster than the 12 million people living in the metropolis.
If you want to buy a single-family home with room for a vegetable garden, you may want to choose one in Saitama-ken (north) or Chiba-ken to the east. If your work or school is in central Tokyo, you’ll have to resign yourself to a one- to two-hour commute each way. This is a choice that many Japanese families have made. My friends, the Inoues, built a house near Chiba city, not too far from Narita airport. Mr. Inoue rises at 4:30 a.m., eats breakfast and leaves the house at 5:15 a.m. After a brisk walk to the train station, he takes the 5:35 to Tokyo. An hour and 15 minutes later, he transfers to another train and then walks to his office, arriving at 7 a.m. The process is repeated in the evening. It’s no wonder that many children with “salary-man” (white-collar) dads hardly see them except on Sundays.