Finding an Apartment in Fukuoka, Japan: Hard Mode

Two months ago, I put my life in Canada on pause and I hopped onto a plane and moved to Japan on a Working Holiday Visa. This visa is a 6 month one, with the option to renew it for another 6 months which I plan on doing. Instead of following the more traditional path of setting up in Tokyo (which holds it own very unique and costly challenges that I won’t get into in this post), I moved to Fukuoka. I moved here for the incredible weather, the amazing food, the awesomely friendly people, and above all else, the necessity of speaking Japanese to get anything done. Some people do speak english here, but most don’t. I really want to become fluent in the language, and I figured this was my best bet.

Overall, I’ve been having an incredible time here, however the one regrettable part of my travels so far is how underprepared I was for finding an apartment in Fukuoka. If I was here on a longer visa, or if I spoke better Japanese, or if I was here on a work visa with a sponsor company… life would have been 100x better. However, instead, I decided to fly solo. This was ultimately a mistake since I didn’t have the language skills necessary. I hope you can learn a few things from my story, and avoid the pitfalls I fell into.

Arrival

I arrived in Fukuoka with an AirBnB apartment lined up for a few weeks, expecting that I would find something fairly quickly. The selection in Fukuoka isn’t very extensive and with what appears to be an increase in tourism in the area, those few places will fill up. It doesn’t seem like the local populace is quick to jump onto the sharing economy either, so it may be a while before you can easily find something. That said, where I stayed was good enough to get started.

Where to Look

I focused specifically on two types of apartments: serviced apartments and unfurnished apartments. I skipped completely over share houses / dorms, etc. I wanted my own place. In addition, I’m fairly picky and I wanted to ensure that I would have a decent kitchen and a good working environment so that I wouldn’t be forced to go out to a coffee shop every time I wanted to get some work done. This automatically eliminated most of the serviced apartments in Fukuoka as they’re geared towards the short week-long stay of an out-of-town businessman who will have an office to work at.

There are a few companies that offer furnished apartments here, but only one focuses primarily on foreign customers: Fukuoka Apartments. They also offer normal apartments, but with my visa it’s a bit of a challenge to find owners who are flexible on lease times. Alternatively, there are plenty of ‘Weekly Mansion’ (Google: ウィークリー マンション) companies that offer small furnished places at reasonable prices in Fukuoka.

Your other option is to follow the local route: real estate shops (不動産屋さん – Fudousan-yasans). Real estate is very different here than it was in Canada. Instead of sending a few quick e-mails, arranging a viewing and signing a lease, you end up going to these tiny little offices where a few workers are brokering deals left right and centre. They help you all along the way from finding a place, negotiating with the owner for you, getting you in touch with the management companies, etc. This is awesome as a concept, however if you are in the same boat as I am, you will hit a few problems.

One “seemingly better path” would be to use Suumo. I felt right at home browsing for apartments like I would on Kijiji, but the trap is that all paths lead back to the real estate shops. Owners seemingly list their places through realtors, rather than self-listing. I’m sure there are some self-listers out there, but I didn’t find any.

The Trifecta of Problems

When hunting for an apartment, I hit three major problems:

  1. My language skills were not up to snuff to talk to non-english companies. I chose to come here and this is my fault.
  2. My visa length was 6-12 months. This is less than the 2 year lease standard that they have here. Again, I didn’t come here on a student or work visa, this is my fault.
  3. I didn’t have a way to establish trust here. In other words, I don’t have family to act as a guarantor therefore I must work with local guarantor companies to co-sign on a lease. The language barrier is re-introduced here. In Canada, trust is established through money and references. If you can pay for your apartment and have proof of income, then you will be fine. Here, you need a co-signer willing to pay your share if you bail on your contract. There are companies that can act as guarantors on your behalf, for a price. These are mostly located in Tokyo, but there are a few out by Fukuoka.

In essence, the process of renting an apartment (like a local) is very difficult if you don’t speak Japanese. People will not be able to help you despite their best intentions. It’s pretty obvious in retrospect, but coming here I assumed that there would be a well established rubber-stamp process that I could follow without much interaction. I thought that if I showed that I had sufficient funds, they’d find a way to make it work. Instead, I got replies from real-estate companies flat-out saying “we can’t help you because you don’t speak enough of the language”. Frankly I deserved this, considering that I thought money was sufficient and that I didn’t need that much language to get the job done. I was wrong, so don’t make the same mistakes.

Options

Being fairly frustrated at this point, I had a few options:

  1. Continue to AirBnB hop. I could always find another place, and just work out of coffee shops.
  2. Find a Share House / Dorm of sorts. I wasn’t really interested in this since I saw the wealth of apartments that were available.
  3. Go to Tokyo and deal with English companies. This was really not ideal. I enjoyed my time in Tokyo, but frankly I don’t feel at home in that city. It was too busy for my tastes. Infinite convenience and options led me to analysis paralysis. There were millions of things to do, and I could never decide what to do.
  4. Forsake my independence and beg a friend to help.

Naturally I chose option 4. I was extremely lucky to know someone in the area who was not only willing to help me establish a relationship with a real estate company, but to act as my guarantor. I now am in eternal debt towards her, but I couldn’t be happier. This was a huge ask and she pulled through in a big way. Many thanks to her.

This is a little anti-climatic as some people reading this will expect the ‘amazing secret that will get you an apartment here’ and I apologize.

Out of Frying Pan and Into The Fire

Having a friend help you out is not the end of your troubles if you can’t speak proper Japanese. There are a few small details that you need to take care of:

  1. Getting a seal/stamp (印鑑・判子 – Inkan/Hanko). I won’t go into detail here as there are great sites describing what they are and what you need. You may need a registered seal (実印 – Jitsuin) but you will likely only need a standard seal. This costs very little and takes almost no time, get it out of the way ASAP.
  2. Management company evaluation (審査 – Shinsa). Firstly, you’ll need a phone number which you can be reached at or one that you can use to make calls to Japanese numbers. Skype is usually fine for this but some companies prefer a legit number. You can get a pay-as-you-go phone at Softbank. Secondly, you’ll need to have a phone call with the management company (not the owner, nor the real-estate company. Just another company that’s managing the property). They’re evaluating whether or not they can communicate with you and they want to understand why you want the property. It’s an easy phone call and even with my broken understanding of Japanese, I was able to do it. (I had only finished Genki I by this time, as a point of reference).
  3. Getting utilities set up (Gas / Electricity / Water if necessary). Again, more phone calls. Not many places have online forms to set things up. Some places will have English staff members. The realtor may assist in this process to make sure it happens in a timely manner. You can pay for your bills by CC or at the convenience stores (just bring it in to them).

Today

Today marks the day that I get the keys for my new apartment in Fukuoka. I couldn’t be happier. My experiences here indicate that there’s clearly a gap in services for foreigners when it comes to getting set up. AirBnB is the obvious ‘global’ answer to the problem, but it seems like it’ll have a slow adoption curve here in Fukuoka. Plus, for travellers who wish to stay a bit longer (a few months up to a year) AirBnB is not the most economical of things. What will fill that gap in a very ‘Japan’ way is yet to be seen, but there’s something there.

I hope this was hopeful or at least a little interesting. If you have had similar experiences, or better experiences, feel free to share!

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