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Half a room, without a view

Cheaper than a Net cafe couch, a tad bigger than a capsule hotel pod, half-closet-size cribs prove a hit with Tokyo's poor and frugal

by Mayumi Saito

If you live or travel on a budget and are looking for the cheapest digs in Tokyo, why not try staying in the closet?

Cheaper than a regular gaijin house and more comfortable than the couch at an Internet cafe, oshiire (closet) houses provide 1 1/2-tatami-mat-size (2.5-sq. meter), often windowless “rooms” — picture a capsule hotel pod as your home.

Take Yotsugi Crib in Tokyo’s Katsushika Ward, for example, which boasts “the cheapest rent in town.” Access to your crib, on the top or bottom bunk, is via a sliding door shared with your bunk-mate. A pillow and futon are provided in the compartment, with a shared bathroom and kitchen outside. Available for ¥1,500 a night, the ¥18,000 monthly payment option offers a hefty discount, slashing the daily rent to a mere ¥600.

“It’s not that I enjoy living here. This is just closer to my job, and I want to cut expenses,” snaps a 37-year-old man from Cameroon who has been living in one of these half-rooms for the past six months. He asks to remain anonymous, saying he wouldn’t want his Japanese wife to know how he lives. He bartends at night at a local African bar and visits his wife and their baby girl in her hometown once a month.

A Japanese man in his early 30s, who also asked not to be named, says he was initially surprised at just how small his one-mat room was.

“I sometimes hit my head on the ceiling here, but I’ve got used to where I live,” he says of the half-closet he has called home for a month. “When you’re single, it’s rather fun to come home and see people in a shared house.” The occasional backpacker is currently hunting for a job.

After deciding to brave an overnight stay in one of the empty compartments, the residents offered me a clean cotton blanket and towel, insisting that the mattress and futon inside my compartment were dirty. There was plenty of legroom to stretch out and more than enough headroom to sit up. All in all, one of these closet rooms seemed more conducive to a good night’s sleep than a 24-hour manga kissa or Internet cafe.

Basic needs are provided for. As well as a bath, showers, a washing machine, a stove and a tiny sink in the dining room-kitchen, guests also have access to an old computer with an Internet connection.

There is also a spare storage room, and bike and car rentals are available for an extra fee.

The air conditioner in the dining room-kitchen works fine, but as the cool air doesn’t flow properly into the surrounding compartments, some residents leave their doors open a crack on sweltering nights.

“My room’s lock is broken anyway,” explains the Japanese man. Anyone can walk into the public space from outside, at any time of night.

“This is warm, friendly, but not what I’d call a safe place,” admits American Sean O’Neil, 24. He had been living in one of the bigger, ¥28,000 rooms, which come with a loft bed and space underneath, since March. Despite having spent five years sleeping in dorms on the USS Kitty Hawk while serving in the U.S. Navy, O’Neil was adamant he needed the extra space.

“I have my stuff. I don’t know what those guys do with theirs in the one-mat room,” the Temple University freshman says. “I don’t need so much for me now, but I’d like to move to a better place, once I get a student loan.”

Last month, O’Neil moved out of Yotsuya Crib.

Jennifer St. Jean, 22, from Canada, moved into another ¥28,000 room in late July. She plans to stay until the end of September, just before her one-year program starts at Waseda University.

“Everyone here is awesome,” she says, explaining that she shares a meal or two daily with other residents between her night shifts at a Matsuya fast food joint.

Asked about safety concerns, St. Jean says that she was surprised there weren’t more females in the crib. There are only two other women staying in the guesthouse, which has 16 beds. “But I lived in Toronto before,” she adds. “I feel a lot safer in Japan.”

Former pro boxer Sadao Saito plays the role of protective father figure toward the younger residents. “I have a little more income than others. So I treat them to sushi, liquor and other good stuff,” says the jovial 57-year-old, who works as a security guard in the neighborhood. “Seeing them pleased makes me feel energized too.”

Although Saito has a son and daughter, he left his family long ago and was hospitalized for stomach cancer for six months before he moved into one of Yotsugi Crib’s bigger rooms in March.

“I’m so happy here. I don’t speak any English, but it’s fun to be a part of the international family,” he says. “There should be more places like this so people at the bottom can survive. This is a paradise compared to being homeless.” Saito ran a ramen eatery before his spell in hospital, and is saving money in the hope of one day returning to the noodle business.

Keitaro Yamamuro, 41, the landlord of Yotsugi Crib, operates similar businesses in Tokyo’s Asakusa, Nippori and Tabata neighborhoods, with monthly rents ranging between ¥27,000 and ¥35,000. Another former backpacker, he explains that he initially targeted exchange students when he launched the business in the early 1990s. But advertising on the Internet has attracted a wider range of clientele than he anticipated, with many being part-timers or between jobs, he says. Yotsugi Crib has a trilingual Web site in English, Chinese and Japanese.

Yamamuro is particularly surprised by the growing number of Japanese tenants. Since 2001, 24-hour Internet cafes have proliferated in Japan, but so have the ranks of so-called Net-cafe refugees, the homeless who spent their nights at these cafes rather than braving the streets.

“It’s hard to get a good sleep in the Internet cafes. But my cribs are a little more relaxing,” he says. “I didn’t realize there would be so much demand among the Japanese.”

Yamamuro says the average ratio of Japanese to foreign tenants at his cribs is about 50-50, with Japanese tenants outnumbering foreigners from time to time. Some people, he says, stay at the cribs just to claim a fixed address, which is critical for ID registration, employment, and loan contracts in Japan.

He claims that the longest tenant at Yotsugi Crib has been staying for five years in one of the bigger rooms. Another, he says, spent nearly as long in a smaller room.

Miyuki Kanda, who works for TokyoRoomFinder.com operator Axispoint Co., says that Yamamuro’s cribs are the cheapest among all the accommodations listed on the company’s housing information site. She adds that such dirt-cheap digs are always popular with those on a budget, and that her company receives about 40 inquiries a month from both Japanese and foreigners regarding the cribs.

Yet, there are other affordable options, such as travelers’ hostels, in Tokyo offering a wider range of amenities, depending on your budget.

Backpackers Guest House near Ikebukuro offers bunk beds with access to a large system kitchen, a Washlet toilet and a shared wireless computer with a speedy Internet connection for ¥19,800 to ¥25,000.

Lohas Houses in Gotanda, Kamata, Denenchofu and Ebisu also feature bunk beds with personal lockers, closets and a shared wireless LAN Internet connection for ¥25,000 to ¥35,000.

Realtors say such shoe-box housing is becoming increasingly popular with landlords as well as tenants, with vacancies being rare and the high turnover rate meaning the business can be highly lucrative.

Online, bloggers are debating what the proliferation of these discount digs says about Japan in the early 21st century.

One comments that by granting a cheap address to those willing to work, the low-price housing business is more socially beneficial than boosting public welfare payments for the unemployed.

Another writes: “I understand that it’s a business fulfilling a need, and that the landlords are bona fide, but I personally worry about expansion of such businesses, as though it’s mirroring the deteriorating conditions of part-timers and temp workers. . . . It’s time that the government got involved in providing this kind of service to the public.”

Yotsugi Crib: www1.odn.ne.jp/clib/; Backpackers Guest House: bp.routing-sys.jp/hibari/; Lohas House Meguro: lohashouse.org/lh_meguro/ (Japanese language only). Send comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp