Category Archive: house hunting

Mar 17

Plumbing Update


Okay, so it’s all been sorted out. (I’m sure you were all holding your breath to find out what happened next with my plumbing.) The plumber showed up today at around 9:30. Despite the pouring rain, we were able to show him the leak.


Less than 30 minutes later, he’d used a hammer and chisel to knock a 30cm by 40cm hole in the concrete in front of our house and had dug down to locate the leak.


I snapped a photo of it (right). It doesn’t look like much, but this was taken after the main water valve was turned off and the pressure was dissipating. The leak itself was tiny, like an invisible hole pricked with a needle in a garden hose, but under much more pressure (remember, this pipe services the first floor toilet and all the upstairs facilities). When we first turned the water on with the pipe exposed, the force at which the water came out was frightening.


The plumber went off to get some specific tools, but by the mid-afternoon, he’d replaced the damaged section of pipe with some ABS he clamped on. Sadly, he buried the whole thing before I could get a snap of it. (And yes, we tested to make sure there were no other leaks.)


So it’s actually going to cost far less than we thought. Except… the question we need to ask ourselves is this: given the condition of this old pipe, should we not replace the whole length of it before something else happens, maybe with worse results? That will cost quite a bit more. Or, being rather depleted, do we simply content ourselves with the patchwork and hope that nothing else breaks for a while?


Decisions, decisions…

Mar 15

House Update

It has been a long time (more than a year, I think) since I last posted about the house. That’s because there hasn’t been much to say. More than 18 months since we moved in, we’re still enjoying everything about it: the neighbourhood, our renovations, the large tatami room, the modern bath, etc. Most of all, we’re enjoying having a place that is ours.


Of course, the downside to that is that when shit happens, there’s no landlord to call to fix things.


I was working on the Yokohama Theatre Group website yesterday when the doorbell rang. I answered it, and the woman from the water company was there. She showed me my bill, which was insanely high (think 4 times the usual) and asked me if any water was running in the house, as the meter was spinning around. After a quick check to confirm that there was no water running, she explained to me that I probably had a leak somewhere.


Ichikawa-san, my neighbour, overheard our conversation, and we quickly discovered the leak. A wet area in front of the front door that I had dismissed as runoff from the recent rain we’ve been getting was the giveaway. A closer inspection revealed a crack in the concrete pad and water trickling out.


This is bad for several reasons:


    1. I have to turn off the water until we can get it fixed, turning it on only for short periods so that we can wash dishes, shower, flush the toilet, etc.
    2. The house is built on the side of a hill, and there’s no telling if the extra water we’ve injected into the ground over the last few weeks has done anything to weaken the land the house is built on. (My wife is more worried about this then me; I don’t see how this would be much worse than rain.)
    3. The leaking pipe is embedded in concrete which runs from the meter, under the front door, to the northwest corner of the house. The cost of chopping through concrete alone is approximately 50,000 Yen ($500) per meter.




<—In this photo, you can see the water leak as we discovered it.























<—You can see the leak on the right, just above the white stones. The pipe runs from the top middle right of this photo (the meter) under the tree, under the concrete pad at the front door, and another meter or two off the bottom left of the frame. The repair work means that we will probably lose the marble stone.










<—This is the water meter that I have to turn on and off every few hours so that we can get on with our lives.





















So, with any luck, this will be repaired on Saturday. (The leak, that is. Rebuilding the concrete might take longer.)


Someone on twitter (@martintokyo) suggested that the water company would help pay for the repairs or at least the amount of the bill consumed by the leak. However, the info paper given to me by the water company shows that they changed their policy five years ago, and that even if the leak had been between their tank and the meter, I wouldn’t get a red yen from them.


On the other hand, the meter-reader who came to the door was super nice, and even dropped by the house today on her way somewhere else (not in uniform)  to make sure I’d got things sorted out and had a plumber coming.


So there’s that.


The other happy thing is that the leak hasn’t managed to get any water on the inside of the foundations, which I was slightly worried about.

Feb 19

Exterior – Day 13

As we slept in this morning, the workmen came and removed the scaffolding.  While I thought this was a little weird, since we hadn’t been asked if we’d approved it yet, but at least it means that most  of the work is done.


The workers will have to come back at least once more since they left brooms, brushes, and a ladder.

Exterior Renovations - Day 13

Exterior Renovations - Day 13




And a BEFORE/AFTER shot:

Exterior Renovations - Day 1  Exterior Renovations - Day 13

Feb 18

Exterior – Day 12

I popped upstairs to check a hunch when I got home today, and low and be-friggin’ hold, the roof was done!



Exterior Renovations - Day 10




 Exterior Renovations - Day 12


Ooo!  Shiny!

Feb 16

Exterior – Day Ten

Massive snow on the evening of Day Eight, so no one came yesterday.  Today, however, they were back.  Mostly, it seemed, putting finishing touches on the paintwork:


Exterior Renovations - Day 10


Exterior Renovations - Day 10

Hard to see, but they’ve painted the drainpipe and eaves pipes running down the side of the house with the same brown as the metal deck/fence.



You can see below that they’ve painted over the fresh wood that was put in by the carpenters on Sunday.  It’s white!

Exterior Renovations - Day 10


Not sure if they’re done yet.  If they are, I suppose the next step is the roof.

Feb 14

Exterior – Day 8

I get home later on Mondays, so by the time I snapped these, it was raining and the light wasn’t so good.


Exterior Renovations - Day 8

They’ve restained our front door so that the outside doesn’t look faded anymore.  For reference, this is how it looked until today:


Kamiooka Tea House



Exterior Renovations - Day 8 Exterior Renovations - Day 8


You can see in this final photo that they’ve added the blue stripe above the window frame, under the mini window cover.  I really hope they do another coat on the red, though; it’s looking pretty thin.

Feb 13

Exterior – Day Seven

Day five and day six were no-gos.  The weather was rainy and snowy, so no work got done.  But on the morning of the the seventh day, I answered the door in my red bathrobe and walked around the building consulting with Tsukide-san about the work.


A few hours later, the carpenters arrived to begin their work.


Exterior Renovations - Day 7

As you can see, there was more painting done on Friday after I left.  The blue over the window and the metal shutter box have been done.


Exterior Renovations - Day 7 

This is a shot looking straight up from right beside the front door.  The carpenters put in that metal cover (and the hole underneath) today.  It’s so our second floor crawlspace can vent properly and prevent rotting from humid air building up there.  Until now, URBAN had suggested to us to open the second floor windows as much as possible in order to accomplish the same thing.


Exterior Renovations - Day 7 

The white areas just above the window frames will be redone in blue (although the areas under the window covers will remain white).  Also, you can’t see it very well in any of these photos, but the carpenters replaced several areas of wood that had started to rot really badly.


Exterior Renovations - Day 7

Feb 11

Exterior – Day Four

Painting started yesterday in earnest.


Exterior Renovations - Day 4 


Yay!  Blue!


Exterior Renovations - Day 4


And red!


Exterior Renovations - Day 4



They did more work after I took these, but by the time I got back home last night it was dark, and today it is snow.  I expect them to be back at work tomorrow, weather permitting.

Feb 09

Exterior – Day Three

Well, the men are hard at work.  Today I came home to a fume-filled house, since they’ve started doing the primer coats on the wall and the wood.


 Exterior Renovations - Day 3

You can see that the coating is making the wall panels look really yellow.  They seem to be leaving the metal alone for the time being.


Exterior Renovations - Day 3

Feb 08

Exterior – Day Two

Today, the tarpaulins went on the scaffolding, and they started pressure washing the exterior of the house.  It was weird being inside while they did that.


Exterior Renovations - Day 2


I like this photo; it looks like something from a different planet.



Exterior Renovations - Day 2 Exterior Renovations - Day 2

Feb 07

Exterior – Day One

The scaffolding went up today.


Exterior Renovations - Day 1 Exterior Renovations - Day 1 Exterior Renovations - Day 1

Feb 04

The Next Phase

I haven’t written about the Kamiooka Tea House in a while.


We finished unpacking most of the boxes by mid-October, after which I got buried in the rehearsals for Tartuffe.  Despite being crazy busy, and the house remaining messy for several months as we slowly started getting ride of things we didn’t need any more (an ongoing process), we settled in almost immediately, and we love the place.


The interior renovations were not a waste of money.  I’m sure we could have endured and lived in the house as it was (minus a few hundred thousand to change the disgusting first floor Tatami mats), the changes we’ve made were relatively inexpensive, and have made the house feel much more like it’s tailored just to us.  Oh yeah, and it’s safer, too.


We saved money by deciding to do the exterior work ourselves (myself).  My friend Dave was going to do the lion’s share himself while I was on tour in Canada over the summer, but he ended up getting too busy with other projects, so none of the the outside work got done.  I tried a couple of times to make a start on it before realizing that I was in way over my head.


So, in December, we called URBAN back in and got a few quotations for the exterior.


This is about way more than making the house look good.  Frankly, the way it looks now, it’s far less of an eyesore than a lot of Japanese houses that are half its age.  But we need this building to last at least another decade (preferably two) so that we can save up again to either rebuild or to sell and move.


We did the metal bit at the front right away.  You remember… the rusting metal monstrosity holding up about 30% of our yard?



Kamiooka Tea House

Yeah, that one.


Well, it needed the rust scraped off and some holes filled in and a fresh coat of paint to continue to resist the elements.  So we got that done right away.


Next, we spent a couple of weeks negotiating the cost of the rest of renovations.  They key elements being:


  • All exterior wooden hardware to be stripped and repainted to prevent rotting and wicking moisture into the walls and posts.
  • All metal exterior hardware to have rust sanded off and then be repainted to prevent rusting
  • Eastern balcony struts to be properly bolted to the metal deck (they aren’t right now!)
  • Roof de-moulded and repainted to avoid leaking through to the tin roof underneath
  • Cracks in the wall and hardware mounting sealed to prevent leaks and rotting wood on the windowsills inside the house.

The problem is that in Japan, you can’t have any work done to the second floor of a house without erecting scaffolding.  That’s right.  An extra 120,000 Yen or more tacked on to any job.  Why?  Ostensibly safety.


According to those in the know, these regulations are not National.  They are municipal.  And the scaffolding companies lobby hard for them.


Which is why we’d resisted doing the exterior renovations when we did the interior over the summer.


So, getting back to December: we asked URBAN for a quotation.  It included some additional things, one of which was painting the exterior walls.




Our wall aren’t currently painted.  They are some kind of pressboard nailed on to the house exterior.  To wit:




Why paint?


Well, since we’re dropping that money on bringing in the scaffold, and paint will help protect the building exterior (and might be a necessity later on in the house’s lifetime), it would make sense to do that now as well.


Also, we were told, if we went for the whole shebang, it would give the workers leeway as part of the painting prep, to fix little problems that might crop up without charging it back to us.  Not sure how true that is, and I guess only time will tell.


This did bring up the issue of colour.  After two days of agonizing deliberations over a very limited palette (since we were going as cheap as possible), we chose a light blue/grey for the walls, bright Chinese red for the hardware, and a reflective silver for the roof.


We had to choose from tiny swatches that were in a book (so we couldn’t even put them beside each other), so hopefully we didn’t cock that up.  If all goes well, we’ll have to live with these colours until the early 2030s.


Since I’m around this time, I will try to post photos and updates as the build progresses.

Sep 26

The Move

On September 19, we moved house.  We still haven’t said goodbye completely to the Kamiooka Rental House; we do that today when we go back to find out how much of our 180,000 yen deposit we get back.  But more on that in a later entry.


In the days before we moved, we told Tsukide-san from URBAN about the problems I wrote about earlier.  We got some of them fixed (the painting, more or less; the cut marks around the kitchen outlets, the holes in the side of the house), and some of them excused with a “sho ga nai” (a lot of the non-level issues has to do with the walls and floors not being quite level).


We were up all night on the 18th, finishing our packing.  We slept for about two hours, and then woke up an hour before the movers were due to arrive.  When they did, I hopped on my bike and cycled over to the Kamiooka Tea House to await the first load.


We were told that the house could be done in three loads and that they would be finished by 12:00.  In actuality, it took four loads (they called in an extra crew to help), and they weren’t finished until 16;15.  They didn’t charge us extra.


So, the house was filled with boxes, and we have spent the last week unpacking them.  I’ve done the bulk of it, and I’ve managed to whittle down the boxes to about ten or fifteen remaining, spread through the Tatami room upstairs and about seven still downstairs (a couple of those are empty: we’re using them to block off the part of the living room window that the curtain is too short to cover.


I cleaned out my office first: I desperately needed that set up so I could attend to the myriad of tasks I had fallen behind on (and couldn’t do comfortably on my tablet PC while sitting on a bunch of boxes).


The unpacking method has been this: pick a room, and take everything out of the boxes, putting everything in a temporary location at least.  Anything that doesn’t belong in that room then must get shifted to another room.  I used this method on my office, the kitchen, and I’ve almost finished the living room (the biggest problem there being the sheer amount of papers my wife has).

Sep 18

Builders are worse than Actors

Holy crap, the renovators are really superstitious.


I think I wrote earlier about how they chose the day to make the contract and start work based on good luck days of the religious calendar (I think it’s the Buddhist calendar that chooses them, but I could be wrong).  Well, apparently the conclusion of the contract was also important… as was the day we were going to move.  Which is weird, because it doesn’t really affect the renovators at all.


Tsukide-san told us that our selected moving date (this coming Monday) was okay, but that Friday would be a much better date.  Because of that, we’d thought about sleeping at the house last night.  But we didn’t.  In that case, he suggested, we should bring an item to the house that we use every day (he gave the example of a kettle) so that the house would think we had moved in.  So I carried over our big frying pan yesterday.


Oh, and then on Wednesday, we also did the house blessing thing: salt and sake at each corner of the house (careful! don’t go clockwise!).


Why did we play along?  I considered doing my eye rolling no-fucking-way bit, but the part of me that has learned to ‘preserve harmony’ ruled that out.  Also, I had this vision of Tsukide-san and the builders being kept up at night with remorse after my wife and I were crushed in an earthquake because they hadn’t made sure the gods were on our side.


A good reason to go along with superstition?  I don’t know.  But there it is.

Sep 18

Good God

Okay, we didn’t end up sleeping at the house last night, but we did pop over to take another look.


And we found more crap wrong… almost all the new crap the fault of the idiot electrician.


  • The outlets in the kitchen have visible cut marks!  They weren’t puttied before they were painted!
  • The control unit for the bath is more crooked than a politician!
  • Three out of the five air conditioners are mounted crookedly (all of them are crooked, actually, but only three are obviously, visibly so).
  • The holes from the old air conditions on the outside of the house have not been filled in!
  • The holes from the old bathtub pipes on the outside of the house have not been filled in!
  • There is a miscut on one of the wall panels, making a gap above the living room window frame.

I think there was more, but that’s all I can remember.  With all the electrically-related issues that are visible, I’m really worried about the electrical work inside the walls.


God damn, it’s just one thing after another!

Sep 17

House Update – Paint and Damn Drains

I’ve been posting a lot about the show recently, and not much about the house because I was in Canada and relatively removed from the process.


The good news: it’s almost done.  Everything is installed (the air conditioners went in today), put up, and painted.


The bad news: the electrician is obviously either an idiot, lazy, or just doesn’t listen.  He didn’t install any of the electrical outlets in the office the way I requested (earthed, with twistlock-style 3-prong plugs).  One outlet I’d requested at 40cm off the ground and he installed it at what must be 140cm off the ground.  Even a couple things he suggested himself (four outlets on the one behind my computer desk for one) didn’t get done.


The bad news: Japanese painters apparently are used to painting exteriors only.  The paintjob inside the house looks like it was done by me,  I think there are maybe 5 straight lines on the entire first floor!  One of the walls in the living room is painted so thinly you can see the roller strokes.  Plus there are lots of little brush mishaps, which Tsukide-san was going around fixing on his own (we’re lucky we ended up with such a conscientious guy as our main renovator) on Wednesday.


The bad news: remember that drain I mentioned in my last post?  The trough-like thing that runs around the west side of the house and drains all our first floor grey water?  Well, it was plugged.  Good and plugged.  We ran a test by emptying the bathtub (it had been filled by the gas company to check that the water heater was working properly) and it absolutely backed up.

We started cleaning it by pulling off the concrete covers and shovelling out the silt and other junk that had built up over the years.  That worked until we realized that a bunch of the concrete blocks on the west side of the house wouldn’t come up… and that’s where the pipe was good and plugged, with debris almost touching the top of the concrete slabs.


I was thinking we’d need to call in a company with a rooter, but I went over this morning and while I was futzing, Ichikawa-san joined me.  He had a couple of crowbars with which we were able to raise several of the slabs that we’d previously though were unmoveable.  There were still a few that were wedged in place thanks to a proliferation of roots from the tree planter on the west side of the house.  We also managed to pull up the four concrete blocks in front of the main door, which I’d also though were not moveable (I thought that the drain became a pipe under them).


In Ichikawa-san style, though, while he saved me time, he also took a few scenic routes.  To get to the slabs at the front, we had to shovel out the white stones and earth in front of the door.  We then spent about an hour WASHING the stones!


Just as we were getting ready to do a final flush, at about 11:15, Ichikawa calls a halt to work.  “Tea-time.” is all he says, and we proceed up to his house where we take more than an hour’s “tea time”.  It was very nice of him and his wife, and on a day on which I didn’t have to be in Tokyo and running auditions at 16:00, it would have been great.  At some point, an English-speaking neighbour (who lived in England for quite a while, and whose son is there still) was invited over.  At 12:40 or so, I had to apologize for my rudeness (oh, if only I could have kept talking!) and go back to the house and finish.


I had been hoping originally to go back to the old house (where we’re still living until Monday) by 12:00 or 12:30.  My goal now was 13:00.   Yeah, right.  After running the bath and letting it drain, there was still a lot of silt and gunk in the moat.  Ichikawa-san and I flushed the whole length again with the house and realized that the level of the moat wasn’t perfect, meaning that it didn’t consistently tilt downwards enough, meaning that the water will pool and there was nothing we could do about it today.  After that, we had to put the cleaned stones back in the front (actually, I’m very happy now that he did this: the front area is now all concrete, which is much easier to deal with).  I think I was on my bike and out of there by 13:40.


I won’t even write a big thing about how I had to go back again, after I was ready to leave for Tokyo, because I realized that I’d left the automatic bath thingy on and wasn’t sure whether it would try to make a bath while I was out (and the drain was open).


Well, that’s the update.  Not the most well-written one so far, but I felt it was important to get it posted.


Oh, and moving day is Monday, but we’re starting to sleep in the house as of tonight.  More in the next post.

Aug 06

Update… Of DOOM!

I’m writing this on the bus to the airport … I’m about to head off to do the second leg of my summer Theatre tour.


I was at the house almost every day since the weekend, puttering around, finishing things up.  Of course, I’m not nearly close to finishing, but my friend Dave has taken it upon himself to finish all the waterproofing stuff before I get back, leaving only the roof for me.  We’ll see if that happens… it’s a lot of work.


The work on the house is happening quickly now.  I’ll post photos of the construction soon… it’s a shame I’ll miss the next bits.


Some bad news yesterday, though… they ripped out the bathroom walls and the tub and realized that there was a lot of rot back there.  Also, apparently the support posts are missing.  Arg.  Another 130,000 yen…  On top of that, they also discovered that the drain from the bath, the powder room sink, the washing machine, and the kitchen sink all went through the same pipe and drained into an OPEN weeping system that rings the west side of the house before it connects to the city’s sewage line.


Well, that partially explains the mosquitoes.  Fixing this properly would take more than we can afford (in the neighbourhood of 1 million yen), so the renovators will have to rig something.  They can’t just stick a pipe into the weeping trough, because there’s a 90 degree bend in it, which would make it prone to plugging up.  So they’re going to separate the bathroom and laundry from the kitchen drainpipes, but they will still have to drain into the weeping system.  My impression is that they’re also going to cover it up a bit more effectively than it’s covered now (just some slabs of concrete), to reduce the potential smell (grey water shouldn’t be that bad, but why take chances). 


Oh, and a clarification: in Japan ‘bathroom’ literally means the room with the bath in it.  Our toilets are on the other side of the house and drain separately and properly, so the weeping system isn’t going to be full of turds or anything.


So that’s probably another 100,000.




Oh, and a note about how this may have happened: originally, the kitchen was the room that my office is going to be in.  When the first set of renovations were done to the house, probably in the eighties, I think the bathroom was added onto the house.  The contractors at the time re-plumbed the whole south side of the house, but simply didn’t tie the drains in properly.

Aug 03

I Hate DIY

Dust in my clothes, dust in my hair, dust in my eyes..


I spent a good chunk of Sunday working on the rustwork holding up our deck, particularly the decayed side piece.  I was using some kind of catalytic putty (think BONDO) to fill in gaping holes, and then grinding it down with a grinder tool.  Every time I did that, the air would fill with a fine white dust that would get in everything.  What I wouldn’t do for the facemask I wear in 39.


I took care of a fair amount of the roof last Wednesday, but only the lower roof, over the kitchen and bathroom.  I haven’t yet been able to climb up and deal with the upper roof.  It will probably have to wait until I get back from my Canadian tour.


The contractors have already started work on the place.  They’ve ripped out the woodwork that runs along the side of each room, Japanese style.  They’ve also done the primary demolition, ripping out the kitchen counters and shelves, the closet interiors, and the tatami floors.


Although we were going to keep the living room floor in order to save money, we’ve decided that it will look really weird, since there are two areas of the room (bookcase nook and the old hallway), where we have to put in new flooring, and the colour is much darker.  So my wife has contacted URBAN to tell them we’ve changed our minds.  That’s another 十万 down the hole…


We’re trying to decide final room colours right now as well, which is difficult, because I have trouble visualizing a tiny sample of a colour on a card being on an entire wall and ceiling.  So we’re being very conservative, with a lot of whites and very light colours (bedroom is a super light blue).  We’re also a bit afraid that dark colours will make the rooms feel really small.


The living room was also going to be an off-white, but we’ve decided to gamble on a mustard colour.  Fingers crossed!

Jul 22

Another Week Slips By

Another week slips by, and with it another chance to sign our renovation contract.  I’m pulling some real yuppie shit here right now and I’m writing this in a Starbucks in central Tokyo where I’ve taken refuge from a stinking hot day.


I haven’t kept up with this blog at all, but here are the significant details of the past 7 – 10 days:


  1. My friend Dave Waddington came by to look at the house last Wednesday and give me advice on how best to do the items of maintenance that need to be done.  The first priority is the metal holding up the ‘front yard’.  With Dave’s help, I will scrape off the rust, treat it with rust proofing, and repaint it.
  2. Other items that need to be done, some of which will require Dave’s help to choose the right supplies: re-painting the ageing wood on the window shades, re-caulking a good chunk of the siding, and scraping the green mould off the roof tiles
  3. The price on the tile bathroom is nearly 400,000 more than the unit bath, and that’s without the water heater.  So no go on that.
  4. We visited show rooms with URBAN, and decided on a more expensive unit bath from Noritz anyway (sigh).  Despite the bath being 20 litres smaller than the TOTO, it has cut-outs on the side that make it possible for me to sit much more comfortably without having to necessarily keep my knees together and up.  We’re still waiting for the quotation, but the comfort level is so different, we’re considering that a difference of between 100,000 and 200,000 Yen from the TOTO price would be acceptable.  Gulp!
  5. We’re waffling on the washstand (powder room sink) as well.  The one in the quotation is cheap and tiny and short.  Also, ugly.  So my wife has proposed a different one and we’re waiting on that quotation as well.
  6. We were supposed to sign the contract for the renovations last week, but the bathroom stuff held us up (Kitchen is decided and quoted).  The plan now is to sign the contract this weekend.  This means the move-in date is now pushed to late September, meaning that we’re paying for two residences until then.  Sigh.

Jul 16

Kitchens & Bathrooms 2

Last weekend we went to the TOTO showroom to look at their bathrooms and kitchens.


More of the same.


Our renovator explained to us that while he was happy to let us buy Ikea and then have him install it, the Ikea 25 year warranty applied to precious few pieces of the kitchen under Japanese law.  In Japan, foreign companies are not allowed to sell plumbing, so all of Ikea’s pieces are TOTO and carry the same 1-year warranty.  Also, if a claim is made, Ikea will inspect and determine whether the problem was caused by improper installation.


With the Japanese pieces, the manufacturer does the installation, which means that it’s warranteed, no questions.


I was not that impressed with the unit bathrooms in the range we were looking.  I was expecting to be blown away, and I wasn’t.


Our bathroom is not square, which means that putting a unit bath in means that we end up losing space.  So I asked the URBAN guy to give us a quotation on installing a regular (tiled) bathroom.  Unfortunately, because of the reinforcement of the walls for the earthquake modifications, we would have to retile the entire room.  He will cost it out for us tomorrow, but he thought it would be 30% more than a unit bath.  However, if we do the tile method, we may not have to replace the current water heater, which will save us at least 150,000 Yen, so it might work out.






ADVANTAGES More space, bigger bathtub Cleaner, less maintenance, options (e.g. shelves, mirrors) included without us having to think about them
DISADVANTAGES Cold floor in winter, hard to keep grout clean, we need to come up with all the options we want. Cheap-looking, smaller tub


I wasn’t very impressed with their “powder room” sinks either, but I’m not sure what our options are.

Jul 13

The Garden

Last weekend, the gardeners came.


Surprisingly, this was my wife’s idea, not mine.  One of her friends works for a landscaping company, and we asked her for help.  She asked what our budget was, and my wife told her 40,000.


Our garden looked like this:


















And this is what it looked like after:


Jul 10

Kitchens and Bathrooms 1

So last week we popped down to Yokohama station to the CLEANUP showroom to look at kitchens.  Apparently, this is the only place that our renovator can get discounts (40%).  I was flabbergasted.


The kitchen units look great and have all kinds of amazing options, but cost an arm and a leg (a basic corner kitchen unit with no options was going to run us 800,000+ yen) and, get this, are only guaranteed for 2 YEARS!


Which explains why most Japanese kitchens that I’ve seen that are over 10 years old look like crap.


It’s a bit of a slap to the face, isn’t it?  Can the westerners reading this imagine dropping a comparable amount of money ($10,000 CAD) on a kitchen and then being told that the workmanship was only covered for two years!?  Oh, and the faucets and electrics?  ONE YEAR!  My fucking computer has a longer warranty than that!  My camera has a longer warranty than that!


Solution?  Well, we’ll see if our renovator will go along with us, but it looks like our option is IKEA, at least for the kitchen (bathroom, we’ll probably have to go for a Japanese maker).  It will be cheaper, and it will be guaranteed for 25 years.  But, as I say, it depends on whether the renovator will agree.  It may be that the burden of the IKEA installation will fall more on him, which may not be desirable.  But we’re meeting with him tomorrow, and I think it behoves us to at least ask.

Jul 04

The Decision

So, I’m back from the first leg of my tour to Canada, and my wife has been busy while I’ve been gone. She’s hired SANWA to build the window grille to keep any kids from dropping out of our second floor window.  She’s hired a landscaping company to turn the garden at the Kamiooka Tea House into something manageable.  And she’s pretty much narrowed down the choices for renovators to two.


We dropped SANWA (except for that window thing) because we didn’t feel they understood our design ethic.  We dropped Sumitomo because their it-will-never-change-from-the-estimate fee was not negotiable (there were no details in the estimate that were changeable—not the type of doors, not the bath unit, etc.).


So we had a meeting today with the two remaining.


We met with CONCEPT at 13:30.  We’d actually tried to cancel them, but they were very keen on showing us what they had planned for us.  However, their price was steep, and while they managed to drop it by about 800,000 Yen, it was going to increase again with the structural changes they were suggesting.

Despite all we’d heard from Yokohama city and Sumitomo about balance being important, CONCEPT didn’t change their idea of reinforcing walls, seemingly willy-nilly.  The new plan was to tie the second floor and first floor together more strongly.  This wasn’t included in the quotation they gave us.


The thing about CONCEPT is this: if we didn’t have such an old crap house, we would totally go for them.  They understand us, plus they have a vision for each room, plus they think of stuff the other companies don’t (i.e. running conduit between the office and the second floor).  After he left, I’d pretty much decided that if URBAN didn’t have any significant improvements to their initial offering, that CONCEPT would be the way to go.


Unfortunately for CONCEPT, URBAN did.  While I’d been gone, they’d submitted a lowball quotation to my wife.  URBAN have expertise in Earthquake-related structural improvements, but the changes they’d suggested would not have significantly increased our survival chances, even by their own reckoning.


So they came in today with a quotation 1.2 million yen higher, but with changes that might actually save our asses in the event of a large Earthquake.

Earthquake_Fix_ZoomThe image on the left shows our unmodified house in a computer simulation of a quake.  The right hand side of the house basically folds up.  The new version, taking into account the improvements URBAN pitched us, is on the right.  As you can see, only the right-hand side of the second floor collapses in this version, BUT it doesn’t collapse completely and leaves some void space.  These changes have to do as much with balance as they do with strengthening walls.


Of course, these are computer simulations and can’t really do more than guess at what would happen during a real quake, since actual damage all depends on intensity, direction of shaking, and duration, but this is the closest anyone has come to giving us something concrete we can do to increase survivability.  All bets are off if the earth under the house gives way as well, but, as I say, we’ll take what steps we can to prevent things we can actually control.


So we’ve essentially made the decision to go with URBAN.  It’s a shame, because I’m not sure we’ll be able to get the extra little touches that CONCEPT had pitched:


– Conduit for LAN cable

– Little bedside lights build into the wall of the cubby we created for the head of the bed

– Custom bookshelf for the library room

– Ranma between the library and genkan


I’m still holding out hope that maybe we can convince them to do these little jobs.  But I’m not holding my breath.  There’s not a lot of money in it for them.

Jun 06

Kamiooka Death Trap

I’m sitting in the new house with my wife and a rep from Yokohama city, who is just completing his inspection of the house for an earthquake evaluation.


I am changing the name of this house from the Kamiooka Tea House to the Kamiooka Death Trap.  We didn’t pass a single part of the inspection.  The inspector suggested that if we were hit by an Earthquake the size of Kobe’s in 1995, the house would come down in about seven seconds.


On the plus side, we could collect the insurance.


On the minus side, there’s a good chance we’d be dead.


I think we’re going to re-prioritize what we’re spending our limited renovation money on.


As a side note: yes, you can get an inspection before you buy a house, but the owners need to sign off on it… and they never do.  I wonder why.

Jun 02

The Rose Rides Again

At the closing yesterday, Friendly informed us that the rose bush had been returned.



However, it is not in the condition depicted in the photo above.  As I wrote before, the neighbour across the street had taken it, and in the process had cut off all the branches, leaving only two thorny stems sticking out of the pot.


I felt a little guilty about it: I guess I showed too much reaction when I discovered it on the neighbour’s property (not much at all: I thought I’d pretended to be cool very well) and so Friendly and the other owners negotiated its return.  I had actually come to terms with losing it, and I really hope that its return doesn’t sour relations with said neighbours.  And of course, I’m not in a position to give it back, because after the trouble everyone’s gone through, that would be rude.


All of which puts me under immense pressure to nurse the bush back to its former glory with my less-than-adequate gardening skills.  The eyes of the neighbourhood and the former owners (did I mention that one of the brothers (Sleepy) lives just a few minutes away?)  Halp!

Jun 01

I Own A House Now

This morning my wife took the day off and we headed down to the bank for the settlement.  (I didn’t have to take a day off—one of the great advantages of working irregular hours out of the house.)


We stopped in at a Starbucks an hour before we were due and met with a fellow from the post office to sign our life insurance papers.  My wife chatted with him until about five to eleven, at which point we hurried across the street to the building that the bank is in.


As always, the owner was there early.  It was Friendly by himself.  Luckily for the bank, the other three (plus the woman, who we discovered was the wife of the youngest son, the one I called Sleepy, despite the fact that she sat across from him instead of beside him that day) weren’t there, so we were all able to cram into the tiny meeting room.


All told there were eight of us:


My wife



A Japanese bank rep

The Lawyer/Scrivener (I think her name was Risa)


The seller’s agent and her cookie box



I stamped a few documents with my jitsuin, filled out three transfer forms (one for each seller), and then we waited for the transfers to go through.  At one point, about ten minutes after Hank had supposedly started the transfers, the door cracked open and a bank employee stuck her head in.


“Should we send the money now?” she asked.


Only Hank, the lawyer, and myself caught what she said, and we had a good laugh after he confirmed that it was indeed for the purpose of sending the money that he had given her the money transfer forms.


Other humour: the seller’s agent once again dressed in designer clothes, brandished her Louis Vutton meishi holder… and had her blue cookie tin with all her items.


In the interest of curbing the length of these posts, I’ll bring this to a close.  Once the transfers went through, we paid the remaining fees:

  • Hirasawa-san’s remaining fee (we’d paid half at the contract signing)
  • The fee to the scrivener for her services registering the mortgage and building (actually, due to a .42 square meter increase in the size of the property when measured by the surveyors, the fee went up by 3000 Yen, but she discounted it back down for us)
  • The reimbursement for the registration of the second floor to Hirasawa-san/Mitsui Re-house, who had pre-paid the registration fee for the second floor in order to hurry it along

And then we all bowed and went our separate ways.

May 31


So yesterday, after our deflation from the Sumitomo visit on Saturday (after reading the online reviews of the company), we received CONCEPT again at the Kamiooka Tea House.


We took our rep (damned if I can remember his name—it’s Yoshikawa or something like that) upstairs to the tatami room and we all sat down at the low table we’d asked the owners to leave.  I cracked open a couple of shutters to let some daylight in, and he presented us with CONCEPT’s quotation.


Actually, it was two quotations, and five different designs for the first floor.


The main interesting features of the various plans were:


  • An extension where the south door off the kitchen is now, extending the house by about 2 square meters in order make the bathroom bigger (larger bathtub)
  • Reducing the depth of the closet in the office to make it more western-style
  • Living room (actually, we’re calling it a Library now) becomes a dining room
  • Wall between the hallway and Library removed.  Wooden crosspieces inserted as seen in the photo below with the middle opening covered by the kind of flap you see hanging outside of restaurants (if you’re reading this on facebook, you may have to refresh the page to see it: if that doesn’t work, click the link at the bottom of the note to view the original post at  This is to make the room feel bigger, and also just increase the amount of light.

2010-05-31 12.13.08

  • The west kitchen door (which is already unopenable and bolted to the floor) removed and replaced with a reinforced wall
  • Most of the interior walls covered with a reinforcing board of some sort.  This will strengthen the house against earthquakes, according to CONCEPT, but will completely cover the existing Japanese wood detailing.  However, it will be paintable, unlike most Japanese walls.
  • Removal of library closet and conversion to a bookshelf, possibly with a sliding piece
  • ALL the flooring on the first floor replaced with beautiful hardwood floors
  • All the new floors will be insulated
  • New unit bath
  • A ranma (a decorative wooden transom) between the living room and kitchen.
  • In one version, the kitchen was extended and the library was squished
  • A custom sink and cabinet unit for the “powder room” (the changing area between the kitchen and bath room) made out of beautiful wood
  • Bracket lights for the bed nook that we’ll create by removing the lower half of the bedroom closet.
  • Did you know that closet hangers cost 55,000 Yen!?!?!

The estimate was well over 5 million yen, which totally breaks our budget, given that it doesn’t include any work on the foundations or the exterior walls vis-a-vis earthquakes.  (Incidentally, CONCEPT’s opinion is that Yokohama City’s standards for the earthquake certificate are so high that we will never actually get it: meaning no 1.5 million yen money back from the local government to pay for structural improvements.)


The major expense was the wall work, which stung on two conflicting levels.  First, because we would rather not cover up the woodwork on the walls, and second, because we definitely need the structural improvements the wall work brings.


The other major expense was the flooring.  The flooring CONCEPT had picked out was a beautiful grey/brown hardwood.  (I spent much of my youth in a farmhouse that had flooring made of enormous wooden planks, and that really influences my aesthetic, I guess.).  But at 10,000 Yen per square meter, was really not as affordable was we’d have liked.  The cheaper options are not really wood, but plywood/pressboard.  We will probably have to compromise here and decide to use the good flooring only for certain rooms on the first floor.  (Actually, keeping some of the existing flooring might be an option, since the library floor is quite new.)


The extension at the back of the house to increase the size of the powder room / bath room is a great idea, and actually not that expensive.  But the quotation doesn’t include the registration of the extension, which will likely cost around 80,000, more than doubling the price of building it.  Also, the arrangement of the walls after the extension actually makes the kitchen smaller, which we don’t really want to do, since we want to fit our table and chairs in there.  Which is, sadly for my legs, more important than an extra large bathtub.


We can also save money by demolishing the office closet and sticking my desk in that corner (no hanger—55,000 yen less!).


With such fiddling around, we brought the estimate to under 5 million, which is not really enough, considering we’re anticipating no money back for either Eco Points or the earthquake certificate, and we want definitely want to reinforce foundations and possibly outside walls.


The double-glazing may just have to wait for another year.


We’ll try to meet with CONCEPT again before I need to leave for Canada and pass along our thoughts on their estimates.

May 31

A Saturday Morning with Sumitomo Fudosan

Sumitomo is the fourth (I think it’s the fourth) renovations company that we’ve shown the Kamiooka Tea House to.

Frankly, we weren’t expecting much, because Honda-san, the rep, had been phoning non-stop, but seemed incapable of using email.  When my wife finally got hold of him a week and a half ago by phone, she arranged an appointment for Saturday, May 29, and asked him to confirm by email.


When he hadn’t confirmed by mid-week, she sent an email saying that we would cancel unless we heard from him.  He faxed us that day, and solved part of the mystery.  Sumitomo’s IT department are apparently a bunch of idiots because the Sumitomo employees can receive email fine, but are having trouble sending.  Our new method of communicating with Honda-san is that we send an email, and he replies by fax.


Jesus, if I worked there, I’d probably create a Gmail account simply so I could communicate with my clients effectively.


In any case, when we met him we were pleasantly surprised: he seemed intelligent, experienced, and confident.  Like all the renovation companies except CONCEPT, he didn’t really understand what we were after, and wanted to make everything NEW NEW NEW!  Although he’s the only one who understood my idea of extending the balcony without my having to explain it: “Ah!  You want to sit out there and drink tea!”


Of all the renovation companies so far, Sumitomo was the one that seemed to know the most about earthquake renovations and also home maintenance.  He explained to us that due to the heavy Japanese tile roof (pictured below), we would have to probably put plates on the outside of the house in order to satisfy the requirements of Yokohama city’s earthquake certification authority.

Honda-san also took a look at the foundations and agreed that they likely needed to be reinforced.  He also discovered a cross beam that had been nibbled by termites.  The termites aren’t active right now, but the damage isn’t extensive, so it’s possible that there was a problem that has already been dealt with or the termites abandoned the site on their own.  We won’t know until summer, which is the season they become active.


Personally, I’m surprised that more Japanese houses don’t have termites.  Virtually all of the buildings built 20 or more years ago have wooden support struts sitting on or in blocks of concrete that are only 10 – 20 centimetres from the earth.  (Yes, Japanese wooden houses sit on top of the ground, above the concrete foundations in order to maintain airflow under the building and prevent rot in the humid climate.)  We’d counted on having to deal with termites, so the only surprise here is that no one else noticed that damaged beam.


Other things no one else had mentioned: the wood on the outside of the windows needs to be painted before it rots off (he suggested we do it ourselves to save money), and the iron platform and struts holding up the garden should likewise be painted to prevent rusting.


All in all, his ideas about the interior design were not so amazing, but he knew a lot about structural items and more than any of the other companies about PROCEDURES.  He told us that it would likely take six months to do all the work if we wanted earthquake certification and Eco Points.


A word on Eco Points: in April, the government of Japan instituted Eco Points to try to encourage homeowners to renovate instead of knocking down and rebuilding.  If you do certain types of renovations that are considered to have an ‘ecological’ benefit, like, say, replacing single-pane windows with double-glazing, then you get points back that you can use as money to buy other materials (for example: insulation).


We’d been asking all the companies that came through if we could replace the current windows with double glazing and then use the resultant points to do the floor insulation we’d planned.  They’d all seemed to think it was possible, but Honda-san told us that a) the points are not necessarily given out immediately, and b) the government will only give out 100,000,000 Eco Points for 2010 and may not renew the program in 2011.


He suggested it would be unlikely to work, and advised simply replacing the window frames on the larger downstairs windows for the moment.


Honda-san also noticed the drain from the upstairs plumbing running out the northwest corner of the house and pointed out that it was too long a run for the toilet drain.  I’m not sure what complications that could cause down the line, but it’s good to know.


By the time he left, my wife and I were very impressed.  Despite not having the creative flair of CONCEPT, Sumitomo Fudosan seemed to have lots of experience dealing with the structural elements of renovating an old house as well as the procedural elements of the same.   We were sitting in the Sobaya around the corner from the house discussing the possibility of splitting the job in two (interior design to CONCEPT, structural work to Sumitomo).  That was before my wife turned her iPhone on and started reading Sumitomo’s reviews on various renovation forums.


Wow.  The internet was chock-a-block full of complaints.  Not of the original renovations themselves, but apparently Sumitomo was absolute shit at after care.  There were reports of Sumitomo reps simply not returning phone calls or any form of communication; court cases; refusal to do warranteed repair work… you name it.


That really worried me.  There are great advantages to dealing with a big company, especially in Japan: they can frequently get cheaper materials, they have lots of experience with the paperwork involved, and tend to behave much more professionally.  We chose a big company (Mitsui Re-House) as our agent, and are very happy with them.


However, the drawbacks to dealing with a big company become apparent when you read reviews like the ones we saw online:

  • The sales rep will make promises in order to make the sale (to fill his quota).  The rep’s job is to make the client happy enough to sign on the dotted line.  That’s how he/she is rewarded.
  • Sumitomo will lock in their estimate/quotation, so whoever is project managing the build has the job of doing the work for as big a profit margin as possible.  The project manager’s job is to do the work as cheaply as possible.  That’s how he/she is rewarded.
  • If something goes wrong afterwards, it is not in the company’s interest to do any further work, even if the work is guaranteed.
  • Lawyers in Japan are very expensive, and damages paid from lawsuits are paltry, compared to North America.  A large company knows that it is not in the consumer’s interest to sue them.

So if a large company seems to be getting bad reviews from former clients (especially if, in this case, the proportion seems MUCH higher than other similarly-sized companies get), it probably makes sense to avoid them.


This was disappointing.


We’ll still let Sumitomo go to the house and do their inspection (they do a much more thorough house check, since their quotation is locked in) and put in their quotation, but we will approach them with extreme caution now.  (I’ll probably even ask my wife to talk to Honda-san about the company’s terrible reputation.)

May 29

Sunday last

Wow, I’ve already got another episode to write about from today, and I still haven’t written up Sunday from last week.


Sunday of last week we were supposed to be having two preliminary meetings at the Kamiooka Tea House with two new renovation companies.


We met the rep of the first company, SXL (‘S’ by ‘L’) at 10:30.  He walked in, took one look at the place, and said it would cost at least 6 million yen to fix, probably closer to 8, and then essentially walked out.  We were all very polite, but I was really pissed that he’d wasted our time.  We had three hours until the next company showed up.


When sending out the bid, my wife had specified that we were looking at spending around 3.5 million Yen and had given a fairly detailed description of the house.


We know that 3.5 million is unrealistic, considering all the extra work that’s been added to the job since the first quotation, but the other companies have all come in and given it their best shot.  If this twit knew he wasn’t going to be able to do this for even close to the amount we specified, he shouldn’t have even made the appointment.  (And no, there’s no way you can tell what structural things need to be done to the house just by looking at it.)


So, after that disappointment, we walked around the house, talking about what we’d like to do for 45 minutes or so, and then took off to try the nearby Chinese restaurant (the large, vertical sign of which is the closest we get to a view from the Tea House).  You can see just to the left of center in the photo below:


After eating lunch at the Chinese restaurant, and a pitstop at McDonald’s for my wife to get coffee, we headed back to the house to meet our second renovation company for the day.


This company was called CONCEPT, and two men showed up.  The first was a shaved-head unprepossessing sales guy/designer (Yamazaki-san).  The second was a short man in coveralls, the workman, who was crawling under the floor and inspecting things.  We later found out that this second man is actually the president of the the company!  (CONCEPT only has 15 employees)


The experience with CONCEPT was the opposite of what we’d had in the morning.  Yamazaki-san seemed genuinely interested in the house and our ideas for it, and was always prepared to jump in with ideas of his own.  Unlike all the other renovators we saw, he understood instantly that we didn’t want to turn the place into a new house and wanted to keep the character of the house.  He was also excited by the house, particularly the second floor (and my toaster and shaved ice machine that I’d rescued).  He made lots of really good suggestions that enhanced the ideas we’d had rather than compromising them.


Meanwhile, the company president was crawling around under the floor and checking the walls and posts with his lasers and such.  At one point he popped up from under the bedroom floor and said something to the effect of: “The foundations are surprisingly weak!”  On the plus side, we discovered that all the posts in the house are still straight, despite being originally designed to support only one floor.


Speaking of the posts, the president also told us that none of our internal walls are load bearing.  That sounds great: we can move them around however we want… until you realize that that means that only the corners of the house are supported by the posts.  In the event of a big earthquake: wobble, wobble, wobble, rock, rock, CRASH!  (Particularly since this house has the traditional heavy Japanese ceramic tile roof.)


But the experience of dealing with CONCEPT was the best so far.  It was really nice to talk to someone who actually approached the house like a designer, asking about a given room’s feeling and function rather than just what we wanted it to look like.  And, as I said before, he seemed really taken with the house and excited about working on it, which made us feel really good.

May 26


We went to the Kamiooka Tea House on Saturday to meet with one of the renovation company reps who had visited last weekend and was now giving us her quotation.  It was nearly a million yen higher than the one we got before from Mitsui’s renovation company.  Of course, we’ve added a few things that we’d like to change since then, but I don’t think it was a million yen worth.  We weren’t super impressed by her either: it seems her company doesn’t have much imagination.

A bit of a shock: there were a few things that we’d seen last week at the Treasure Hunt that we’d decided this week that we’d actually like to keep (a milk pitcher, a door that we needed, a few more dishes).  But when Kumiko and I pulled up on our bicycles, we noticed a large truck in front of the house, filled to the brim with, well, everything that was in the house!


Our stuff that we’d put aside was safe, but the owners had obviously put the pedal to the metal on getting everything out (although we’d told them that they could wait until June, since we wouldn’t be moving in right away).


A few surprises: the rose bush that I was crowing about last week was missing.  I found pieces of it disassembled in the garden.  I thought at first they’d trashed it because it had been in a plastic pot, and I’d said we didn’t want plastic pots, but later I noticed a suspiciously bare rose stem sticking out of a pot under the neighbour’s porch.  It turns out that the neighbour had asked for the rose bush, and because I hadn’t mentioned it specifically, it was fair game.  On the plus side, at least it’s not dead.

Also, the door that we wanted to recycle and use between the kitchen and the new expanded living room was already buried under a pile of stuff on the truck.




The mikan tree in the yard, however, remains.  I made sure to make a point of this to the owners so they don’t end up giving that away too.


Final surprise: even though the owners hadn’t been expecting us to show up (looks like Hirasawa-san forgot to tell them), at the end of the day, they passed over the original and one copy of the house keys so that we can go there without an agent or the owners being present.


I thought that was really nice of them.  The house key now dangles on my keychain.


2010-05-26 00-02-24.480


It’s a pretty good-looking key.

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