I had no say in the location of my work, or the adobe of my living, but thankfully I am quite contented with both. Judging from the information at my disposal, it is standard practice for Communicat to place its employees in apartment blocks owned by a company called Leopalace. Far from being leonine or palatial, these flats are small, single floor homes intended for one person to live minimally. I have seen the interiors of five different Leopalaces, and while the layout may vary, the major components remain constant.
Most of the space is allocated to a combined living room, bedroom and dining room. The furniture consists of a table that can be folded flat against the wall, a desk, two uncomfortable chairs, a double wardrobe, and a raised bed with storage space underneath. Initially I slept on this bed, covered with a futon, but after a few months began sleeping regularly on the floor. Quite frankly I found the clamber in and out of the bed to be bothersome, and kipping on the carpet is a good motivator for keeping the room tidy. Moreover, I had read that to keep futons in good shape, they should be folded up during the day, and floor-sleeping more readily facilitates this.
While the living room is decently equipped, I had found myself increasingly coveting a nice comfy sofa on which to read, play on the laptop, or take afternoon naps. Eventually the yearning grew so powerful that I was prepared to treat myself to a piece of furniture. However, upon discovering that a small floor couch would set me back about £100, I reconsidered my options. Investing a much smaller amount in some nice pillows, I turned the raised bed into a ‘day bed’, where I can languidly sprawl. A good fluffy sofa would still be preferable, but us immigrants usually need to be frugal.
There is a large window which gives prospect onto nothing particularly worth mentioning. In the frame is an obligatory insect barrier, without which my home, and every other building in the summer climate, would look like an entomology farm. The windows themselves are opaque, which frustratingly obscures all knowledge of current weather conditions. This is particularly vexing in winter, when the days are so cold and snowy, not only can I not open the window, I cannot sleep without the aid of a hot water bottle, and waddle about my poorly insulated flat in a thick dressing gown, consolingly adorned with rabbits.
Exit from the living room, and you will find yourself in the kitchen, the width of an average corridor. In fact, it is a corridor, with a sink and two hobs installed above a cupboard. There is some storage space, and a fridge-freezer, but it was designed with a sparse and utilitarian approach to cooking. Ovens appear to be considered far from essential within the Japanese kitchen suite, which is saddening because most of the cooking I became accustomed to requires some degree of baking. I could purchase a microwave oven, but have sustained myself thus far with my hob and microwave.
Located between the fridge and the sink is an alcove where one may find the washing machine, the toilet, and the bathroom. The latter two are likely to be separated in Japanese accommodation because of the culturally elevated significance of the bath. Any introductory media on Japan is bound to address the importance of bathing, and explain that there is one correct procedure that foreign nationals are liable to fuck up. The bath is a place for cleansing and relaxing, not washing, so throwing your dirty carcass into the tub is unacceptable. Rather, one uses a shower head or a tap and bowl to soap up and scrub off in a separate area first. Traditionally, a bath is prepared in the evening, and the head of the household gets to soak first, before pulling a cover over the tub to keep it warm, as other family members take their turn. Communal bathing is also a major and enjoyable part of recreation here, with literally thousands of onsen (hot springs) for people to visit. What this means for my microcosmic world, however, is that to facilitate this pre-cleansing, bathrooms are often built to be completely waterproof, and cleaning them is therefore a simple procedure of turning on the shower and hosing the whole place down.
Japanese toilets seemed to have gained renown in the West for being complex, all-singing-all-dancing digital contraptions, though as far as I can tell this has more to do with the unfamiliarity and linguistic incomprehension of Western peoples. My toilet, as I’m sure you are eager to know, does indeed have an arm of buttons at the side, but it is less extravagant than those found in public cubicles. In public places, there are buttons to make the sound of flushing water to drown out the noise of your own urination. As ineffectual and wasteful as this practice may seem to – well – me, there is a shared etiquette among adult women here that having strangers listen to you pee is frightfully embarrassing and must be masked by either flushing the toilet or playing the sound of a flushing toilet. This function is naturally superfluous in a solitary apartment, so my toilet has only been equipped with a bidet and a seat warmer.
Unlike the other ALTs in Kitakata, I live on the second floor (first floor, in UK parlance), which means that I get a carpeted living room, and a window at the front of the apartment, with a mattress-sized area created by the stairwell. This useful space provides somewhere to store my spare tyres (as we are required to change between summer and winter tyres), and a refuse area. Domestic recycling in Japan is a little more complex than the UK, and much more so than the USA. The main dichotomic categories are burnable and plastics; supplemented by separate collections for tins, glass bottles, pet bottles, milk cartons, newspapers, and non-burnable items such as CDs and aerosol cans. As most of these latter categories are collected about once a month, having an isolated place in which to keep all this garbage is pretty handy.
This complex recycling practice may make Japan appear quite the eco-warrior, but sadly I believe this to be untrue. For a start, paper and cardboard go into ‘burnable,’ presumably ending their potentially recyclable lives in an incinerator. Moreover, many daily products here use excessive amounts of packaging, and things like plastic-wrapped single hygiene wipes and disposable chopsticks are handed out like yesterday’s sushi. Which itself comes with excess plastic and one-use chopsticks.
When I first arrived at this flat, there was a notice placed on the stairs informing people in about three languages that shoes are not permitted inside. Someone raised in Japan or familiar with Japanese culture would not need reminding of such a basic custom. While there is a tall and narrow cupboard for shoe storage, this is not sufficient for all my footwear, and coupled with ineluctable laziness, can result in a pooling of shoes in the small entrance space.
My post-box is nothing unexpected, but the way in which post is delivered tickles me somewhat. Post officers, rather than pushing letters and bills all the way through the slot, will leave them jutting out. Not only does this make the absence of the occupant quite obvious, if so inclined, anyone could make off with the exposed post. Once in the wake of a contact lens delivery I came back to find a thin cardboard parcel sticking out of my door like someone trying to eat a pizza box from the corner. Luckily petty theft in Japan is comfortingly rare.
Given that these apartments are not ergonomically suited for long-term living, the turnover of residents is fairly high. Despite my cacophonous voice and laugh, I struggle to work, sleep, or function normally in noisy environments, and so greatly appreciate the quiet that envelops my flat. I fret, in fact, that I disturb other people with noise caused by my unabating clumsiness.
In the carpark of the building resides my car and my bike. The car is a rented Suzuki Wagon R, arranged by the company for my commute. As a kei car, it can struggle on the local mountainous inclines, but handles much better than the old Nissan Micra I used to drive (sorry, Mum). My bicycle, meanwhile, was purchased online after some deliberation as to whether I should invest in such a contraption. Given that I have fallen in love with cycling over the last few years, when debating the merits of purchasing a bike in Japan, I found myself questioning aloud how much my own happiness was worth.
Back in the UK, particularly during the summer before I moved to Kitakata, I would spend hours on sunny days cycling through the countryside, and it was the purest of joys. Imagine sailing past rolling pastures under a blue sky, rushing by fields of cows and sheep and horses, seeing the land around you spanning out for miles toward a gentle horizon occasionally punctuated by archaic steeples, and realising that you have no idea where you are. That, my friends, is freedom. The ability to sling a bag on your back and travel as far as you can, turning down any road which takes your fancy, and knowing you got there entirely on your own steam gives a heart-swelling sense of achievement and liberty.
So I bought a bike.
I had to assemble it myself, and it looks much swankier than it actually is, but it gets me around and I have had my share of adventures upon its gel-cushion-supplemented seat. I began riding it to school to gain exercise and save petrol, and it seems to have elevated me to the position of ‘eccentric’ in the eyes of teachers and staff, even though many students travel to school by bike.
And there ends the summary of my residence in Kitakata, and my ephemeral position and ownership therein. Snow upon the mountain, petals upon the cherry tree, flight upon the wing. They may not last, but the sense of affinity which they afford is enduring.