When you rent a place with infants, you are not looking for the same thing as the family with pre-teens. Your child is more likely to appreciate a nice park nearby than a game store, and you will find easy access to supermarkets more important than a Pokemon center. Living on top of a subway station may not be as important as it would be for teenagers. You are more likely to appreciate a place where you can park the stroller and where you can change the diapers easily. A house is not a bad idea, and there are AirBnB hosts in Tokyo who offer houses, although they are likely to be typical Japanese houses. Which does not mean sliding paper doors and tatami mats in every room, although they will definitely have tatami mats in some rooms.
Let Your Kids Make Noise
Most people in Tokyo actually live in apartments, although about half the families have their own houses. Japanese houses tend to be very small compared to Western housing. When you see them, you will be surprised that it is even possible to squeeze in a house on a plot of land that size. Often, the distance to the neighboring building is not even two feet, and there is neither a garden nor a parking lot. But a house has one advantage over apartment complexes: The kids can be as noisy as they like.
Typical family houses in Tokyo.
Families in Tokyo often live in apartments in huge apartment complexes. These apartment complexes can have hundreds of tenants, and most of the highrise towers that you see when coming on the train from Narita or Haneda airports are actually apartment buildings, equally tall as the office towers and corporate headquarters which also dot Tokyo city. Most people live in apartments that would be considered very small by Western standards, but were the norm in big cities two to three hundred years ago. It is not unusual for a family of four to squeeze together in a two bedroom apartment, and even bigger families can live in small apartments. Rental apartments tend to be even smaller than the apartments in condominium buildings.
No Market For Old Houses
When a Japanese family buys an apartment in a condominium building, they will be looking to the future, not for a place to sell. The property markets in Tokyo are extremely sluggish, and even if it is possible to sell a condominium, you would probably not be able to make any money doing so. There is hardly any market at all for old houses, since they tend to be torn down and new houses built on the land when the property changes hands. Tearing down the old house is often a precondition for selling the property.
House Renewal Cycles
This means houses go through renewal cycles as the families who lived there move out and new families move in; in practice, houses are torn down every thirty to fifty years, and new houses built in their places. It is not quite the same with apartment buildings, which tend to stand for seventy years or more, until the condominium leases expire and the land reverts to the owner. You do not have to worry about it when you are looking in AirBnB for the best place to stay.
Old Houses Are Rare
This means it is rare to find an actual old building in Tokyo. Most of the buildings in the city were destroyed during the war, so anything which was left standing is automatically an antiquity. But of the buildings which were remaining, few were residential. Free-standing houses in Japan have always been built to be torn down, and the old city of Edo was full of low wooden buildings packed tightly together, prone to fires which would be vast disasters, leaving large areas burned-out wastelands. Modern houses are somewhat better built, but since they will be torn down when the land is sold, houses are temporary structures. Even if they feel every way as permanent as houses in other countries.
Do Not Judge By Their Looks
Condominium buildings are more permanent and robust merely as a matter of mechanics, since they have more floors and more individual units. But once they get older, they can become rather run down, and renovations are the responsibility of the owner of the individual unit, not the landlord. An apartment can be incredibly fresh and well equipped, but the building can have a run-down feel. This does not mean you will have any problems with it, but it does mean you can not judge the place by looks only.
Toilet Morning Congestion
One thing to consider if you have the choice between a smaller, central apartment and a somewhat larger house, but more distant from the city center is the number of bathrooms. Or toilets, actually. If you are a family of two adults and an infant, you may not find sharing a single toilet much of a problem. But if you are more than two adults, or if your children are toddlers or even school age, you will find that one single toilet for a family of five or more can be very congested at certain times of day.
The actual bath and the toilet are usually separated in Japanese homes, so taking a shower or changing your baby while someone else is using the toilet is not impossible. Japanese tend to take hot baths in the evening, for relaxation as much as hygiene. Just as in the bath house, you wash first, then go into the hot water. In most families the father takes a bath first, then other family members. But the bath and toilet is an inconvenience to consider when renting a place in central Tokyo, where apartments tend to be small and two toilets in one apartment would be considered a luxury. Houses tend to have more than one, which makes it more convenient to rent a house if you are a big family.
Check The Floor First
Unless you are looking for a house, check out which floor the apartment is on. Most new buildings in Tokyo, unless they are private houses, have more than two floors so staying in a building with more than two floors is an easy way to avoid sitting on top of the restaurants or shops. Tall buildings also tend to be somewhat removed from the street, which is another advantage. The really fancy apartment buildings even have a little park surrounding them, which will be welcome for short walks and play.
No Street Noise High Up
If you are staying several floors up in a building more than 20 floors high, you will not notice the noise from the street nearly as much as you would if you were staying on a lower floor. You might not care as much if you are staying in an entertainment quarter, even though it may feel somewhat awkward at night, walking around with a stroller in the middle of hostesses trying to pull you (or your husband) into their establishments, or waiters waving menues at you, trying to sell you cheap drinks. From the 10th floor they will just be part of the background noise anyway.
Look At The Streetview
If you rent a house, however, you want to check whether it is on or near a busy street. The easiest way to do that is to look in Google Maps, and see if this is a street which has many restaurants. Allow for a couple of blocks leeway around the restaurants as well. Restaurants are rarely noisy in themselves, even in the entertainment areas, but the customers may be. Especially when going home, which is relatively late at night (even though most restaurants will close at 22 hours). While having a supermarket or convenience store next door is very convenient, staying on a street with plenty of restaurants is not going to make it easier to make your children fall asleep. Especially if the property you rented was on top of the restaurant.
Delivery Truck Wakeup
Staying away from the main streets and areas with many restaurants and lets you avoid another source of noise, and that is deliveries. In Japan, the convenience stores get their deliveries several times a day, but the regular stores get theirs in the morning. Including the supermarkets. Having delivery trucks stopping and unloading at four in the morning outside your window is not going to make it easier for your babies to sleep, especially if they are jetlagged.
The convenience of being able to cater for yourself outweighs the disadvantages several times over, if you take the distance from potential noisemakers into account. With a small baby, you have to get up several times at night to make formula and change diapers. Being able to fall asleep again without being disturbed by street noise is an advantage. So is not having to worry about disturbing the neighbors.
Japanese condominium building are as robust as they come, but like all shared buildings, there is always some noise carrying over to the neighbors. And while you may have an image of the Japanese as a people who would rather grin and and bear inconveniences than complain, that is not true behind the scenes. They complain, they even sue each other. And when that does not help, there have been the occasional (well-publicized) episode of violence against too noisy children. Unfrequent as they are, the less you disturb the neighbors the better.
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I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Bangkok to Tokyo, with a brief visit to Honolulu on the way. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning four - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.