Neighbor Man

The following is part of a series of posts focused on daily life in Japan, which is an adventure of a different sort. Previously I regaled you with the saga of renewing my Japanese drivers license. Now, it’s time for a more domestic tale.

Finding an apartment in Tokyo was no small task. Ideally, I wanted a place with some sunlight, with shops and restaurants nearby, a short walk to public transportation, and within my budget. More than that, I just wanted to love it. I’d been putting up with living in a noisy, dirty sharehouse for far too long; it was time for a place of my own, a place where I didn’t have to deal with other people’s garbage or be woken up from my housemates thundering up the stairs after drinking all night. 

Week after week, the real estate agent that I’d hired took me out into the streets to go look at apartments. Aside from the musty one with the hot pink walls that was a stone’s throw from a nearby red light district, everything he showed me was pretty good, yet nothing felt quite right. I just didn’t love any of them, and so, we kept up the search.

I knew it was the one the moment I walked in the door. It was huge for Tokyo, a full 30 square meters, and, after sharing space with six other humans for months, the spaciousness was a breath of fresh air. One wall was papered in a pale green that I found charming. The bedroom was filled with light both from the sliding balcony door and a long, triangular window on the far wall. The apartment was #206, the top corner unit of a 12-unit building. “I shouldn’t hear too much noise up here,” I thought.

How wrong I was.

I started hearing my next door neighbor pretty quickly after I moved in. Not all the time, just sometimes, usually around 22:00 or 23:00 at night. Like clockwork, I’d hear him come home, bang around the apartment for ten minutes, and suddenly quiet down. “What a mysterious person,” I thought. I guessed that, like a lot of Japanese people, he works really long hours, then goes out drinking with his colleagues after work. That would explain why I only heard him at night, and why he’d be prone to being a bit noisy, after drinking. But he usually made it home before the last train around midnight, and the noise didn’t persist for long, so I decided it wasn’t an issue.

Except. . . sometimes he didn’t make it home before the last train. A few weeks after I’d moved in, I was woken up from him slamming his door into the wall that separated our apartments. What followed sounded like an elephant stampeding around the space, crashing into the wall several times as it romped about. I looked at my phone. 1:30. I sighed. Everybody has crazy nights once in a while. I would let it go. 

However, this was not to be an isolated incident. Sometimes during these occasions I’d hear him talking on the phone. Other times a friend had come home with him to keep on carousing. I’d curse alcoholic salarymen everywhere as I rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. 

One night in November, I was sound asleep when I was shocked awake by yelling from the other side of the wall. Neighbor Man was off his face drunk, and screaming to the high heavens. The pale dawn light leaking from behind my curtains let me know that it was early morning. Between screams, I could hear him talking animatedly to. . . a guest? Someone on the phone? Himself? It wasn’t clear. Finally he calmed down, and we could both go to sleep. 

This was also not an isolated incident, and happened again a few weeks later. That time I was already awake, jetlagged from a recent trip, and heard him as he thundered up the stairs at 6:00 after presumably taking the first train home. At least I wasn’t jolted out of my sleep, but hearing a drunk man scream at the top of his lungs wasn’t how I wanted to start my day. 

Even when Neighbor Man is asleep, I am still disturbed by him. Have you ever heard your neighbor snoring? I have. It’s a deep, sonorous snore that leaks through the wall and makes its way to my eardrum, a low, rhythmic rumble that is just loud enough to prevent me from sleeping. 

As if it were not enough that I have to be awake while he is asleep, I also must be awake when he is awake. Just like the snores, the sound of his alarm makes its way through the wall that separates us. It does so repeatedly, as it would seem that he is unable to get up after one or two or five alarms. There is truly no rest for the weary. 

Until March 2020, I was convinced that my neighbor was an alcoholic, workaholic salaryman, and while I wasn’t a huge fan of him I was thankful that at least I heard him only during certain times of day. 

Then Tokyo went into a state of emergency, and everybody started working from home. 

Neighbor Man must have gotten in on this WFH thing, because suddenly, there was a major uptick in the noise coming from next door. I could hear him coughing or blowing his nose, and panicked that maybe he had Covid. I could hear him every time he opened his door, as he is incapable of doing it without slamming it. 

I marveled at his inability to walk without stomping, as I could hear him practically every time he moved around the apartment. I was aware every single time he left his cave or returned to it, due to the thunderous noises caused by his feet on the stairs outside. I started to paint a different mental picture, a younger, more naive lad, who had only recently begun living on his own and whose mother had never told him not to slam a door or stomp his feet. I wondered at his capacity to not only stomp, but to bang into the walls as he moved. Perhaps he suffered from vertigo, and simply couldn’t navigate a straight line without keeling over into the wall? 

I could hear him on his balcony, hanging up laundry, or talking on the phone. Once, while putting up my own laundry, my curiosity got the better of me, and I peered over the side of my balcony into his. It looked like a hurricane had hit it. The floor clearly hadn’t seen a cleaning in ages, and was partially obscured by a blanket that had apparently fallen off the line and had remained on the ground, only to be rained on a few times. Across the sliding glass door was taped an “X” from a long-ago typhoon, the tape now yellowed and peeling. The picture in my mind continued to develop. A young, naive lad, who’s mother never told him not to slam doors or how to clean; a vertigo-suffering alcoholic hoarder. More recently, the screen door of his balcony broke off its track. As expected, he hasn’t tried to fix it. His solution is to pick it up and move it. I know this because I can hear it every. Single. Time. 

As this situation continued to go on for months, I grew tired of being alone in my apartment all the time, and started talking back to Neighbor Man. Well, not exactly to him. It’s more like I mutter at the wall in his general direction, voicing thoughts such as “Why are you so noisy?” or “What are you doing over there?” or just a simple “Wake up” at the fifth or seventh alarm. Over time, I grew bolder in my vocalizations. Now, when his racket becomes too much, I add my own voice to the cacophony, shouting out “Shut up!” or just an “Oh my god!” when his bumblings startle me at the precise moment that I’m drifting off to sleep. I’m not sure if he understands me, but it seems to have an effect, as it suddenly gets quiet on the other side of the wall after such an exclamation.

Since he seems to hear me when I shout out, I wonder if he hears me at other times as well. Can he hear me on phone calls or when I play music? Is he privy to my theatrical play readings held over Zoom, in which I vocalize colorful characters, sometimes rather loudly? Could he make out the various phony English accents I put on when I played Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion, for example? 

There are other times too, when I’m sure he’s heard me. Although it’s definitely verboten to have instruments, I keep a ukulele in my apartment that I pluck at occasionally. While the ukulele is quieter than say, a drum kit, I do tend to get into it, strumming with abandon and singing along. What does Neighbor Man think of me? Has he formed his own mental picture, that of an insane artistic weirdo who constantly sings off-key and yells at people in weird voices over Zoom?

Most people that I tell about my neighbor are horrified and can’t believe that I’ve put up with this for a year and a half. Maybe I’ve gotten used to it, or maybe I secretly like it. These days, I spend most of the time in the solitude of my space, and my neighbor adds a bit of mystery and distraction to my life. Trying to figure him out has given new color and dimension to the endless stream of repetitive days. 

An enigmatic figure, I’ve only seen my neighbor once. It was about two weeks after I’d moved in. I had stepped outside to throw out my garbage at around 23:30. Our building has a communal bin, and garbage is supposed to be put out at 8:00 in the morning; however, nearly everyone cannot be bothered and does it the night before. As I stepped outside, I looked up to see a nondescript Japanese man of undetermined age standing in the doorway. Before him was an open garbage bag that I had caught him as he sorted through it. Barely visible behind him in the lit doorway, I glimpsed more bags of garbage. 

Surprised, I raised my hand in greeting, but before I could get out a friendly “konbanwa,” he slammed the door shut – leaving the bag of garbage outside. It all happened so fast, I didn’t even get a good look at him. If the police wanted me to pick him out of a lineup, I simply couldn’t do it. The bag of garbage would remain outside his door for an entire day before it disappeared. Whether it eventually made it down to the bin or disappeared back into the depths of his apartment, I’ll never know.