So you’ve survived your journey to the Far East, somehow stumbled through three days of Tokyo Orientation, and, after what feels like a lifetime, you’ve finally arrived in the place that will be your new home for (at least) the next year.
You were picturing it all–either your predecessor gave you a virtual tour and sent you pictures, or you were just imagining the quintessential Japanese apartment: tatami rooms with that fresh straw smell, the small but quaint rooms, and of course a fancy Toto Toilet that would not only spray your bottom, but would revolutionize the very way you experienced the bathroom. Yes, life in Japan would be beautiful, organized and neat, just like the train stations in Tokyo and Osaka.
But then your hopes are dashed as you open the door to your apartment (that you surely have no hope of actually finding tomorrow after work) and you are hit by a wall of heat and smells unlike anything you have ever experienced. There are grease stains in the kitchen along the wallpaper (how did they get…whatever that is…on the ceiling?), there is a rainbow of mold in your bathroom (what in the world is that box by the tub, with the crank handle? Some sort of Medieval Jack-in-the-Box toy?), and every closet is filled with cardboard boxes and relics dating back to when you were still in diapers (the pager is probably even older).
Well, never-fear, folks! We’ve all been there at some point–well, most of us on the JET Program have at least. And while you may be seething at your predecessor, we would like to offer a small reprieve to them–they probably inherited it just like you, with all the same stuff, and the dirt and grease and mold can accumulate faster than the eye can see, especially in the summer.
Fortunately, what with all that stuff your predecessor left you, you probably have a way to solve most of these problems, and for what you don’t have, it won’t take too much time, money, or effort to correct them (but it will possibly take a strong stomach and a dedicated heart.)
We here at MAJET are excited to guide you through all you could need to know about scrubbing up, organizing, and keeping your apartment sparkling.
First things first–your kitchen, because you’ve gotta eat, right?
Your gas burners and counters are probably coated in a fine layer of grease, giving everything a “sticky” feeling in the kitchen.
This is an extremely good cleaner for scrubbing it off. Grease accumulates easily in Japanese apartments, what with the incredible humidity and lack of insulation, so fix that by spraying some of this on and scrubbing it off (you can even let it soak for a few minutes if there’s really stuck on gunk). Don’t forget to wipe down the inside of your appliances, like your microwave or your refrigerator–easy to do before you start filling it up later on!
These are various dish soaps. The brand pictured is recommended as some of the stronger dish soap you can buy. Make sure you use hot water, or the grease will not come off. If you don’t have a water heater in your kitchen, a good trick is to boil some on the stove and then soak your dishes in it before washing. And don’t forget to change your sponge frequently to avoid bacteria growth inside the sponge!
Craving some of that fresh mountain air? Too bad there’s a layer of mold between you and it…
When you are trying to open your windows to escape the musty smell of stale heat and humidity, all that clean air will be tainted by the filter of mold you will probably have on everything.
This is air conditioner spray (エアコン), which you can spray inside to kill any of the bacteria and dust that has built up inside your air conditioner.
For your windows, there are wipes specially made for metal screens which won’t tear up like paper towels will. It is worth it to take an afternoon to scrub your screens, inside and out, if possible. You can also usually slide them off and soak them in your shower or bathtub area if the dirt is really stuck on. Even if you do this just once a year, it makes a huge difference!
The cheaper Daiso version of screen cleaners, seen on the right, are still pretty effective.
You should also clean your window panes and the glass–not only will it make your apartment cleaner, it will also look much brighter (thus helping you keep your peace of mind when the depressing winter time comes around).
Windows like this are often coated in mold, as many people don’t think to wipe it down.
And while we’re talking about windows…we cannot more highly recommend washing your curtains. Like wiping your window screens, this is something easily overlooked, but something that is crucial to making your place smell, feel, and look better. Most curtains are okay with washing on the gentle cycle in your own washer with your average laundry detergent, just be careful if there are lace edges or trim. And, while tedious, we recommend you take the curtain hooks out before washing, as they can snag on the curtains and create tears.
Speaking of washing things, time to put that big, square, ancient machine to work.
If you have attempted to do laundry but can’t seem to get that moldy scent out no matter how quickly you take your clothes out, your washing machine may just need a good rinse. This item is used to wash your washing machine! Just pour this in and run a laundry cycle (without clothes inside) with hot water, if possible. To be safe, wipe your machine down with a rag once complete, and then enjoy truly clean laundry yet again!
This is what the laundry detergent section of your store will look like. Buy any brand, and just like shampoo and conditioner, once you finish using it, you can buy a bag to refill it.
The section of “sensitive” (as close to hypoallergenic as you can get here) and eco-friendly soaps is on the right. Look for baby-use detergents (ベビー用) or allergen friendly soaps.
These small freshener beads work as laundry scent boosters, lovingly nicknamed “smelly balls.” Toss a little less than a cap full into your load of laundry and bask in the gloriously fresh smell after. You’re welcome.
Bonus tip– stain removers! シミとり works just like Tide-To-Go (except a little bit more liquidy than the stick), and is great to keep in your desk at work or in your bag for emergencies!
Understanding the black hole that Japanese people call “drains”…
Now that you’ve cleaned your kitchen, you go to wash your dishes when you are stopped by the absolutely puzzling drain hole in your sink. Well, Japanese drainage systems are probably much, much different from what you are used to. Garbage disposals in your sink are pretty much unheard of, and even your shower/bathtub drain is different!
These are sink bags you can hang in the corner of your sink or set inside your drain’s removable basket (if you have one) to use as an alternative to garbage disposals. Just collect your food waste in here and throw away once every few days.
If you have a long, slot-like drain in your bathroom you should lift that up (we recommend using gloves, because what is coming next will probably be much less pleasant), and underneath it is where the actual drain cover is. The gray gunk pile that is probably on it is soap scum mixed with hair and dirt.
If you let this sit for too long, it will attract drain flies, which are small gnat-like flies, which will infest your entire apartment. Beware!
To clean your drains, we recommend first scooping/scraping what you can from the drain by hand or, if you have a removable catcher, smashing it against the side of your garbage can to knock it out, and then pouring these products on it:
If there is a lot of buildup, we recommend the stronger version (PRO) first. For upkeep, you can buy the cheaper, weaker store version.
You can also buy items like this, which prevent more buildup.
For upkeep, you should drop one of these tablets in your drains–shower and sinks!–once a month or so (or in rainy season, we recommend once every two weeks), and/or pour some of this drain cleaner in.
If you already have drain flies, we recommend first following the steps above to clean your drains. Next, drop one of these tablets down the drain and flush it with water. Then, get some some fly paper and hang it over your drains/near anywhere the flies congregate (above the garbage can is another good place). As an added measure, put out some fly traps on your tables/shelves. Lastly, pick up some bug spray (shown in the “bug” section of this post) and try killing what you can. It will take about a week to rid yourself of the infestation.
And now that you have sorted out the drains, nature will call, and you will go into your bathroom to discover what was once possibly a light-colored porcelain toilet is now a shade of green gray, like the muck that sits on top of rivers…
Resist your urge to throw up (because you sure don’t want your face getting any closer to that bowl than you have to) and get scrubbing! Buy some of the following cleaning products and a new scrub brush, and let the process begin. If mold and scum are stuck on, you can let the product soak for a few minutes before scrubbing. You should scrub it once a week, or at least twice a month, to prevent gunk from accumulating, especially considering that Japanese toilet water levels are much lower than what many of us are used to. You can also buy tablets to hook onto your bowl to lessen this problem.
This is a great toilet bowl cleaner, with a nozzle that helps you easily get under the rim of your toilet bowl (where mold will quickly grow unless you scrub it).
So now you’ve conquered the kitchen ad the plumbing, and you feel invincible–what could possibly scare you now?
…but then a roach that is probably big enough to win a fight against Mothra scurries by, and you remember that with tropic climates comes tropical bugs. Oh, yeah…
Not to worry! This yellow bottle is a must-have–it kills almost all insects, especially the most prominent (and dangerous!) ones. Keep one of these under the sink year-round.
If you have an ant problem, you can spray them (left), or even easier (for less serious ant infestation problems), place these (right) around the edges and openings of your house. Just open and throw away every month or so. These traps are also good to keep in food cabinets where your sugary snacks are kept.
To help minimize household bugs, make sure to throw away any trash as soon as possible, and keep food waste in the freezer if it will be a couple of days before the next trash pick up.
If you wake up with strange small bites on your arms and legs, you may have tatami mites, or dani, or possibly just household fleas. These are especially easy to get in the summer months, or if your tatami has recently been replaced. You can buy this spray to fix it! Simply take off the end, flip the switch into position, stab your tatami mat, and press and hold for a few seconds. Move in spaced increments–we recommend 2-4 sprays per tatami mat.
The spray next to it is fabric spray that you can spray periodically throughout the year if you feel especially worried about getting them.
The spray below is general fly spray, which works great to kill the drain flies mentioned earlier.
And finally, this spider spray will save your life if you suffer from arachnophobia. Stand back and spray away–it kills most spiders within a few seconds, but Huntsmen spiders will take a little bit more time (and screaming) as you follow them with the spray when they try to get away.
Peppermint oil (ペパーミントオイル) is also thought to be a natural spider deterrent. Buy a spray bottle (Daiso/any local dollar store) and fill it about halfway with water, then mix a few drops of the oil (found at most local shops, especially if there’s a humidifier section), shake, and spray around your apartment a few times a month.
Now the bugs are gone, and your kitchen is clean, but what about that rainbow of mold in the bathroom?
Well, ladies and gentlemen, meet your new best friend: カビキラー (kabi killer), better known as mold killer. Bathroom mold? Kabi killer! Sink mold? Kabi killer! Screen mold? Kabi killer! Do you see where we’re going with this?
Mold grows everywhere in Japan, so on hard surfaces this is your best bet on destroying it. We recommend buying a long-handled scrub brush to use with it to avoid too much contact with your skin. Be aware that bleach can damage laminate and metal if you leave it on for too long. If you’re concerned, dilute with water and scrub off within 5 minutes. Also be cautious when using this, as it is one of the most concentrated amounts of bleach you can buy in regular stores in Japan, so make sure you keep the room ventilated as you use it, avoid contact with your face and skin, and avoid getting on clothes/things you don’t want bleached! Even at low household concentrations, people with asthma and other breathing problems may experience more serious symptoms after bleach exposure, so please, as always, be careful.
This is a mold bomb–simply remove from packaging, fill to the marked line with water, then drop the tablet into the water in your shower area and quickly close the door. It will fog it up and help prevent future mold from growing. Be sure to air out your shower for a few hours after using this.
Ah, but mold won’t just attack your hard surfaces, unfortunately. It will attack your clothes and shoes in ways you have never imagined possible. So to avoid the horror show of getting your winter clothes out in a few months and finding that most of your things have turned a fuzzy shade of green, use the following items!
These are mold killers/moisture absorbers. Stuff these in every corner of your closets, in your drawers, in your boxes of clothes and blankets, futons, sheets, shoes, and cabinets. Some apartments are lucky and the mold problem isn’t as serious. However, unless you are willing to gamble on that, we would recommend loading up on these.
If you do unfortunately find mold on fabric, you can use a solution of white vinegar (found in the grocery section of the store) and hot water and scrub with a hard-bristled brush (think old toothbrush) to remove the spores, then place in the sun or in front of a fan to dry for several hours. Be sure to double check online to make sure your fabric is okay with this beforehand!
Phew! Mold, done. But as you walk away, you realize that your feet are kind of sticking to the floor like flip flops in a movie theater…
In Japan, you will spend a little bit more time than you might be used to being barefoot, and no one wants to be barefoot on a gross, dirty floor, right?
These are some of the floor wipers you can buy. These are great for getting in tight corners and hard-to-reach areas (like under your fridge, or in ceiling corners!) If you really want to deep-clean, you can even use these as “mops” by dunking them in a soapy solution, wiping the floors down, repeating with plain water, and then drying the floor with a cloth.
And finally, for all you cannot clean, throw away!
Unfortunately, because of the intricate trash system in Japan, many people get frustrated and simply don’t throw away nearly as much as they should, and this clutter is passed from ALT to ALT through the years. For anything you feel is adding clutter, smell, or general disarray to your house, we recommend just recycling or tossing it. Look up your local garbage rules and restrictions to understand how, and get de-cluttering!
These are trash bags. Invest in a lot of these. Use them. Your future successor (and probably your school, too) will thank you.
Keeping clean is easiest to do if you maintain the cleanliness, rather than letting all the grease, grime, and mold accumulate.
Vacuum often, clean up after meals, and try to keep your apartment mold free. You can choose your motivation: (a) mold is a silent killer, (b) bugs love dirt, (c) no one wants to hang out in a dirty apartment–not even you, (d) you will have more free time than you are probably used to, so use it wisely, or (e) all of the above.
And on that, we here at MAJET would like to wish you the best of luck, and may the force (of cleaning) be with you. がんばって、y’all!