Stand-up routine

showerLast week we were looking at a new house that had recently been completed. The owner allowed the builder to show the property to the public as a model prior to his moving in. The builder represents a new trend in housing that is quickly catching on, and for good reason. They offer a number of standard designs that can be constructed cheaply using kits and materials bought in bulk, and the purchaser can customize the designs in various ways with options and slight floor plan changes. The basic structures range from a mere ¥9 million to about ¥13 million, not including land, of course. The builder also deals in land sales, but only insofar as a means of selling new homes. They look for stray plots for people like us who are looking to build their own home but haven’t found land yet. It’s the reverse of the usual process. Since the house is the main sales point, the company doesn’t charge a fee when brokering a land deal.

For us, however, the visit was purely for research purposes. The house was well-made but the basic design and overall aesthetic was dully conventional: boxy rooms, white walls, nondescript fixtures. Of course, the buyer could pay more and make the improvements he liked, which is the whole point, but given what there was to begin with we weren’t inspired. Moreover, the company seemed to limit its land selection to cramped housing developments, specifically orphan lots that hadn’t been sold after a particular development had been opened for sale.

In fact, the visit wouldn’t be worth mentioning if not for one feature that stood out so prominently it seemed to define the house. The owner, whom the agent told us was a “foreigner,” had exercised his design option by installing a separate shower stall on the second floor, in addition to the usual unit bath on the first floor. Stand-alone showers aren’t very common in Japan, certainly not as common as they are in the U.S. or Europe, but you do occasionally see them. What made this one odd was that it was built off the second floor hallway. It was designed almost like a closet: there was a folding door, beyond which was a capsule-style unit shower. There was no space for changing clothes, you just stepped directly from the hallway into the shower. There was also a toilet on the second floor, but as is the Japanese custom it had its own separate room, and was down the hall from the shower. The second floor also had two bedrooms. Japanese houses usually don’t provide a distinctive “master bedroom” in the sense of a room with its own attached bathroom, but the larger bedroom in this house had a huge walk-in closet that was positioned adjacent to the shower stall but didn’t connect to it.

We asked the agent why the owner didn’t put the shower stall in the bedroom or made an entrance to the shower from the walk-in closet. She said that they had another customer who did just that, but such a design change was very expensive and didn’t fit within the overall budget of the person who ordered this house; which is a reasonable explanation but all we could imagine is family members and weekend guests dripping water everywhere as they walked naked around the house (there was a third bedroom on the first floor) after taking a shower. The agent, noting our bemusement, remarked, “Yes, it is strange, isn’t it?”

Highrises revisited

DSCF1857Though we miss living in Tokyo, especially shitamachi, we don’t really miss the highrise kodan where we spent eleven years. Until the earthquake our main complaint was the mostly insular nature of highrise life, the feeling that it was always difficult to get in and out, but during those weeks after the temblor it became a nerve-wracking experience, even as we became convinced that the structure was safe. We wrote a number of posts here about that experience and even one related column for the Japan Times (though it seems to have been taken off the JT site). For a while the media and the market seemed to concur with us that highrises may not be a wise option for a city that could be hit with its own big earthquake at any time, but eventually fears subsided and highrise condos started selling again; quite well, in fact, so we assumed our fears were just our own and didn’t extend to the general population. Even Tsutomu Yamashita, a housing journalist who is unusually frank about these sorts of matters, has come around and said that investing in a highrise Tokyo condo is a good idea since they’ve become even safer since the quake.

A recent article in Aera, however, has confirmed our initial sentiments. Opening with a frightening “what-if” scenario describing a 7.3 magnitude quake happening under the capital, the feature makes the case that even though these highrises will not collapse, life will essentially be impossible in them indefinitely. The most immediate concern, and the one that made the biggest impression on us in the aftermath of the 311 quake, whose epicenter was hundreds of kilometers away, was the loss of elevators, which shut down automatically when a building shakes. According to law, they can only be turned on by a certified technician, which means even when the shaking stops residents will have to wait for that technician to show up, and he may be inspecting other highrises. This problem multiplies with the intensity of the jolt. And if the quake is strong enough to knock out electricity, then the elevator problem is exacerbated. Under such circumstances, the residents on higher floors become like “people stranded on the top of a mountain in bad weather.” The idea of walking down and then up emergency stairways to run errands or whatever is just impractical, and virtually impossible for the elderly, the handicapped, and pregnant women. Most highrises have emergency generators, but these are for contingencies and thus only have enough power for maybe two hours. So if the elevators are out due to loss of power, that means the stairways are also dark. And even if the building structure is sound, some elements, such as doorframes, could be compromised, making it difficult to get out of an apartment. All highrises have emrgency ladders connecting verandas for use during fires, but it will be very difficult to use them to get all the way to the ground. The Tokyo metropolitan government has said that in the event of a major quake their estimate is that it will take at least a week to recover electrical power. Also, highrise residents will likely be lower down on the list of people receiving attention during rescue operations because of the difficulty for crews to access higher floors. Emergency services will first attend to victims they can reach more easily. Read More