“Okay. Here’s a listing that might work!” The agent pushed a sheet of paper across the desk to me.
“The landlord specifically says he wants to rent to foreigners.”
That was refreshing news.
My husband, Dennis, and I had been in Tokyo for nearly a week now, trying to find an apartment. We were growing frustrated in the cramped “business hotel” near Ueno Park as one day led to another, and we still hadn’t lined up a place to stay. Landlords, who sounded encouraging on the phone, balked when the agent told them we were foreigners. Either that or the rent was beyond what my 1983 Fulbright dissertation research stipend would cover.
But this place sounded too good to be true: an entire house, fully furnished, modest rent, and no “key money,” the expensive “gift-to-the landlord” usually required when renting in Japan, sometimes the equivalent of over one month’s rent. It’s the bane of the visiting graduate student’s budget.
The agent shrugged. “He says he likes Americans.”
Mr. Miyahara confirmed that when we met him later that afternoon.
“I want to help Americans because Americans helped me after the war.”
Over the year he shared dribs and drabs of his war story with us. Apparently, he had been taken prisoner by the Allied Forces as WWII was nearing its final months. “Thank god it wasn’t the Russians,” he told us. “They would have killed us all.” The American soldier he interacted with the most had treated him kindly.
“At night he would share his food with me. I might have starved if not for him.”
Mr. Miyahara’s eyes had faded with age to a soft, watery grey. He was slightly built and moved with an unhurried elegance. His salt-and-pepper hair fell evenly to his collar and was almost always capped with a knitted blue beret.
He was in his early seventies. His wife, his second wife, was in her early forties. She was gracefully tall with a cloud of dark hair and a gentle smile.
The house had been home to Mr. Miyahara’s first wife and their family. It was nestled into the Sakuragaoka neighborhood of Setagaya Ward, a quiet residential area near Baji Park and surrounded by vegetable fields that smelled of fertilizer.
Once a tasteful property, the house was two storied with five bedrooms, a study, a family room, a well-appointed kitchen, and a sizeable bath. The encircling garden was tangled and overgrown. Bamboo crowded the entranceway, casting dark shadows over the crumbling sidewalk.
“Will you be able to live Japanese style?” Mr. Miyahara asked us as he slid open the front door.
We nodded our agreement, and after we stepped out of our shoes, he led us into a spacious ten-mat tatami room. He pulled two sets of futon bedding out of the oshi-ire closet.
“You’ll sleep here,” he said. “And you can watch TV in this room,” he pointed back into the Western-style room we’d just walked through with its soft lavender carpet and wallpaper of blue arabesque. The room was heavy with furniture, low couches and dark wood curio cases. In the corner was the television, larger than any Dennis or I had ever been able to afford.
“The kitchen is there and the bath is next to it.” He pointed to the other rooms.
“I have two conditions,” he said.
Ah, I thought. This is why he likes Americans. We are short-term residents and desperate enough to accept “conditions.”
“My first wife’s butsudan altar is here, and I’ll need to stop by to pay my respects.”
He took us back into the Japanese-style room and opened one of the smooth paulownia wood cabinets to reveal a deep alcove containing a black lacquered altar with gold leaf walls. The portrait of a woman arose from the shadows. Mr. Miyahara brought his hands together just under his nose and bowed before closing the cabinet doors.
It’s a little strange, I thought, for us to sleep in the room with Mr. Miyahara’s first wife, but if he doesn’t mind, why should we?
“And the second,” he said, “is that you share the bathroom with the upstairs tenant.”
This was the first I had heard of another tenant. No wonder the rent was so low.
“He works at the post office. He’s gone all day.”
Dennis nudged me when he saw the surprise on my face. I quickly translated what Mr. Miyahara had said.
“It’s a big house, after all,” Dennis said, unfazed. “I don’t think we can turn down a deal like this.”
He looked out at the overgrown garden, already feeling relieved to be freed from the tiny hotel room.
“Watanabe-kun will use the back entrance,” Mr. Miyahara quickly added, sensing my hesitation. He led us to a small door between the kitchen and the green-tiled bathroom with its deep sunken tub. From the back door there was a direct path to the second-floor stairway.
“I’ll introduce you the next time I come by.”
And so we began our life in Sakuragaoka.
Weeks went by before we met the upstairs tenant. Occasionally I heard the squeal of bicycle brakes behind the house and then the sound of the backdoor opening. But I never saw Watanabe until Mr. Miyahara stopped by one evening and called him down from the second floor.
He was in his late twenties with a round, splotchy face. His hair hung thickly over his forehead and looked unwashed. It occurred to me that I had never noticed him use the bath. Occasionally the toilet would flush in the middle of the night, followed by footsteps heading up the stairs. But I never heard running water.
Watanabe bowed awkwardly, turned on his heels, and headed back up the stairs.
I guess Dennis was right. The house was big enough for all of us. Still, I was uneasy. When Dennis wasn’t there, I felt somehow exposed sitting at the table in the open dining room or standing in the kitchen. I never knew when the backdoor might fly open and Watanabe would burst in.
I would try to focus on my dissertation research—reading through volume after volume of Uno Chiyo’s collected works—but even as I chased down kanji in the dictionary or scribbled notes, I kept my ear trained for the screech of the bicycle and the sound of Watanabe’s key in the lock. When I heard it, I would drop whatever I was doing and rush into the altar room, sliding the door fast. Thank god for the first Mrs. Miyahara. Somehow, in the ten-mat Japanese room with her altar, I felt relatively secure. I could close the doors, as flimsy as they were, and enjoy a sense of privacy.
My nerves made it difficult for me to follow a regular routine. I couldn’t take a bath when Dennis wasn’t home. I used to enjoy long hot soaks, but now I could barely manage to settle into the tub before I started eyeing the frosted glass on the bi-fold door, looking for a dark shape on the other side. What if he came home? What if he tried to come in? Not that he would do so intentionally. It would be an accident. Still, the prospect made my stomach knot.
I could barely use the toilet when I knew he was in the house. And the only way I knew he was home was if his bicycle was parked out back. His bicycle. Even the sight of it made me nervous. It was bright pink with a ridiculously tiny basket on the handlebars. Too small for a grown man, his knees jammed into his arms when he pedaled, making him teeter precariously. It must have belonged to a girl once. His sister perhaps?
One afternoon, while I was at the library in Komaba diligently reading yet another article on Uno Chiyo, it started to snow. The return trip to Sakuragaoka took time and the walk from the station was long, so I packed up my books and headed home earlier than usual, delighting in the falling snow.
There were close to three inches on the ground by the time I reached my neighborhood. When I neared my house, I looked—as was my custom—for Watanabe’s bicycle. It wasn’t there. I was surprised, however, to see a set of footprints in the freshly fallen snow leading around the back of the house to the kitchen door. When I opened the gate on the other side of the house and walked across the garden to the front door, I saw footprints there as well, ending at the sliding doors of the living room.
Dennis must have returned early, too, I told myself. He now had a job at the Nichibei Kaiwa Translation and Interpreting School in Yotsuya.
I called to him when I entered, but he did not answer. That’s when I saw a small hole in the sliding glass door by the living room, just near the handle. Something was wrong. The snowy footprints flashed through my mind. Was someone in the house?
I called 119, the emergency number, and reported my fears. An omawari-san pulled up to the front gate on his bicycle about thirty minutes later. He greeted me politely when I slid opened the front door, slipped out of his shoes, and stepped up into the hallway as I explained my fears.
He examined the broken glass.
“The door is still locked,” he assured me. “Does anyone else live with you?”
I told him about Watanabe but suggested that he was not home, since his bicycle was missing.
The omawari-san was not convinced by my powers of deduction. Perhaps he had a flat tire or had not wanted to ride in the snow, he reasoned. He called Watanabe’s name several times, to no answer. And then he set off towards the stairs to investigate himself.
For some reason, I followed. I don’t know if it was that I was afraid to be left alone downstairs, or if I was just curious. I had lived in the house for six months now and had never gone upstairs. I had explored the other rooms, the ones we were not to inhabit, and had found each filled floor to ceiling with junk. Not recognizable things like books and suitcases but odd things like machine parts, tools, old faucets and light fixtures, dirty clothes, and cardboard boxes stuffed with plastic wrappers, used tin foil, and broken dishes. Mr. Miyahara owned a number of restaurants and apartment buildings. I guess he hoarded whatever he thought he might need for some kind of repair.
The omawari-san turned his flashlight on when he headed up the stairs. I tucked in close behind him. We stepped into a hallway at the top of the stairs. He waved his light up one side and then down the other. I could just make out two doors, each closed. The omawari-san turned to the door on the left and struggled with it briefly before sliding it open. I stood close behind him as he shone his light around. The rain shutters were closed and the room was dark and dank. He stepped inside. Peering around behind him, I saw that the space was cluttered with lumpish objects, piles of things, boxes. The omawari-san poked around each one, his light picking up a rumpled futon mattress, the top quilt wadded into a ball. The longer we stood there, the more oppressive and foul the odor became.
He stepped back into the hall and slid opened the second door. His light bounced over a wall of furniture, upturned chairs atop tables, a chest-of-drawers turned sideways, a bookcase covered in an old shower curtain.
“No one’s up here,” he said as he closed the door. “Are you sure someone lives up here?”
I nodded, somewhat bewildered. Could I be wrong?
“Whoever tried to get in is gone.”
The omawari-san was certain no one had entered the house. But he did tell me about the gang of “Pachinko-Ball Burglars” who’d been breaking into houses in the neighborhood. They used a pachinko ball and a slingshot to break a hole in a glass window or door just large enough to slip a screw driver through and jimmy the locks. Their precision with the balls was so fine, they rarely shattered the glass. Often the residents didn’t even notice the break-in for hours, even days.
They may have tried to get in, the omawari-san told me, but they had failed.
I wasn’t so sure.
As soon as the omawari-san left I fished a flashlight out from one of the kitchen drawers and climbed the stairs again. I shouldn’t be doing this, I told myself, my heart beating painfully against my chest with each step I took. But I had to see Watanabe’s room. I had to be sure.
Like the omawari-san I could barely slide the door open the floor was so littered with stuff. The smell that assailed me now without the omawari-san to serve as barricade was sickening: fetid body odor, rancid food, and hair tonic. I stepped inside and reached my hand above my head in the dark, flailing around until I touched the string of the overhead light. The illumination was immediate. A face rose up before me, and I jumped back so quickly I nearly tripped over a lumpish object until I realized the face was my own, pinched and pale. The light reflecting off the glass windows, shut tight behind the shuttered rain doors, created a mirror effect.
The lumpish objects turned out to be plastic garbage bags. Some were tied closed, others listed to the side spilling their contents onto the tatami which was spongy underfoot: empty styrofoam instant cup-o-noodle containers, used tissues, plastic spoons, disposable razors, cigarette butts, broken chopsticks, what looked like men’s underwear grey with use. There was the filthy futon, wedged between the garbage bags, random dirty dishes, and stacks and stacks of magazines, some piled up and bound with nylon string, others flung haphazardly over the floor. I inched a bit closer into the room and caught sight of a few pages: glossy photos of nude women posed provocatively, manga portraying gang rapes, men twisting women into painful positions, leering at them, laughing. I felt a tickling on my foot and looked down to see an enormous cockroach making its way to my pants leg.
I flew down the stairs and ran into the ten-mat Japanese room, slamming closed the doors and sidling close to the wall with the Buddhist altar, willing the first Mrs. Miyahara to protect me, willing Dennis to return. I listened for the sound of an opening door.
I told Dennis about my discovery when he got home, and he crept up the stairs to see for himself.
“He’s a pig alright! But I don’t think he’s dangerous.”
“Oh come on! Has he so much as looked at you since we’ve been here?”
That was true. Watanabe kept to himself. I let Dennis convince me to leave well enough alone. Still, I made Dennis promise not to leave me alone in the house any more than he had to. And he had to a lot, since he worked nights.
It didn’t matter. A week later, Watanabe carried two garbage bags down the stairs and moved out. I don’t know why. He certainly gave us no reason for his departure. I wondered, though, if somehow he knew his lair had been infiltrated.
Dennis and I remained in Tokyo for a year after my Fulbright ended. Mr. Miyahara planned to raze the house so that he could build a multi-family apartment there. But he didn’t just turn us out to fend for ourselves. He found us a two-room apartment in a building he owned north of the Kitazawa train station.
The rent was higher, the space much smaller, and the rooms shook whenever the Odakyū express roared passed. But I slept more soundly there than I had slept anywhere.
I love your story telling!
Thank you! That story was just made to tell!
Rebecca, Once I started reading, I just had to read it all -and while doing that, I felt as if I myself went into the past. Tokyo of the 1980s. Though my Japan journey only started in 2000.
There is a very small Typo in the following sentence:
“felt a tickling on my foot and looked down to see an enormous cockroach making its way to my pants leg.”
an “A” instead of “I”
Thank you! The narrator was so eager to get out of that room, she forgot to proofread!
Your housemate needed Marie Kondo on speed dial! That small pink bicycle makes everything even more mysterious and creepy. You must have been so relieved to move.
With that house, I really came to understand that notions of minimalism and wabi-sabi were just fantasy. Nobody lives like that.
I could picture it all! Thanks for sharing. The last house we lived in–you visited–was one of those old houses with a tokonoma and butsudan and multiple bedrooms for many children in the past. It too was torn down when we left. We put up 5 months of key money, and it Never Comes Back.
I thought that was an elegant old house. I hate that so many old houses are torn down. But, it served you well!