Now that you are privy to all of the tedious details of our excrutiating trip here, let me fill you in on our apartment. We live on the fifth floor of an apartment building called "Toriumi Haimu" (this has no meaning, it is just a name), in a neighbourhood that Lyani's Inter-University Center literature describes kindly as, "an older urban neighbourhood, a bit run down". Heh. "A bit run down" is a slight understatement. This is basically the ghetto. with a capital G.
Of course, being Japan, the worst, seediest, gangster-infested neighbourhood (read: ours) is about as safe as say, the Hamptons. There is an old saying in Japan that you can send your 12-year old daughter out at midnight, clothed in nothing but ichi-man (10,000 yen) bills, and she will return safe as a sparrow. Really. There is crime in Japan, but you don't ever see it, and it sure as hell never happens to you.
But our neighbourhood does feature crazy old men, some houses of (slightly) ill repute, and Yakuza. Yakuza, for those of you who are not into Japanese culture, are gangsters. They are sometimes referred to as "the Japanese mafia", but this is not a very fitting comparison. No horses' heads in beds with the Yakuza, and no restaurant shootings. The Yakuza are a deeply ingrained part of Japanese society, and they have a tacit, unspoken agreement with The powers That Be: as long as they do not overstep their bounds, they will be tolerated, ignored. Yet another application of the old Japanese proverb, "the nail that sticks up will
be pounded down", the converse, of course, being that if you do not cause problems for others, you can do pretty much whatever you please.
So the Yakuza are not your ordinary thugs and murderers. No, they are businessmen--at least on the corporate level--investing in hospitals and schools in addition to the more standard organised crime pursuits such as the protection racket, gambling, prostitution, etc. And the greatest thing about them is: if you keep your nose clean, you have absolutely nothing to fear from them. You will hardly know they exist, unless you notice a gentlemen who seems to be missing a fingertip or two. (The Yakuza, who actually place a lot of creedence in honour and duty and chivalry and all that, will cut off their own finger at the joint when they fail to live up to obligations.)
Of course, there is another type of Yakuza, and he can be found in our neighbourhood. He is known as the Yakuza Puker, for his propensity to vomit loudly after (presumably) consuming enough alcohol to fell an ox in the prime of his life (though one assumes that oxen have a rather low tolerence, being mostly tea-totallers), at early hours of the morning. We average three to five of these chaps per night.
Despite our immediate surroundings, our location is pretty much ideal. We live in the Naka-ku ward of Yokohama--"naka" means centre--and everything that is worth seeing or doing in Yokohama is clustered around us. Lyani's school is about a 35 minute walk from our apartment, probably three kilometres or so. It is housed in the Pacifico Yokohama complex, which derives its name from the fact that is right on the harbour--traditionally Japan's most important Pacific harbour. The Pacifico Yokohama complex consists of an exhibition hall, a convention centre, the New Grand Hotel, and the International Hall, where the
Inter-University Center is, along with a United Nations office and other such things.
Pacifico faces the famous Yokohama ferris wheel, which was the largest in the world as of the 1998 publishing of my "Lonely Planet Guide to Japan". And since the centre of the ferris wheel is a giant clock, it might count as the world's largest clock, as well. Pacifico is but a part of a larger development, however: Minato Mirai 21 (the 21 is for the 21st Century, obviously). MM21 was planned as "the future of urban development", and it pretty much lives up to its name. It features a covered, elevated passage from the Sakuragi-cho train station, with escalators and moving sidewalks, leading into the Landmark Tower, an 80-odd storey-tall building that was the tallest in Japan (again, as of 1998, so it may have been surpassed by now). The walkway continues through the second floor of the Landmark Tower, down an escalator, under an improbable stainless steel sculpture (pictures will be forthcoming, once I find a free photo hosting service--tell me if you know of one), and into the Queens Tower Mall.
The Queens Tower building is one of the most interesting buildings that I have ever had the privilege of visiting. It has a roof of glass, held together in multiple layers by rounded beams. The whole thing reminds me of wind chimes, and the architect must have been going for that, because the building actually chimes! They pipe ambient sounds of tubular bells in throughout the building. The experience of walking through is so organic that you do not feel like you are in the middle of a huge commercial building in Japan's second largest city, you feel like you are strolling about a crystal tower in a fairy tale. At the end of the building, there is a spacious lobby with massive wood benches, flanked by bamboo. This is one of my favourite places to sit and study kanji (Chinese characters--one of the three parts of the Japanese writing system).
The walkway (that is what I was talking about, remember?) then continues over a major thouroughfare to the Pacifico Yokohama complex, affording breath-taking views of the harbour one one side and the Minato Mirai 21 development on the other. The experience of simply walking Lyani to school is too wonderful to be descibed; I hope that each and every one of you can visit so you can see what I am gushing about.
So this is where we live. But let me get back to the apartment itself, since that was the original motivation for this blog entry.
The apartment is on the fifth--top--floor of the building, which is a typical blocky concrete affair. The floor plan is 2DK in the Japanese real estate parlance, which means that it has two six-jyo rooms, plus a dining room / kitchen area. A six-jyo room gets its name from the fact that it contains six tatami mats, tatami being the traditional Japanese flooring material: woven rice straw. Each mat is roughly three by six feet in size, making the room about twelve by nine, or 108 square feet, if my math holds. Our tatami mats are actually covered by synthetic hardwood, which is actually A Good Thing, since tatami is quite hard to care for and clean.
One of the six-jyo rooms is the bedroom, and the other is a study. The two rooms are divided by sliding screens of shoji, or Japanese rice paper, which can be configured in various ways to open or close passages between the two rooms. Japanese-style rooms are general-purpose, so all of the furniture is mobile. We have a rolling desk and desk chair, two chairs that sit directly on the floor (i.e. they have no legs), and a rolling table. It is a pretty neat way to live, being able to re-configure your space in many ways, and this allows you to live comfortably in a lot less space than would be possible in a Western-style house.
In addition to the two six-jyo rooms and the dining room / kitchen, we have a toilet and a shower. These are two separate rooms. I am a big fan of this.
Another typical feature of Japanese houses that our apartment has is the genkan, or entrance. Most of you probably know that you do not wear shoes in Japanese houses. The genkan is what facilitates this custom. The floor of the apartment is actually elevated about 10 centimetres above the floor of the genkan, which is plain, unadorned concrete. When you enter the apartment, you pause in the genkan, remove your shoes, and literally step up into the living area. Hence the Japanese expression for "come in", which is "agattekudasai", meaning "please come up".
We also have a balcony, which can be reached by sliding glass doors from either of the six-jyo rooms. On this balcony is the washing machine, and two bamboo poles, suspended from the ceiling, for drying clothes. The balcony also affords a nice view of the neighbourhood, especially the Baptist Church right across the road. This church is one of only two Christian churches in Yokohama that I know of, and what it is doing in the Realm of the Yakuza Pukers is quite beyond me. But it is an interesting building, looking quite Western and quite Japanese at the same time.
All the appliances in our house are gas-powered. This includes not one but two separate hot-water heaters, for the concept of central heating is one that is arriving in Japan slowly. We have no hot water out of the tap; we must turn on a small hot-water heater instead. Both the kitchen sink and the shower are equipped thusly. The shower is the more interesting of the two, because you actually have to turn on the gas and ignite the pilot light before turning on the heater itself. The kitchen sink model is boring by comparison--you just push a button and you have your hot water. Meh. Where's the challenge in that?
So that pretty much covers how and where we live. Tune in next time for some witty observations on how daily life in Japan differs from that in the West.