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.


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.