The gay desk clerk, the bald man, and a million Yen – moving the Japan
It was one of those hot summer nights in late July when I first met Kosh. It was on the corner of a train station in Kita-Senju in Tokyo. Our eyes locked and that was it. For the week I had in Tokyo we spent all our time together. And when I left to go home to South Africa, he left for the USA to seek his fortune. I thought that was it. What hope did a trans-global relationship have? Long distance is one thing, but this was across hemispheres. We tried – talking daily via skype and chat apps. We had a window of about two hours a day when our time zones allowed us to both be awake. Then six months later I found myself still talking to him, more so than ever before. How had that happened? It just did. A month later, and as I step off the train from Haneda airport he is there, the same twinkle in his intelligent eyes. A whirlwind of a month passed and we moved into our apartment, happy as two people can be.
That’s the romantic version. The real version involves a gay desk clerk, a bald brother, and a million Yen. This then, is my story of how I came to call Nishi-Funabashi home. It did start in a hot summer in July. I did meet Kosh, and we did speak to one another every day. He did go to the USA but it turned out to be a waste of time for him career-wise so he returned to Japan. I got my job offer in late July, resigned from my job in South Africa and began making plans to sell my house and pack-up life to move to a country as opposite as it is possible to be from my own.
Arriving on the train I didn’t land at Haneda airport. I mistakenly booked my flight to land at Naruta airport. It looks close to Tokyo. It isn’t. It’s about an hour by train away from Tokyo. I was also moving my whole life to Japan – in the form of two suitcases that weighed in at around 45 kilograms – the limit for the airline I flew in on. Kosh was working so there was no romantic meeting at the station either. It was me, red faced huffing and puffing in the middle of January from one train to the next slowly making my way to my hotel that I’d booked in Funabashi. I am not a small man, and by the time I arrived at the hotel – a twenty-minute walk from the train station, I was red in the face, sweating like a dog with icicles in my beard. It was not a pretty sight. The poor receptionist didn’t know whether to offer me a seat, call an ambulance or a just shoot me to put me out of my misery.
But the hotel, like all the hotels I have had the pleasure of staying in whilst in Tokyo and surrounds was wonderful. The quirky shower rooms, the toilets with more controls than a space shuttle, all just made life a little better. Then Kosh got off work and arrived and life was great. Now we could get on with the business of building a life together. Yes well. So, we thought. But after a week it became very clear that a gaijin (foreigner) and a local could not easily rent an apartment. Room shares, mansion-shares as they call a house-share, or their equivalent were all options. Renting out an apartment – not so much. Kosh worked at the time as a short-order Chef, part time. I worked for my new company who had given me four months salary in advance to get settled in. Seems those don’t meet the rental requirements of Japan. But not to worry all we needed was someone to act as a guarantor. Easy! Kosh could ask his parents. Or not. As a nice an old couple you could not meet. Asking them act as a guarantor for a foreigner – let us just say that understandably they said no.
Not one to be put down Kosh turned to his balding brother. Why is it important to mention that his brother is balding? Well it’s turned him into a recluse and to this day I’ve not met him to say thank you for what he ended up doing – which was to act as guarantor. But what that meant was that the poor estate agent we had commissioned to find us a place had to run documents through us to the bald man and back to us and then to him in a three-ring circus. A missed Inkan here, and the whole cycle had to restart. Inkan is by the by a wonderful traditional seal stamp that is used throughout Japan as a means of signing official documents. If you move to Japan you need one – I got mine 48 hours after landing in the country. The western idea of a signature is out. Your own private seal is needed to secure most legal documents.
Now the estate agent was having about as much fun as my hotel wasn’t. I’d intended on staying in the same hotel for the month that I’d banked on it taking to find an apartment. Turns out I should have booked the whole month and not done it week by week. A delegation from Vietnam soon saw an end to that plan. In desperation and painfully aware that perhaps more than a month was needed to secure a place to call home, I searched around for another hotel. By this time the estate agent had informed us that in all of Tokyo and the nearby prefecture of Chiba he had found five apartments that met our requirements, or rather for which we had met their requirements.
Five. In a city that houses 27 million souls. There were five. Now don’t for a moment think that the agent was simply dismissing our request. I saw the mounds of potentials he had offered Kosh but which upon enquiry had turned out to require both people to speak Japanese, or for one person to be five foot and three inches in height, or to own a dog with three legs named Trixy. The rental business in Japan is booming unless you are foreign and looking for a two-bedroom apartment. Four of the five apartments were in a little area known as Nishi-Funabashi. So, with that in mind I packed up my 45 kilos of stuff and Kosh and I found this out of the way hotel near Nishi-Funabashi.
The lobby, bedecked with faded Hawaiian postcards, plastic ferns, and obligatory bead curtain did not promise much. The desk clerk, and later we would discover owner, of the place popped into view, a smile on his face, gold chains around his chest, a slightly soiled vest and blue shorts covering his thin yet remarkably hairy frame. He welcomed us with open arms and happily showed us to the couple’s room – with big bed for big gaijin. So far, I hadn’t had much issue with Japanese sized beds. I’m just on six foot and all the beds had seemed perfect to me. But he felt I needed Gaijin size. The room was completely opposite to the lobby. It was a stunningly large and immaculate modern space. The bed was huge.
Well whilst the estate agent and the bald man sent documents back and forth life began to settle into something of a routine. We’d get back from work, enjoy a good meal at a local spot we’d found to be a reasonable and offered a great array of meals, and scan through the various offers from the estate agent. A month had passed. No luck. We would find a place that seemed good, and the agent upon contacting the owners would say – Japanese only. I completely understand this thinking – remember I said that Japan is the exact opposite to South Africa?
In Africa if you cannot be heard by your neighbours you must be plotting and spreading secrets, so you talk in a loud voice so that all can hear you. You rejoice, you shout, you sing, you enjoy the big open spaces that make Africa, Africa. In Japan you whisper so as to not disturb others. There are times when I feel my very size is too loud for the local population. I do weigh as much as three of my neighbours it is true. I’d hate to have noisy neighbours, especially ones who yell in a foreign language.
However, in early February we found a place. The estate agent was eager for us to see. By now – Ralph as I started calling him – the desk clerk from the Hawaiian style hotel – was a firm friend and supporter and would often offer up newspaper notes about places he’d seen which we might like. Ralph liked the look of the new place but was worried it was a bit of a walk for me. It was a good fifteen minutes brisk march from the nearest station. The estate agent was worried the bald man wouldn’t sign the papers in time.
Kosh and I? Well we just wanted a place to call home so I could stop living out of my suitcases. It was perfect. A wonderfully laid out place, two bedrooms, a well-appointed bathroom. A space-shuttle toilet. And a spectacular view of a heavy truck parking lot. OK so the view was not Mount Fuji capped in snow but it had one thing going for it – the owner liked foreigners. We signed on the dotted line…we ink-stamped on the dotted… in the circle provided.
The first night was spent on cheap mattresses that we’d picked up at what was to become our local store. But it was magic. It was home. Setting up the house has been a task worthy of Hercules. You see hotel beds are made with bigger people in mind – reinforced for fat as it were. Local retailers had beds that might have worked for the beautiful bodies of the Japanese but I ran the serious risk of rolling off either side of the bed if I lay perfectly in the middle. No, we would have to get the Queen (no pun intended) sized bed. Made to order. Those cheap mattresses would earn their worth it seemed. However, with a half a million Yen as deposit, door key money (gift to the owner for renting their apartment to us), two months payment in advance we had to accept that the bill for furnishing the place would run the same. Kosh is many things: dedicated, hard-working, smart – but he is also a creature who likes new things. Throwing caution to the wind we blew our projected budget out of the water and laughed madly as we watched our bank accounts empty and turn to dust on the wind. But now, I can have my guests (it appears I’m the South African tour guide for Tokyo now), Kosh has his computer set-up, and the washer dryer has it’s fabric softener (Yeah try figure out how the buy that in Japanese, Goggle-translate couldn’t).
We still chat to Ralph, who is now refurbishing the lobby to be more modern and in line with Olympic spectator’s expectations in 2020 – possibly that means dusting the plants and re-threading the bead curtain… I still haven’t met the bald man. And Nishi-Funabashi? It is a delightful little suburb. The restaurants range from traditional to franchise, the station – on the famed Sudo train line (one of the busiest in the world) is connected to the heart of Tokyo which is only a pleasant 25 minutes subway ride away. At night it is quiet (ok that’s a lie – now that we are used to the heavy trucks parking at 3 am it’s quiet to us), and the people are wonderfully polite and accommodating. They knew my Japanese is limited and smile now when I try out new words that I’ve learned. What I learned about Japan, Tokyo, and now Nishi-Funabashi is that it might be worlds apart from South Africa, but the people, the places, the processes, the quirks and the language are all fixed on the same point: people trying to be nice to one another, living in peace with one another and finding love in all the right places.