My first experience of Japanese apartments was not a good one. The school which had employed me had promised to provide me with a furnished flat. I was keen to see it, more so when I was told, ‘You’re lucky. Yours is quite big.’ Indeed, it comprised a kitchen / hall, a bathroom and two further rooms, but still, ‘big’ was pushing it a bit. ‘Not minuscule’ would have been more honest. Or at the very least, you would need to add ‘for a single person in Japan’ to the end of the ‘It’s quite big’ claim.
The size didn’t bother me, though. I could live quite happily in a small place. What did bother me, however, was that the apartment had been passed down from outgoing teacher to incoming teacher for years and years and it was in a bit of a sorry state. The school evidently wanted me to behave like a professional but live like a student.
The kitchen / hall area had that awful wood-look linoleum flooring you sometimes see on big rolls in D.I.Y. stores. It was a bit sticky. On a small counter against one wall there was a two-ring gas stove. They don’t have conventional ovens much in Japan, so I wasn’t expecting anything else. I would have preferred, however, not to have a cooker with an old, crispy, burned noodle still attached to it. There was also a small toaster-oven with its own carpet of crumbs, and a fridge which came complete with the authentic smell of rotting vegetables. The walls of the kitchen were a disgrace and although the flat was by no means new, I think their condition was less to do with age and more to do with the fact that the previous occupant was either a tremendously reckless chef or enjoyed nothing more of an evening than to invite his friends round for a gravy fight.
Off to one side, where the kitchen led into the bathroom, there was an old twin-tub washing machine attached by means of rubber tubing to a cold-water tap. There was no drier as most Japanese choose to dry their clothes outside.
The two further rooms both had tatami flooring. These were my bedroom and living room respectively. There wasn’t much furniture in either room. In the living room there was a small wooden bookcase, which had lost its back somewhere along the way, and a low table, which for some reason appeared to be employing the blanket of a street child from Calcutta as a table cloth. The bedroom contained nothing at all.
I had been promised that bedding would be supplied and found the futon and sheets folded in the flat’s one big cupboard, a huge cupboard the sliding doors of which were effectively one of the walls of the bedroom. The futon wasn’t new, however, and it probably tells you enough about its condition if I say that I actually hoped the previous owner had extended his gravy fights into the bedroom. More realistic thoughts about the variety of stains on my bedding were too unsavoury to contemplate.
Although I didn’t inherit much furniture, I did inherit a lot of rubbish. As well as the awful bedding in the cupboard, there was an astonishing array of useless objects – some motorcycle oil, a broken fan, a box full of old cups and saucers and mismatched chopsticks, used batteries, an old bicycle seat and some burned-out light bulbs. There was also a poster letting me know on which days various goods could be thrown out with the trash. By the looks of things my previous occupant seemed to be saying, ‘I never had much use for this, but maybe you will.’
The toilet and bathroom were housed in separate rooms. The toilet was directly off the kitchen. The kitchen for heaven’s sake! It was minute. If I needed to evacuate my bowels it required a three-point turn in order to sit down and then demanded that I leave my knees outside. A tad embarrassing when guests were over for dinner.
The bathroom was in a small room next to the toilet. I looked in and was quite pleased for it was a deep square tub, one in which you could sit in water up to your neck without having to lie down. I put the plug in, turned on the taps and began unpacking my possessions while it filled.
I undressed and was looking forward to taking my first real Japanese bath. I had read all the guidebooks and knew that I should wash and shower outside the tub and use the water in the bath itself simply to soak in, to relax, and to let the worries of the day seep out of my pores with my sweat. I was confident I could have a bath in the correct manner. I was looking forward to it. But that’s because I had imagined my bath would be in a nice clean bathroom in my apartment. I hadn’t considered a bath with a mouldy crust.
There was a small plastic stool on the floor of the bathroom, and I sat on it to shower myself and wash before getting into the tub. It was slimy. Lord only knows what I was thinking. I had already seen the state of the other rooms and yet I was ready to sit directly on that stool with no precautions. For who knows how many years some other chap’s bottom had been gracing that stool and, what’s more, he was a man with the apparent biological attributes of a slug. Yet in I merrily strolled and plonked my naked backside down. I stood up again, quickly, and showered while standing and working up quite the soapy lather on my buttocks. Feeling a little cleaner, I climbed into the bath and slipped as I did so. The bottom was as slippery as a seaweed covered rock in shallow water. I hastily and without choice plunged into the water, emptying much of it onto the bathroom floor as I did so. I was sitting on slime again, and as I looked up saw that the ceiling was covered in black flecks of mould. And it was then that I turned and looked at the inside rim of the tub and saw that there was a dark ring of brown. I scraped through it with a fingernail.
Even when I got out of the bath the horror didn’t stop. I pulled the plug and the water emptied quickly out of the bath only to come up again through the drain on the floor. As I attempted to towel myself dry I found myself standing in a brownish puddle of warm water, acquiring ankle bracelets made from another man’s pubes.
As I said, it wasn’t a good start