The coldest shower I ever took was at an Airbnb in Japan. It was in a tiny, freezing apartment in Fukuoka, in the dead of winter, as I was getting ready to go meet some girls.
“Maybe if I just wait a while,” I thought, “it’ll warm up.” You know how if you let cold water run long enough, it starts to feel a little warmer? Yeah, that didn’t happen. I searched for an invisible panel or switch to turn on. Nothing. I wrapped a towel around my waist and padded outside in bare feet to stare through the darkness at a rusted hot water heater hanging off the wall. I’d have about as much chance of fixing that as debugging R2D2. Snow flurries swirled through the night sky. Back inside, the jet stream was blowing them through an open vent in the tile wall. Japanese apartments have zero insulation.
I’ve read that cold showers are invigorating and good for one’s immune system. Pretty sure whoever wrote that’s never showered in Fukuoka. There’s not a lot of time for mysticism and health when your feet are turning blue. The next day, an unkempt Japanese guy with tattoos reeking of cigarette smoke apologetically drove me to another apartment.
That surprised me, because Airbnb listed the place as offered by “Mika and Miho,” with the photo of a smiling Japanese lady holding the hand of a child. But then I’m kinda naive about stuff.
“How many apartments have you got?” I asked.
“Six, right now,” he coughed.
To his credit, the next place was a lot nicer, and I can confidently say that the hottest shower I’ve ever taken was at an Airbnb in Japan.
4 Non-Obvious Things About Airbnb Japan
At this point, I’ve rented about twenty places through Airbnb Japan, and here are some things I’ve concluded:
1. Many Airbnb in Japan are run by companies, not individuals
Forget that cheery-looking guy or gal advertising their cozy place for rent. Sometimes that’s the case, but quite often, it’s a front for a company managing blocks of currently unoccupied homes and apartments. Sometimes this is easy to spot, because you can see the same images and verbiage used at multiple locations in the same region. It seems to enable a sort of price fixing, especially during high seasons. After the lower-priced places have been rented, the company can jack up the prices of the remaining properties, since they manage all of them.
2. Your Japanese Airbnb host Might not be Japanese
A surprising number of Airbnb hosts I’ve met or communicated with haven’t been Japanese. Now, I don’t mean to imply anything conspiratorial or untoward, only that it’s worth noting that your kind and polite “Japanese” host may well be a friendly Korean, Taiwanese, or Chinese person. I suspect that, just like the world over, immigrants have limited opportunities in regular industries and corresponding incentives to pursue more entrepreneurial ventures.
3. You Mostly get What you pay for
An Airbnb in Japan is generally cheaper than staying at the Ritz-Carlton, but not necessarily a better deal than a private room at a hostel or minshuku (rooming house). I’ve spent about 30 bucks on rock-bottom Airbnb’s and gotten just that—-icy little boxes in poor neighborhoods. I’ve also gone the other way, blowing over 100 bucks a night on decent places that might’ve been better spent on hotels.
One thing’s for sure—-with a hotel, you pretty much know what you’re getting. With Airbnb, it’s always a surprise. Sometimes it’s good; the place is clean and quiet. But sometimes getting the key involves waiting in the rain outside a suburban train station for half an hour, or the directions have you walking in circles cursing Google Maps, or you wonder how the host managed to capture such bright, spacious photos in that cramped, dingy hovel. Beware hosts with photography skills, is what I’ve learned.
4. With Airbnb Japan, you Might Actually be Staying in a Japanese Apartment
My aunt recently came to visit me, so I got her a Japanese Airbnb on the sixth floor of a residential building. I’m still not sure this was a good idea.
It was eleven at night when we arrived, and the first thing she did was walk straight through the apartment, onto the balcony, and lift the hatch to the escape ladder. Safety first and all that, I guess. The whole thing happened in slow motion, with me vainly diving to catch her arm in mid-lift. I pictured six floors of ladders instantly crashing to the ground, waking the entire neighborhood and causing a newspaper-worthy incident.
“What’s this?” she asked quizzically.
“Yeah, let’s just close that quietly.” I whispered.
A couple of minutes later she was making a phone call on the balcony.
“Maybe you should talk inside,” I suggested.
“Why?” she shouted.
And it occurred to me that visitors to Japan may not realize the importance silence at home. Listening to the TV with the windows open, or even talking excitedly, could result in a nasty letter from a neighbor or landlord. Forget about playing the stereo.
Then there was the trash. Plastic bottles go here, but not their plastic labels. Aluminum cans go here, but not aluminum foil. And the intercom—-push this button, then this button, but never, ever this button. Same thing with the bathtub. Don’t ever push this button.
“What’s this string?” said wondered, wrapping it around her finger.
“Uh yeah, don’t pull that.”
“You should probably avoid randomly pushing and pulling on things.”
“How’s a person supposed to know?”
That’s a pretty great question, actually. The stove, microwave, and hot water pot were mysteries. The TV remote was a jumble of stick figures. Forget about the heater and AC controls. We spent 10 minutes on Skype while she showed me video of laundry detergent, hair conditioner, and the washing machine before concluding she hadn’t turned on the water spigot.
“What if I want to do a delicate cycle?” she asked. “Can I just press some of these other buttons?”
“Maybe you should just wash them in the sink,” I suggested.
Airbnb Japan, Who’s it Right for?
I really wish I’d stop asking questions I can’t answer. Whenever I travel with Japanese people, they seem infinitely able to find good deals on hotels or cute, traditional ryokans. There’s nothing even remotely appealing about sleeping in someone else’s abandoned condo. Even poor college students seem better off with fifteen-dollar internet cafes.
For foreign guests, hotels and hostels are almost certainly easier. You might want to reexamine conventional lodging options before going the whole Airbnb Japan route. But still…
You see them in every train station. Wavy-haired tourists, strapped with enormous backpacks, wearing shorts and hiking boots, spinning in circles, orienting iPads, trying to determine which line will take them into the countryside, where they’ll meet a Japanese-looking host who’ll patiently guide them the final mile to a dark, three-story walk-up and spend half an hour explaining the house rules. I mean, hey, we’ve all been there; just not sure I’d recommend it. And yet, like a casino, I’m consistently drawn back to Airbnb Japan. I just know next time I’ll get lucky. Baby needs a new pair o’ shoes . . . come on, snake eyes.