One of our main bugbears with used houses is the obsession with a southern exposure. Though we perfectly understand the rationale–Japan is in the northern hemisphere and thus a southern facade provides more natural heating in the wintertime–we can’t fathom the insistence of builders and designers that all rooms in a house will face south and all “utilities,” meaning bathrooms and kitchen, will be located on the north side of the structure. Given the normally small plots of land in Japan, this results in a kind of domino distribution: all houses in a development “face” south, which inevitably means facing the “north” side of your neighbor. When we’ve asked builders about orienting a house toward the west or even north in order to take advantage of some attractive natural feature of the land, we’re invariably met with consternation and concern. It’s entirely possible, they say, but inadvisable. Some things just aren’t done.

Our reasons for shunning southern exposures are mostly aesthetic, but a recent article in the Tokyo Shimbun suggests that maybe southern exposures are not economical or even healthy. The University of Tokyo Engineering Department built an experimental house on the roof of one of its buildings to study the effect of direct sunlight on interior environments. Like almost all modern Japanese housing, the part of the building facing south had large plate glass windows so as to allow more light in. On sunny winter days when the exterior temperature was 10 degrees C, the interior temperature was as much as 35 degrees C, which is actually bad for the people who live there. In essence, the large windows make it difficult to control the interior temperature, which means the home owner may actually use more energy. According to the professor in charge of the project, it depends on the type of glass that is used, but in most houses the windows allow visible and near infrared light to pass into the house, where it is reflected off of the floor in the form of far infrared light, warming the room. Far infrared light cannot pass back out the window and thus more heat is trapped in the room. Direct sunlight contains a great deal of energy. Moreover, at night, when temperatures drop even further and there is no sunlight, more heat escapes from the house because of these big windows. Read More

The price you pay

The following is an article I wrote in 2004 for an occasional column that I and several other non-Japanese wrote for the Asahi Evening News about the “expat” experience in Japan. In a way it explains our skittishness about buying property today.

Naive days: The land when it was pure

In the early 90s, my partner and I discussed the possibility of buying a condominium or a house. Both of us had recently become self-employed and our financial situation wasn’t assured, so we talked about buying property as if it would occur sometime in the middle-distant future, meaning not soon enough that we needed to start looking right away.

Our friends knew of this vague plan, and once, while visiting a couple we knew in Nagano prefecture, they told us of a housing scheme being promoted by a nearby local government. The city was developing a large piece of land on the top of a hill and offering plots by lottery at below-market prices. The stated aim was to attract new people to the city, which had been losing population over the past decade.

We went to the lottery drawing not thinking that we would participate, but our friends talked my partner into picking a number out of the hamper just for fun. The odds against actually winning were almost ten-to-one. But she did.

Everything suddenly changed. The prospect of buying property had so far been theoretical, but now we had to face the decision head on because we had been given an opportunity.

We returned home and agonized over whether or not we should buy the land. On the plus side, it was very cheap and the lot we had “won” was located on a corner of the hill with an unblocked view of a green valley. On the minus side, we would have to move to Nagano and we would have to build a house, but as we talked these negatives slowly moved over into the positive column. Because of the nature of our work (mostly writing and translating) we didn’t need to live near Tokyo, and having to build our own house meant that we could build the house we wanted. Read More