As with any house move the greatest stress, I find, comes with the juggling act that is needing to leave packing to the last minute because, frankly, you are using your stuff to live! When moving overseas, particularly for a finite amount of time based on a project or some such, there is (more often than not) the extra stress created by the fact that you have to choose what to bring and what to leave behind in storage. This article strives to help you with that. Please do add your own thoughts to the comments if you’ve been through it, too – “moving to japan” is one of the most common key phrases that link people to this site and I’m sure it will be much appreciated!
Tip 1: Find out your shipping options early and take your own time.
The first thing to do as early as possible is to find out what your shipping options will be. If a sea shipment is not a possibility for you then, frankly, that takes a little pressure off since it rules out bringing anything really substantial and cuts down your need to make a decision but, then again, you won’t be able to bring anything substantial… If you are being transferred by your company you will no doubt at least have an air shipment but it is likely to be fairly small: whatever you can fit into about the size of 4 standard (tea chest size) boxes seems to have been common to the couples that moved over with us – hopefully if you have children you will have more and/or a sea shipment option.
Whatever your options, most international shipping needs to be professionally packed for insurance and import reasons so you will likely have at least one consultant come to your house to assess how much stuff you have and give your company (or you if you’re self-funding) an estimate. They will want to book it as soon as your company calls them because they may be competing for the business but here’s an important tip:
Don’t be hassled into doing it until you feel you can give them a fairly precise idea of what you want to take because you will be held to that quote with very little leeway.
When they call you, ask them what they were told would be the ballpark – at the least they will know whether they are quoting for a sea shipment as well as air freight. After you’ve asked your questions, make the appointment within a week to be fair but to give you time to do what you need to do. Which leads us to:
Deciding what to bring.
So, how to decide what to bring? Well, I’m going to give you a list of things you may have trouble finding when you get here but beyond that I’m going to reiterate my advice from my previous post in the series: however humble or temporary it is going to be, create a home for yourself – you’ll need it.
Tip 2: Take an unabashed emotional inventory
Before you get into the nitty gritty, make some time for yourself and a cup of tea, grab a pen and paper and sit quietly for a bit. Ask yourself what stuff makes your home home. We’re talking emotionally here and it’s totally valid and will be worth the time however rushed you feel you are. Now is not the time to be tough with yourself or build some ideal about not needing ‘stuff’ to be happy – just be gentle and honest with yourself. My husband was honestly happy to leave all his books behind, if he needed something to read he’d buy something new. On the other hand, I knew that I had to have at least some books with me – it was partly rational as most of the books that I’d consider “mine” are non-fiction and are references for my writing projects but it was also hugely emotional: my books are part of what is home for me. I also realized that it was important to have my Grandmother’s china with me – it’s not hugely valuable or several generations old but it was hers and came to me via my Aunt and its one of the few family things I have – we barely use it but it’s here and I’m glad it is.
Don’t forget, too, that it’s not just about what you would miss having around if you were feeling down – think about what you do when you celebrate, too. Do you always toast with particular glasses? Do you have special Christmas decorations you’ve had since a child? I have a what I call my festival tree which is a cone shaped “tree” made in Africa of vines woven together and then dried which was made as a Christmas tree but which I decorate for all sorts of occasions – people think it’s weird as hell but it came with us!
Of course you should also ask the rest of your family to think about that, too. If they poo-poo you and you can’t convince them it’s important then maybe take some guesses yourself about what is special to them, though it’s best to have it from them of course. If you come up with a huge list then you will probably have to cull it so think hard about what is really important to you.
Tip 3: Things you might find hard to get in Japan
Okay now down to what the practical among you will find the most important – list time.
Furniture (Sea Shipment):
Really only two suggestions here – everything else you will be able to lease in some form without too much trouble.
Your double (or larger) bed.
Obviously if you can’t have a sea shipment or you’ve one of the many apartments or houses in which a double bed would not fit then this is impossible but if you have a good bed that suits your back give HUGE consideration to bringing it. If you’ve been on a trip to Japan already you’ll have noticed that the beds in hotels are very hard and so are most beds in Japan – and I don’t mean firm and supportive, I mean H A R D. Unless you have a few thousand dollars (US $) that you are happy to spend on a bed just for use over here or can spend most of your furniture lease budget on it, any bed that you lease or buy on the cheap here will be a) probably two single beds locked together and/or b) a very firm mattress sitting on a wooden box with a single, stiff, metal-reinforced wooden board underneath – no slats, no yielding to your body at all. A traditional futon in a room with tatami matting may genuinely be better for your back since tatami has more yield than the boards I’ve seen under mattresses – and is something to consider, too, anyway.
If you won’t have more than a few (say 20) books then again this doesn’t matter but if you do, and you have a sea shipment, consider bringing enough for the books you are bringing (keeping in mind the size of your new home, of course.) There are some ingenious space solutions here for books and CDs etc which are shelves but they are mostly quite chunky and won’t hold books much larger than a DVD case.
Appliances (Sea or Air):
Obviously if you come from a country with a different electrical standard (which basically means anywhere other than the US as far as I know) you will want to lease as many of your appliances as you can because you won’t be able to use them back home. We decided some things were worth bringing over and getting a big transformer to power them.
Computers and peripherals:
First of all, our furniture leasing wouldn’t cover computer gear anyway and our consultant said that was “normal” so don’t expect to be able to lease the latest whiz bang stuff because you are in Japan. Also, if you get a computer here it will have a Japanese OS and need compatible software and it’s more of a big deal than you’d think. So consider bringing your computer gear in one of your shipments. We chose to fill 3 of our 4 air shipment boxes with our computer rigs – we couldn’t wait 6 weeks for them to come by Sea! (note: it’s interesting to ask people what they put in the air shipment – it can be very telling and if you find someone with the same stuff you know you have something in common!)
This sounds silly but Japanese ironing boards tend to be the table top type and the surface itself is also very small so, if you plan to iron Westerner size clothes and want to be able to stand up straight while you do it – put your ironing board in your sea shipment or sweet talk the movers into finding some way to pack it into the air shipment!
Consumables (a little by Air, a lot by Sea)
There are several drug-store type things we were warned to bring and we have been soo glad we did! I suggest you pack about 6 months worth of these supplies – many Gaijin stock up on annual trips home and/or arrange for families and friends to send care packages at regular intervals.
Starting with the one that makes some blush to get it out of the way. We were advised by many that Japanese deodorant is “useless” and when you are struggling with the heat and mugginess of the Japanese Summer it’s the last thing you want to worry about. Since being here I think I have realised why the Japanese deodorants seem inferior – they don’t seem to use anti-perspirants. Most “deodorants” in Australia and the US (from my experience) are actually anti-perspirant deodorants – that is they control sweating as well as odour. I have not yet seen anything that was more than just a deodorant here (and the couple I’ve tried seem to do the job they are meant to do perfectly well) so that is probably the issue – nothing to do with Asian skin or being used to the heat!
Prescription meds: Obviously if you or anyone in your family is on regular medication you can arrange with your doctor to get a special prescription for more than the usual amount of medication that is usually allowed at once to ship it over (in Australia anyway). Just make sure you pack a copy of the prescription into the box with the medication and do not open a single one of the packets – do that and you should be fine.
Cold and Flu Tablets/Pain killers:
Again we were advised that cold and flu tablets available here were not as effective as the ones in Australia, I’m still not sure if it is true but we did pack a bunch of stuff like aspirin (soluble aspirin is something I haven’t found here yet), panadeine, naprogesic and lemsip. It wasn’t that I had a lack of faith in Japanese pharmaceuticals but more because I knew that we were likely to be in need of such medications at some point waaaay before my language was good enough for navigating the chemist to be anything but miserable!
Shampoo and Conditioners/Cosmetics – this is for the girls (unless you’re Japanese)
There’s just no getting round it, different races have different hair and I’d advise that unless you have Asian hair you either make sure you have uncoloured, untreated hair when you come here and use the most basic of products you can find or you bring your own. I didn’t and I’ve really regretted it this last couple of weeks as I struggle to find something to replace the single bottles I arrived with. What does “struggled mean?” My hair is slightly coloured a little darker than my natural dark ash blonde hair so at home I’d use a colour care for the UV but something light that didn’t weigh it down. I picked up a Vidal Sassoon colour care here and I have been washing sticky gunk out of my hair for days! Seriously: 18 washes and rinses, the last 6 with plain body soap and it’s only just coming out! For asian hair to be coloured at all it has to be stripped to the point where my causcasian hair would probably have broken off and so their colour care conditioner is literally loaded with sticky product to coat it and weigh it down.
When it comes to cosmetics the only thing I’d say is that if you have quite sensitive or dry skin you may have a few, but not too many, issues here. The homogeneity of the society means that, like with the shampoo, they only have to cater to a small range of skin types so a) there isn’t much for Irish skin and b) as a point of commercial differentiation the cosmetics companies seem to resort to scent much of the time so if you are sensitive to that it can be hard.IF you have oily or acne ridden skin you are in luck – the Japanese seem to struggle with this greatly and there are all sorts of products to help out!
There are some lovely things here, though – matching skin colour shouldn’t be a huge problem for anyone because the Japanese can tan astoundingly dark but also prefer to keep the skin as pale as possible. At either end of the scale you won’t be able to get the really cheap discount stuff at the bulk stores (which includes SKII and great brands) but you will probably find a skin tone match if you’re happy to pay full price.
Well! I think that about covers everything – it’s a long post but actually if you count it all up there’s not that much that you can’t get here. If you just focus on making sure you have what you really need both physically and emotionally you should do fine!
Again, I’d urge anyone with experience to feel free to add your tips to the comments section and to those just starting this adventure – good luck and try to remind yourself every now and then that you’re coming to live in Japan! Japan! This is exciting!!