My Japanese Apartment (5 Ways to Make a House a Home)

Christmas decorations in my Japanese apartment!
My Japanese apartment decorated for Christmas

My apartment in Japan changed quite a bit over time. As some of you know, when you don’t live in a Leopalace like most English teachers here do, your apartment comes very very empty. As in no stove, oven, lights, curtains, or appliances of any kind empty. As in some small cabinets by the kitchen sink, walls, floor, and a roof empty. That’s a whole lot of space to fill and basic necessities to get!

The convenience of Japan never ceases to amaze me and a rental furniture package helped with the basics. So while I now had a desk to write on and a plug-in burner to cook a single pot, the emptiness of the place, with just me living in it, continued to echo.

How do you make a new place feel like home? I’d always had roommates with great decorating skills to put nice things on the walls and flowers on the table. In college my decorating was limited to my room and consisted of some posters of horses and penguins and a ridiculous amount of 5×7’s taped to my closet. Throw in some horse show ribbons and a few rocks and cedar wood chunks on the desk and you had my space.

Never had I had a place all to myself, responsible for everything from paying the rent to killing the bugs that wandered in to fixing the faulty lightbulb in the bathroom and the cracked floors in the hall. But I had also never been proud that I’d built all the shelves, grown all the plants, and been solely responsible for keeping my fish (well, one of them) alive with no outside help! My apartment is furnished and lit and kept all from my own effort and that’s a pretty cool feeling.

So without further ado, here are my tips for making that cavernous empty space feel like home:

1. Picture frames beat posters

Inspire yourself with your decorations!
Inspire yourself with your decorations

I don’t know about you but posters all over the walls take me back to college and bare walls feel like a hospital. 100 yen shops have pretty frames of all sizes for your best photographed memories! I have a bunch of pictures I got from the teachers here of me with my students, as well as my pets, friends, and family back home all over my walls and flat spaces. It’s really cheerful and more…. adult-y.

2. Get something that’s alive… besides you

The kitten I rescued and hid in my no-pet apartment for awhile ❤

Living alone, especially those first months when you know no one, gets very lonely at times. Plants or a small pet to fill the space and have something to care for and talk to besides yourself (really, you’re talking to the fish, it counts) is comforting. And while you may wish for something fuzzy to hug every now and then, many apartments don’t allow big pets and your fish/hamster/cucumbers are an acceptable alternative.  I was so happy to finally have something besides myself living in that apartment it’s not even funny! It also guarantees I have to get up at least twice a day to feed him and not just lose myself in front of the computer screen.

3.Graduate from cardboard furniture

When you can’t read the instructions but grew up watching your dad build stuff

It’s a sad fact of life that cardboard furniture made from the boxes of your futons, while versatile and uber cheap, cannot last forever. And it’s not all that pretty–at least the way I did it it wasn’t. Yamashin, Nitori, WonderEx, and other home goods and secondhand stores have selections of shelves and tables that are infinitely nicer and also come with a good price tag (the important part). My bookshelves were ¥800 (~$8 USD) each, not too shabby! And I have the satisfaction of knowing that I constructed each and every one with the screwdriver on my swiss army knife while puzzling through instructions all in Japanese. (Pictures. Pictures help.)

4. Eat on real dishes

My first bento attempt

I’m sorry, but nothing feels more temporary than eating on plastic or paper. 100 yen stores have a lot of beautiful and cute dishware to choose from so go for it! It’s also more environmentally friendly and when you have to sort trash to within an inch of its life, you’ll appreciate cutting back as much as possible. I myself keep collecting glasses with hilarious English on them… I should probably stop that soon. I’m running out of room!

5. Get a few knick-knacks 

Omiyage I recieved from coworkers–I like hanging the tenugui on my walls

Now I’m not saying to go overboard here! A lot of people moving abroad are looking for a more minimalist lifestyle. I mean, you come over with your life in a suitcase and a carry-on! But a few small, meaningful souvenirs or wall-hangings from your new home country/state or your  travels scattered about has a real homey touch.

I have postcards on the wall in my entry way, a few wall hangings from various shrines hanging up, and rocks, charms, keychains, etc. on my shelves and tables. Memories are attached to each one and seeing them around reaffirms that this is my place to come back to after a long day or a long weekend away. I also feel totally awesome when I look back at all I’ve done here so far!

It’s really not that difficult or expensive to make your apartment homey, it just takes conscious thought which I didn’t think to do until almost a year into my stay here. I’d always just put stuff where it fit with no regard to how things looked. But since updating a few things and rearranging to make things seem less cluttered I’ve been a lot more comfortable and productive in my space. Your home is a physical reflection of you and your personality, show it off and make it shine!

How do you settle into a new place? What do you do to make it feel like home? Curious minds want to know!

Thank you for reading! Dream big, work hard, live well! ❤

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