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.

Finishing Stages

It seems that my office will be finished this week Friday, with only a minor delay!

Monday and yesterday, the decorator was at the house to finish the walls. They are gleaming with the white wall covering my architect suggested. Outside the office, there is also new wallpaper now, but this one looks more artificial somehow. That’s probably because I have the old, real walls right next and on top of them, so the difference is quite visible. But overall, everything looks neat and clean.

Today, I was very happy I could leave the house. My office floor was installed – vinyl boards that are glued to the wood flooring underneath. And that glue… oh my, what a stink! Even though the window and the entrance door were open, and the worker had brought a large fan, the smell of the glue had reached the last bits of the house in less than 30 minutes. Ugh. I wonder if the guy can still smell it, though – he was happily glueing away with just a standard face mask everybody else is wearing right now…

My contractor has informed me that tomorrow the outside wall will be painted to match the rest of the house, and on Friday I’ll get light switches, power outlets and the LED tracks. So yes, as far as I’m concerned, everything will be said and done this Friday. Except for the door to the oshi-ire, but that’s a relatively minor thing, and may be done much faster than I thought as well.

I’m still working in internet cafés, but if my own internet is indeed coming tomorrow, this will be the last day. At least I know now where to go if staying at home all the time is getting too annoying.

Although, to be fair, I can do a lot of people watching here. And some of the characters who come here are quite interesting. There are the students who sit on the long tables and do homework in the afternoon. The one weird guy in the green jumper who comes at noon and takes several hours to read a single newspaper.

And yesterday, there was an enormous lady who came just a few minutes after me when they opened, plopped down on a chair nearby, plugged in her mobile to watch a film or whatever – and didn’t move anymore all day. She did fall asleep around noon – I could hear her snore – but that was the only change I noticed until she left at 15:30, maybe. Fascinating; people are so strange. I noticed that we do share a liking for Meiji hi-milk chocolate (the one with the red pack), so she’s probably okay after all.

That’s it for today, I guess my next post will actually happen from my own home, if not from my own office. So exciting!

One More Update

Wow, time’s flying… mostly away from me, sadly… So, here’s a little update:

Work rested last Friday and Saturday. Apparently the extra time needed to remove the walls killed our schedule – which I don’t really understand, because at least the opening of the oshi-ire was planned from the beginning?

So I took a weekend offline and spent half of Saturday and Sunday in bed. The other half I spent on buying LEDs and other lamps for the house. They will be delivered next week on Monday, no idea what takes them so long.

And yesterday, I tackled my books, or rather: My library to be. I wouldn’t say that I have too many books – because there is no such thing, it’s like saying that you have too much money – but I definitely have my fair share… And it took me all but 6 hours to empty 7 boxes with just books…

That leaves another 12 boxes with documents and other things that will have to go to the office or be stored elsewhere. Scholarly habits die hard… But I feel that I am getting somewhere! My kitchen is entirely box-free, if not yet fitting the strict description of “tidy”.

My toolbox has surfaced, which will help tremendously once I tackle the bathroom cabinet. Of course, I’ll need a cordless screwdriver because I simply don’t have enough power to remove all those rusty screws. I have planned a further shopping trip for Wednesday, work permitting.

And on Thursday morning, I should be getting internet at home! No more internet cafés that close at five… I’ll have to go already! Write to you soon!

Current State of Affairs

It’s my 5th day at my new house and I’m busy with all sorts of things.

Early Monday morning, I had a meeting with the contractor and the builder about the office. We compromised and met in the middle: I get a window that is twice as large as planned (and costs twice as much too. It’s a veritable panorama window; the neighbours will be pleased to look at me all day.

In return, I let go of the storage area under the stairs. The wall there is a traditional timber frame (if that’s the correct word), and removing the lower part only would make the rest very unstable and prone to cracks in an earthquake. However, the wall to the full-size oshi-ire storage is already gone as I’m writing this. Interestingly, it’s just 4 cm thick or so – no wonder Japanese traditional houses are so cold!

Speaking of cold: Yesterday I woke up to only 8 degrees in my room. I guess that the large hold downstairs in the office has something to do with it. Overnight, the carpenter closes it with plywood, so there is no safety issue. Fun fact: He seems quite happy to crawl in and out of the window instead of using the main door directly next to it. Guys…

In other news, I have successfully changed my private address at the ward office and the bank, and my lawyer has all the documents to do the same for my company. Interestingly, as the CEO, my private address is entered in the company register and needs changing as well. Other things seem to run smoothly – I already got a gas bill over 45 yen the other day.

I wish the unpacking would go just as smoothly. The last two nights, I tackled the kitchen, but there was hardly any progress. The cabinets under the counter are still atrociously dirty inside and out, and every time I touch something, I feel the urge to clean it (yet again), rather than putting stuff inside. They also seem rather small, and the top shelves are hard to reach. I have decided to choose very carefully where I put something, rather than having to change everything in a few weeks because I can’t access what I really need.

Overall, I’m quite tired. The carpenter starts at 8:30 every morning, and I need to be halfway presentable by that time (the shower has a glass door…) Also, my arthritis has flared up again. The constant up and down the stairs, the kneeling and standing on steps, and playing the game of “where does this box go and what’s in it anyway” has taken quite a toll. I don’t know who takes credit for inventing painkillers, but he needs to be sainted. The last few days I have taken them first thing in the morning just to keep moving – both the boxes and myself…

Anyway, I hope things will get better soon, and I’ll feel truly at home.

The Other Side

I made it! Friday was stressful, I had to call in my friend’s help earlier than expected, but everything turned out alright. The moving crew took a bit more than 4 hours to get me out of the old place and into the new one, at the end, there were 6 people working – and me giving commands. I quite enjoyed that part!

Yesterday, I took things rather slowly. My house is a mess right now, and I have only unpacked a handful of my more than 70 boxes… Unfortunately, I didn’t clean the kitchen cupboards as well as I thought I had, so there’s that to do before I put anything inside. And when I look at the 30+ boxes of books and documents alone, I shudder – and fo into another room for the time being.

Renovations are proceeding; the contractor even sent me an email this morning to tell me that the workers will come tomorrow at 8:30 in the morning. Good to know that I’ll have to finish my shower before that – the bathroom has a glass door… *blush*

Unfortunately, there have been some problems with the renovations already. Instead of removing a wall so I can have access to the storage behind it from my new office, the workers have added new latticework, which is obviously counterproductive.

And the window that has been stored in the garage is too small. It should have a 70 cm high pane, but instead, the whole window including the frame is that height, leaving only 43 cm to actually look out of…

But the kitchen looks great now, even with all the boxes, and once the mess is cleared, I can start cooking again. The bathroom should be finished soon as well. It now has three coats of paint, and I hope that will be last one. I didn’t expect the concrete to be quite that thirsty, I did use a lot of primer after all.

Anyway, that’s it for today. Sorry, no photos since a) I’m in an internet cafe and forgot the adapter I need for the SD-card, and b) it’s all a veritable mess anyway, no need to show that off.

Thank you for all your good wishes, both in the comments here and per email. To my friend who sent the “test card”, it has arrived yesterday, perfectly on time with my first day at my new house. So yes, things are going well, overall.

Final Views

Well, that’s it. My last morning in my apartment, where I have lived now for more than 6 years. I enjoyed living here, but it’s time to move on…

The movers will come this afternoon, I have the big things packed, the small things can just go into boxes. It’s within a 10 minutes drive, so there is no need for extensive protection (I hope).

I won’t have internet at home for a while, so I might be posting a bit more sporadically in the next 2 weeks or so – but then again, I already did that. When I thought “there’s so much happening, I need to write more often”, it really didn’t cross my mind that there may be too much going on for writing. I’ll do my best. There are indeed exciting things going on!

Bargain Hunting

Sorry for not writing the other day, despite promising… On top of my work, I was at the house every day doing something or other, and I was exhausted. Tomorrow, the office renovations will start, and I need to get my work sorted out before moving on Friday. I hope there will be more news to tell and more time to do so.

Anyway, 10 days ago or so, I started looking for a moving company. Even though the new house is very close, and I don’t feel that I have that many things, I want professional help with this. There’s no way I’m going to schlep all my stuff down from the 5th floor and then most of it into the 2nd floor of my new place all on my own (or even with the help of my friends).

I filled in an online form, and they sent my info to around 10 moving companies operating in Kyoto. Within 10 minutes, I got emails from all of them and phone calls from half. Some were offers based on what I filled in, but some companies wanted to come by and have a look at my things to make a better offer.

The first representative (of a very large moving company) came on Thursday, made a detailed list of everything I wanted to pack, and he gave me a quote of 82,000 for a moving date of Saturday, 27th of November. I said it was a bit expensive and told him that I really wanted to move the Friday before, and that another (much smaller) company would visit on Sunday for a quote.

He immediately said, “If you tell the other company that you already chose us, I’ll give you a price of 70,000 yen flat”.

Wow, I hadn’t expected anything like that. The fact that I got so much interest within 10 minutes after pressing “send” did surprise me, but apparently the moving market is more competitive than I thought. However, since he couldn’t give me the Friday date, I declined and told him I’d wait for the others and get back to him.

Sunday noon arrives, the second representative shows up, runs through all my stuff and gives me a quote of 85,000 for Friday. After telling him about the significantly lower quote I had received, he phones his boss and finally comes back with 75,000 yen for a Friday move, which I accepted on the spot.

Never, ever, have I done this before. I find it embarrassing, and it’s probably embarrassing for the other person as well. And had the first representative not given me a hint that negotiations are possible, I wouldn’t have tried it this time either. But, thanks to him, I get what I want when I want it – and for 10,000 yen cheaper to boot! However, since this is a very small company, I will try to make things as easy and smooth for them as possible. I already received moving boxes which are now stacked in my place, ready to be filled.

And of course, I haven’t packed a single thing yet. I really must start tomorrow, once I finish my work. So far, I only decluttered things that will definitely not come with me. Lots of stuff I’ve kept “just in case” and which I never needed, plenty of paperwork, these sorts of things.

While going through everything, I even found a stack of old “Hey, I’ve moved” postcards from the Netherlands. So, just in case you’ll receive a funny-sounding postcard with my new address on it, it’s all part of my big decluttering plan. Thanks for helping with it. 😉

My New Tatami

Since renovations and other things are moving quite fast at the moment, and I don’t want to bore you with a super long post on Wednesday, I’ll give you two weekly posts instead for the foreseeable future. Aren’t you just thrilled to hear more about my renovations! 😉

This post is all about tatami. For those of you who don’t know, tatami are the mats that are used in traditional Japanese rooms. They are nothing more than rice straw sewn together and covered with woven (soft or common) rush on the top. The edges on the long side are usually covered with fabric, often brocade. Tatami are typically 5-6 cm thick and twice as long as wide. Exact measurements depend on the region.

Traditional tatami like these are quite expensive. You can now get cheaper options with for example a styrofoam core in the middle, with also cuts down on the weight. Still, to this day, tatami are mostly made of natural materials, which makes them quite delicate. The most dangerous enemy of any tatami is water, which can seep through the rushes on top and damage the rice straw directly or cause mould in the long run. I have seen people rush home during a thunderstorm just to close their windows and protect their tatami.

When tatami get old, they turn a warm yellow colour. The longer they are in use, the more the surface gets scuffed and worn, even though nobody in Japan would ever enter a washitsu (traditional Japanese room with tatami) with anything else than socks. As you can see in the image above, the rushes get worn out eventually, often starting at the edges (the light-yellow colour).

Last week, my tatami were measured for replacement. Interestingly, the sizes of tatami differ according to the Japanese region you live in. The Kyoto tatami have the largest size – 0.955 m by 1.91 – they are called kyoma tatami (literally: Kyoto room). The edoma from Tokyo are significantly smaller – 0.88 m by 1.76 m – and the size in Nagoya lies in between.

Interestingly, I have edoma tatami in my house that are not entirely uniform in size. I have only measured a few, but they were all between 0.86 and 0.88 m wide and from 1.76 to 1.79 m long. In any case, they were removed last Friday to expose the underflooring, which looks like this:

Yes, that’s quite normal, it’s a wooden house, remember. Actually, this is a very good underflooring; a friend of mine lives in a house from roughly 100 years ago. There are gaps between the floor boards that are 2-3 cm wide, and that’s on the ground floor, without any insulation against the cold!

In fact, Japanese houses were and still are built as airy and breezy as possible to make the summer heat more bearable. Every little gap where some puff of air can come through helps in this respect. And as I have mentioned before, the Japanese seem to be less concerned about the cold in the winter than about the humid summers…

As you can see, there are still parts of the rush covering lying around, and in fact, I was quite surprised how dirty the room was. I guess there’s a lot of dust and other dirt that can fall through the cracks of the tatami over the years. I’m not sure if there’s a solution for this – other than meticulous regular cleaning, that is.

Anyway, I went to the house today, just in time to see the finishing touches put onto my brand-new tatami. Sadly, I was too late to see what they put underneath them, there was talk about an insect-repellent sheeting or something. As you can see below, the rush is still green, and they do smell so lovely and new! I have ordered blue borders that look good now and will go well later with the mature yellow too, and I’m very pleased with the effect.

The contractor has informed me that the rush surface has been treated with some wax or chemical or something. I will have to wipe this layer off with a dry cloth and repeat this three or four times, otherwise it will come off on my socks when I walk on them.

It’s not really obvious in the image above, but there is indeed some sort of white waxy layer on top; the craftsmen installing them showed me how to clean them (wipe with the grain of the rush covering) and they turned even greener than they are now. The craftsmen also told me to keep the windows open for a while, as long as it can’t rain into the rooms. Well, I’ll be at the house every day this week anyway to get some other things done, so that’s not a problem.

I really love how this simple upgrade has changed the feeling of the rooms upstairs. They look so much cleaner and neater, even though I haven’t done anything else. I don’t have the money to make other, more significant improvements to the rooms upstairs, but as I said, they are mostly in working order. I will replace the paper of the shoji at the windows though, that seems to be an easy DIY-fix even I can attempt – and write about.

Fun fact of the day: There are no light switches on the second floor. Not one. All the ceiling lamps are turned on/off by pulling a cord that hangs down from them. I didn’t even notice this until I tried to get some light for my photos today. It is definitely an interesting choice I have to get used to…