29 November 2010

Sinks and Faucets

       Choosing our toilet and bathroom sinks and faucets was so easy, thanks to our architect's initiative:  he took out a huge catalog marked with little blue post-its and showed us one page displaying two different sinks and two different taps.  Which one do you like best?  Easy enough, we chose the rectangular looking sink.  How about the faucet?  We liked the shape of the first but preferred the overall look and feel of the second.

     Never thought we could decide on these items so fast!  I guess we're pouring so much energy on other areas that we are really in need of some easy choices...  Yakushiji-san then pulled out another catalog with two or three pages marked and this time we had to decide on the bathroom sink and faucet.  That was so easy too, although I was initially hesitant about a sink over the counter, I was convinced after seeing a few photos.

     To lower costs and to give the rooms a more personal style, the cabinets in our toilet and powder room will be custom made by a carpenter hired by TwoStyle.  The finish of the cabinets will either be wood, painted in the tones we select, or melamine.  We will decide on this at a later stage, as we now need to focus on other more pressing details.   A week after making these selections, TwoStyle handed us an estimate from one of their trading firms, Kobayashi, for these units.  The invoice shows a 65% discount on the items, all necessary extras (pipes, etc) and the installation.  We're satisfied with it, and happy that this matter has been settled so efficiently.  Now on to more sticky issues, like the kitchen...

22 November 2010

Windows and Shoe Closets

     We took several hours at our last meeting with TwoStyle to fix the location, size and shape of the windows of the entire house.  We've been dreaming of a bay window for sometime now, and collected a bunch of inspiring photos like this one for instance. Lovely and so inviting! We'd love to be able to recreate that kind of look in our home. Of course, the view from our window will not be as beautiful as on some of those magazine pictures...

     We started with the entrance, and decided to put a bay window there!  The bay will start at 43cm from the floor, so normal chair height, and will protrude for about 35cm, giving us ample space to sit to put on our boots or to place our shopping bags while we change shoes.  By the way,  everyone who's been to Japan knows that custom dictates a change of shoes upon entering the house.  This is not standard custom back home, but we are totally for it, given that we don't want to damage our beautiful wooden floors...
     Shoe and coat storage space at the entrance was a problem we had to revisit because we noticed that the new plans included much less space than we had previously anticipated.  That's because we hadn't thought about wall thickness taking up precious space there...   The plans currently show walls of standard thickness (13.5cm) throughout the house, but we learned that walls only had to be that thick at certain key areas.  We will get a plan of those key points next time.  So at the entrance, the wall next to the stairs going to the 2F can be trimmed down to 6.5cm (half-wall), giving us an extra few cm to store our shoes...  Not much more, but still, we'll take it! 

     The cabinets will be 45cm deep, so big enough to store two pairs of shoes sideways.  We wanted to make sure the doors wouldn't take up some of that precious space, so we double-checked usable space or  有効 (ゆうこう = Yuukou), a very practical word we quickly added to our long home building-related vocabulary list...  So, various calculations and discussions later, we ended up agreeing on two 60cm wide closets and one 35cm wide closet.   All of our shoes, coats, hats, gloves and umbrellas will have to fit in there no matter what, 'cause we don't want to see anything hanging from the walls or sitting on the floor in the entrance....

So back to our windows, we opted for several French-style up-down windows, but it just occurred to us that we could perhaps have arched windows to add light and appeal.  These photos are ideas we hope to be able to incorporate.  One displays a complete arch and the other has a more peculiar sort of square arch shape; both are lovely.  But, we need to check prices, of course.   We know next to nothing about windows, but we want something pretty that allows us to enjoy as much light as possible, so we definitely want Yakushiji-san to give us his expert advice on the choices we've made so far. 

          Hubby was adamant about having a bay window seat in the dining room, a choice I totally agreed with.  Again, what is great is that this bay window will provide ample sitting space without counting toward our total square meter coverage.  Just for comfort, we decided not to start the window right at the level of the seat, but to have it continue for about 40cm, providing a back, just like in this image.  This way, we get a good view of the outside without too much exposure...  We now need to find a nice cushion to soften the touch and this bay window will be an ideal place to read or just gaze out. 

     We had to restrain ourselves not to place bay windows everywhere!  We did place one in the kitchen and another one in our bedroom, but smaller and higher up from the floor, to serve as shelves.  As I leafed through my Ikea catalog yesterday, I noticed an image of beautiful bay windows in the living room, serving as book shelves...  So sorry, Yakushiji-san, but some changes might still be in order with the windows in the living room-study area!  Let's discuss that and a million other things when we meet next week!

20 November 2010


       As we struggle with each and every choice we have to make about this new house, we wonder if it wouldn't have been easier to just buy ready-made...  There's just so much to decide and so much to check and compare; we're not always sure we're making the right selections!  And we're no architects or interior decorators, plus we've got this little problem: everything in Japan is in Japanese!  Yes, of course, it's to be expected, but getting by in everyday life in Japanese and understanding the fine print on bank loans and bathroom unit options is not the same thing! 

     Let's just say that it's been really challenging to go over every detail of estimates and plans; we've had to rely on our architects a lot for things that are usually a given for Japanese readers. 

     Then, there are also differences between what we'd like to get (usually things we enjoy back home) and what we can actually get our hands on here in Japan.  Take the kitchen sink for instance.  For the past 10 years, we've dreaded that day of the week when we had to change the little bag that hangs from the sink basket (large  basket, by the way).  The sink we have has a huge hole just like this one, where a basket is fitted to catch detritus.

     But back home, we're used to this type of sink, which I've seen at Ikea, and which is so much easier to clean.  You might have noticed a general theme in this blog:  we prefer low maintenance items that require minimum cleaning.  It's not that we don't enjoy cleaning, but moderation is the operative word here...  Anyway, let's hope we can have this type of sink instead of the usual Japanese-style sink.  If that doesn't work, I guess we'll have to do with a slightly upgraded model we've been shown that has a smaller basket that doesn't require the nylon bags... 

16 November 2010

The Bath Unit

     At first, we thought we could get a custom bathroom we had seen on display at Toto, Yamaha and Inax showrooms, rather than those ready-made bath units. That's until we figured out the costs associated with custom made...  Dropped the idea altogether!

     Our architect then scheduled a vitit to Spiritual Mode, a Kyoto-based bath design firm, to select our bath unit options.  We initially chose Spiritual Mode because it was the only company out of four that could accomodate an inclined ceiling.  We met at their beautiful and highly sophisticated Aoyama Showroom where we were able to see sample bath units and discuss color options.

     However, we were extremely disappointed that Spiritual's Stella RX line had a counter, which we adamantly didn't want, and so did the NX Line.  Why so picky about the counter?  From experience with our current unit, we know that counters make cleaning difficult due to mold buildup in hard-to-reach corners.  Plus the counter went from one end of the unit right to the other, making the bathroom look smaller.  We did not like that at all.  We insisted on getting rid of the counter, but that proved impossible; the bath unit comes as a set, and most of the gadgets are compulsory, whether you want them or not.  So we left Spiritual an hour later rather discouraged that we could not make this work.

     Our architect then came up with a great idea.  He suggested we lower the floor of the bathroom by 20cm, which corresponds to my studio on the 1F, to ensure a flart ceiling, and we could then chose from other companies like Inax, Toto or Panasonic.  Since we were headed for Inax to pick our toilet, we decided to check out their bath units too.  Counterless units were not available in the popular LaBath Line, but there was one unit in the upgrade line LaBath Taste.  Great!  We started looking at options and realised once again that the boundaries were clearly defined.  The panels would have to be white, except for one with an accent.  But we decided to make it work because the price was reasonable and we could still get most of what we wished for.  Here's a picture Inax sent us after our preliminary selection.

     The turquoise bath was a hit with us, especially with the kids.  Color coordination was easy once we had picked the color of the tub.  We did away with the mirror, but selected dowlights and a nice slick-looking straight shower head.  Needless to say, we tried all of the shower head in the showroom, to get a feel for them.  Altogether, we met with our Inax assistant Senga-san three times and exchanged several e-mails just to get our bath unit options in order. 

     We definitely did not want to be stuck with items we didn't care for just because they were part of the package.  For instance, we realised that all units come with a bath cover.  Ours has been on the balcony for the past 12 years...  So out with the cover, and this translated into a 5,400 yen discount.  Note that some of the options cost extra, like the shower head we selected,  but some others entitle you to a discount.  Same thing if you decide not to take a particular item, like the bath cover, the towel rack or the mirror (minus 32,000 yen).  So it is wise analyse every detail if you mind the little things. 

15 November 2010

Kamachi Dental Clinic

      In the very unlikely event that I would ever move to the other end of Tokyo, I would still come to Dr. Kamachi for my regular checkups and dental work.  And so would my whole family.  After visiting so many dentists offices, I can say that this dentist is by far the best for us and I cannot recommend him enough!  Over the years, I've traveled far into the city for an appointment with a 'good'  dentist.  I've also tried several clinics in and around Musashino-shi, where we live. 

      Dr. Kamachi is not fluent in English, but he certainly tries.  He will explain in simple terms what the problem is and how to fix it and he will pull out his pad and pencil to draw an illustration to ensure that we've understood fully.  He never rushes and never places a tool near your mouth without explaining what he's about to do.  His approach is gentle and considerate and my kids love him too.  They actually look forward to their next appointment!  Might be because they get some sugarless gum after visits though...

      His assistants are just as kind and welcoming, in person as well as over the phone.  The office is conveniently located 5 minutes away from Kichijoji's central exit, right behind Parco, near Coffee Farm.  It's on a second floor and you can see the clinic from the street due to large glass windows, just above a specialized shoe store.

      Here's a review of the clinic with all the details about treatment options, directions, an d opening hours:  http://www.kanja.jp/clinic/007567.html

14 November 2010

Fancy Toilet!

     Deciding on a toilet was without a doubt our easiest choice.  Our architect recommended SATIS by Inax and so we went to the Shinjuku Showroom to view it.  A sophisticated toilet indeed, and intelligent too!  It can sense who's walking up to it and magically lift either the lid or both the lid and the top part!  Well, that's one option we didn't pick!

     I have to say, we were initially pretty indifferent about toilet type, as long as the thing was easy to clean.  Our Inax representative, Senga-san, explained some of the features of the SATIS such as the seat warmer and the shower for the behind. Not sure I'd want my toilet to clean my butt, but I'm willing to try.  Plus it's standard feature, so there's no way out of that one.  The other option we skipped on is the dryer.  We thought a nice toilet paper would suffice for that job. 

     Senga-san then had us pick a remote control.  Yes! a remote control for the toilet!  We picked the one with an English menu of course, hoping to minimize operating errors... Anyhow, we'd better read the user's manual.  We were also asked to chose between two types of finish for the seat, the standard shiny one and the upgrade, a more porous sort of material that is kinder to the touch, not as sticky.  We went for standard, thinking the fancier seat would require more maintenance, something our assistant even confirmed. 
     Senga-san then prepared a 3D image of our toilet, which sadly doesn't really show the blue-grey tone for a nice change from regular white.  Satis is an Eco5 toilet, with a low and high flush option, a big water saver. 

     By the way, in case anyone is wondering, Inax doesn't manufacture any toilets for export.  We asked just to make sure, because we know that there's a big interest for this type of toilet from foreign visitors to Japan.

     When I first came to Japan, my one-room apartment had an old-fashioned Japanese-style toilet I will always remember fondly...  The type that sits on a step and where you need to squat down to do your business.  My daughter, who enjoys long toilet -reading sessions, would not have appreciated it...  For the past 10 years, we've had to do with a regular style toilet with a faulty flush.  So Satis will be a wonderful long-awaited change.

11 November 2010

Layout Considerations

    We are now completely happy with the overall layout of our house.  We now only need to work on the roof to make sure that we get a usable loft.  To begin with, we were very pleased with the first layout drawn by our architect Yakushiji-san.  Over the weeks, we simply made minor modifications, as we changed our mind about the music room and the study.  The biggest concerns in terms of layout were the kitchen and the bathroom.

    Happily we were able to solve the kitchen issue, after a lengthy visit to Takara Standard.  What we realised after a few recognizance visits to Toto and Inax, was that our tastes did not fall within the most popular options on the market.  Shiny melamine cabinets might look great in a modern kitchen, but we were longing for a more traditional, colonial-style wooden finish...  I guess we had leafed through too many stylish Martha Stewart magazines to be impressed with ultra-modern lines.  According to our architect, Takara Standard specializes in affordable custom made kitchens so we trusted their advice and planed our kitchen with them.  We will get the detailed plans two weeks from now as well as the estimate.

     The bathroom was a huge dilemma.  The issues were: bath size, bath pump connection to washing machine, closet space, windows.  The constraints were limited space and an inclined ceiling.  After an exhaustive analysis of the bathroom layout options, using our grid and model baths ands, sinks and cabinets, we decided to go for a small bath (1200cm) rather than a standard-size bath.

     The advantages of choosing a compact bathtub are numerous for us: for one thing, we are saving space, and maximizing remaining space usage. Dead space is a big no-no for us.   Also, we've been favoring showers over the years because it seemed such a waste to fill a big bathtub and let all this water go to waste. With a smaller bathtub, we'll be more inclined to enjoy long leisurely hot baths without feeling guilty...  Here are the numbers: 260L of water is needed to fill a 1200 tub, whereas over 360L are needed for the larger 1600 tub...  Plus, a smaller tub will fit right behind the washing machine that will be hidden away in a closet that opens from the corridor.  This way we will be able to fit a bath pump to use the bath water for the wash cycle, a big eco move on our part! 

9 November 2010

Energy: Gas

Eco Jozu - Tokyo Gas Showroom
      Over to Tokyo Gas, we were able to get answers to a lot of our questions.  An assistant took us through the various energy saving/ reuse options, EneFarm, EcoWill and EcoJozu.  We had already ruled out the first two systems, due to their prohibitive cost, but we were interested in EcoJozu to help us save on energy in the long run.  The initial cost of installing EcoJozu instead of the regular water heating system, will be recovered within a few years, and our annual savings will be higher. 

 Radiant Heated Floor Types

     To get a feel for the warmth emanating from radiant floor heating, Tokyo Gas set up 3 sample rooms: the first room we walked in was maintained at 5 degrees, the second was heated with air conditioners, and the 3rd with radiant floor-heating.  We immediately noticed how comfortable that 3rd room was as compared to the one heated with forced air.  The heat with this type of heating moves upwards instead of stagnating on the floor.  We then and there decided to install radiant floor heating (yuka danbo) on the 1F, in the dining room area, the studio and the living room study areas. 

   Of course, just in case, we'll install air conditioners, but we are hoping to use them only in the summer time.  Another healthy way to heat rooms is to use gas stoves, but we decided against them because we would need to use up precious ans scarce storage space to store them in summer plus we'd need some air conditioners anyway! 

    So our needs for gas will now be restricted to water heating, as we will use electricity in the kitchen.  In order to cover our hot water needs in the bathroom and the floors, we will have to get a more powerful EcoJozu unit.  The price for that kind of unit is quite a bit more expensive, but we think that in the long run it will be worth it and we will be more comfortable.

Energy: Electricity

     TEPCO, Japan's electrical energy company, is leading a vigorous campaign for people to adopt electricity as sole form of energy at home.  As opposed to Canada, where electrical supply is abundant, electricity in Japan is expensive, and we never really considered it as our main source of energy.

     Yet, we visited one of TEPCO's Switch Showrooms in Shinjuku on opening day.   We learned a lot about IH stoves, which we've never used.  Had not heard of them either until a while ago when we started reading about alternatives to gas stoves.  We are definitely getting an IH stove for the obvious reason that there will be less cleaning involved.  Now, choosing our IH stove was quite a dilemma for us.  All Japanese hobs come equipped with a grill and a fan, which are a bit hard to clean, as compared to foreign brands which don't have these features. But we like garlic bread and cheese toast, so we need our grill... 

     We decided to compromise on maintenance and get a Panasonic KZ-JT60MS which seems easy enough to keep clean and allows us to save at least 150,000 yen...  Foreign IH hobs are that much more expensive in Japan. This particular stove has three hobs, one of which is 'all-metal', which means we can use any type of pan, including our pressure cooker which is not IH compliant...   Panasonic and Hitachi are the only 2 brands to have all-metal hobs on their IH stoves.  We opted for Panasonic which had a nicer design. 

     We happened to catch a Cooking Demonstration by a famous Japanese chef who gave the audience quite an impressive display of his skills on an IH stove, preparing 'mabo dofu.'  The appliance seems easy enough to use, despite my reservations...  I've been cooking on gas for the past 20 years, so I'm expecting some adjustment will be needed to serve edible meals.  I've heard a lot of novices users burn their first meals.

     Anyway, back to energy, IH stoves run on 200V, so a special line is needed just for this appliance, since all others run on 100V.  We didn't even know that was possible...  Like we said, we're learning everyday!  Our next concern was the stove and we were really impressed with Panasonic Built-in stoves (also running on 200V to cook that Christmas Turkey faster!) on display at the showroom.  That's until we talked with our Kitchen Planner, Takara Standard, and we realised that since the oven will not be visible from the dining room, we may as well opt for the less expensive over- the-counter type oven by Hitachi.

     Why Hitachi?  That's because they make the largest counter-type induction range combination ovens with 33L capacity. Some models come with two levels, so you can cook two lasagnas at once.  That's what we need!  Another option would have been to buy a larger oven to be placed below the stove, as is usual back home.  In fact Hitachi has a neat 41L oven that we were considering for a while.  But none of us want to bend down on a daily basis to use the microwave.  Counter height is much more practical.  Other savings to be used elsewhere.

     Choosing electricity over gas to cover our hot water needs did not make much sense either, given the much lower price of gas, even using EcoCute.  On a related note, Tepco also promotes heated flooring, but we were not impressed with this type of heating as only our toes seemed to remain cozy.  That brings us to our next energy-related visit, which was to Tokyo Gas' Showroom, also in Shinjuku, the subject of our next post... 


     Our preliminary concerns were: insulation, energy, and layout.  We spent a lot of time comparing the benefits and drawbacks of Cellulose Fiber (the costlier option), Fiberglass and Rockwool.  Insulation needs have to be examined according to local climatic conditions, and it's helpful to know that it's not really the amount of insulation but rather the R-value of insulation (a rating used to measure the insulation's ability to resist heat flow) that is determinant of effectiveness.

      From what we gather, in Japan,  the average insulation cost for the entire house is 200,00 - 300,000 yen using either Rockwool, Fiberglass or Mixed Styrene Foam.  Cellulose Fiber runs the bill up an extra 300,000, minimum.  As far as we know, the preferences are as follows in Japan:
- Rockwool: 40% of people chose this.
- Glass Wool:  20 % of people chose this; popular in Canada.
- Mixed Styrene Foam: 20% of people chose this. Worst option, but cheap; used mainly for Tateuri-ready-made houses.
- Cellulose fiber: 20% of people chose this; comes from Canada. Friendlier to the environment but not economical.

      Anyway, we ended up  learning way more than we wanted about insulation, and became slightly confused and frustrated at our inability to make a choice.  We finally decided to trust our architect, who obviously has more experience and knowledge than us on this issue, and opted for Rockwool instead of our earlier preference Cellulose Fiber.  The savings will go toward the installation of a Radiant Floor-Heating System...

You have to see it to believe it!
   With proper insulation, double insulated walls (as per JIO regulations), good ventilation, and quality windows, we hope to be well shielded from climate rigors, humidity, and bugs... all of which are a problem at our current place.  Just take a look for yourself.  Our daughter's room has been the most affected by mold caused by water dripping from the wall and ceiling.  Her windows are so wet we place a bath towel to reduce the damage. The towel is completely drenched by the second day. 

A very sorry state of affairs.

 Despite repeated attempts to get this room cleaned and protected, the damage continues.  This second photo was taken about one month after we were forced to move everything out of that room into the living room for two weeks for supposed repairs.  No improvement whatsoever.  Luckily, this is the last winter we will have to spend here...  

Finding Inspiration

     Ever since we started this project, it has been on our mind almost 24/7.   We've had about 5 meetings with our architects so far, accumulated tons of notes, researched countless sites and visited various showrooms just to make some basic decisions about layout, energy and insulation.  We also toured houses designed by TwoStyle and were quite impressed with a colonial style house they built in Mitaka.

     We've also been taking pictures of homes and features we like.  Ever since we heard that our house's exterior would be stucco type, the norm here, we've been looking at stucco-brick combinations that would enhance the external appeal of our home.  This house located near our current home really caught our eye and we showed it to our architects. 

     In order to finalize the 1F and 2F plans, we sifted through dozens of sites to collect pictures of the type of rooms we like and the type of furniture we prefer.  To help us figure out the layout and what would and wouldn't work, we made a larger version of our plan using grid paper and made scaled down versions of the furniture we plan to take with us or purchase.  To allow us to "move around" the furniture, we glued our cutouts to post-its and placed them on our grid where each square corresponds to 45.5cm.   This is our 2F grid:

     This has helped us visualize our movement within the house and the space at our disposal.  We currently live in an apartment half the size of the house, so we needed to rethink our needs within a larger space.  We went to Ikea, since this is probably where we will get some of our new furniture, and spent a full day just looking at options and materials.  We found nice ideas and put several items on our list.  This is also where we found a kitchen island we liked so much that it made us rethink our kitchen plans.  So it was a productive visit, and we came back with a catalog to browse freely at home.  It is also really helpful that their Japan website is available in English! 

5 November 2010

Choosing an Architect

    The building restrictions for our area and the shape of our land pretty much dictate the overall plan of our house.  Of course, our needs, like car space and bike storage, and personal tastes come into play, but we're not architects and even though we tried to draw a layout, we did not get very interesting results... 

     When we first met TwoStyle Architects, we told them what we needed and generally explained our preferences in a house layout.  Even though we come from places where space is not an issue, we did not want a huge house, knowing that merely 10 years from now, our kids would be fleeing the nest.  So we were OK with 50m2 on each floor plus a loft, but we insisted on efficient use of space. We were looking to have a small bathroom and only one toilet, to spare us all the cleaning!

     What we didn't know is that we could have an interior terrace, and that's why we were so impressed by our architects’ first presentation.  This terrace would not only add an extra 18m2 usable space on sunny days, but would also give the feeling that the house was much bigger.  At night, special lighting on the terrace would provide a sensation of warmth.

      In addition to the usual kitchen-dining-living areas and bedrooms, we had specified that we needed a studio for my jewelry, a music studio for my husband and a study/work area.  All of our wishes were reflected in this initial plan, and although we knew we would then need to refine the various spaces, we knew that this was solid groundwork.

      So after weighing down our options (2 other firms), we hired TwoStyle Architects and paid their retainer fee.   TwoStyle was recommended by our realtor, and even though we had a good feeling about them, we nonetheless contacted two other firms to compare and decide which one was best suited for us.  We were completely clueless as to the home building process in Japan, and I believe we pretty much read everything related on the internet. Nonetheless, we failed to grasp the differences in approach and cost among architects, house makers and house builders.  We knew we wanted to have a good handle on spending and a lot of ideas on design. 

As we move along into the project, we are very satisfied with TwoStyle's approach and commitment toward our goal.  We are even surprised to see that communication is even better than expected - all e-mails are in English only and most of our conversation also.  So we feel confident that we have made the right choice.  Fingers crossed until we move into our new home next May.
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