Thursday, October 31, 2013


So here were are about to become landlords. Hello that unearned income I have always dreamed about. Japan blogs are always full of foreigners moaning and ranting about how Japanese landlords are all racists and thieves, all of which sounds pretty good to me. Around this time I came to learn a couple of new words which are shaping up to be my number one favourite words in the whole Japanese language. The first one is "Reikin". This literally means key money. When I first heard of it I thought, no way, surely nobody gets away with that old scam anymore. Kiwis would tell you where to stick your house if you demanded key money from them. Not here it seems. For us it means a nice little Y100,000 present. The other word is "Shikikin". This means bond money and is a concept I am familiar with as it is common practice everywhere. In theory the bond is refundable when the tenant moves out provided that they have not damaged anything in the house. In practice it seems that this almost never happens and that the Shikikin is just another present for the landlord. That's another Y200,000 thank you. Add to this one months rent paid in advance and the fact that some landlords also require a guarantor and you can start to see why there is so much wailing and gnashing of teeth around this subject. 

But before we can book the holiday to Hawaii with the proceeds of these cash presents we must deal with the not so insignificant problem of lack of water. Anyone who knows anything about Japan knows that it's not a desert country. It rains plenty, especially here in the Kyoto mountains. There are more streams and rivers and lakes than you can shake a stick at around here. So how can water be a problem you ask? well, The whole problem revolves around geography, history and economics with a dash of politics thrown in for good measure.  

The history part has to do with the legacy of the by now almost mythical "bubble economy". The condensed version of the bubble time goes something like this....From the mid 1980's to the early 90's the export led economy boomed. Land prices in the big cities went through the roof. Wages and inflation soon followed. Property speculation was all the rage, the stockmarket was a quick and easy way to get rich and life was one big party. Until some bigwig at the bank of Japan noticed that things were getting out of hand and got together with the government and the banks. Before you knew it there was a capital gains tax of 30%, tightened credit and higher interest rates. The economy faltered, the stockmarket crashed and the land price bubble went POP. Hello the "lost decade".
This whole area is an unfinished product of the bubble economy period. The Subdivisions that sprung up on the sides of steep mountains to the north of Osaka were far away from any train stations or highways. The rationale of the developers was that if the houses were built the city would follow up with the infrastructure. As their was no existing roads or water supply the development companies had to create them from scratch and each individual subdivision had it's own water system built and run by the separate development companies. Land was surveyed, roads and pipes laid, electricity poles erected and foundations built. The first houses went up around 1992 and people had started to move in to them when the bubble burst. Suddenly there was no demand for these developments and as the customer base dried up the development companies went bankrupt one after another. Today most subdivisions in this area have only about 40-50% of the houses that were originally planned to be built. Of the houses that were completed, many of them are now empty as mortgage foreclosures and the lack of transport infrastructure caused people to leave.
So that is the story of Hatano-Cho and of many of the areas on the fringes of the big Japanese cities.

Now water is readily available in this place. It's clean and fresh and plentiful. All you have to do is distribute it to the houses. The local water schemes consisted of wells with reservoirs, pumping stations and networks of pipes. Once the developers had gone bust there was no one to administer or maintain the systems. The local government bodies were unwilling to take over and so evaded the responsibility and it fell to the local residents to form committees to run their own schemes. This they did successfully for 20 years but eventually the ageing locals decided that they didn't want to maintain the ageing systems anymore.  

This area is politically part of Kameoka city despite the fact that it is separated from the town by a fairly substantial range of mountains. It is actually closer and easier to access from Nose town which has a city water supply but that is in Osaka prefecture and so may as well be on the moon because the chances of some common sense cross border co-operation are less than zero. Hatano-cho may be the most unloved and ignored outpost of Kameoka city but no city bureaucrat worth his salt is ever going to cede an inch of territory or control to his neighbour. So a few years ago all the water committees got together and asked the city to build a pipeline over the mountains and connect the area to the water grid. This was duly done but there was a catch...everybody who wanted to hook up to it had to pay a connection fee of Y1.2 million. There was a lot of dissent over this among the locals but the upshot has been that the local system was decommissioned in May 2013, the city system is in place now and there is no alternative. Unless you are a Kiwi and can think outside of the Japanese square, but that's another story.

So, to enter the sacred halls of landlordship we have to fork out Y1.2mil to connect the house with water. But wait, there's more. That doesn't include the actual hooking up the pipes and so on. That's another Y300,000. Plus the fact that the water heater was pronounced dead in August 2012. This one I didn't mind so much...that heater sucked. Who uses kerosene to heat water these days? It's a stupid idea and I was happy to see it go along with it's tank and blue plastic containers that cluttered up the hallway. A brand new Rinai LP gas system set us back Y200,000 and well and truly scuppered the Hawaii plan.

The water heater installation was the usual Japanese circus of technical experts, wads of cash, excruciatingly detailed instructions and, as usual, unbelievable punctuality. As I was staying in the house that night I asked the gas company man to open the meter so I could have some hot water for the next 3 days. This sent him into the standard "no can do...youre not signed up as a customer" line but with a bit of arm twisting he agreed to leave it on if I promised to pay for the gas I used before leaving for NZ. That evening as I stepped into the shower and turned it on, I was keen to try out my new water heater and I have to say it worked great...for about 30 seconds, at which time it instantly went from hot to freezing. A call to the gas company at 5.30PM had them promising to be there soon to sort it out. At the time I did not know that their depot is on the other side of Kyoto...about an hour and a half's drive at the best of times. This was now peak traffic hour and it was nearly 8.00PM by the time they showed up. I've said this before... Ain't no way any NZ tradesman would do this. As it turned out, all that was needed was to reset the meter which took about 2 Min's. Off they went leaving me feeling a little bit guilty about extending their working day by about 3 hours but then I figured that hey, this is Japan. Cest la vie.

And so onto the next water related issue...the drains. Drains are one of those things that the old adage "out of sight - out of mind" applies to. As long as they do their thing, who cares about them. I hadn't really given them much thought until while testing the shower I noticed that it wasn't draining well. Great. The next morning lead to an thorough investigation in the the drainage system. Luckily a bit of spade work had the drains cleared in short order but I was quite amazed at how the grey water, ie the washing machine, sinks, shower etc, just runs out in to the open culvert on the street. Pretty third world if you ask me.

It's all glamour being a property tycoon let me tell you.

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