View of a quiet street with several pedestrians and a business in the foreground.

Itabashi-ku, Tokyo. Photo © Takayuki Miki, licensed Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivatives.

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 two 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.

Rental housing and real estate are listed in the weekly Metropolis, Japan Home Search, the Japan Times, Apamanshop, Fontana, and Enplus.

Tokyo Wards, Neighborhoods, and Suburbs

Chiyoda-ku and Minato-ku

Minato city is home to around 18,500 foreign residents (“registered foreigners,” if you will).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, as well as embassies. Sony, Toshiba, Google, Apple, and Goldman Sachs are all located here. Minato city is home to around 18,500 foreign residents (“registered foreigners,” if you will). Roppongi, Azabu, and Hiro seem to be popular with Westerners with means. 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.

Thirty stories high, Park Cube Atagoyama Tower has 30-square-meter (320-square-foot) studios for ¥150,000/$1,500 a month with a two-month deposit and parking for ¥45,000 ($450) a month. It guarantees a spectacular sky view even from the bathroom! A slightly larger 43-square-meter (462- square-foot) 1LDK in Azabu rents for ¥158,000/$1,580, requiring a two-month deposit, one-month key money, and one-month renewal fee. It’s a nine-minute walk to the subway and a pet is negotiable. A brand-new 2LDK, two-story, 70-square-meter/752-square-foot apartment in Takanawa is available for ¥190,000/$1,900 a month with a two-month deposit, one-month key money, and one-month renewal fee. The apartment is in a wooden structure and is a nine-minute walk from the Takanawadai station.

A fancier 970-square-foot, two-bedroom furnished apartment in Roppongi Hills Residence rents for ¥1,220,000/$12,200 per month. Western-style apartments and houses in this area can cost as much as ¥3 million/$30,000 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, Setagaya-ku, and Southwest Suburbs

Shibuya station is a mad scramble of people with boutiques, cinemas, and cafés.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. Tokyo Kyosai Hospital is in Meguro city. You could rent a studio in a 10-story, reinforced concrete building in Daikanyama with 30 square meters (330 square feet) for ¥158,000/$1,580 a month. It comes with concierge service, a café, and a fitness club and is just a two-minute walk from the train station. In the same building are 1LDK apartments with 55 square meters (600 square feet) of space, for ¥275,000/$2,750 a month. A 2LDK with 90 square meters (980 square feet) rents for ¥500,000/$5,000 a month. The studio, one-, and two-bedroom units all require a two-month deposit, one-month key money, and one-month renewal fee.

Five stops southwest of Daikanyama station on the Toyoko line is Jiyugaoka in Setagaya, a trendy area for foodies, shoppers, and artists. A compact 31.7-square-meter (341-square-foot) one-room apartment constructed in 2014 can be yours for ¥115,000/$1,150 a month with a two-year lease. A one-month deposit, one-month key money, and one month’s rent plus 8 percent tax for the agent is required to move in. Sangenjaya on the Denentoshi line and Shimokitazawa at the intersection of the Odakyu line and Inokashira line in Setagaya city are also attractive areas for fashionable living and exploring.

Shinjuku-, Nakano-, and Suginami-ku

Shinjuku city has the largest population of foreign residents in the metropolis.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 and Vietnamese 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 2LDK condo on the 4th floor in Shinjuku with 55 square meters (590 square feet) of floor space for ¥39.8 million/$398,000 plus a ¥12,700/$127 monthly maintenance fee and a ¥7,300/$73 monthly repair fund. It’s a four-minute walk to the subway. As for rentals, small, 44-square-meter (470-square-foot) one-bedrooms are listed for ¥172,000/$1,720 and up. An 830-square-foot, three-bedroom furnished apartment in the Shinjuku area is available for ¥360,000/$3,600 per month. 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 35-year-old two-story wood and stucco building is ¥100,000 ($1,000) per month for 355 square feet. The Tokyo Korean School is near Shinjuku’s transportation hub, where you can shop at numerous department stores and two Kinokuniya bookstores carrying English- and other foreign-language books and magazines.

Arakawa-, Kita-, Itabashi-, and Nerima-ku

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’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. Aoba International School in located in Nerima city.

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 sprouting along truck-choked National Route 17 didn’t strike me as country living. After looking at apartments with an agent I found a two-room unit on a quiet side street 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, bath, and storage were ¥83,000/$830 a month. There were also move-in fees. You can rent a 2LDK from ¥115,000/$1,150 and up, including a compact three-story house with space for one car for ¥200,000/$2,000 a month. After paying a deposit equivalent to one month and a ¥400,000/$4,000 landlord’s fee you can enjoy 75 square meters (807 square feet) of living space.

If you want to buy a property in Itabashi, a 1LDK manshon in Shimura 3-chome starts at around ¥21 million/$210,000 with 35 square meters (377 square feet). Fifteen minutes on foot from Ikebukuro, a 51-square-meter (550-square-foot) 3LDK lists for ¥46.6 million/$460,500. 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 skinny 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 touch 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. Waseda University manages several apartment buildings for students with one-room units (7-8 tatami mat size) starting at ¥62,000 ($620) a month plus ¥12,000/$120 monthly maintenance fee. Moving in requires a deposit of ¥100,000 ($1,000) and key money of ¥160,000 ($1,600)—rather high. There are still a few older, very small apartments and boardinghouses near universities with one room, a toilet, and no bath, for around ¥50,000 ($500) a month. The shared kitchen is down the hall. Where 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 ($4) or so, and even do your laundry at the same time in the coin laundry adjacent to the bath.

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 to stroll around different neighborhoods looking at vacancies posted on realtors’ office windows. Recently “share houses” have sprung up, where you rent a room in a house or building and share the kitchen, living spaces, and bathrooms with other renters. To search for this type of housing, try Iemoto Share House, Social Apartments, and The Japan Times.

Saitama- and Chiba-ken

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 (east).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 job locally. In Funabashi city, just 40 minutes from Tokyo station on the Tozai subway line, a 1K apartment with 21 square meters (226 square feet) of floor space is a bargain at ¥33,000 ($330) per month with ¥3,000 ($30) monthly maintenance fee. It’s a six-minute walk from the station with no deposit and no key money required to move in. Add a yearly insurance fee of ¥18,000 ($180). A 2DK unit in a 20-year-old reinforced concrete manshon is available for ¥82,000/$820 a month. The security deposit (equal to two months’ rent) is refundable with no landlord’s fee. One 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 13 million people living in the Tokyo metro area.

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 (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 have a house near Chiba city, not too far from Narita airport. The father rises at 4:30am, eats breakfast, and leaves the house at 5:15am 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 7am. The process is repeated in the evening. It’s no wonder that many children with salaryman (white-collar) dads hardly see them except on Sundays. Dream of building your own house? Contact Asentia Home for expert assistance in English from start to finish.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Living Abroad Japan.