Beautifying Your Balcony

How to Make the Most of Your Mansion’s Outdoor Space

By Elizabeth Sok
October 20, 2021

As we prepare to further hunker down in our mansions this fall, why not give your balcony an upgrade? Check out our tips below to spruce up the outdoor space you call your own.

Our mansion’s balcony started off as an extension of the concrete jungle around it. Sometimes it’s the repository of all our family’s clothes hung up to dry, sometimes it’s the home of house plants who seemed dissatisfied with their lighting indoors (the cement rectangular box adjoining our mansion didn’t get as much love as the rest of our apartment). As our home-building projects expanded, however, we turned to our balcony, which has become a small but lush oasis, thanks to a modest investment and lots of hands in the dirt. 

Beautifying Your Balcony

Luckily for us, transforming our space into somewhere we actually wanted to hang out, for the most part, didn’t require much skill. Perhaps the most labor-intensive part was the plants themselves. While we had experience with gardening, we also had to learn about plant predators in warmer climates than in our home country of Canada. Case in point, this week, we met caterpillars who demolished all the leaves on the balcony’s mikan and kinkan (kumquat) trees yet were uninterested in any of our other plants. But, with a little help from the Internet and our friendly GooDay home center nearby, raising plants has been very doable. The other design elements which we utilized, researched off Pinterest and plant books from Kinokuniya and Maruzen, can easily be planned and executed in a weekend, once you have a plan.

Beautifying Your Balcony© Photo by Elizabeth Sok

And don’t worry if you don’t have much extra cash for your balcony rejuvenation project! We got many of our plants and their pots for under ¥500 thanks to the home centers and 100-yen stores while other decors, such as textiles and lights, were repurposed from elsewhere inside. In post-coronavirus times perhaps, we will use it for entertaining, but for now it is like an extension of our apartment for remote work, reading, puzzles, bubbles, feeding the baby and most of our other family needs. Of course, our “outdoor room” is best suited to the temperate spring, early summer in between the rains, and fall. But, even on the most sweltering and humid of August days, there is a respite from the baking concrete among the plants in the evening, while as a Canadian, I still marvel at being able to grow plants in the wintertime as well.  

Read on for tips to transform the outdoor space of your rental into a cute-and-cozy nook for your morning coffee, post-school snack or Sunday afternoon novel! 

1. Flooring

Beautifying Your Balcony© Photo by Elizabeth Sok

One of the first steps we took in “renovating” our balcony was to upgrade its base. In this case, it meant covering up the drab concrete that would do no justice to even the most stylish planters and flowers that would decorate the space. Both Amazon and IKEA sell wooden (or wood-like plastic) waterproof outdoor tiles which add warmth and richness to city balconies. The Protec brand on Amazon, the ones which I used, come in sets of 10 panels for about ¥3,600. Since they interlock with each other and leave the concrete underneath intact, you should also not run into trouble with your landlord. Easy to install (my four-year-old helped!) and a breeze to keep clean, these tiles also contribute to a more “natural” feel which harmonizes nicely with lots of greenery. This brings me to the next point…

2. Plants

Beautifying Your Balcony© Photo by Elizabeth Sok

Once your base is complete, the first kind of decor that transforms a balcony from sterile to livable is greenery. Whether or not you have a green thumb, Japan’s humid and hot summers make for a long growing season and lots of happy plant life. Hit up the home centers, like GooDay or NAFCO, for cheap (many of mine were under ¥300!) plants, pretty pots with good drainage and high-quality soil. You can go for aesthetics only with greenery and flowers or make your own kitchen garden! Some of my fruit and vegetable plants even came from the seeds of fruits I bought and ate –like melon and mandarin– both of which grow great in Japan’s warm seasons. Just don’t forget to water after the sun goes down so they can best absorb all that moisture after a scorching day. 

3. Furniture

Beautifying Your Balcony

Now that your tiled floor and potted garden are in place, you need somewhere to sit! Depending on your budget, you have options. The cheapest way to procure seating is to have your indoor furniture multi-task: in a pinch, dining chairs and coffee or side tables can be moved outside when you need and inside otherwise. The next “step up” is to purchase small folding chairs and a table if needed. These are at a cheaper price-point and easy to store when you want more space on the balcony. If you are willing to invest in your outdoors a bit more, there are stylish metal, rattan, or wood table and chair sets for purchase at the home stores, Nitori, or Amazon, but these are a minimum of ¥10,000. For an Instagram-friendly setup, why not try a large padded bench with pillows? Of course, an outdoor sofa would be most comfortable, but you would be amazed at what an inexpensive wood bench can accomplish when it is equipped with the right textiles…

4. Texture & Textiles

Beautifying Your Balcony© Photo by Elizabeth Sok

Indeed, adding texture, often through textiles, to your balcony, is a shortcut to a styling outdoor space. Choose a color palette and coordinate around it, just as you would in your living room. For instance, if all your planters are in a terracotta brown color, try purchasing throw pillows with covers in a pop color, like turquoise. Soft blankets and pillows really make your balcony feel livable. To extend this feel, you can try a carpet made of durable material underneath your seating area. Try a patterned one for a boho vibe! 

On a bigger balcony, the carpet can also double as a way to demarcate your “living” area from storage or laundry. It goes without saying that all the textiles need to come in when it’s raining, especially on a balcony with less coverage. In typhoon season, in particular, since all of the textiles can easily go flying, make sure they are safely stored indoors.

5. Lighting

Beautifying Your Balcony

As a finishing touch, consider the power of lighting! Especially if you want to hang out in your new digs after dark, string lights can be invaluable. Without electric outlets, opt for solar or battery-powered lights. Rather than the smallest Christmas-y lights, the mini-globe-style ones look especially chic. Make sure to choose outdoor-friendly ones which can withstand the elements! Another way to cast a glow on your new balcony is with a lantern or two. Go for a shape or pattern that speaks to you and enjoy the gentle lighting that lanterns can provide. 

Of course, in all your outdoor decorating adventures, remember that you are in Japan and follow the same rules that you’ve been accustomed to the inside of your mansion, like keeping the music and partying to a minimum. If anything, aim to follow these two-fold since now you are outside and likely sharing the airspace with neighbors both in your building and ones nearby. Also note that some balconies, like mine, have written notices to not block the sidewalls, which function as breakable exits in case of emergency. So make sure that your furniture and large plants steer clear of those areas. 

With these tips in mind, don’t be surprised when your new balcony, with its warm and comfortable accents, plant jungle, cozy seating and mood lighting, becomes your favorite place this Autumn! 

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