Finished/Furnished: Kitchen

Finally, my kitchen is finished! It was always fully functional, thank goodness, but the dirty walls didn’t help create an appetising view. Since I didn’t (and still don’t) have enough money to tackle the ancient kitchen furniture, this was the main thing to be done – and I am proud to say, I DIYed it all by myself. But let’s start with the state of the kitchen when I bought the house:

As you know from my bathroom renovation, there is not enough space for a washing machine there. So, one of my first decisions was to remove that green cabinet to make space for the washing machine. The other three cabinets were temporarily moved to allow for more space for the work, thankfully the wall behind the washing machine was already tiled, saving some money. And I came just at the right moment to clean everything as much as possible:

One thing you can’t see in the photos is the gas outlet in the kitchen floor. It was apparently meant for a gas heater, but it is right in front of one of the cabinets where you stand when cooking, and the cover was broken. I don’t use gas heaters, so all I wanted was to close the thing and cover it up with a piece of wood. Instead, I got a new, functioning cover… It looks very neat thought, and who knows, I might just change my mind about the gas heater.

The following photo was taken on the day of the move, literally 3 minutes before the washing machine was put in. What you see is what they call a “sentakki pan”, a pan that goes underneath the washing machine and prevents any leakage to flood the whole room. Not only is there a drain, but in this super modern version, there is also an integrated water faucet, again saving money – no need for any holes in the wall.

Next thing to tackle: That wallpaper… Well, it turned out that the only wallpaper in the kitchen was on the doors and fusuma. The walls – I’m still not entirely sure, so bear with me – are wooden boards that had been covered in something resembling paper before they were nailed to the wall studs. In other words: Nothing to be removed there.

I’m glad I took the time to watch youtube videos about the whole wallpapering business. First thing I learned: The walls need to be smooth – really smooth – before putting up the paper. So, I bought some putty to go over the nails and the edges of the wooden boards. This was pretty easy to do.

I then bought lovely stick-on wallpaper. There are many different designs, many more than for regular wallpaper, and as you will see, I chose something fun to go with the color scheme of the furniture. Another pro is that it’s easy to work with because you don’t need to handle any glue. It’s also not as heavy as regular wallpaper, and the website I bought it from advertises it as “especially for first-timers and women”. So, on one warm day in March I decided to finally tackle the job. That’s when I found out that stick-on wallpaper is very thin, and with the light color I chose, the old pattern was shining through… So, out came the white paint again. At least, a single coat sufficed this time around.

With that setback, it took me a few weeks to muster up the courage for the wallpaper. And it was just as difficult as I thought it would be, especially around the corners. I managed with a lot of cursing and redoing stuff and in the end, it was still done faster than I had expected. I also painted the main door, but the color dried too dark, so I’ll probably go over it again at a later point.

Then it was time to finish the fusuma and put wallpaper on them as well. This turned out to be straightforward, because by then I had learned a trick or two.

You were probably wondering why I left a hole in the paint and wallpaper. Well, I wanted to put up a cork board for all the fun stuff I get in the mail and otherwise. Maybe you can see it, this is not real cork, but one of those floor coverings people use in kids rooms. At first, I was a bit annoyed when I noticed this, but it turned out alright – there is no way to stick anything through those wooden wallboards, trust me, I tried!

So, here it is, my new kitchen. The blinds are from my office in the old apartment, so they don’t fit the new space perfectly, but they’ll do. However, I think the big wall clock has found its forever home. The doors in the floor open up to extra storage space. I use it for cat food, cleaning supplies and as a wine cellar. And the black cats, these are actually coasters – courtesy of a friend of mine.

It’s not perfect, but I’m quite happy with the result. The walls are not perfectly smooth, so there are blisters in the wallpaper that show up and need to be flattened out again every now and then. I’m not sure what to do with the ceiling; especially the beam that marks the former dimensions of the house sticks out a bit too much for my taste. But otherwise, there’s not much more I can do on my own. On to the next challenge!

A Green Neighborhood

Winter is over (knock on wood)! In the last two weeks, temperatures have risen dramatically as long as the sun is out. Just this afternoon, it had 21 degrees in my bedroom and I’m so thrilled. Even though it’s not time yet for the cherry blossoms, I can confidenly say: begone, heattech underwear! The next days will be a bit cooler again, but I think we’re out of the woods.

With the weather so pleasant, I took some time to explore the neighborhood. The imperial villa Shugakuin is not far away and neither is Manshuin temple. There are lovely houses on the way there, many of them have lovely gardens and some of the larger ones look like old farm houses. No wonder, there are still fields scattered between the homes here, and on my walk a bit further uphill, I even came across some terracing. It’s too early to see whether these will become rice terraces, but I can check again later.

With all the greenery around, I took a long look at my garden… and I’m not very hopeful. It’s a tiny but nice garden and I put away the window shutters last week and also picked up some trash that made its way there. But beyond that and picking up old leaves, I’m clueless as what to do with the plants that are there. Unfortunately, I have not inherited my grandmother’s green thumb. On the contrary, I even managed to kill Pumpkin’s kitty grass…

On the other hand, the garden has been left to its own devices for 18 months or so, and it’s still mostly green. So I am pretty confident that even I can’t do too much damage. I’ll keep you posted on the progress there.

As for the blog, I’ll be scaling back a little again, with posts now on Wednesdays and Sundays only. Now that I have settled into my usual work-life routine, the new-house-excitement has cooled off a little and there’s less to tell. Of course, I could keep writing about Pumpkin and his important job to make me laugh every day (which he does to my full satisfaction), but as I said, I don’t want to turn this into another kitty blog. Yet.

Finished/Furnished: Bathroom

Finally, after three months of brushing my teeth in the kitchen sink, my bathroom is finished and fully functional! To be clear, my bathroom is a traditional 3-rooms-affair: From a room in the centre with the washbasin, doors lead to the adjacent toilet and shower room with the bathtub. In this case, toilet and shower were fully functional from the beginning, it was only the room in the centre I wasn’t happy with. There was no way I’d go and do anything in there. Guess why:

Yes, you’re looking at dirty wallpaper, a missing mirror – not counting the one on the cabinet on the right wall since that was broken – and an under-sink cabinet with severe water damage, which I didn’t even notice until a couple of weeks later when I first opened the thing… So, there was a lot to do.

I started out removing the wallpaper and painting the walls, because I thought this would be the easiest thing to do. Well… Did you know that stripping wallpaper isn’t quite that easy? I wish I had known this earlier, but the paper is not the problem, it’s the glue underneath. Anyway, I can now recommend a concoction of hot water, a tiny splash of dish soap and a generous spoonful of baking powder. Once the wallpaper was gone and the walls were dry again, the painting itself was finished relatively quickly, even though I needed three coats of paint plus primer. But I really wanted that annoying paper gone.

Next step: That cabinet… that colour… That’s all I wanted to do: Paint the thing. But it turned out to be the biggest challenge of this whole renovation and the main reason why it took so long.

As I mentioned above, the entire bottom had more or less rotted through and needed replacing, probably because of a leak in the drainpipe. Similarly, most of the screws that held the doors in place were rusted into the cheap wood. Even my carpenter’s power tools weren’t a match for them, and finally, he had to use good old brute force to remove the doors.

Once I had ripped out the bottom of the cabinet with the help of my grandfather’s favourite 30 cm (not pictured) screwdriver, the whole tragedy of the bathroom unfolded. Not only were there remnants of roaches underneath the cabinet… but the flooring you see in front of it doesn’t reach underneath it. Meaning: all there is is the wooden under-floor. Those orange tiles also only go as far as the cabinet is high and deep, the sides and the backs are essentially untreated, bare wall.

While I was busy measuring the new bottom and painting all the parts of the now mostly disassembled cabinet, I asked my carpenter to drill me some holes for the towel racks. This simple tasks – 12 holes, no biggie, eh? – turned into a one-hour odyssey. At that point, we found out that while the walls are standard timber frame, the spaces in between are filled with non-standard concrete. In other words, different spots required different screws and anchor plugs, even if they were just 5 cm apart. My carpenter was not pleased, obviously, and I cannot imagine how he could refrain from cursing throughout the ordeal. Anyway, how he made sure everything’s on the same height is quite impressive:

Before putting in the new bottom, I had to do something about the old top of the cabinet. No way I’d leave it this way, ugly and stained as it was. Because the top is of a material that is hard to paint, I decided on using some sticker paper around the wash basin. Unfortunately, I needed to use four strips of the sticker paper, which don’t come together perfectly, but it turned out quite alright – for a first try. Then, I was finally ready to put in the bottom and a new front board, while using some chopsticks as wedges to push the cabinet upright and against the back wall again.

Finally, I could put in the now painted front doors again. Painting them wasn’t quite as easy either, because the doors were covered in some sort of laminate – perfect for a bathroom, almost impossible to paint over. As mentioned, Pumpkin tried to impress his own ideas on this, but I’m not really into this kind of modern art, so plain blue it is. Of course, since I love a good challenge, I replaced the small swing door at the bottom right with a drawer. As the top right is also a drawer, I can now utilize the whole depth of that part of the cabinet. That alone took me two extra weeks.

Finishing touches were a large mirror in front of the window, a pretty noren to replace the dirty accordion door, and I even bought blue towels to complete the look of this photo. What do you think?

There are still a few small things to do: I’m considering getting new fittings, the old ones are… weird. Also, it’s surprisingly hard to find the right sized plug for the wash basin; I’m on number 4 now, which is too big again. And finally, I haven’t touched the ceiling at all, which still has the old wallpaper on it. It has aged into an orange-y colour, and would thus fit the colour scheme, but it does look dirty compared to the walls, so I want to do something about it. Eventually. Not right now. Let me enjoy my bathroom as it is for now. I’m not looking up that often anyway.

DIY Taxes

It’s time to bite the bullet and finally pay my property acquisition tax. To this end, I received a letter from Kyoto Prefecture. Not with a price, though, but with a questionnaire I need to fill out.

Some questions are:

  • where is the house
  • when was it built
  • how large is it
  • is it used as a residence or an office
  • has it been reinforced to withstand earthquakes
  • how large is the land on which the house stands

And here I am wondering: shouldn’t they know most of this already? I understand the questions for the intended use of the house (different tax brackets probably) and the earthquake resistance (older houses get a tax discount if they have been reinforced). But land size? Address?

Obviously they could figure out that the house was bought by me, and where I live – but the rest they need to have confirmed by the owner? Let’s not forget that Japan is one of the countries with the most aggressive record-keeping on the planet…

About the Cold

The other day, when I mentioned that I woke up to 4 degrees inside the house, I didn’t expect two things:

  1. That it could get even colder – all the way down to 2 degrees and
  2. that I would receive so many messages about this.

So, let me explain a bit what’s going on and how I deal with the cold. After all, I can’t stay in bed all day. That’s Pumpkin’s responsibility.

Traditional houses in Japan have always been built to allow for lots of airflow – there’s the gaps under the tatami, the shoji and fusuma made from paper, and the wooden framework that’s maybe 10 cm thick at best. This is great in the heat and humidity of summer, when every puff of air is valuable. In winter, even the Japanese are less appreciative about the matter.

And if you think that modern houses are better, you are mistaken. Even though the building materials are better and more airtight in general, 10 cm of insulation (at best) are not sufficient to keep in the warmth over night, even if there were central heating. And let’s not mention my personal nemesis/pet peeve, those single-glazed windows…

So, even though you get used to living in a freezing house, the Japanese battle the three coldest months of the year on various fronts. And I try my best to follow their example.

  • Layers and Layers of Clothes.
    A special type of underwear called “heat tech” is extremely popular, as are thin down jackets as outer layer for indoors. In between, there can be several layers of sweaters; cotton, wool, fleece, anything goes, really.
  • Space heaters.
    Except for the northern prefectures like Hokkaido, central heating is unknown in Japan. And when you think of it, it’s quite a waste to heat a room that’s unused all day. So, the Japanese use space heaters that they turn on when needed. Some of them are electric or gas-powered, but nowadays, the ubiquitous air-condition is used, which all have a special setting for heating.
    Traditionally, a kotatsu was used, that’s a low table with a heating element underneath, over which a heavy blanket was placed to trap the warmth. Many families still use them. They wear heavy jackets on top, while their nether regions underneath the blanket stay warm without so much as socks even.
  • Consolidation.
    If all else fails, you can move your life into a single room for a few months. Instead of heating several rooms one at a time, all activities take place in the living room, for example. In the evening, you just put out the futon for everybody. This is easier if you don’t have kids, though.
  • Hot baths.
    Another thing that helps against the colds, and which the Japanese perform as a daily habit throughout the year, is taking a hot bath just before bedtime. With the body nicely heated up by the ofuro, falling asleep is quite easy, no matter the temperature in the bedroom.

In the new house, I do mostly the layering and the space heaters, with only the occasional hot bath. Thankfully, I got myself a really nice woolen blanked 2 years ago, so I don’t need to heat the bedroom at all.

Also, the cold doesn’t “bite” the same every time the thermometer shows the same number. Thankfully, all the windows are closing properly here, so there’s no draft. However, I found out that on rainy or snowy days, it feels colder than when the humidity is low. Sadly, there’s not much I can do about that. Other than hope for an early spring, that is. This year, I’m not hopeful…

Caught Blue-Pawed…

Somehow, I have the impression that my dear Pumpkin went somewhere he wasn’t supposed to go… How do I know?

In Pumpkin’s defense: I put the blue board onto a stool that I placed in an especially sunny spot just for him.
In my defense: He hadn’t slept there for several weeks before I even started painting.

Thankfully, I’m using water-based paint, so it was relatively easy to clean his paws at least. Not that Pumpkin liked the wet rag much, but he held surprisingly still during all of it. He’s a good kitty, after all. Mostly.

Anyway, what is that thing I’m painting – and bright blue to boot? Patience, my dear reader, if everything goes as planned, I can show you next week.

Finished/Furnished: Office

Finally, my office has received its finishing touches today! I’m happy to announce that it is done now – have a look at the renovation diary to see how far we’ve come.

If you remember my old office, you will see that the furniture and the rug are the same. I still like them, they are perfectly functional, so I saw no need to replace anything. Unfortunately, I had to compromise a little on the layout. My idea was to have both desks next to each other along the wall with the window. But with the turquoise shelf opposite the entrance door, even put upright, this didn’t leave enough clearance behind the computer desk to get in and out of the office chair comfortably – or into the oshiire. Switching the desk and the shelf did wonders, and it doesn’t look as awful as I thought.

The oshiire is now closed with a door. I had to compromise quite a bit here as well: I had the idea with a folding door too late for the top/bottom rails to be installed properly. And the French doors I wanted originally to match the design of the entrance door were almost three times as expensive as the standard flat ones that are there now. Sometimes I really wish I were made of money… (Or that I could make up my mind a bit faster.)

There will be no additional lamps, the LED tracks/spots that my architect suggested – I would have never thought of that – are sufficient and give just the right amount of light. The old lamps will go upstairs into the library/reading room. The blinds were put up today, they come from another room of my old apartment and fit perfectly. The cat cushion is new, and Pumpkin is sleeping there right now. He’s not so appreciative of it in the mornings, but things will be easier when it’s getting warmer, and I can just keep the door open, so he can roam freely.

Things that still need to be done: Get the myriad of cables on and underneath the desk in order, or at least out of the way. Even though Pumpkin is not super interested in cables, he is curious, so I don’t want to tempt him too much.

There is no wall clock (the old one will go into the kitchen) and I haven’t put up any art yet either. Instead of damaging my beautiful walls with random holes, I have opted for picture rails on the very top. They were rather expensive, but this way, I can be flexible and exchange my art as I like. For now, I have no clear image of what I want to put there, but I have taken a number of great Kyoto photos that might just be the thing for the office…

That’s it for my official renovations with my architect and the contractor/carpenter, all of whom are saints with their patience and all. From now on, it’ll be a string of (hopefully successful) DIY operations. Unfortunately, I have more ideas than time or money… But then again, it’s not as if all this needs to be finished immediately. I have no plans for moving any time soon, anyway.

The next step is the bathroom. After more than 2 months, I’m still brushing my teeth in the kitchen sink for crying out loud.

Office Renovations Diary

Finally, as promised (too) long ago, here’s the photo diary of my office renovations. It was very interesting to watch my office change over the course of only 3 weeks, so let’s start with the “before” again:

As you can see, everything was dark and brown and rather… 70s I guess? Since I’m prone to depression, replacing all this drabness with light colors was a no-brainer. Also, the sliding doors to the outside gave me negative vibes. Even though this is a purely residential neighborhood with no through traffic, and outsiders scouting out houses would be easily noticed, I felt that the doors directly at the street were unsafe. Not that a window is any more secure if you think of it, but this is not about logics, really.

Day 1

The brown walls and the floor boards have been removed, showing the underside of both. The walls are a traditional timber frame with bamboo slats in the centre, and covered with mud and plaster at the outside (or wood panels). As you can see, the whole house rests on foundation stones – quite literally. As the building is not fixed to the underground, there is a certain flexibility during earthquakes. I remember an old farm house in an open-air museum, which jumped more than a meter during an earthquake and remained essentially intact. Still, when I saw this, I understood why my architect called the house “not very safe – at least not for modern standards”.

Day 2+3

Two more days and the floor is back. So is additional wood framing that will carry the new walls. It looks all very neat and pleasant – and yet, I was not happy when I saw this… The wall at the left also has new wood framing, when instead I wanted it removed completely. Behind this wall lies the staircase, which has a large storage area underneath, and I wanted to access this storage from the office.

Additional tools and parts were stored in the garage from the beginning, including the window. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice until that day that the window was not high enough – around 46 cm of glass only – so that was one more thing to complain about to the contractor. On the positive side, the electric cables for the new lights and electric socket had been installed already.

Day 4

The contractor came very early in the morning, and we negotiated the storage and the window. I had to compromise on the former: I only wanted the lower part of the wall removed to access the storage under the stairs, but the carpenter said the rest would become unstable and crack easily during earthquakes. So I decided to only have the full-sized oshiire opened instead. I did win the window, though: I opted for the largest size with a window pane of more than 80 cm, despite the additional costs. Given all the time I’ll spend in the office, I want it as bright as possible. The oshiire was opened up and the wall to the outside closed as necessary by the time I came home from work that day.

Day 5

Door and window frames are in place! The outside wall underneath the window has been covered with.. whatever this is, but it feels very rough. I guess it’s fire resistant; in any case it will be covered with plaster in the end. Inside, the frame for the office door has been installed instead of the two sliding doors. There is no wall there yet though.

Day 6

My office door has arrived and almost all the walls are done – inside and outside as well. The new portions of the walls are now only made with plaster board, and they have been insulated underneath with styrofoam. Unfortunately, I don’t know if there was any additional insulation done on the floor. I hope it won’t get too cold in winter…

Day 7

My window has arrived, and I feel like a winner! For the last few nights, I slept with a hole in my wall—literally—even though it was covered with a large wooden board. Now that the window is in place, I’m afraid the carpenter will have to use the door instead of jumping out of the hole for the window (guys…) The inside of the office is finished so far; all the walls, the ceiling, and the floor are done except for the wall covering and the flooring. Outside, the wall needs to be plastered and painted still.

Day 8

Instead of the carpenter, the decorator came to smooth out the walls in the office. This is necessary to make the wall covering look just like paint. For now, my office is a masterpiece in stripes.

Day 9

The wall paper was hung up today! Not sure if it’s wall paper, though – my architect called it “acrylic wall covering”. It is very thin, just like letter paper you put in the printer, and therefore, the walls underneath need to be very smooth. I love the way it looks, just like paint, as my architect promised. It is almost a bit too white at the moment, but I’m sure this will not last forever.

Day 10

When I came home today, the whole house reeked of glue, indicating that my office floor is finished! Initially, I wanted wooden floors, but unfortunately, they were a huge cost factor. To stay within budget, I went with vinyl floor boards instead, and I was quite surprised when I saw them. At first, I thought it was some wooden board covered in vinyl, but no: Just the vinyl, no wood involved at all. The boards were relatively thin, maybe 5 mm, and quite flexible throughout. I hope they will be sturdy enough to bear my weight on the office chair every day…

Day 11

After the inside, the outside wall has been painted too. I was surprised at how long it took, but most of the morning was spent on preparations: putting painter’s tape and plastic covers virtually everywhere. The actual work was done very quickly, just spraying on the paint. It is well matched to the rest of the walls on the first floor, it’s hardly visible where the old and the new paint meet.

Day 12

Final finishing touches today: The electric installation was done, I got a nice door stopper, and in the end, everything was cleaned nicely. What still needs to be done is a door for the oshiire, but that’s just a minor inconvenience right now. I’ll show you the final setup with furniture and all once the doors have been installed.

Conclusions

I’m very happy with the result, it’s almost a pity to move in with all the furniture and put the room to use. As you know, in the end, I had to wait another 5 days to get internet, so I had plenty of opportunity to admire my lovely and empty office.

What surprised me most about the whole thing were the workers: They were all very courteous and went out of their way to understand and help me. And even more so, everyone was very careful to clean up after himself. Even the carpenter, who came here every day for a week, cleaned the entire room every evening. Of course, a fine layer of sawdust was all over the hallway and first floor, but overall, I have never seen so clean a workplace.

So, I’d like to give a shoutout to two companies: First of all, Takeuchi Shoten and Mr. Kobayashi, the man who coordinated the whole renovation. He was very forthcoming with emails (upon my request instead of phone calls) and kept me in the loop at all times. He visited the house regularly to keep an eye on things, and even though we had that setback with the walls and window that delayed work a little, everything ran smoothly. Takeuchi Shoten specialises in small-scale renovations, so if you’re in Kyoto and need something done in your home, I definitely recommend them!

Second, I’d like to recommend my brilliant architect, Mr. Yamada from Yamada Architecture. He had lots of ideas that I couldn’t have thought of, and his suggestions proved invaluable and saved me a ton of money as well. He does a lot of large-scale renovations, Kyoto machiya in particular, but of course, he knows how to start from scratch as well. After spending more than 10 years in the US, he speaks perfect English, and he’s also licensed in California – if you plan on building a home there.

I’m Back – Online!

The miracle actually happened: I have internet at home again!

Looking back at the whole experience, I’m wondering if the guy last week wasn’t just a scout or something to see whether it’s worthwhile to show up with the big brigade. Because today, there was a team of no less than three people attending to my very personal internet cable:

  • 1 guy inside to lay the cable on a rather circuitous route (and through the brand-new hole) to the router in my office.
  • 1 guy outside to connect the cable from my house via the overhead electricity line to the next… whatever internet cables connect to on the other end.
  • And 1 more guy outside to set up signs and guide vehicles around the truck with the lifting ramp the second guy was working on. I think he had the easiest job of them all, since the road in front of my house doesn’t have through-traffic.

Anyway, I’m back online. And practically finished with my move. Of course, there are still plenty of boxes, mostly containing documents that will need to be stored in my great now two-way oshiire. Also, so far I have only thoroughly cleaned the office and the entrance, the designated furniture is still waiting in my living room.

And one more big thing… well, relatively speaking, will arrive tomorrow. And my bathroom is in shambles; I’m still brushing my teeth in the kitchen sink. But overall, we’re getting somewhere! I hope my house looks more presentable by the end of the year.

I’ll post more details and updates in the weeks to come. Look forward to a complete resume of my office renovations – with pictures! – next week.

Finished – Almost…

I am happy to announce that my office renovations were finished yesterday!

I am super pleased with the result. The white walls and light flooring have opened up the room, and it looks much bigger now. The window is great too (in more than one way ;-)) and my neighbours will be able to enjoy the view of me behind my desk all day long. I’ll post a work progression with photos next week.

What didn’t happen so far: I still don’t have internet at home. I’m not pleased. Some guy showed up on Thursday morning, took one look at my brand-new room and declared “there is no hole” (where to run the internet cable through). When I declined having a hole made smack in the middle of my most beautiful white wall, he did some sulking and disappeared 10 minutes after he had come…

My carpenter now drilled a hole in the wardrobe, and we hope this will suffice. In that case, I will get internet installed on Wednesday. If not, I will see dead people. And the police probably too…

On the other hand, not having internet leaves me with lots of time for other things. Like writing Christmas cards… It took me much less time than usual, and they are all on their way now. Let’s hope they make it to Europe until Christmas.