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Sunday, July 24, 2016

Travel Advice: What Not To Bring To Japan And What To Expect

So... you are going to Japan on the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme in a week or so.

Have fun!

If you do it right, it just might be the most fun you ever have in your life.

While I am sure you have been given a list of things to bring with you to Japan - see HERE for a bit of my advice.

As well, there are many things you will NOT need to bring with you to Japan... things that will cause you grief at Customs, things that will be a waste of space in your luggage, and simply things you can pick up while you are in Japan.

So: here's my  list of:

Things NOT to Bring With You To Japan: 

1) Drugs. I'm talking narcotics. I know that in today's day and age, many people like to use recreational drugs.I'm mostly going to talk about marijuana in this regard, though I would bet some people have done hashish, cocaine, Ecstasy, maybe even dropped acid or done mushrooms.

The point is... don't bring that stuff with you. Japan has zero tolerance for drugs, and neither does JET.

Yes... you can find drugs in Japan. Saw it myself. Smoked something, too. The fact is, it was incredible stupid of me. I didn't get caught, and 26 years later I can write about that incident (somewhere in this blog), but play holier than thou and insist you refrain from following my example.

For medication, keep in mind that some legal medications in your country may be illegal in Japan. Over the counter-drugs, too. Refrain from bringing over-the-counter drugs in, unless you are SURE it can be brought in legally.

For those of you who do require real medications on a daily basis, please bring the prescription, keep all drugs in their original containers (don't mix them!), and even for liquids, keep separate and inform Customs. A doctor's note may also be required, so it does not hurt to have one. 

2) Weapons. It goes without saying, but even things like a pocket knife or a Swiss Army knife combo unit will not make it in, and neither will you.

It's standard fare to know not to bring this or narcotics, so 'nuff said.

3) Musical instruments. I played keyboards and clarinet... even taught bought before coming to Japan to help supplement my finances while in school... and because I figured I might be bored in Japan with nothing to do, I brought a set of electronic keyboards and a clarinet with me.

I did play both while in Japan, but truthfully, if you can't find something else to do while in Japan, you ain't trying hard enough. Cost me a lot in extra baggage fees at the airport.

4) Library. Excluding what you stuff on a Kobo, bringing more than a few books is a waste of space. I'm never going to try and dissuade someone from reading - read more! - but you can purchase English language books in Japan, especially in Osaka or Tokyo. Load up when there, or have books or other entertainment goods sent to your apartment at a later date.

5) Sports Equipment. Hey... I was a decent enough soccer player, but unless you played pro like my Aussie buddy Jim P., don't bother bringing such things over with you now. The same with tennis rackets, golf clubs, skateboards, hoverboards, skates, rollerblades, surfboards, fishing equipment, basketballs, etc.

This is all stuff you can have shipped over a week later if you really want it, or you can buy it in Japan. It's a first-world country... you can get damn near everything in Japan.

6) Pets. For god's sake, you can not bring pets with you while on the JET Programme. I had pets while in Japan... but I gave everything away when I left... fish. I did keep a stray cat I found for a night, but she wanted to leave, so what can you do.


That's pretty much it.

In Japan, when I needed something, I bought it. Now.. unlike many of my American friends, I had no student loans to take care of, as I had summer jobs pay for everything as I stayed at home and went to school. My parents may not have been cool, but they never hassled me in any way shape or form except to maybe go out more with my friends. I still don't do that enough.

For hobbies, I wrote. I built insanely large puzzles of 5,000 pieces or more (want to know what a map of the universe looks like - black with lots of white spots), built model kits (I have a Thunderbirds 2 kit I am still quite proud of, and a castle I am slowly building now, 26 years later).

I took photographs of everything - and this was when I had to purchase film and try and get things right before digital cameras made it possible for even idiots to take good pictures... which I am thankful for.

I rode my bicycle and explored nooks and crannies around my town... went into shops I might never have considered back home because you never know what you'll find.

I shopped for foods and tried things I would never have expected myself to try. I was a meat and potatoes guy in Toronto before leaving for Japan. I had only been to a Japanese restaurant once - three days earlier... I had no idea how to use chopsticks... but I learned, and I tried. Ever had a round pear the size of a softball? They are pretty common, pretty expensive, and pretty tasty. Since each could feed a family of five, buy them one at a time. Same with the huge apples. Ever tried whale? I found it in a small tin, once. Not my cup of tea, but I ate it. I didn't even know if it was cooked, needed to be cooked or what... I did cook it, because what the heck.

I found all my toiletries in Japan - though not the brands I was used to... but maybe things have changed in the last few decades. I hope so. But who cares if they haven't. I easily survived.

The point is... I had never left home through seven years of post secondary education... I knew nothing of Japan, didn't really want to go, didn't read up on it, didn't eat the food, never had a Japanese alcoholic drink, and sure as heck didn't know how to cook, shop, clean, do dishes, wash clothes, iron or sew.

But I learned.. and I learned without the internet to guide me (pre-internet)... and I learned quickly. I survived... easily... but I had my hiccups along the way.

I bought a container of chocolate milk to pour on my cereal... turned out to be a brown barley tea. Sucked horribly... but I ended up drinking it because I don't believe in wasting food or money... hey, even if you buy a comic book, as long as you read it, it's not a waste of money.

Share your bounty from home. If someone sends you DVDs of movies or TV shows or books or comics - share them with others.

My mom would send me boxes of condoms... and while I did not share them with my buddy Matthew (who probably needed extra large), I did attempt to share them with half the female AET population in my prefecture and beyond. You can buy western-sized condoms in Japan... but I had mine sent over from Canada.

She also sent me VCR tapes of shows my brother taped for me - shared, packs of lasagne shells that I could use to learn how to bake a lasagne in my convectional microwave oven... I think it was pretty good - though I added three cheeses but should have added a cream cheese to it, too.

Haircuts... Matthew found the place first and though I did even up growing my hair out ridiculously long, our barber/stylist pal still got rid of the split ends.

Booze - plenty out there... sake, beer, wine, coolers, energy drinks, cola, milk, juice.. whatever the heck you want, Japan will have it in one form or another.

Cigarettes - there's a decent enough variety.

Clothing... uh.. I'm sure there is clothing that will fit some people, but I was aghast at the stylings, price, and well everything. I had extra clothes sent over... shoes too... I did have dress pants and shirts and a jacket made for me in Thailand - all silk... raw silk looks classy... and it was all made in a day and sent to my hotel, pre-paid. Oh... I even picked the bolts of silk, and designed each re: lapels, cuffs, and pockets. Anyone can do it, obviously.

I was given a pair of ice skates, had my soccer cleats sent over... had extra contact lenses sent over...

I bought pre-made meals at the grocery stores... something I didn't see here in Toronto until a few years later... I ate smoked duck, pork cutlets (tonkatsu) on rice, ate natto (rotting soy beans) and rice given to me by schools I taught at because not everyone one (let alone a foreigner) likes the smelly, sticky, horrible taste of natto. Prove them wrong.

I made lasagne once a month. I made a huge pot of chili con carne once a week that could feed myself for three meals and some for Ashley and Matthew. Yes, you can buy ground beef, and all the veggies you think you know from back home. Spices, too. I also had flavors of tinned tea from Twinnings.

My apartment--a huge one compared to most Japanese living spaces, as it was built for a family--had plates, cutlery in spades, drinking vessels, cooking implements, a convectional microwave, small bar fridge--in Japan, you shop every day or other day for most things--a small dining table that four people could use, cupboards, shelves, bookshelf, clock, bilingual television, a kotatsu (a heated table which will come in handy in the winter, as most Japanese houses had poor insulation or heating options), a A/C-central heating device because most places will have to use a kerosene heater which requires you to keep a window/door open.... which defeats the purpose of the heater being on...

I had carpeting in three rooms, tatami mat flooring in the bedroom, a queen-sized bed after I destroyed the tatami mats.. really... make your bed every day by rolling it up and or airing it out every weekend, remembering to bring it in before dusk or else spiders will fall down up on it from your balcony ceiling. I'm not kidding.

I had a hot water heater to make hot water that I had to turn on to do the dishes or have a shower. I had a shower only. I had a western-style toilet. I had a washing machine that doubled as a dryer. I had a circuit breaker that would trip if I had the heater/AC on with the television, microwave and washing machine on.

I had a booze cabinet for guests... I never drank alone in my apartment. Clothes closet for dress clothes... a drawer for other clothing items...

The rest was up to me. I bought an aquarium, pump and filter and what seemed like a monthly supply of fish.

I figured goldfish wouldn't need a heater because they are cold water fish, but one October before I used the kerosene heater and before I needed the central heating unit, I awoke to see the aquarium's water frozen at the top two inches... chip-chip-chip using a table knife...

The point is... you can get whatever you want of need in Japan.

Don't waste your time, effort or money in bringing over a lot of things you don't need right now. Have things shipped later, or purchase them yourself in Japan.

I bought hairbands of different colors to match whatever shirt I wore that day. The women noticed.

Tattoos... I would keep those covered up while going through the early days of Japan. Tattoos have long been the sole domain of the yakuza (underworld)... and while I like tattoos (on others), I will not say you SHOULD get a tattoo done while in Japan, but I won't say you should not. Read THIS book to learn more about Japan and tattoos.

Movies at the theater... while I have no doubt many of you will be utilizing Netflix or something similar, I have seen many western movies in Japan that either have English subtitles or are in English with Japanese subtitles...

Restaurants... can speak the lingo? I couldn't after three years.. but you can look and point... many restaurants have fake food showing what they serve at the front of the place... point. You don't have to get skinny.

Lastly... video games... while you can get video games that are in English in Japan, most will be in Japanese. I'm sure that if you are playing Pokemon Go now, you can do so in Japan... though you may need to buy into their servers... it plays the same. Just look where you are going.

For the Internet... ask your bosses about Wi-Fi et al.  They'll help set you up with what you need for your laptop, phone... whatever. It might take a day or two, but they will after they figure out how to do it for you.

Have fun. Japan is a foreign culture with lots of things that are different from your own. The people may seem aloof, but they aren't. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don't. Just like back home.

If you are going on vacation, or even out of town... tell the bosses... they re responsible for your well-being and are like your parents. Don't be ashamed or angry that you are telling them where you are going. It would look very bad on them if they found out you were hit by a car in another city. It's just YOU being responsible.

Don't be afraid to ask for help from the bosses or schools... whether it's for medical aid, how to mail something, there's a problem with your internet, apartment, people around you - whatever. I had them help get rid of a female stalker I was sleeping with to get her the help she needed. Or to help with a scratch on my cornea (contacts) so I wore an eye-ptach for a month. I looked cool. Or for some stomach bug... or a bad back... things I had taken care off.

The men from my board of education office even brought over the women from theh board of education office to show me how to use the cooking utensils (men know nothing about such things in Japan).

A home economics teacher in school taught me how to sew - because I asked.

School club teams had me join them for practice because I asked if I could. I learned kyudo at a city club - Japanese archery. I did kendo (samurai fencing). I did judo because I knew some from back in Toronto. I played music with the school clubs... taught soccer because I could. Did baseball... but know that even junior high school kids are better than you (probably)... watched volleyball and basketball, tennis and softball... the point is, to get out and do stuff with your school(s) when you can.

I taught adult English classes, but know that you aren't supposed to... but my board of education was cool with it. Matthew's too. We made a few extra yen every week, and by the end of three years I was pulling in an extra US$1,000 a week doing English conversational classes.

I did it for free in bars, however... but I used that to meet and date women. 
Oh... take your identification with you or whatever passes for an alien registration card. It should be kept on your person at all times. In a small city, the police knew who I was and where I lived and who to contact if there was an issue (I was hit by a car - twice - in a one week period). Still, failure to have it on you can be a problem. Carry your business cards with you at all times.

Keep an open mind, and try new things, go out when asked, be afraid but not too afraid.

You'll have a great time.

There... lots of basic stuff,, ,and stuff I have talked about in greater detail throughout the seven years plus I have been writing this blog... five plus every single day.

Have a question about Japan? I have an answer for you, or will at least do my best to find out the correct answer... even if you are there right now. 

Andrew Joseph
PS: Lonely or afraid in Japan... don't worry... most people are... I was. Talk to other JET participants... it doesn't hurt to call anyone you feel like. I talked to one person 500 kilometers away. The point is, we all get bored. We all get homesick. We all get afraid. We all handle it outwardly and internally differently. 

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