Japanese Apartments 101
So you’ve just moved in to your new home and you’re wondering why there is straw on the floor or why your apartment walls are sweating. No worries! This little guide will help you understand how to adjust and take care of your new Japanese apartment.
Your apartment will likely have a room covered in a woven straw mats, called tatami. Tatami give off a light pleasant scent when clean and can help to cool the room off in the summer and keep it warm in the winter. However, they do require maintenance to keep them looking good and you healthy.
Once a week, vacuum and wipe the mats with a slightly damp cloth, following the grain. Never walk on it with shoes or even house slippers, as the mats are easily damaged. Make sure to keep them dry and well-ventilated; moisture can lead to permanent damage, which may require the mats to be replaced. If there is a spill, wipe it immediately and dry using a fan or blow dryer. A few drops of gentle dish soap mixed with water can be used to clean stains and spills. Do not use harsh chemicals to clean the mats because they can cause permanent damage. Using a mixture of water and distilled vinegar (ワイトビネガー, waito binega) can also be helpful, especially with odors caused by dairy spills. Tatami cleaning mats can be purchased to clean surface dirt, but do not mistake these with hardwood floor wipes.
Lifting the mats individually and airing them out in sunlight on both sides is recommended once a year to prevent mild (カビ, kabi) and tatami ticks (ダニ, dani). If you are unable to air them outside, then you can lift them up and use a dehumidifyer (除湿機, joshitsuki) to dry them out.
Dani are not visible to the naked eye and thrive in moist places. If you are getting bites that aren’t from mosquitos, then you likely have dani. Special dani spray is sold in drug stores that have a needle-shaped nozzle attaches to reach below the tatami. After spraying your mats, you should leave your house for several hours.
Many people put carpet on to of tatami mats, but this can also lead to mold and dani. It can be expensive to replace tatami, with each mat costing between 10,000 to 20,000 yen depending on the quality- and when they’re replaced, they’re replaced in sets. Since replacement is costly, it is very important to maintain and care for your tatami mats to ensure they will last for years.
Keeping your shower room well ventilated and dry is crucial for keeping mold and mildew at bay. Hopefully your predecessor kept left it sparkling, but if not, take comfort in the fact that Japanese cleaning chemicals are highly potent. Again, these chemicals are highly potent, so always make sure the room and apartment is well ventilated before you use them. Wear gloves, and a mask is also advisable. Alternatively, you can use combinations or vinegar and baking soda for a less toxic cleaning experience. Internet sites have a plethora of related advice.
Drains may or may not have U-trap (a type of drain) depending on how old your apartment is., meaning things can get stuck easier and smell a whole lot more. Make sure you clean your drains often- the mold that can grow there is unspeakable. Special bleach tablets are available at drug stores and the 100 yen shop. Drop those in your drain and you’re good to go!
Another place to keep clean. There are no garbage disposals; instead, there will be a wire or plastic container in the corner of the sink to collect organic garbage (生ごみ, nama gomi). You can buy mesh liners for the container at the drug store or 100 yen shop. A basket trap underneath the drain collects smaller particles so they don’t clog the plumbing. These places can get nasty if not properly cleaned, but drug stores sell special tablets you can hang or place over the drain to help keep the growth from being exponential. Be sure to throw away the food in the corner containers, as they can attract bugs big and small (emphasis on the big). To cut down on smell in the mean time, try sprinkling the nama gomi basket and your trash can with baking soda.
If the drain isn’t properly kept clean, it can make the rest of your apartment smell too. In addition to the aforementioned tablets, you can use drain cleaner. It comes in liquid (配水管洗浄液, haisuikan senjou eki) and powder (配水管洗浄剤, haisuikan senjou zai). Right before bed, put some of the chemicals into your drain. Rinse in the morning. This needs to be done more often in the summer. Put the cleaner down each of your drains, including your bathroom sinks and shower. If an abiding stench emanates from your sink, call the landlord.
During the summer months, the weather gets very hot and humid. Dur to the high level of humidity, mold will be the main issue during this time of the year: everything from your futon to your clothes is susceptible to mold.
Ventilation prevents mold from growing in your home and possibly damaging your belongings. Keep some of your windows open during your travels or you might come back to a mold infestation. For those without a bathroom fan, I recommend always leaving a window open a little, even in winter, as it can otherwise quickly become a haven for mold and mildew.
Dehumidifying can be done in several ways:
- Moisture collecting packets (湿気鳥, shikketori). These are available in many forms, such as in tubs, hangars, and sachets. They are pretty inexpensive. These help keep mold from taking over your closets, cupboards, and drawers- and more importantly, the objects in them. Mold can be impossible to remove from fabrics, so prevention is definitely the best medicine.
- Dehumidifier (除湿機, joshitsuki). Fairly straightforward. It has the added benefit of being a source of water for laundry or plants. It can also help dry your clothes faster in the winter. On the other hand, it can add to the electricity bill.
Futons (布団, futon): Put them away during the day to prevent mold from growing on tatami mats. Once a week, hang your futons outside in the sun to air them out and beat them with a futon whacker (たたき, tataki), a bamboo or plastic stick with a flat, broad end. Futons absorb the body’s moisture, which build up and can lead to mold growth. If you have several futons that are not being used regularly, then it is recommended that you put them in a large vacuum-sealed bag to keep moisture out. Put shikketori between the futon and blankets.
Winter (冬, fuyu)
Unlike many western homes, most Japanese homes do not have central heating or insulation. As a result, many Japanese people only hear one room in the house to save money on energy costs during the winter. Here are some ways you can insulate and save money on your energy bills.
Bubble wrap: cheap, easy, and somewhat effective when all you have is single-paned windows. You can apply with water or tape, but if using water, be careful-the moisture could lead to mildew. Bubble wrap is sold in long rolls at home centers. You can also save bubble wrap from care packages or online shopping.
Space heaters: Here are a few options
- Electric: no kerosene fumes, easily portable, but can lead to a hefty bill at the end of the month if you’re not careful.
- Kerosene heaters (石油ストーブ, sekiyu sutoubu): There are ventilated and non-ventilated options. Non-ventilated kerosene heaters are cheaper, but after a few hours be sure to open your windows so that you can let out the carbon monoxide. As a general rule, leave the windows open for as many hours as your heater was on. Ventilated heaters are more expensive, but you won’t have to worry about having to keep your windows open in the dead of winter to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Kerosene (灯油, touyu): Can be purchased at most gas stations. You can buy it by the container or have it delivered to your home. If you prefer to have your touyu delivered to your house or if you have a touyu tank, then say the following phrase:
“I would like some kerosene, so may you please deliver it at (time).”
Watashi wa touyu ga hoshii desu kara, (time) ni haitatsu shite kudasai.
- Electric blankets ( 電気毛布,denki moufu): for safety reasons, don’t leave them on while you sleep
- Kotatsu (こたつ): a heated table with a blanket skirt. It’s like sitting at a slice of heaven. Unfortunately, not portable
- Hot water bottles (湯たんぽ, yutanpo): cheap, easy, and pretty safe
- Air conditioner units: many have a heat setting. Some may be effective, others will only circulate cold air and rack up the electric bill while they’re at it. One-room use recommended.
- Electric carpets: heat the floor, but not recommended as a main heat source.
- Humidifier: Moist air holds warmth better, and can be more comfortable in the dry winter months. Alternatively, you can hang your laundry to dry inside your apartment.