Doing Laundry in Japan
What is it like to do laundry in Japan?
Residential washing machines are small compared to those in the US. Capacity is from 3.5 kg. up to 10 kg. Dryer capacity is even less: from 3kg. to 6 kg. Many washing machines are combination washer/dryers, since they save space in compact residences. Older washers have two tubs side by side: one for washing/rinsing and one for spinning dry.
The combination of small load sizes plus the need to use the washer again soon means that most wet laundry is usually hung outside to dry on balconies or verandas. A variety of rods and racks are available for this purpose. One such device, called a “tako" (octopus), has multiple “arms” with dangling plastic clips. A "tako" can range in size from about two hands wide to a meter. Some are circular, some oval, some rectangular. These can usually be folded in half for nearly flat storage. Others are stand types, with tripod or quadruped bases. These can be partly folded into long, straight positions for storage. Similar to the “take” is the dryer parasol, which has a clamp hook at the top and arms that unfold like an umbrella from a central stem.
Most apartment balconies come equipped with two metal "arms" affixed. These "arms" are pulled up and out, and have regularly spaced holes into which long metal poles are inserted. These poles are usually from three to five meters in length, and 2.5 centimeters in diameter. They’re called either “sao-take”, as in bamboo pole, the original old type, or “monohoshizao”, which means a pole for clothes. You may to buy the poles at a home center or from one of the little trucks that slowly drives through the residential areas blaring a pre-recorded message to come out and buy laundry poles. Plastic clips keep laundry from blowing or falling of the poles. They come in various shapes and colors, with sizes ranging from small enough for lingerie to large enough to hold futons. Multi-slot racks for inserting clothes hangers make it possible to hang many shirts in a small area. Special hangers with clamp hooks keep everything securely attached to laundry poles. I have rarely seen a wooden clothes peg or clothespin in Japan, except for tiny decorative clothespins used as interior accents.
A word of warning to women: there are thieves who steal ladies’ undergarments from laundry poles, so make sure your lingerie is hidden from street view.
If it is too wet and/or cloudy, or if it is pollen season, or when yellow sand from China's Gobi Desert is blowing over, or while in areas where radiation is high, laundry is hung inside to dry. This is called “heya-boshi”, or room-drying. There are even some detergents specifically developed for use with indoor drying. There are several gadgets to facilitate indoor drying. One is a wooden triangle with small rods that will fit atop the high wooden runners in the corners of traditional Japanese rooms. From these rods, regular hangers may be hung, or a "tako" may be clipped on. Another is an indoor retractable clothesline that is attached to one wall and has a connecting bracket on the opposite wall. Plastic and metal drying racks are also popular. These range from simple X-frames to multi-level contraptions with varying heights and widths. Some can be easily folded or disassembled for storage, while others are set fast. Of course, some of the items used for outdoor drying may also be used indoors.
Cold water is the default setting for many washing machines, and some residences only supply a cold water outlet by the laundry area. So, how do you save money and energy while using hot water for your washing? By reusing bath water! Since bathtubs are normally located close to laundry hook-ups, it's easy. A special hose accessory that comes with the purchase of any washing machine is attached to the top of the washer on one end, and the other end, usually with a ball-like nozzle, is dropped into the bath tub. Often the hose is accordian pleated so that it can be collapsed into a fraction of its fully extended length for easy storage. The washer sucks the water in for the first wash cycle and first rinse cycle. After that, clean water from the laundry hook-up is used. A filter in the nozzle prevents debris from entering the washing machine.
Special soaps exist for dirty collars, school shoes, lingerie, and infants' clothing. There are hypo-allergenic, all-natural, organic, and eco-friendly formulas available. I must confess to buying European specialty detergent for dark clothing, as no Japanese products currently fill that niche.
Fabric softener has had a mini-boom in popularity since 2010, when highly-scented fabric softeners from Europe, North America and Asia hit the local supermarkets. Also, there are special fabric softening, lint catching balls that are tossed into the washing machine with the laundry. These are plastic balls with ridges or nylon balls that look like wool. Spray-on fabric refreshers started to become popular in 2008 for their deodorizing and anti-bacterial properties.
Laundromats are the only places for large-capacity washers and dryers that can handle bedding and such. Coin laundries are often found in older residential neighborhoods, near universities, and near train stations. Word of warning: stay with your washing in a Laundromat to avoid having your clothing stolen.
Happy wash day!