When I stay up late to complete "just one more thing" before bed, I tend to find myself sitting at the work desk until half past one in the morning. This time of the day is unique in that I am, for all intents and purposes, the only person in a neighbourhood with 144 houses who isn't asleep. I like to go outside at this time of night, gazing up at the sky and seeing more stars than I thought was possible from this part of the country. Constellations are clearly visible, as are any planets that might be bright enough for the naked eye. Occasionally a thin, bright light will streak across the sky. The neighbourhood is absolutely lovely when all of the street lights go dark after midnight.

Inside the house is just as peaceful. Reiko, the boy, and Nozomi are sleeping soundly by this time, making it possible for me to really focus on a complex problem as much as an exhausted brain is capable of. The solitude is nice … but I wish it were more quiet.

In my home at any given time there are three fans that I can perceive as running while sitting at the work desk, which is in a walled-off corner at the southwestern corner of the house. There's the refrigerator fan, which seems to run even when the compressor does not. There's the shower room fan, which runs 24/7 to reduce the risk of mold building up, and then there's the wall fan next to the stairs that lead to the second floor, which is located at the northeastern corner of the house. The living room door, which separates the southwestern and northeastern corners, is very much closed.

Being an audio geek, I took out my good microphone and measured the number of decibels produced by these fans and found that when all three are on, the workspace is subjected to 13 decibels. If Nozomi, who sleeps under my desk, is snoring, then the number shoots up to 27. When the fridge is not running, the other two fans register just 9 decibels; which works out to about 1.5 decibels quieter than my breathing1. The sound is forever present, like the sound of processor fans and hard drives in a server room, only far less soothing2. Circulating fans have their purpose, but the hum they produce is little more than a preventable byproduct of their ultimate purpose.

How quiet is the house when those fans are off, though?

The question is certainly worth answering. After flipping the switches and returning to my work desk, I held my breath and measured the number of decibels. The meter read between 7.4 and 7.7db; the same volume as very light breathing from a sleeping puppy three metres from the microphone.

For most of my life I have lived in loud places. If it wasn't the neighbourhood that produced the noise, then it was family members. After moving to Vancouver the volume dropped a bit, but it was still possible to hear planes and distant highway traffic regardless the time of day. When I arrived in Japan the volume of everything was overwhelming -- even in the rural countryside. Cars, trains, distant pachinko parlours, and the like would generate an endless background hum that a person just learned to ignore. This house in this neighbourhood, though, is different.

At 1:30 in the morning, when the fans are shut off and I'm just listening to the sound of a breathing dog, I can stop for a couple of minutes to just embrace the absence of noise.

  1. I would love to find an objective way to measure the volume of the high-pitched sound that the mind "hears" when the environment is quite enough. Silence can sometimes be quite deafening.

  2. Yes, I find the sound of servers and workstations very comforting to listen to. I like to listen for certain repeating patterns in the hardware, then try to match the sounds to what sort of computational task is being performed.

The First Night

My memory of this morning is a little fuzzy for the lack of sleep these last two weeks, but one thing I can safely say is that a pair of movers were able to put the contents of our house into their truck, move everything 6.4km down the road to our new house, then unload our possessions in the span of four hours. Colour me impressed.

With the family safely ensconced in the new house, Nozomi and I took to the park nearest our home to stretch our legs and — for Nozomi — some other activities. One of the many things that we appreciate about this move is how quiet the neighbourhood is. At the previous home we could always hear the thrum of machinery from one of the many factories that operated all hours of the night. These factories were all generally more than 400m from the home, but the noise they put out was ever-present. On top of this was the fact that the apartment was along the flight path of an airport a few kilometres away. Planes and helicopters generally flew during the day, but we could hear them every so often at night. A pair of nearby busy roads rounded off the general atmosphere of noise that permeated the neighbourhood. After living in this environment for almost seven years, a person becomes deaf to the annoyances.

This new neighbourhood, though, is quite different. It's not just quiet; but silent. I could hear every sniff Nozomi took while walking in the park. The lack of noise pollution is nice. Really, really nice.

The First Night

There's a lot to like about this new home, from the creature comforts to the area it's part of. What I really like about it, though, is that it's a larger space for the family. Hopefully we will not need to move for at least a couple of decades.

Finally a Home Owner

Today, after just over a year of research, discussions, planning, paperwork, and visitations, the family and I took possession of our very own home. At two stories and three bedrooms, it's quite the upgrade from the 1-bedroom apartment Reiko, Nozomi, and I have lived in for 7 years, and the boy for just over one. Its proximity to schools, parks, and other families are great. The lack of industrial factories in the neighbourhood is welcome. And the relative quiet from the lack of planes and helicopters flying overhead will be a welcome change after almost a decade of living along the flight path of a military airport … in three different cities.

The Exterior

There's a lot to like about this place that will soon become our home. In addition to the extra interior space and neighbourhood pleasantries, the home was custom designed to suit a number of very specific needs for both Reiko and I. As we're both quite tall by Japanese standards, the kitchen counter is 10cm higher than in most homes. This will save us from bending slightly while working in the kitchen or washing dishes. Of course, we've also gone and had a dishwasher installed — our first — which will really come in handy on those days when we just can't be bothered to try and save water or electricity. As one would expect from a modern building, the home is very ecologically friendly in terms of water, power, and gas consumption.

The Living Room and Kitchen

Other niceties of the home are the working spaces. There's one downstairs next to the kitchen as well as one upstairs in the master bedroom. Both workspaces have a network port in the wall for computing devices, and the one upstairs has some extra considerations to make it better suited to podcasting.

Looking Up at the Boy's Room

What's particularly nice about this house is the size of the bedrooms. The stereotype for Japanese homes is that everything is small. This isn't always the case, but it certainly is for bedrooms. Fortunately, the boy has a room 50% larger than the average child's room, and there's an extra one open in the event he has a brother or sister in the near future. This spare room can also act as a guest room for when people come from out of town.

There's still quite a bit left to be done, such as building the rear fence and getting the landscaping constructed, but everything is scheduled to be complete before the summer heat hits.

Buying a home has required a decade of savings, a great deal of patience, and a pair of contracts that obligate me to paying an amount of money I've never thought possible to mortgage. The reality of the situation has still not completely set in.

Here There Be Walls

March 3rd in Japan is usually celebrated with the 雛祭り1 but, for the family and I, it will likely be remembered as the day we signed the last bit of the financial paperwork for our first home mortgage. Back in October of last year, I outlined 19 steps that we would need to follow in order to buy and move into a house of our own. Our experience over the last four months shows that there are many, many more than 19 and that no two mortgage professionals will answer the same question the same way. This has resulted in a lot of confusion and unnecessary double-work but, fortunately, we've passed nearly every major hurdle that has stood between us and a nice, custom-built home in the suburbs of an otherwise unremarkable city in central Japan. Reiko has done the vast majority of the legwork to ensure every 'i' is dotted and every 't' crossed. The last thing we want to discover is that we can't move in because some form was incomplete, resulting in an invalid mortgage.

Fortunately, this last bit of paperwork was completed in roughly 30 minutes, leaving us free to continue our examination of curtains and, more importantly, the house itself.

The House from Outside

While it may not be easy to see, the siding is being installed. As the house will have a custom shade of paint, the siding has a greyish primer base coat. Once everything is in place, they'll apply the proper paint and give it a clear finish. This will hopefully turn out to be the exact colour that Reiko has been after.

Inside the Home

Inside the house we are starting to see more of what the place will look like when finished. Interior walls have gone up, and insulation has been laid into the exterior walls as well. Wires and cabling are running to their respective outlets, and the walk-in shower room has been installed as well. Over the next ten days, the rest of the walls will be completed, smoothed out, then painted and wallpapered. From there we might just start to see the flooring go down before I leave for a week-long business trip to the US.

A Collage of Images

For all the trials and tribulations that have come this way over the last decade or so, it's really nice to see the fruits of our efforts take shape right before our eyes. So much of what Reiko and I thought was impossible has been accomplished in the last 30 months, and it's been absolutely amazing to witness. None of these efforts have been easy, but then anything worth doing is without challenge. I do hope that this is the start of a smoother, less stressful lifestyle, though.

  1. ひなまつり — hinamatsuri. Otherwise known as "Girls Day"

Ideal Working Spaces

Given the opportunity to design your ideal working space, what would it look like? This is something I've thought a lot about over the last few years, particularly when employed as a developer, and is a topic that came up quite often during the design phase of the house Reiko and I are having built. In this home I'll have a bit of a dedicated space where it will be possible to set my computer down to do some work and — most importantly — leave the machine where it is at the end of the day. While a lot of people take desks and personal working space as a given, it's something I've not really had for well over a decade. At the end of every day, I need to put everything away so that my working area can be used by other people. This is true both at the day job, where I work inside a seldom-used classroom, and at home.

Given an unlimited budget or a very lenient employer, my ideal working space would be inside a library. One with large windows, row upon row of books, and clean tables where people come and go while respecting everyone else's space. Something along the lines of the image below, which is one of the many reading rooms at the University of Zurich, would suit me quite well.

Reading Room 2 at University of Zurich

What's unfortunate is that this sort of environment is quite difficult to have in one's home without vast reserves of wealth; something I will never possess. So, to keep things a little more realistic, my ideal working space for now would be a wide desk next to a window, where I could have my notebook connected to an external monitor or two, my podcasting equipment out and ready at any time, and a decent chair that would not make my body start to hurt after a few hours. Something like the image below, only in a better-lit room.

A Clean, Decent Working Space

What's great about having a dedicated workspace in the new house, aside from the fact that it's actually dedicated, is that Nozomi's sleeping mat will be right beside the desk. This will make it easier for her to remind me to take regular breaks and to get outside for some fresh air. Wins all around!

Of course, I'll be sure to share some pictures after the house is complete and everything gets set up. Only another few weeks to go!

Almost Ready for Occupancy

It's been a little while since the last update on the future home for my family, and today seems as good a day as any to share some of the many, many photos that have been snapped over the last seven weeks. As the first image below shows, quite a bit has been done and we're no longer looking at an empty plot of land with roped off sections outlining where the house will be. Instead, we actually have most of a home!

The Exterior

This past weekend saw the completion of the roof with the focus changing to the exterior walls where a moisture-resistant sheet was being applied to the frame. Hopefully by this time next week the siding will be completely installed so that the focus can return to the interior, where very little has changed in the last two weeks:

The Interior

One of the more interesting bits about seeing the house built is that both Reiko and I did not think the home was going to be as big as it actually is. Seeing drawings on A3-sized paper is quite a bit different from witnessing the real thing. Of course, our perceptions can't really be trusted given that we've spent almost 7 years living in a 1-bedroom apartment, the last 12 months of which has involved three people and a puppy sharing the same limited amount of space. Just about any home would look bigger by comparison. That said, this two-storey home will be a welcome change from the apartment we've lived in since returning from the Tokyo area in April of 2011.

One other interesting bit about home building in Japan is the amount of information that the neighbourhood gets to read before a family moves in. Right near the front door of the home is this board:

The Information Board

On here is my name — as the registered owner of the house — along with the name of the building company, the managers in charge of the construction, who to call should there be questions, and even the name of the sales person for the housing company1. This will likely result in a lot of neighbours knowing my name before I've even heard theirs. Of course, given that this is a home purchase and not a rental, I'll likely have several decades to learn everyone's name and where they live.

Construction is expected to be completed in a few weeks, likely while I'm in the US for business. We'll have the keys to the place on March 31st, and will move in less than two weeks later on the 12th of April.

  1. a really stand up, patient guy. If only all salespeople were as awesome as this guy, we'd all wind up being happier customers.

The North Wall

Today the family made a trek to where our new home will be built to see how much has been done in the month since we paid for the land. I had thought the foundation would have been poured by now but, as the photo below shows, I was clearly mistaken. What we did see, however, was that the preliminary work for the small fence on the north and northwest sides of the property has been completed, as well as the underground piping that will be used for water, gas, and drainage.

The North Wall

There isn't much to look at just yet but, as the land goes from being a barren plot with pipes to a proper home, I'll post updates to share the progress. If all goes according to plan, the building will be up and pass inspection by March 31st, meaning we can technically move in on April 1st. Given that the last two weeks of March and first two weeks of April are the most expensive times to move, we'll likely opt to move between mid-to-late April … almost 7 years to the day after moving to the apartment we currently call home.

Now I Can Tell Kids to Get Off My Lawn

While I may not have the right to vote in Japan, I most certainly do have the right to own land. This became a reality earlier today when Reiko, the boy, and I travelled to the bank to meet with the — now — previous owners of the property to formally sign all the documentation in the presence of a lawyer and transfer the remaining balance owed on the land from our account to theirs. We had paid 10% of the land value from our savings back in October when we first expressed interest, and this gave us a maximum of 90 days to finalise mortgage applications, find a house builder, and get the ball rolling to build a home.

Reiko has really put in 120% to ensure that all of the paperwork is correct and the builders can deliver what we're expecting.

The View from the South-East Corner facing North West

It may not look like much now, but there will be a small land-breaking ceremony this coming Saturday and construction will begin on the 26th. If everything goes according to plan, the house will be finished in late March and we'll be able to move in shortly after.

The View from the North-West Corner facing South East

The neighbourhood certainly looks to be a great one. It's close to a number of large parks that should keep Nozomi busy for years to come. A kindergarten, elementary school, and junior high school are all within a 10-minute walk. There are other families with young children in the vicinity. And, if that's not enough, there's 10Gbit fibre-to-the-home for those who wish to pay for it1.

My commute will see an additional 20 minutes added to each direction, but it's a small price to pay for such a nice place to live.

  1. While I'd love to have this kind of broadband connection, nothing on my home network could take advantage of it. Instead, I've opted to go for a basic package with a provider that'll allow for 1Gbit Internet, 30 TV stations, and a phone line all for about $55 a month

Land and Mortgage Approval Looking Good

The last few months have been an absolute whirlwind of activity with the boy at home growing by leaps and bounds, house shopping with every spare minute, and an endless parade of deadlines at the day job. Thinking back to the last few years, it's interesting just how much free time there was! That said, the year of non-stop action has resulted in some pretty interesting developments with regards to one of the most expensive elements of the modern lifestyle dream: home ownership.

Reiko and I have spent the better part of six months scouring property and housing company websites in an attempt to find a place that would be great for our son to grow up. All in all, we weren't asking for much. Any plot of land that we bought had to meet these conditions:

  • be more than 220m² in total
  • be close to good schools1
  • be in a safe area
  • be close to Reiko's parents' house
  • be relatively close to work
  • cost no more than 1500万円 (about $168,840 CAD as of today)
  • face south (important in Japan)

You'd be surprised how many thousands of properties we looked through to find something that meets most of these criteria. The plot of land we finally settled on is slightly larger than 220m² and it's a bit over our budget, but Reiko was able to talk the sellers down a bit so that we could get it for about $5,000 under the asking price. This coming Sunday we'll go and sign the papers that signal we're serious about buying the property, which will then give us a little under 60 days to confirm which housing company we'll hire to build the house and also obtain the mortgage that we'll need to pay for this incredible purchase.

More on that later.

Buying a house in Japan is a little different from how I've seen it done elsewhere. While people can buy pre-built homes that housing companies put up in tight packs, Reiko and I wanted something different. The pre-built homes are certainly cheaper than the route we've chosen, but they lack the personality and space that we would like our home to have. So many of the buildings today are essentially boxes with tiny windows and a door up front. There's rarely any grass on the property unless it's accidental, which makes it a weed, and the neighboring homes are simply too close for comfort. When I look out a window in my home, I don't want to see another wall less than a meter beyond the glass.

Instead, we've opted to buy the land and hire a housing company to build us a home with many of the little customizations that we've looked forward to since before marriage. A nice staircase. An open-concept kitchen. A dedicated workspace for two next to a large window. A yard with grass intentionally growing. These are not impossible requests when buying pre-built, but they are a lot harder to find.

Reiko, being the investigative person she is, has put in a massive amount of effort to find both the perfect piece of land as well as collect information on house makers. I've helped whenever possible, but it really pales in comparison. So after a great deal of legwork, the land is just about ours and we've narrowed our home builder down to one of two — possibly three — companies that can build us something that isn't a two-tone, bland box with slits of glass cut into the walls like an afterthought. Of course, money is something that's an important equation here as well.

Again, Reiko has done a bunch of research to find some banks that would be willing to lend us the money to buy our home. Many personal mortgages in Japan are for 35 years, but neither of us want to be paying for our house until we're 75. It's just bad financial planning. I'd like to "retire" no later than 65, and I'm sure Reiko would like to have the freedom in her 60s to work only if she wants to without the obligations that come with staggering amounts of debt. At the moment we're planning to pay down the mortgage in 25 years at the most, with the ambitious goal to have it completely paid off in 14 so long as we can maintain our current savings pattern. We've saved up about 20% the cost of the home over the last decade, and a good deal of this will be spent in the coming months.

Typically, the home purchase process in Japan works like this:

  1. find a piece of land / find a home builder (sometimes this can be done together)
  2. sign a document saying you intend to buy the land and pay $100 to show you're serious
  3. go to the bank to seek preliminary approval to apply for a mortgage by showing the document for the land you've signed to buy
  4. sign a contract with the housing company to build your home
  5. apply for the mortgage
  6. once approved, pay the down payment to the bank (usually between 5~10%)
  7. pay at least 5% the land price to the land owners
  8. pay at least 5% the house price to the builders
  9. pay taxes and fees to the city
  10. pay the fees to connect the home to the water, power, and sewage lines
  11. once the house is complete, pay inspectors to perform a safety analysis
  12. buy insurance on the house
  13. receive the mortgage amount from the bank
  14. pay the remaining amount to the former land owners
  15. pay the remaining amount to the home builders
  16. pay the previous city any outstanding residential taxes
  17. pay the moving company to move that heavy piano that nearly destroyed your spine two years back
  18. move into the new home
  19. breathe a sigh of relief and take a bloody vacation at the library, because that's really the only thing you can afford

Notice that the mortgage is not actually received until point 13. This is because the bank will not release the money until the house is fit to be lived in, as per Japanese law. What this means is that we're technically asking a company to construct a building on another person's property on our behalf in the hopes that all of the financial stuff will pan out. Despite this, we need to pay the land owners, the home builders, the moving company, the city, and various utility companies out of our own pocket in order to get things done. A lot of people can't afford this and take out additional loans in order to make this happen, but more debt isn't something Reiko or I want to do. Instead, we've saved like mad, choosing to not take long vacations2 or buy that really nice Mazda Axela despite the age and size of our little car.

Thanks to all of this, we might actually have a shot at getting a decent home.

As of this moment, we've made it up to point 3 despite not knowing who will build our home. This weekend we'll reach point 4 and next week will hopefully be the completion of point 1 and 5. This purchase is coming in about 75% higher than I ever thought I'd pay for a home, and the good fortune I've had at the day job has made it possible. After years and years of struggle, life is looking up. I just need to make sure it stays this way for a while.

  1. Ideally these schools would also have kids who had at least one parent from outside the country so that our son wouldn't be "the only foreign kid"

  2. I landed in Japan in August of 2007 and I haven't left the country yet … though I did come close to doing so a few years back.