A big problem for people moving to Japan is finding the right accommodation to live in. Official sources, such as the fairly outdated “Guide to Living in Japan” provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and on the website of some Japanese embassies, will tell you to simply go to a real estate agent in the neighborhood where you are looking to move and tell them the what kind of apartment you are looking for. Other “helpful” tips include browsing flyers, posted at the storefront, or checking magazines for available apartments.
As anyone who has ever looked for an apartment in Japan, especially in the bigger cities, will know, things are not as easy as this guide makes them out to be. Living space is a precious commodity in Japan, and many landlords would rather rent to a Japanese person, who will stay in the apartment long-term, rather than renting to a foreigner who might only live there for a year or less. From personal experience, people I have met in the real-estate business seem to be of the rougher and, crucially, older sort, with stereotypes against foreigners being highly prevalent. The stigma of the dirty and loud foreigner, who does not know how to separate the garbage properly or who cooks stinky curry, is still alive and well in the real-estate community. In theory, you can consult a Human Rights Counseling Office if you feel that you have been discriminated against due to being a foreigner, in practice they will most likely tell you to simply keep searching until you find a place that accepts foreigners. This is not to say that all real-estate agents discriminate against foreigners, but it is an experience that sadly many of us have had, no matter where we are from. Even people who live in Japan long-term can often be found using companies specifically targeting foreigners or renting under their Japanese spouse’s name.
Apartment search from abroad? Better forget about it
Further, if you want to secure an apartment before moving to Japan, it will be very difficult if you are not transferred here by your company. If you arrive via company transfer, there are real-estate agencies that can set you up with an apartment, but if you are coming on a working holiday or for job-hunting you are out of luck. Due to this, many people stay in hotels, hostels or guest houses when they first arrive in Japan. What has really helped the situation is the emergence of the “share-house”. As the name implies, this is a type of house that is shared between multiple occupants. There are many different types of share-house, from single-rooms that come with a kitchen and a toilet, to dorm-style rooms shared between multiple person with shared kitchen and toilet. What all share-houses have in common however, is that they come fully furnished and are usually very accommodating of foreigners. Moving-in is hassle free, there are no exorbitant fees to pay apart from a small contract fee when you first move in, rents are reasonable and often include utilities and so forth. Big companies are Oakhouse or Sakura House, but there are many other share-houses available, a quick google search should provide many results. The companies often conduct their business in English, and it is possible to apply for a room online, before you even come to Japan. Having a place to stay secured before moving to a foreign country will definitely help in getting used to the new life quickly.
There are of course downsides to a share-house as well. They are often not in the most desirable location, getting to the closest train station, supermarket or convenience store might take some time. Depending on the house, they might also not be the prettiest or the cleanest. And, perhaps most importantly, your living experience will vary greatly depending on the other occupants of the house. If you are an early riser, but people in your house like to stay out late and are loud in the hallway or shared spaces, this might be the cause for literal headaches.
However, all things considered, living in a share-house is definitely the simplest solution to the problem of having to find accommodation in Japan. It`s quick and easy, you can move out within a month of canceling your contract, so if you plan on travelling around Japan a lot, this gives you the needed flexibility. And if you are planning on staying long-term, you can always live in a share-house to start, and then upgrade to an apartment once you found something suitable.
Personally, I have faced trouble when searching for a room as well and currently I am living in an apartment rented under my (Japanese) wifes maiden name. If you have any personal experience you would like to share or need advice, please feel free to contact me.