Exactly one year ago in this newsletter, I wrote a small story that described some of my frustration at having to live in a small and cramped living space. "Every room is jammed with printmaking tools, books and supplies; woodblocks are stacked everywhere; the closets are all full of prints and more blocks ..." I mentioned how I had spent a bit of time looking around for a possible place to live, but had discovered that getting a place of my own, at least a place in an accessible area, was simply out of the question for somebody on a woodblock printmaker's income. I can't say that I gave up on the idea completely, but certainly put it to the back of my mind; no sense feeling frustrated about something that couldn't be changed.
One year later, I would again like to talk about the 'house situation', but this time though, I have better news to report - I came across a house for sale that looked quite suitable for my needs, and not only that, I was able to arrange financing and complete the deal. I am now the owner of a four-level building in a quiet area of Ome, the neighbouring city to Hamura.
It started one day in November when Sadako told me something interesting; she had heard some news about a local artist in Ome who was trying to sell his home/atelier, and thought I might like to look at it. I was pretty sure that the property would turn out to be unsuitable, or anyway much too expensive for me, but I agreed to go and have a look.
When we got there, I was not so impressed with what I saw at first. It was a standard two-story home containing a few small rooms and a 'dining kitchen', pretty much just like my apartment in terms of space available. But right beside the flight of stairs that led up to the second floor was another flight, one leading downwards. We followed the owner down and not ten seconds later ... my mind was made up - I knew that I had to have this place!
You see, although it is not obvious from the front of the house, the structure is built on a steep hill, and in addition to the 'normal' two floors of the building, there are two more levels below. These lower levels open onto the back of the property, looking out over a small stream and a green area beyond. In addition to this pleasant outlook, the hill on which the place is built is so steep that in order to get down to bedrock to make a strong foundation, the builders had to create a room with a wonderfully high 13-foot ceiling. This first lower level (I can't call it a basement, because it is flooded with clear north light) by itself is just about the same area as my entire current apartment ... and there is still one more level below!
I couldn't believe what I was seeing - vast wide space, high ceiling, plenty of light, incredibly strong concrete construction, four floors ... and all this beside a peaceful stream, surrounded by greenery, with no traffic noise audible, and yet located only 20 minutes walk from Ome Station, from where express trains run directly to downtown Tokyo every hour.
I tried not to get too excited, because of course there had to be a catch, and I knew what it was going to be - this is Tokyo, and although the price of land here has come down somewhat from the highs of the 'bubble' days, they certainly aren't giving the stuff away ... I knew that I simply wouldn't be able to afford this place.
But when we sat at the table in the kitchen upstairs and got into the details with the owner, it transpired that this was something of a 'distress sale'. He had to sell, and he had to sell right now, actually within the next couple of weeks. He named his price - 18,000,000 yen, just under half of what he had paid for the place when it was built in 1995 - and I realized with a bit of a shock that I might actually be able to manage this. Somewhat disbelieving that such words could come out of my mouth, I told him that I was interested, contingent on being able to arrange financing.
I was at my bank at 9:00 the next morning, carrying a folder containing all the documents I thought might be necessary. When I presented myself at the housing loan counter and said I would like to apply for a mortgage, the two loan officers looked at each other, and then back to me ... "But you're a foreigner ..." Now I myself knew that there are no legal impediments to foreigners in Japan owning property or getting housing loans, so I held my ground. After a couple of phone calls 'upstairs', and a bit of discussion with the branch manager (who I happened to know, because he is a collector of original ukiyo-e scrolls!), we started to talk about the details of a possible deal.
The next awkward moment came with the requirement for authentication of income tax payments ... "I'm sorry, but loans can only be given to people who can prove payment of income taxes, and you're a foreigner ..." I quietly reached into my bag and brought out copies of my tax records for fourteen years back. It seems that they, just like many Japanese, had the idea that foreigners living in Japan don't have to pay taxes. This is incorrect, as we pay exactly the same taxes as everybody else living here. Right from the beginning, I have paid National Income Tax, Prefectural Residents' Tax, and Municipal Resident's Tax, in addition to Private Enterprise Tax on my business, and premiums for the National Health Insurance. (I opted out of the National Pension plan, but would be allowed to participate if I chose.)
They looked through this stack of paper, and I guess it was at that point that they started to take me seriously. So we dug into the calculations involving the projected amount of the mortgage, the collateral value of the property, the down payment I could afford to make, and my income for a number of years back, and came out with the answer - it all seemed to add up, and there seemed no reason that a mortgage loan could not be extended.
I made the official application, for a ten-year loan of 12,000,000 yen at 2.9% (rate fixed for five years), with resulting monthly payments thus only slightly higher than my current rent. A couple of days later the reply came back ... 'approved'. There was not even any need for me to have a guarantor; my own credit was good enough.
So I signed a purchase contract with the house owner. This was a private sale, with no real estate agent involved, but of course there was a massive amount of paperwork necessary. I used the services of a very competent legal clerk to handle these details, and once everything had been processed, I received from him my deed to the property. At 49 years old, I now have a place of my own (and a whole new string of additions to that list of taxes I pay!).
But what a time to get a new house - just a month or so before the exhibition, and with me so far behind in the printmaking schedule! To disrupt my work just now is impossible, so I am keeping the lease on this apartment in Hamura until the end of January, and only then, with the exhibition finished, will I make the move over to Ome and start the long process of turning those large concrete rooms into warm and comfortable working and living spaces.
It is going to take a very long time indeed to fix it up the way I want it, but there is certainly no rush. I will plant some ivy outside that will slowly cover all that bare concrete, and while it grows, I will work inside at a similar slow and steady pace, building workbenches, bookshelves, and all the other accoutrements I have only been able to dream about ...
A lucky break? Yes, perhaps there was quite a bit of luck here. But luck backed up by years of hard work that put me in a position to take advantage of the break when it came. And of course backed up by years of support from you people collecting my prints. I'm not quite ready yet to invite you all over for a house-warming party - please give me a bit of time to get organized somewhat - but I'll let you know when it's time for the official opening of the 'Seseragi Studio', the workshop by the stream ..