Where’s my Chai Latte!!!?

Today was moving day – up at 6am, finish packing, removalists come at 8am, cross the suburb of Kichijoji to our new river-side apartment in nearby Mure, then back to the house to clean, deliver a present to our previous landlord and done and dusted by midday. That was the plan. Things went a little wrong, though, from about 9:30, and didn’t quite right themselves until our previous landlord drove us to our new house at 2pm. Our previous landlord is a sweet 70 year old ojiisan (Grandpa) who kicked us out because his 40 year old house is crumbling down around us. To make up for kicking us out he gave us his fridge, washing machine, bedding, microwave oven, television and rice cooker. He also offered to look after our rubbish (a perennial and serious problem when moving house in Japan). In exchange we gave him a packet of tim-tams, so all is even.

In the course of moving to Mure (which, incidentally, is an archaic word for “hill”) I had the opportunity to see various examples of classic Japanese work ethic, proved that incompetence is a universal property of real estate agents not confined only to westerners, learnt the Japanese word for “nictitating membrane” (shunmaku, 瞬膜, if you’re interested), witnessed my cat get acupuncture therapy, probably experienced the curse of a suicidal alcoholic dead author, and learnt some interesting things about property ownership in Japan. Naturally, I want to share.

So, in order of appearance, here is the tale of my day.

The super-efficient removalists

The removalists started work at 8:15. There were two of them. Their task was to move about 15 boxes, 20 bags, two desks, one large cupboard, two chests of drawers, two computers, one printer, one fridge, one washing machine and sundry accumulated crap from the two floors of our house, along a narrow path and into their waiting truck. Nobody told them beforehand, but in order to get to the washing machine they had to move 20 boxes from the shed into the house (we helped with this). Oh, and they had three “hanger boxes” for our clothes, that we filled while they worked, and they then carried out. They were done by 9am, even though every time they came into the house they had to take their shoes off. They also wrapped all the furniture before they moved it, and moved everything carefully, and even managed to reseal some boxes they weren’t satisfied with.

The smaller guy couldn’t have weighed more than 60 kg, he was tiny, but he could lift the washing machine by himself. He could also carry a chest of drawers down a very narrow and windy flight of stairs. This man was so small that he wore his packing tape as a bracelet (it fitted on his wrist and came off easily). He wrapped my printer in a blanket in about 3 seconds flat, and not only did he tape it up but he put an X-mark of tape on it to indicate it was fragile. He and his mate actually ran up and down our stairs, and moved through the house at a kind of shuffling semi-run – all while carefully avoiding touching the walls or risking damaging anything. They wrapped the fridge in these kind of padded socks that stop it from damaging or being damaged by door frames, and to get these socks on was a kind of 3 second effort: one of them says “se-no!” and then they flip the whole thing over the top of the fridge like they’re putting on some kind of enormous head band. Pat Cash would be proud, if his head were the size of a fridge. These are men with a rare and refined ability to size up the dimensions and weight of an object, and be done with it in 1 second flat. And they were going to be working at this pace at houses around Tokyo until 7pm.

(If you’re moving in Tokyo, try フクフク引っ越しセンター、27000 yen for all that done professionally in 1 hour! But Japanese only, I think).

So all of this done by 9am. We were thinking that the whole day would be over by 10. Sadly, removalists’ efficiency is easily done by the universal incompetence of real estate agents …

The wrong keys, in the rain

We reached the house at 9:15, only to discover that the keys the real estate agent gave me the day before wouldn’t open the door. Luckily I had kept the real estate’s number in my bag, so I called them … they open at 10am. The removalists told me that they could wait until 10am … and then the rain started. It’s the fag end of the rainy season here so it was pretty desultory, but it wasn’t looking promising. I assumed that the removalists had another job to get to, and come 10am were going to start dumping my shit on the road. Actually I discovered later, they could wait until 10am before they started charging me a waiting fee (which was very nice of them!) But I didn’t know this, and I had visions of my stuff sitting on the mud next to my doorway, getting rained on, while I waited for the real estate agent to turn up.

Fortunately, Japanese businesses have staff in them before their appointed opening time and they answered the phone at 9:30. Our estate agent couldn’t get in touch with the landlord, however, and couldn’t understand how our key couldn’t work. It somehow took him 30 minutes to reach our house (a 20 minute walk from his office!) only to discover that the key didn’t work. Well, shock! The removalists had tried it and they couldn’t get it working – what chance did he have? As I was talking to him the electricity guy turned up to check our electricity, and I had this vision of all the utility company reps standing in a queue in the rain while the removalists dumped my shit on the pavement and I remonstrated with the real estate. No doubt, if these removalists needed to bail to their next appointment they’d have my stuff out of their truck in five minutes flat.

As an aside, when I signed the contract the real estate initially presented me with the contract for a different apartment in the same block, and a few hard words from his boss were required to get him to reprint the contract to my satisfaction. My suspicion was he’d done the same with the keys, but they didn’t work on the other empty apartment, so his mistake was way more random than that. Random incompetence is so much more frustrating than focused stupidity, don’t you think?

As another aside, when the real estate agent gave me the key the day before, he pointed out to me that it had no room number on it, but said “you can see it has the word WEST written on it, which means it’s the right one” (my apartment is on the west side of the building). Hmmm… famous last words.

So I was starting to yell at the real estate, the electricity guy was looking on in fear, the removalists were laughing, the Delightful Miss E was explaining things to the electricity guy, the rain was falling … then the removalists revealed that they wait for $35 per 30 minutes, and everything smoothed out. The real estate offered to pay while we waited for the locksmith, and then we all just waited. Fortunately he contacted the landlord (who lives nearby) just a few minutes later, and scored a key. Win!

I’m still pretty pissed off with him though. This was Sunday, so his shop was open, but if I had been moving on a Wednesday his shop would have been closed, I wouldn’t have been able to contact him, I wouldn’t have been able to get into my house, and would have had to send the removalists away (or pay them to wait a day!) So, note to self: never move on the  day that the real estate is shut. Also, maybe punching your real estate’s lights out when you meet him, just to remind him of his place in the universe, is a good idea. Just in case. Anyway, this proves that real estate agents are incompetent, without fail, the world over – I had expected better in Japan, where being thorough about details like “is this the right key?” is standard in most workplaces, but the real estate business must have not read that memo. Wankers!

The Dazai curse

So I also discovered from my landlord that my house is situated right next to the bridge where the famous Japanese author Osamu Dazai killed himself with his lover Tomie Yamazaki. He seems like a pretty dissolute and useless kind of chap – maybe his ghost is stalking the area, making real estate agents incompetent and disconnecting landlord’s phones? Actually, I think he did himself in a little further south of my house, towards Shimorenjo. Looking at the canal now, even my cat couldn’t drown in it, but apparently back in the day it was much more ferocious. Anyway, I guess if this house turns out to be cursed, it’s the fault of Japan’s version of Lord Byron. I’ll have a thing or two to say if I meet that ghost!

Cat Acupuncture

In amongst all this, it had become apparent that our cat Arashi chan was somehow sick: his nictitating membrane was showing, which is definitely not normal, and by Saturday night his eyes were half-covered. I did a brief web search and discovered it’s probably just stress, but I didn’t know a vet near my house (of course there are three, I now know) so we decided that it would be a good idea to take him to the vet we know, near our old house. So after successfully not gutting our real estate agent and feasting on his liver in the street in front of our new house, challenging though it was to show such restraint, we decided that it might be best if we went back to the old house (where, fortunately, he was still safely ensconced) and took him to his regular vet. So off to the vet, where the nurse on reception remembered Arashi chan’s name as soon as we walked in even though we hadn’t seen them since last September. He’s a lady’s man, our Arashi chan.

By now it was midday, and it took an hour to get Arashi chan into the vet after the queue of rabbits and extremely small dogs. Terazono veterinary surgery is a beacon for rabbit owners and – obviously this is pure conjecture – I suspect a lot of them are lesbians. I think there’s a secret rabbit-owning lesbian underclass (cabal?) in Tokyo, and they live in or near Kichijoji. Maybe they’re in league with Totoro, who is a damn sight shiftier than the movies give him credit for, in my opinion.

My suspicions about this vet were confirmed when, having told me that Arashi chan was suffering from stress, he offered to administer a soothing session of acupuncture! Cat acupuncture! The great thing about conducting these kinds of negotiations in Japanese is that I don’t understand half of it, and my natural response is to trust my interlocutor and say “yes” while I catch up with what’s going on. So by the time the needle was in Arashi chan’s shoulder blades I was just catching up with the details. OH! Acupuncture! Like Black Adder in the German prison – “ooohhh! It’s a scythe!” He also got a needle in his inside thigh, just near his bum. It did seem to calm him down, and he certainly didn’t notice it. How strange! The vet told me that that cat acupuncturists are very rare, though he has heard it’s all the rage with horses in Australia[1], which had me imagining rapiers, or a vet turning up to the farm with a nail gun “for therapeutic use only.” How do you administer acupuncture to something as large and as thoroughly, irreconcilably evil as a horse? It’s like massaging a satanic whale.

So, Arashi chan calmed down (apparently – it’s hard to tell with an animal that spends 23 hours a day sleeping and one hour a day being profoundly stupid), and after a brief clean of our old house we went to hand in the keys to our previous landlord. After delivering the tim-tams, though, we discovered that all the taxis in Kichijoji were full or booked or dead, and we couldn’t get a taxi.

It’s as if just for this one day of the year, the 1st July 2012, Tokyo had decided to do a bad service exchange agreement with Sydney. No taxis? That never happens! Bad real estate agents? Sydney! Note to self: don’t move house on a day when the entire city of Tokyo has decided to do an exchange of bad vibes with Sydney.

So, our landlord offered to drive us to the new house, and during the drive we found out why he was unconcerned that we only did a perfunctory clean of his granny flat … and strange indeed it is …

Buying a house on someone else’s land

Our landlord is moving in August. Apparently his son is rich, and has bought the whole family a nice place in nearby Mitakadai[2]. I asked “what will you do with the old house?” His reply: “knock it down.” (actually, he said “destroy it,” but whatever). After establishing that knocking the house down will cost him money, I naturally asked, “will you just sell the land?” and he replied “oh no, we don’t own the land!”

WTF? You bought a house on land you don’t own? In Tokyo? Isn’t that a little risky? Is that even possible in Australia[3]?

Apparently it’s not risky, because they’ve lived there for years and it was their decision to quit, not the owner’s. They’ve been asking him to sell the land for years but he keeps saying no. Why, they don’t know – he lives in Shikoku, and doesn’t care one whit about Tokyo. But he won’t sell so they finally gave up and decided to move. I guess that this means their house is really just a very elaborate version of a mobile home, that you buy and stick on someone else’s land and then move away with, only in this instance “move away” means “take off and nuke the entire site from orbit.” Maybe this is why a retired typesetter can afford a massive two-storey home with Granny flat in one of Tokyo’s most sought-after locations – because he only bought the house, and is renting the land at some dodgy dirt-cheap pre-bubble rate.

Is that even possible in Australia? And would you do it?

I wonder if a lot of the houses I see going for sale cheap in Kichijoji are operating like this – you’re actually buying a home that, if you can’t sell it on when you try to move, you have to destroy. That is so radically different from western concepts of property ownership. And probably something to look out for if you’re planning on buying a house here…

So that was my day. My feet hurt, my cat is composed entirely of nervous energy and nictitating membranes, my real estate couldn’t organize a root in a brothel, and my house may be cursed by the ghost of a dissolute alcoholic cheating bully who wrote overwrought prose about self-destructive idiots, a kind of wartime-era Sid Vicious of letters. Have I made the right decision moving to Mure? Perhaps I should have bought a house on someone else’s land in Chiba? Ah, the complexities of finding a home in Japan …

fn1: I guess these vets don’t call themselves “the horse poker” for obvious reasons.

fn2: Mitaka means “three hawks.” My house is also in Mitaka and, rather shockingly, around the corner from my house is a “hawk cafe” where you can have coffee in a building that contains owls and hawks. You can get your photo taken with them. Today I discovered that birds can consciously control their nictitating membranes. That’s right, that blink they do is them sneering at you.

fn3: Well obviously, everyone’s doing it, in essence, since no one ever bought the country from its original inhabitants, but I think property law somehow managed to … cough … find a way to overlook that.