Whenever I am searching for an apartment in Japan, not having a decent balcony is a deal-breaker. Unfortunately, my latest apartment is lacking a balcony because I had to prioritize my commute and I regret the decision every day. Seriously, I’m obsessed. I scour Pinterest and Instagram for balcony ideas and stand outside strangers’ homes, staring at their balconies like a maniac.
During my “observations,” I’ve noticed people fall into three distinct camps. Some use their balcony as a closet—a storage place for beer cans and the occasional trash panda. Then there are the heroes who take full advantage of their little outdoor space with flooring, lighting, plants, and furniture.
Finally, some have forgotten their balcony exists outside of laundry day or a smoke break. You poor pathetic souls. Apartments in Japan—especially the city—are small enough. Why waste valuable space?
To help transform your boring balcony into a proper place to enjoy a cup of coffee, here’s a quick guide.
What can you actually do?
Before you begin altering your balcony, you should probably check whether it’s even allowed. Most housing contracts won’t allow much more than Sticky Tack on your apartment walls.
You most likely paid a hefty security deposit or shikikin in Japanese when you moved in. In theory, this fee is in place if a tenant tries to skip town without paying rent.
However, it’s more likely your landlord will use your deposit after you move out for “cleaning” and “damage” fees to restore the apartment for the next tenant. These kinds of stipulations are usually in your contract, and, as you guessed, completely bogus.
Make sure your balcony isn’t part of the building’s emergency route.
Recently, laws were changed so that your landlord can’t claim your security deposit for repairs of normal wear-and-tear. Still, it should go without saying that ripping into your balcony with a sledgehammer for that sweet open-air bath doesn’t constitute as normal wear and tear.
Unless you are willing to lose your deposit, you shouldn’t do anything too extensive to a short-term home that can’t be easily repaired to its original state. Or at least look like its original state. Luckily, none of my suggestions will involve damaging your balcony.
Lastly, make sure your balcony isn’t part of the building’s emergency route. If your balcony has a fire escape, it very well could be. Some landlords will not allow much of anything on a balcony if that’s the case.
Cleaning your balcony
If you have never paid much attention to your balcony or it’s an older building, there’s a good chance it looks a swamp. My last apartment was in a relatively newer building, but the balcony was still covered with mold and sludge when I moved in.
For mold, look no further than old reliable, Kabikira, literally mold killer. Kabi Kira is a household mold-fighting product in Japan, and it’s an absolute beast. It might take a whole bottle, but it will get the job done. It’s quite strong, however, and contains sodium hypochlorite, so be sure to wear a mask and gloves and avoid getting it on your clothes.
What better way to feel like you’re outside than with some soft green grass under your feet?
For cleaning, it doesn’t get more satisfying than a pressure washer. You can find one on Amazon Japan for as low as ¥10,000. If you’re not interested in owning your own, you might be able to rent one from your local hardware store. Ask for an atsuryoku senjouki (圧力洗浄器). Just don’t spray any neighborhood cats or anything because these things are no joke.
If that seems like overkill or outside your budget, a good ol’ bucket of soapy water and a stiff-bristled brush from the ¥100 store will work just as well. A portable hose from your kitchen sink is also a budget-friendly option.
Install grass and wood panel flooring
Now that your balcony is sparkly clean, the last thing you want to do is step on it with your grimy toes. Besides, it’s an outdoor space. What better way to feel like you’re outside than with some soft green grass under your feet?
You can purchase artificial grass, or jinko shiba (人工芝), at home centers or online for around ¥4,000 to 10,000.
So you don’t accidentally order a giant roll of it, make sure you search for jinko shiba jointo (人工芝ジョイント) for square pieces that you can fit together. You can mix them with deck panels (ウッドデッキ ジョイント パネル) such as these for a contemporary aesthetic.
Get some plants or start a garden
By now, most readers can see that I am not the sharpest lightbulb in the crayon box. Searching for plants, I wanted something I would have to straight-up murder it if it were going to die. I settled on a ficus umbellata, a popular fig plant in Japan from Africa with heart-shaped leaves.
Other plants considered easy are peace lilies, devil’s ivy, and begonias. But, honestly, you’re better off going to your local plant nursery or engei-ten (gardening store) and asking for okugai shokubutsu (outdoor plants). It’s also going to depend on your location and how much sun your balcony gets.
Balcony gardening is also a popular hobby in Japan. Tomatoes and edamame are easy “square-foot gardening” vegetables, but how cool would it be to grow your own herbs? Spearmint, thyme, and coriander are pretty easy ones to grow.
Check these great square-foot gardening resources for more help if you have no idea where to start.
- A Wired Guide to Domestic Terraforming
- The Vegetable Gardener’s Container’s Bible
- Japanese Cheat Sheet: Gardening
Invest in some outdoor lighting
If your balcony doesn’t look like a bar in SoHo, New York, you’re doing it wrong. It doesn’t take much effort, either. Some soft lighting can make a world of difference. A couple of palm trees and a pink hue are all it takes to turn your balcony into one of those lo-fi hip hop playlists on YouTube.
IKEA has a great selection of outdoor light fixtures, such as these battery-operated multicolor SOLVINDEN LED lights. Portable solar-powered lanterns can also add a bit of campfire charm. You can find them pretty cheap, on Amazon, too.
I’m a fan of the Philips Hue. I’ve replaced all the lights in my home with smart lights, and it’s great controlling everything from your phone.
Unfortunately, you’d most likely have to run an extension cable from indoors. However, you could also point your indoor lights towards the balcony. Unless you use the latest BlueTooth bulbs, you need a Hue Bridge to connect them all. It’s quite an investment, but when it’s time to throw a sick takoyaki party, you’ll be a legend.
Get some swanky furniture
You can’t look over your domain without having a place to sit down and place your drink. Again, Amazon is your best bet for outdoor furniture. Even if your balcony is tiny, there is probably something for you like this adaptable folding table. If you want to spend a bit more money, Nitori and IKEA also have sizable outdoor collections.
Lastly, if your next-door neighbors are nosey and trying to snoop on your fresh new forested, pink-hued balcony, you’ll want a sudare (screen). Stretch one of these across your balcony, turn on some lo-fi beats, and enjoy a cool summer night.
How have you decked out your Japanese balcony? Let us know in the comments!