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Cleaning Problems Unique to Japan:
Tatami Mat Flooring, Mildew, Water Traps, Washing Machines, Playground Mud, Air Filters, Sawdust Walls

Researched By Cornelia [4 April 2000]

Cleaning is not my favorite subject, but after 8 years in Tokyo and a few vacations back in my home-country, I realize that newcomers might want to know some of the tricks I've learned here. If you don't have any tatami mat flooring in your domicile, skip down a bit to where I start in on mildew, but those of you who do, let me just say that charming as I found tatami when I first arrived, I have grown to dislike it. It is high maintenance. Once you have kids added to the domestic equation, anything high maintenance is best gotten rid of.

Although an 80 year old woman said they used to sprinkle the tatami with used tea leaves and then sweep them up leaving a nice smell while removing all the dust, nowadays tatami is primarily vacuumed. When something spills on it you soak it up with a towel that you should always have at arms reach. With luck it was a clear liquid like green tea, or something solid and easy to sweep up like rice cracker crumbs. Anything else leaves residues behind that will eventually face you down in mortal combat. No problem since tatami mats are turned over after 5 years and replaced after 10. Sometimes less. Well at a minimum of 10,000 yen a piece this is pricey. And if you live like many Japanese, your tatami has furniture standing on it that reaches to your ceiling, a hodge-podge of boxes, papers and so on encroaching on the floor space, in short a huge nightmare to move around when it's time to replace the flooring.

Solution: cover it with a vinyl carpet. They come in 2 and 3 tatami mat sizes, and if you look hard you can find a no-name brand for about 10,000 yen and under depending on size. A designer brand such as National will cost 20,000 yen for a 3 tatami size one. Before you finally opt for the vinyl, you may have already had some major accidents. I start with a sponge moistened in dish washing soap and water which works for basic non-dairy dirt. However poopy diaper messes deserve a shot of bleach added into the solution to kill germs. Urine is not a major problem, high in acid a bit of bleach will neutralize it. The real killer is anything with milk in it, especially vomit. It took me a week to figure this out, but the answer was vinegar, which takes that curdled milk smell right out. Anytime tatami gets wet, you need to make sure it dries if you don't want it to start growing mold. A judiciously placed floor fan is good.

Tatami has an additional problem which can happen any time but tends to occur more often during season changes from dry to humid or humid to dry, the dreaded tatami ticks. This requires store-bought chemical interference, which you will gladly pay 1000 yen for because these bites keep you from sleeping. Even if they don't wake you up, your tossing and turning child will. So tiny you will not see them, these bugs deliver a noticeable punch. They are called "dani" which the typical dictionary translates as a tick or mite, a blood-sucking parasitic arachnid. The most popular weapon against them is an aerosol spray with a small needle that is inserted into the tatami mat 6 (small tatami) or 8 (original "old" tatami") times at evenly spaced points, each point receiving a 15-20 second injection. The name is "Dani ah-su". The 300ml yellow, red and white can has illustrations on it of the dani and how to insert the needle in the tatami, so it is fairly easy to find.

The poison is not considered to be strong, but I plan at least an hour out of the house right after a "treatment". Instructions on the can ask you not to spray eating utensils, pets or chldren or to use more than once a week. Washing hands and taking off shoes when coming back inside help prevent reintroduction of "dani" into your home, which are brought in via pet paws, shoes or a child's hands that have been touching things on the ground outside.

Mildew of course is not unique to Japan, but Japanese mildew is somehow a much more constant factor than I remember from home. Aside from very humid summers and lots of steamy baths, I think a fair bit can be blamed on the modern building materials used in constructing "mansions". If you live in a wooden building you will probably suffer less mildew above the ground floor than in a concrete building. Ground floors are a huge mildew haven no matter what the building materials. If you close and lock up your place for a 2 week trip during the summer, you will come back to a mildew mess. If you can figure out a way to run your dehumidifier the whole time you are gone, it is well worth the electricity bill. If that is not an option then leave the bath fan on, always. I leave my bathroom window open the whole time I am gone (yes, I've got a window, not a unit bath!). Prevention is everything, and ventilation is the best weapon. Once the mildew gets into your clothes, and leather shoes, you will want to leave permanently with no glances back.

There are lots of expensive mildew cleaning sprays for your bath, but if you can get a hold of baking soda (maybe bring a box back on one of your trips) this makes a nice and very effective paste when mixed with bleach, for the typical grout & tile cleaning. Not only does it get rid of the mildew and its stain, but also soap scum and some of the water residue (depending on your water). Mildew stains rubber, cloth and leather products. In clothes they can sometimes be bleached out IF the cloth is white and not wool or silk. Colors and silk/wool fabrics are washable but there is no way to remove a mildew stain. Bleach will actually set a mildew stain into the rubber gasket around a refrigerator door. So prevent the mildew. There is a nifty product available throughout the summer which is best described as a "moisture collector" (shiikke tori). I get packages of three for about 300 yen. I open them and stick them in my closets and even inside the big plastic boxes that I use to store my winter clothes in. They will absorb about a 1.5 cups of humidity before you have to change them.

If you are in the process of building a house, it is really important that you have a venting crawl space underneath as well as at least 2 moisture barriers between your ground floor and the crawl space. About a foot deep will probably do the job, and a fan to push the air through doesn't hurt. Do not let your builder talk you out of these most essential measures or make you feel stupid by laughing. It will cost you a fortune to put these in later if it is even possible. The builder won't have to live and clean there; you will. Also keep in mind that mildew does exacerbate breathing problems such as asthma.

Japanese plumbing is weird. They have water traps, but not the double u-turn that I am used to. This is a cleaning problem because the traps they use are removable and get scummy. Not too appetizing to look at, but I clean them once a month or so just to make sure there aren't any excessive numbers of germs seeping back into my apartment from the sink and shower drains. When I come back from my extended summer absence every year, one of my first tasks is to run the water everywhere, to refill the dried out traps. Secondly I open all the windows, to thoroughly air out the "apato".

Washing machine cleaner example Washing machines get scummy, brown build-up inside, why exactly I haven't figured out, maybe because so many parts are plastic? I have never seen the same kind of scum in the machines back home. Well, there is a cleaner made just for washing machines (cost might be around 500 yen)! It has a picture of the washer drum on the front, the left half clean and sparkling and the right half scummy. The side and back of the box have further diagrams making it the identifiable product. Some washers have more plastic inside and some are built with metal drums. Apparently there is a slightly different cleaner used for the one than the other. If the whole drum is plastic, choose the plastic one. If the drum is mostly stainless, with some plastic, then use stainless. Or to be extra safe choose one that is designed to work on both types safely. I do this about once a year. You might need to do it less or more depending on how much you wash. If you can't find the box, ask for "sentakuki kurina". You put the water level on the highest setting, throw in the powder and run the heavy duty cycle. If a lot of scummy crud comes out, you might want to run the washer one more time before you do a load of clothing. Then breath easy for another year.

stainless ok, plastic ok What to look for when choosing a washing machine cleaner: This says "Stainless and Plastic are both OK!" The red part means "stainless" and the blue part means "plastic".

If your child plays in the local parks and sand boxes, particularly at daycare or kindergarten where the eternally wise staff often decides to add water to the sandbox on a hot day, you are faced with a special dark gray mud stain that will not wash out in a washing machine, not even with bleach. The clay where I come from is red, here it is black. The main difference is that we do not mix clay into our sandboxes but apparently here they do. If you can't control which shirts and shorts your kids happen to be in when they are allowed to play in the watered sandboxes, you may want to make the effort to get a favorite pair of shorts (and shirt and underwear and socks) to actually look clean again. The only successful way to do this, I have found, is with bar soap, scrub brush and elbow grease. Scrub until the stains are almost gone BEFORE adding to the rest of the wash. Once the stains have been washed and dried even once, they are fairly permanent.

With room by room air conditioners and small wall mounted water heaters, there are a lot of air filters to be cleaned. This is a thankless task (just like all cleaning) because they just get dirty again. But keeping your filters cleaned (with vacuum or brush and soapy water) will make a difference in performance. I do them about once every 3 or 4 months. It doesn't take too much common sense to figure out where the filters are on most of the appliances, but there are older models that simply don't have them. One less thing to clean.

If you have one of those rooms where the walls are covered in sawdust, actually a traditional wall style called "tsuchikabe", this is very traditional stuff, and you should consider yourself lucky, even if it does make a big mess on your floor every time someone or something rubs up against it. Newer versions of the same "look" are not so rub-able and can actually be vacuumed with a soft brush attachment, but the older stuff can't be washed or cleaned. Just get used to it, consider it part of the "charm" of your place, or start looking for a new one.

There are a number of interesting items for sale in Japan which I have never seen anywhere else. For example, if you are into water conservation, you can buy a small electric pump that moves the water from your bathtub into your washing machine. This only works if the two are not very far apart. This "ofuro pumpu" costs about 2000 yen. You can see an image of it here. The yellow part is the pump and goes into the tub water. You manually flip the switch on to start pumping AND off again when the desired water level is reached. Nope, the pump does not know when to stop! Suggestion: If you want to buy one, print out and take the picture with you to the store!

A quick glossary for those of you new to Tokyo: an "apato" is an old, decrepit apartment usually in a wooden building; a "mansion" is a concrete/plaster apartment, with a steel door to the gangway, in a concrete building. It doesn't matter how nicely maintained your "apato" is, it is decrepit by definition and your rent should reflect this. Ground floor apartments are considered dangerous due the unbelievably high amount of crime these days, thus also commanding lower rents. Houses can be either "apato" style or "mansion" style. Very little housing actually reaches the realm of "Western luxury" with amenities such as central air (which is the perfect way to fight mildew).

Cleaning Supplies Vocabulary:

ant spray - ari no sacchu zai
baking soda - juso-u
bath heater cleaner - furo kama yo senjo zai
bath tub cleaner - furo yo sen zai
bleach - hyo haku zai
chlorine bleach - enso kei hyo haku zai
color fast (non-chlorine) bleach - sanso kei hyo haku zai
carpet cleaner - jutan yo sen zai
dehumidifying pellets - shiikke tori
dishwashing liquid - shokki yo ekitai sen zai
drain cleaner - paipu kurina
dry cleaning fluid spot remover - ???
dust mite or tatami mite killers - dani no kujo
fabric softener - junan shiage zai
floor cleaner - fuki soji yo sen zai
floor wax - juka yo wakkusu
furniture polish - kaguno tsuya dashi
laundry soap - sentaku yo sekken
non-phosphorus laundry soap - murin sentaku yo sekken
soap powder - konasekken
detergent - gosei sen zai
mildew spray - kabi kira
moisture collectors - joshitsu zai, shikke tori
mosquito coil - katori senko
electric mosquito repellent - denshi katori
moth repellent - bochuzai
roach hotel - gokiburi hoi hoi
room freshener - hoko zai
sink cleaner - nagashi yo sen zai
spot cleaner - bubun araiyo
stain remover - shimi nuki yo sen zai
starch (goes into washing machine) - sentaku nori
starch spray (used while ironing) - sentaku nori supure
for toilets - toire yo
toilet cleaner - toire yo sen zai
toilet cleaner, neutral type - toire yo sen zai chusei
toilet cleaner, chlorine type - toire yo sen zai enso kei
toilet cleaner, acid type - toire yo sen zai sansei taipu
toilet cleaner, antibacterial type - toire yo sen zai jokin senjo
toilet plunger - tsumari tori ("blockage take out")
wool cleaner - uru yo sen zai
washing machine tub cleaner - sentakki so kurina

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