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Saturday, July 23, 2016

So You're Going To Japan: Some Quick Advice

This is the time of year that people who have been selected to participate in the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme are worrying trying to determine just what they need to take from home to Japan.

Twenty-six years ago, I packed a lot... paid extra to fly it over, but found it well worth the effort and cost.

I assume that people traveling to Japan will have done far more research on WHERE they are going than I did—I winged it... though I did have a few letters exchanged (before E-mail) with my predecessor who at least gave me brief advice on the weather and what the teaching would be like.

Both helpful... though I prefer to make up my own mind when it comes to things, knowing in advance that the JTEs (Japanese teachers of English) don't speak English as perfectly as you might hope or expect, was helpful in tempering expectations.

Anyhow... more on that sort of stuff later... 

So... here's my advice on


1) ADAPTER/CONVERTER: If you have any sort of electrical instrument, from phone, laptop, camera, shaver, toothbrush, curling iron, be aware that Japan uses a different amperage than other countries, so having an electrical adapter/converter is a must.

In Japan, the voltage is 100V (volts). In the U.S. and Canada, it’s 120V… it’ll work, but it will burn out the electronic device sooner or later. Central Europe, it’s 230V… and man, sometimes you guys have funky outlets.

Buy an adapter/converter BEFORE you leave your country.

2) BRING GIFTS: Not only should you bring something very nice for your Board of Education’s superintendent and your boss (Booze - whiskey..  the good stuff) , you might also think about bringing smaller gifts for the other men and women you will encounter in your travails and travels who will HELP you. While you could purchase standard Japanese gifts in Japan such as senbei rice crackers gift boxes or Kit Kat's sets or special tins of o-cha (green tea) powder, presenting a gift from your home town or country is perhaps more appreciated by the recipient.

I would also suggest bringing plenty of gifts for your youthful students… as rewards for good work in school on your teaching projects or for speeches. I would recommend low-level coinage from your country. Tie pins with your country’s flag. Some people bring stamps… not my bag, but whatever.

I brought silk scarves for the women, wood carvings, even an Inuit soapstone carving, which I gave to my boss celebrating 20 years in his job. I also gave a very nice scarf to an office worker celebrating her 30th year that same night.

Gifts are also appreciated by your Board of Education after you go away on vacation somewhere later. It's to thank them for giving you permission to do so, and for you to be a nice person. I did NOT do this (still had a good experience with all involved), but had I known, I might have done so. Money is always an issue, right? But a large box of rice crackers from the train station for the office would be cool.

3) PHOTOS, NUDGE, NUDGE, WINK, WINK: When you arrive in Japan and begin teaching at your school or schools, each initial class will more than likely be in the for of an introduction. The kids and teachers are as interested in you as you are of them and Japan. Bring printed photos of your family, friends, home, way of life, neighborhood, boyfriend or girlfriend(s), typical dinner and setting, of a similar level of school… stuff like that.

Oh.. be prepared to tell them how tall you are or or how much you way (if you are comfortable with such things) in METRIC. That advice is for Americans, and dumb Canadians like myself. Know your shoe size… converting it to centimeters. I have a 10-1/2, shoe that is 12-inches long and therefore 30 centimeters.

You may get asked about penis size or three sizes (bust-waist-hips), but feel free to tell them it is not polite to ask such things.

4) CLOTHING: Unless you are the same size as the average Japanese person, clothing - and shoes - will not fit you. Bring what you need, have stuff shipped over by family or friends later or wait until you can vacation in say… Singapore and have clothing made for you there.

Even still, unless you can find a western-style clothing store, you might not care for the Japanese fashions, or worse yet, may not find a 'western' fit for your body-style.

5) CONDOMS: Although a virgin when I left Toronto as a near 26-year-old, I was confident that I could lose that tag upon arrival in Japan. I brought three boxes of 12 condoms with me —used two to practice putting them on… I ripped the first one… and had my mom purchase and ship more condoms to me by mid-November, and again every few months.

Why? Japan has condoms, but they are made for the Japanese market. Depending on your needs, Japanese condoms may not fit your penis. I bought a pack, squeezed on on, and nearly took out my girlfriend’s eye when it snapped off.

You only think I’m joking, but I’m not.

6) TOILETRIES: Maybe this is different now, but back then Japanese water lacked fluoride in the water. Japanese dentistry wasn’t known for its sparkling reputation. You might want to bring along toothpaste. I also brought along extra sets of contact lenses and saline solution… but I don’t know how the latter will fly with today’s aviation security.

Deodorant… bring what you like. Shaving cream, too and razors… again… not sure about airport security.  Hair care products, too. Have it shipped in advance (too late now), or maybe you can get lucky at your local department store… ask when you get into Tokyo for orientation… load up until you can have materials shipped in.

Of course, if you are in a big city like Tokyo or Osaka, you are set. For those of you in a smaller city, it could be hit or miss… but I would think you shouldn’t be too off put. Those in a small village or town… road trip.

I'm also going to include medication here... you need it, you bring it.

7) BACKPACK: This is a must.  You will use it everywhere you travel in your day-to-day activities. Yes, a briefcase looks great - same with a purse, handbag, clutch - whatever the fug you call those things—but a backpack will be your lifesaver. Just trust me. Oh… if you are like me and liked to wear the backpack ON your back… just note that Japan has a high level of humidity, and your back will get soaked… unless there’s something fantastic with modern backpacks that I don’t know about (likely).     

I still have that backpack I took with me to every school, every where I vacationed in Japan, to Malaysia, Thailand, Saipan, Singapore... even to Tokyo Disneyland. It's coming apart at the seams, but it still works for me daily as I take it to work.  

8) EXTRA MONEY: While you should not be asked to pay for key money while on the JET Programme, (not sure what it is - look it up), I would recommend bringing along a lot of of money for that initial month of your stay in Japan before you get paid.

Yes, lots of things will be paid for by others looking to welcome you, but that initial stay in Tokyo for orientation… after dinner meals or drinks out with friends will cost you. Same with if you are going to buy toiletry supplies ahead of time… yes… a predecessor may have left you something to help you out… but you know what you like.

I think we were told (26 years ago) to bring approximately US$300-500 in funds to tide us through. That was 26  years ago. I had around US$700 and an empty Visa card, and do recall being able to help out a fellow AET (assistant English teacher) with a loan. Lend money to people you feel you can trust. I got lucky, and 26 years later consider the guy I lent a few bucks to one of my best friends on the planet.

Do NOT bring your country’s money to Japan expecting to change it to Japanese yen. I mean, yeah… you can do it… but when you get off that plane, you are racing to get your luggage and then find out what van or bus is picking you up to take you to Tokyo… you’ll be tired, excited and sweaty (When my plane landed, it was about 4PM and it was 34º Celsius (93.2F). And here’s the weird thing – it was getting hotter as the day progressed), so  it was convenient for me to get the heck onto the scheduled air-conditioned vehicle and get to my air-conditioned hotel, have a shower, explore the area around my hotel, get frightened and go and crawl back in my hotel room to watch CNN.

It is easier to get your money exchanged into yen back in your own country—they’ll speak your language better, and you’ll save some time.

By the way… you will be paid monthly. It will be deposited directly into your soon-to-be-set-up Japanese bank account. You will receive a bank card that can be used in an ATM  - pay attention to how that machine works, because it’s in Japanese.

I am assuming that you can use a bank debit card to make purchases in Japan - but only the Japanese bank debit card. I couldn’t do that in my day, except in Canada. No cheques/checks used for purchases in Japan, please. 

Some places will take your foreign credit card. Some places will not. They won’t even take a Japanese credit card. There are plenty of places like that in Japan still, but they are usually older establishments. But I would assume even those places are becoming less evident.     

9) HOBBIES: You may or may not be able to use your phone or laptop right away. I don’t even know how to help get you set up. I would assume your boss entity—The Board of Education—will be able to help you. Bring a book. A real book.

You can find books—English language books and comic books—at many Japanese bookstores, especially in Tokyo or Osaka… load up, but only for what you will need that first month… remember… you aren’t getting paid for about 30 days.

I spent most of my first month in Japan going to my Board of Education office and being shown around the city (during the work day) by my team. Don’t feel weird if they offer to buy you lunch or things like that… they’ll expense it and it will come out of the large annual budget they have put aside for you and your needs. (For example, I wrecked my tatami mats and had to have them replaced. They bought me a bilingual television so I could watch a few set shows in English. They bought me a central heating/air-conditioning unit so I didn’t kill myself from accidental kerosene poisoning. They bought me a queen-sized bed so that I wouldn’t go to school complaining about tatami mat burns to my knees from too much sex. And those are just the things I know about.) 

I spent my evenings with other AETs, an international association of curious Japanese, cycling about the city and getting lost everyday… you know… the usual stuff.


I don’t have a No. 10.

I could have spread things around and talked about winter clothing… depends on your place… I needed snow boots, dress shoes, running shoes. I needed winter gloves, scarves and hats. You know you’ll more than one pair, because you’ll lose one. I brought a spring windbreaker with a hoodie that I used it as a rain coat… but it wasn’t water-proof. Or humidity proof. I drove everywhere in Toronto and did not need a raincoat. Odds are very good you will need one in Japan.

The author and his windbreaker breaking wind.

It effing rains a lot in Japan.

Bring lots of tee-shirts, dress clothing, ties… wear a tie for goodness sake. You are representing yourself, your city and your country. Wear this stuff to work.

Bring sweaters.

Sunglasses. While you can find sunglasses - and good expensive ones in Japan, as they are becoming more… popular, not every town has such a place, I had a place that sold cool 1950s looking Ray Ban products. You will NEED sunglasses more than the average Japanese person.

Skis, snowboards, skateboards, etc… aside from the skateboard (I know that’s personal), I would recommend getting these items in Japan.

Bicycles will be provided for your daily usage. My BOE had an 18-speed built for me and my size… it had a basket on the front handlebars, and a bell.  It seems silly, but both are useful in Japan. Oh, it also had a light for night riding… trust me.. also very, very helpful.

Okay…  that’s about it. If you have any questions, contact me, and I’ll do my best to answer or find an answer for you.

Tomorrow, I’ll present a blog on what NOT to bring to Japan. In case you are going shopping soon.

Andrew Joseph

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