Question : Holy snack rockets Batman! I got accepted! Now what?
Answer : Just like the title of this page, prepare yourself for absolute chaos.. especially if you are a college student in the midst of trying to graduate. It's time to clean house, and don't just mean your room.
What should I do to prepare myself?
First and foremost, you will need to read read read. Find out things like living conditions, ambient temperature, food, smells, toilet water temperatures, insect sizes, locations of psychological counciling centers, and what not to do with your chopsticks. Some of the sites on my links page are great sources of information about Japan. Get as culturally paranoid as possible. Okok.. you don't have to be quite that extreme but hopefully you get the idea. I have found that it is much better to err on the ultra-conservative side instead of commiting some sort of horrible cultural faux-pas for which you will never be forgiven. Eventually the Life in Japan section will cover some of this information, but it never hurts to find out more. I highly recommend reading "Dave Barry Does Japan" by Dave Barry. It also helps to read the General Information Handbook several times. It's actually one of the most informative pieces of litterature you will recieve from CLAIR. Find out anything and everything you can. Please.
Do I need to do anything before I go to Japan?
The answer to this question depends on your particular situation. If you're living with your parents during the months leading up to your departure then you don't have too much to worry about. However, if you live in an apartment you have quite a bit to deal with. Check with your Apartment Manager/LandLady/LandLord about your rental contract. One of the first things you want to take care of is making sure that you are not going to be breaking your contract, as this usually means that you will be charged a hefty fee. You should also check with your employer (if you have one) to make sure you won't be burning any bridges if you leave when you do. Be prepared for the fact that your employer could terminate your employment, and that when you try to find a new job you could be denied employment when mentioning that you will be leaving. Take this into consideration. Captain Fugu and SpicyGyoza.net do not condone lying to an employer, but we do acknowledge that it is a viable option.
Another thing you want to check on is the status of your credit and your bills. Believe me, there's nothing worse than trying to settle debts from Japan. You will need to worry about having your utilities shut-off, mail forwarding, address changes, and all that comes with trying to move somewhere. People getting into the JET Program have it a little bit worse if they are currently trying to graduate from a university or if you are involved in a relationship with another earth creature. Should you find yourself in a relationship AND in college when you get accepted to JET, all I can say is that you're in for a heck of a ride. I can only imagine what that's like. In fact, I shudder to think about it. Just concentrate on college as hard as you can. It would be a tough break to accept your position on JET, then fail to graduate because you were either too busy thinking about going to Japan or sharing your last milkshakes and long walks on the beach with your loved one.
Take it from me, Captain Fugu of SpicyGyoza. Before I became the commanding officer on this ship, I was Admiral of a ship known as the USS Procrastination. I had to call long distance from the Tokyo JET Orientation to have my power at my old apartment disconnected. How's that for last minute?
Honestly though, you can separate your preparation into two main parts: 1) The things you need to do in order to leave & 2) The things you need to do in order to make your first months in Japan just a little bit easier.
What kinds of things do I need to do before I leave?
First off, you should probably make a list of what you think you need to do. I don't think I'll ever be able to write enough about how to prepare to leave for Japan, but hopefully I'll include some things you might have forgotten. What you have to do depends greatly on what your living situation is before you leave. Either way you will have to balance work, school, friends, family, money, landlords, embassies, orientations, etc.
By far the most important thing you need to do is graduate from college. If you are in your senior year of university and have been accepted into the JET Program, wouldn't it be dissapointing to not graduate and therefore be disqualified? Please take the time to concentrate on your studies at least long enough to pass and get your degree. I know it's hard enough to concentrate as it is, but at least remember what your priorities are.
After that, you have contractual obligations to contend with. These may include things like Financial Aid from school, rental leases, your bills, etc. If you are renting an apartment, make sure you talk with your landlord to make sure you're not breaking your lease if you leave for Japan. In many cases if you give enough warning before you leave, you will not be charged the extra fee for breaking your lease because of the circumstances (leaving the country is a big deal). The same thing goes for things like cell phones, and in most cases they want to charge you more than your landlord/landlady!!
Decide what you think you will want to take with you. You are only allowed to take two pieces of luggage on the plane, and most people also find it useful to ship a box a week ahead of time. Keep in mind that it is rather expensive to ship a package to Japan, and it will cost about twice as much to mail that same box home. The best thing to do to prepare to leave is to make a list of what you think you will need, and then trim that list down to the absolute essentials. This will also involve a little bit of research into the climate of your particular placement. If you live in Alaska (brutally frigid), and you are being placed in Okinawa (tropical), it's quite possible that you won't need your waterproof/windproof heavy parka... think about this for a bit.
Also, it is EXTREMELY beneficial to study hiragana and katakana. Learning both of these sets of characters will help you SO MUCH when you come to live here. The first time you are confronted with a Japanese menu you will know exactly what I'm talking about. Are you ordering 'ramen' or 'sushi'? Believe me when I tell you that it still takes me 10-20 minutes to sound out all of the things on a menu... but at least I can read it. Without me, I think my roomates at the Tokyo orientation might have starved (hehehe.. just kidding guys.. or am I?). Both katakana and hiragana have 46 characters, and three pronunciation markers. Other combinations of sounds can be made by writing one character normally, and then writing another character next to it but a little smaller (for example, the sound "SHO" is made with a big "SHI" and a little "YO" to the right of it). I honestly cannot tell you how important it is to learn katakana and hiragana. At least learn katakana if you can, it's the easiest of the two and it's mostly used to spell foreign words such as pizza, hamburger, ramen, coca-cola, and other foreign food items. This is SERIOUSLY good to know because eating in Japan isn't easy if you can't read the menu.. it's even more frustrating when you're really hungry.
What should or shouldn't I bring with me to Japan?
I am going to start this answer with another question (Joy hates it when I do this): how long do you plan on staying? It's not cheap to ship things home from Japan, and once you have shipped over your entire collection of Wayne Newton records instead of converting them to .mp3's like I did, you're going to pay at least double to get them back home. Below you will find a list of some of the things I found useful to bring, and some of the things that could have been left at home. Basically, the things that you want to bring to Japan fall into one of three categories: an absolute necessity, not essential but it helps to make you comfortable, and completely ridiculous.
Also, remember that you can only take one bag with you to the Tokyo Orientation. Pack your formal wear and casual clothes for a few days in this bag because the rest of your luggage (with the exception of your carry-ons) will be shipped to your town.
Before I came to Japan, I had heard of all sorts of things about how different life is and what there is and isn't in Japan. One thing to consider when you're packing is what you need now, and what you will need later. Things like winter clothes you won't need until September or October. What I did was leave a packed box of winter clothes and things like extra toothpaste (most toothpaste in Japan does not contain flouride), tapes of tv shows, and some favorite foods (kraft mac and cheese) for my parents to mail me when it started to get cold. The extra things will provide an extra morale boost when you're in the wonderful happyland called 'culture shock'. It's a very real thing, prepare for it.
Things you should bring, some of which can be shipped later:
* Japanese cookbook in English (most will ususally have a description of Japanese ingredients in the back! this is essential if you like to eat). Not only will you be able to get a feel for what you'll be eating, it gets alot easier to go grocery shopping in Japan when you know what to look for.
* Deodorant (this is one of the few self-care products that is extremely hard to find in Japan, bring one with you, ship the rest in a box). Seriously. It doesn't exist here. Sure.. they just came out with a body spray for women.. but is it pH balanced for a man?
* Music.. and lots of it.. Go out and buy one of those 144CD book things and fill it with your CD's. Music will keep you from going insane.
* 6hr Videotapes of your favorite shows. Hearing Japanese day in and day out makes your brain hurt for the first couple of months. This will also keep you from going insane. I know when I first got here I was extremely excited whenever I heard something in English around me whether it was people talking, or on the radio, or on the TV.. -- SEE NOTE AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PAGE --
* Spices you like, unless you live in a city, in which case there will most likely be a foreign food store (examples of this: Tony Cachere's Creole Seasoning, and Crushed Red Pepper Flakes (the kind you sprinkle on pizza.. the ones they have here are really really small and not very spicy).
* your favorite stuffed animal - seriously - ... but only if you still talk to it
* Some clothes.. perhaps a sock or two to keep your feet warm.
* OMIYAGE (souveniers) for EVERYONE IMPORTANT.
* Basic school supplies from your home country to give to students. Go to a teachers supply store in your area, and pick up a ton of stickers with English words on them like "Great!" or "Fantastic!" or "Good Job!!" to use as rewards for your kids. Nothing too cheesy though.. remember you will most likely be teaching 7th, 8th, and 9th graders (middle school). Also, a stamp is cool too. I've found a ton of little omiyage for my students at teacher supply stores. Keep in mind that unless you're based at a high school, the level of English the kids can understand will be quite low. Also, little pens and pencils make great prizes.
* Your favorite over-the-counter pharmeceuticals. Bring a little bit with you and ship the rest. Just don't look like you're trying to start a clandestine black market for Advil. Pay close attention to the things that customs will be looking for. Remember that most cold medicines sold outside of Japan are illegal here (anything with pseudoephidrine or ephidrine in it over 10% by weight). Sure, you can risk bringing them in and plead innocence, but the potential for getting pulled aside and probed does exist. Also, while you can find pain/cold medicine here, it is most likely less of a dosage and you will have extreme difficulty reading the box. After watching Japanese TV for a little while, you might be able to get a good idea what box to look for when you have a headache or cold. I -highly- suggest bringing stomach medicine. Chewable Pepto-Bismol is a live saver. Not only is your body not used to the food, but one effect of culture shock is indigestion :)
* Money. You will need it. The 200,000yen that the JET handbook suggests is about right on. Remember that it will be a month before you get your first paycheck, and you'll be moving into a new house. Talk to your supervisor to see if you will need more than that, but at least have 200,000yen minimum. However, just bring 50,000yen in cash with you and buy travelers checks with the rest of it.
* A small collection of pictures and little things to use in your classes. Things like a map, souveniers from home (guidebook with pictures, scenic postcards, etc.), sports pictures, family pictures, a newspaper, favorite magazine, funny home videos, etc. I took my family pictures to 7-11 and made enlarged color copies to bring to class.
* A little backpack that you can tuck away in the suitcase you take to the Tokyo Orientation. You will need it to carry all of the papers, litterature, pamphlets, and nick-nacks that you pick up at the orientation.
My advice is that once you have finished packing and you're standing there looking at your bags, you should unpack. You should take out each and every little thing you put into your suitcase and ask yourself if you really need it. Things like shampoo, and heavy winter clothes you will not need. For one thing, they have shampoo in Japan, and it will be extremely hot when you arrive. Don't even waste your time with things like your favorite dishes, household tools, towels, etc. All of that is available in Japan for reasonable prices. If you know that you're going to a city (pop. 100,000 and up) you can be pretty confident that there is a 100yen store nearby. These places have everything you could ever want, and it's not the super rip-off places that you might be used to. (Thinking of this reminds me of a Simpsons episode where they skip the 99cent store and the 66cent store in favor of the 33cent store.. here you could find canned plankton which was well beyond it's expiration date as well as Cool Ranch Soda.) Anyway, the quality of merchandise at the 100yen store in Japan is incredible considering its price, and believe it or not, EVERYTHING is 100yen. If you're not going to a city, you can also rest assured because there has to be one near you.
On the topic of omiyage (souveniers)
I'm sure by now you have heard about the Japanese custom of gift-giving. While there may not be such of an emphasis on buying souveniers in your home country, it is very important in Japan. It is also wonderful for a first impression or as a show of appreciation to someone who has helped you. The best thing you can bring is food. Nothing that will melt though, because you won't be able to guarantee the temperature of your luggage. Consider little treats that are unique to your home and the fact that each school you visit will have 30 faculty members (average). You will only need to bring things for the schools you visit most and other people that will be helping you along the way. For example, I am from Seattle, Washington USA. I brought a 6-pack of small smoked salmon samples, 3 larger packs of smoked salmon from Seabear (a local company), 3 packs of assorted Jelly-Belly jellybeans, Seattle keychains, Seattle pins, tons of little Ichiro (famous Japanese baseball player on the Seattle baseball team) gifts, shot glasses, etc. I gave omiyage to the staff at my three main schools, and gave both the principal (kocho-sensi) and the vice-principal (kyoto-sensei) a little something extra. I also gave omiyage to my supervisor and the head of the board of education. Along the way, you might encounter some other people who will help you in some way or another. Perhaps you will have a home visit sometime.. perhaps your neighbor will drop by and give you some help figuring out your washing machine.. mabey someone in your town will take you shopping.. think of these people and how you could possibly thank them by giving them a little taste of your home. By far food is the best thing you can give. Japanese culture places great emphasis on special delacies that can only be found in a specific town or region. You'll see what I mean when you come to Japan. Train stations and tourist spots are teeming with stores that sell omiyage.
Other Random Notes
* Japan is in DVD region 2. This is the same region as western EuropeIf you bring a computer with a DVD player, keep this in mind!! You will not be able to watch DVD's bought in Japan on a computer bought outside of Japan or western Europe!! Unless of course you have found a way around this.. Besides, I have found DVD prices in Japan to be quite expensive. Order DVD's in batches from www.cdnow.com if you are from Canada or the US and you will save a lot of money. Heck, go in on purchases with your friends! For your reference, here are the DVD region settings: 1- Canada and America, 2- Japan and Western Europe, 3- Latin America, 4- Australia, 5- Africa, 6- China
* Japanese TV format is NTSC. American and Canadian VHS tapes will work in Japan. If you're from Europe, you're TV format is PAL and you will not be able to watch your recorded tapes.
* If your feet are over Mens Size 10, I would suggest looking into bringing a couple extra pairs of shoes. While I don't have any experience with this myself, I do know that Japanese shoe stores tend to stock shoes that fit small Japanese feet. I have a size 9 US and have found this to be getting near the top of the size selection, though there are a few more selections above a 9 US.
* Japanese washers tend to be a little rough on clothes and dryers are rare. Keep this in mind when you are packing. Sure, your silk blouse may look great on you, but it's going to be a pain to clean it. (though you could get it dry cleaned I suppose)
* The voltage in Japan is different than the rest of the world. It is 100VAC @ 50Hz in eastern Japan, and 100VAC @ 60Hz in western Japan. If you bring a laptop to Japan, make sure that its power supply will accept this range of voltage and frequency. Most modern laptops have a universal power supply. Also, Japan uses vertical, two-prong, unpolarized (both prongs are the same size) plugs. Some laptop power supplies are three prong and polarized (one prong is bigger). It is possible to find an adapter for three prong plugs.
* Don't even bother with home electronics like alarm clocks, curling irons, hair dryers, irons, etc. They are all available in Japan and most likely the selection will be better than in your home. Go to Akihabara in Tokyo for electronics. Besides, if you plug in your alarm clock into sockets in Japan it will not work correctly. Don't take any chances, buy them here.