All sorts of accommodation options exist in Tokyo, as you would probably expect from the biggest city in the world. If you’ve rented an apartment before in your own country, you may expect a simple process of going to a rental agency, picking a place you like from the available listings, and signing a contract. Simple is just not the case when it comes to renting in Tokyo.
Even if you have wads of yen spilling out of your pockets and are willing to waste them, you can’t assume it’s going to be easy and straightforward—especially if you are a gaijin (foreigner). So, let’s have a step-by-step look at how to get the best possible accommodation, without getting yourself into an unnecessarily expensive contract.
Initial costs (and how to avoid them)
Renting an apartment in Tokyo (or Japan in general) is typically expensive, with the initial set-up fees costing five or six times your monthly rent. The effectiveness of this business model is questionable, since it makes everyone less likely to relocate, but that’s how it works so you need to get used to it.
A deposit is almost always required (1–2 months’ rent), like anywhere in the world, but be careful, sometimes landlords will do everything they can to keep it while you move out, trying to charge you for any possible repairs or refurbishment.
An agency fee is common as well, and it’s usually hard to negotiate on it (0.5–1 months’ rent).
What rockets the moving price to crazy levels are other pointless fees, like a cleaning fee (nobody gets how cleaning a two-room apartment costs ¥40,000), “24-hour life support” (what?), among others, together with the key money (1-2 months’ rent), which is essentially thank-you money for letting them rent you the apartment.
Key money was introduced at the end of WWII, when the emperor imposed fixed rent costs in Tokyo to prevent the few apartments left standing from becoming overpriced. Landlords smartly decided to introduce key money, and it’s imposed even now that apartment prices are no longer fixed. Depending on where you are going to live, you might be able to get a nice discount on all of the above.
You also have to pay the liability insurance. Tthe agency is going to offer you a plan that’s three times overpriced, but online you’ll get something more reasonable (¥4,000/year for a small apartment) in 10 minutes. Don’t let them force you into getting the insurance they’re offering—it’s illegal.
Finally, you will need to have a Japanese guarantor. Companies and universities will probably offer this service for free (or almost free), otherwise the rental agency can do it for you (0.5–1 month’s rent). Some of them may force you to use this service from them, and in this case it’s perfectly legal.
Those are basically all the initial expenses, but keep in mind that every month, together with the rent, you will pay for a maintenance/common expenses fee (0–¥10,000), that fortunately is always clearly stated on any agency website.
To get connected with a real estate agent, Able, Eheya and Japan Home Search are good places to start. There is also UR, which usually offers places with more affordable rent—perfect for cheapos! They mainly target young families and older people, but that doesn’t mean it won’t appeal to a wider audience too. There are also no agency fees. You can read more about UR agency here.
Other real estate agents can be region or city specific. Type 不動産業者 into your search online and the city (in Japanese) that you are looking to live in. This will give you some options for potential real estate agents in the area.
Online rental sites
The internet really is a godsend when it comes to finding accommodation in Japan. It’s the perfect starting point to look before you leave your home country. Online searches can also help you familiarize yourself with the main real estate agents in the area that you are looking to live in.
Most sites are user-friendly and most importantly easy to understand(!). You can filter for price, size, number of rooms and even the age of the building. Perfect for saving time and stopping you scrolling through a load of options that aren’t suitable for your needs. You can also sign up for notifications when a new property is uploaded to the website—very handy!
Below is a list of websites for finding accommodation in Japan online. The first two websites that are listed are our top favourites for their wide selections of places. And read on to our next section on the best agencies for short- to long-term options.
Note: you might hear/see the word manshon a lot while you are house hunting. This is an apartment in a large building in Japanese, not a massive house on its own like in English!
Short-, mid- and long-term accommodation
As you probably concluded after reading about the initial costs, paying all those fees upfront is not worth it if you plan to stay just a few months. Luckily, there are some short-term accommodation options (with no key money) available too: Sakura House, Oak House, Leo Palace are some of the biggest ones. You will get a furnished room or small apartment, without paying crazy fees, and supported by English-speaking staff. However, all of this comes at a cost; the rent is typically about 50% more expensive than standard apartments, so this option is not recommended if you plan to stay for a long time.
While planning a longer-term stay, it’s worth taking some time to find a good and reasonably priced apartment. Foreigner-oriented websites—those you find by typing in Google “rent apartment Tokyo” (or more smartly “rent cheap apartment Tokyo”)—are by far not the best in this case. Less choice and higher prices make them worse than sites aimed at Japanese renters, like Suumo or Chintai—which are in Japanese, but Google Translate fortunately goes a long way if you can’t read it.
The disadvantage here is that you will waste a lot of time checking out apartments you will not be able to rent. Why? Because there’s no anti-discrimination law in Japan, so landlords are perfectly allowed to refuse foreigners. However, the money you will save with these websites and the related agencies are worth some “sorry, no gaijin” calls, when compared to the previously mentioned ones.
Lastly, UR (Urban Renaissance) apartments are typically cheaper than average (lower moving cost especially), although availability can be quite limited. Both UR and Suumo actually offer “suicide/deadly accident apartments” (Jiko Bukken) for unsurprisingly reduced prices, typically half of the average cost in a certain area. You will also find out that they are always completely renovated to make them more attractive. With this option there’s just one thing to consider, are you afraid of ghosts?
If all the rejection is too much, fill out our accommodation help form and we’ll get back to you with some expert advice and some options that match your needs.
Where to live in Tokyo
Living in central Tokyo is of course nice, especially in the Shibuya area. Fortunately, prices vary quite a bit depending on the neighborhood, so if you check our Tokyo rent map to determine budget-friendly zones, you might be able to save some decent money.
Since trains in Tokyo don’t run 24h, it’s a good idea to live reasonably close to where you like to hang out so you don’t need to worry about the last train. Or you may want to live close to where you work for the daily to reduce travel time and train costs. Try to find a good balance, it’s usually feasible.
If you have a very limited budget, choose a convenient train line, not a neighborhood. The farther out you go from central Tokyo, the cheaper apartments become. You can save quite a bit actually, especially on the initial costs (much more negotiable). Being on a good train line will mean you’ll be able to leave quite late from central areas—and avoid living near random stations on train lines not connected with nice/poppin’ places.
In either case, living far from the station will save you a lot of money—residents pay a premium to stay close (5 min by foot), and prices drop considerably the farther you go. And since you are not regularly going to the gym (—are you? Well, you have better time management skills than we do) some exercise is not going to hurt you.
Timing, sharing and other tips
To get the best deals, you have to know about “moving season”. In Japan, people typically relocate themselves in April, at the beginning of the fiscal year, when you usually get a new job or get assigned to a different company office. The same happens, but to a lesser extent, in October. This basically means that you should not get your own apartment in these months, or in those immediately preceding them. Agencies are quite optimistic, and they will assume they will certainly be able to fill any of their apartments (although it doesn’t happen at all, Tokyo and the Kanto region have about 15% of empty rooms), so they are not going to be willing to negotiate. Sometimes, it’s much cheaper to stay a little longer in a temporary location to wait until moving season is over.
Sharing an apartment (i.e. having a roommate) in Tokyo is uncommon. Even among students it’s much more common to get a small single-room apartment. There might be many reasons, that we are not going to investigate, but in general if you don’t already know someone who is willing to share an apartment, you’re out of luck on that option.
Share houses (like Sakura House we mentioned above) do exist, but they are still quite different to what Westerners are used to, being more similar to hostels. Also, larger share houses tend to be nicer than single-room ones, having a proper kitchen and common hang-out area.
The age of the building is going to majorly influence the rent price. Japanese people, especially those older than 30 years old, are willing to pay more to get a brand-new apartment, and this together with earthquakes justifies the demolition-reconstruction cycle you will see everywhere in Tokyo. In general, getting an apartment 10–20 years old (in most countries it would still be considered new) will save you some good money and allow you to live quite comfortably. Older ones (built in the ‘80s) might be lacking a modern look, but many are far from shabby and can save you even more. Note, though, it’s not advisable to get anything built before 1981, when earthquake safety laws became more restrictive.
We finally get to the important part: how to get the best deal once you’ve chosen your new apartment. It might be harder or easier depending on where and when you want to move, but there are some points that will work in general.
Main thing, negotiate on the extra fees, not on the rent. If you are lucky you will get a 5% discount on the rent, but key money (free cash given to the landlord while moving in) and many other pointless move-in fees can typically be dropped if you don’t move in in April. Depending on where you are going to settle, you might be able to do away with all of them, except the deposit (check if you will get it back, sometimes it’s just a name for a moving fee) and the cleaning fee that they theoretically paid in advance.
Finally, for some reason every agency has access to every apartment listing in Tokyo. If you’re interested in another agency’s listing, your current agent will certainly let you rent it through them. What happens, though, is that you will need to pay an agency fee to both parties (approximately 1.5 month of the rent’s cost). Speak to different agents, check which apartments they are actually managing, and you will avoid wasting money (which you’ll need later to furnish your apartment!).
This post was originally published in February 2016. Last updated: November 2020. While we do our best to ensure it’s correct, information is subject to change.