Here’s part 2 of my little series of blogs/rants about the JET programme and what to expect. If you’re looking for the first post on general advice, scroll down, or for the lazies in the crowd, click here. Feel free to scroll past the what to pack section if like MacGyver you’re ready to go with a paper clip and the plastic ring from your last six pack of Coke Zero, pre-departure prep will be below it. For reasons why you should take my senpai advice like the word of God himself, the second paragraph in the first article gives my JET bio. Ok, moving on…
Packing is easily the most difficult and stressful part about going on the JET programme, because let’s be honest, no one really knows what they’re getting themselves into. The way your home orientations can make it sound, you come away thinking that Japan is the exact opposite of every country you’ve ever even imagined and that your life there will have few comparisons to your life in your home country. It is indeed different, but if you’re not like the girls on Jersey shore who cry at the drop of a hat because they have to spend 2 months away from their Mom on a booze fueled rampage, you’ll seriously be fine. Living in Japan is all very manageable and it’s a great experience. Debating over what to bring is a difficult process though. I remember being so freaked out, I brought ridiculous things. I brought 5 pairs of shoes because I’m a size 13, and that was actually a good call. But I also brought, socks, 30 pairs of them, because I figured, if shoes didn’t fit me, socks wouldn’t either and I realized later that socks stretch, funny eh. I brought my longboard a 43″ skateboard thinking I would skate as much as I did at home, but I quickly realized that outside of cities like Tokyo, skating is nearly impossible. I also realized teachers that skateboard are lame. University students that skateboard are hipsters. I was both. I knew a person who brought a suitcase full of pasta, because they didn’t think it would be available. I can just see them sitting in a room thinking, well, how will I eat if there’s no pasta. Newsflash: There’s pasta! While all of these things are comical, I guarantee you’ll bring something stupid too. Then 4 to 8 months into your first year in Japan, you’ll look back at your pre-Japan self and laugh and laugh and laugh. No one ever gets to Japan and thinks, “Oh my god, I can’t believe I didn’t bring my blow dryer!!!! How will I ever live without that?!?!?!”
With that little bit of intro, here are things to bring, these are in no specific order. Also, keep in mind that I am a guy, ladies, you might have a few other things you need.
What to bring:
Tylenol/Advil/Aspirin/Acetaminophen: It doesn’t exist in Japan. So, if you ever even dabble in headaches, migraines or hangovers it’s good to have handy. If you don’t get hangovers now, I’m going to assume you’re young. The level of quality alcohol at a nomi-houdai (if you don’t know that word, learn it now, thank me later)
Deodorant: Japanese deodorant is NOT GOOD. You’re arriving in the summer, you’ll figure this out pretty quickly. So, bring as much as you think you’re going to need for however long you’ll be in Japan. Or get people to send stuff from home.
Tooth paste: See Deodorant but swap in tooth paste.
Books: Be careful with this one, any trip to a major city around you will probably give you access to English books and there is always Amazon. Books can get heavy, invest in an iPod or Kindle instead, it’ll probably be worth it in the long run. And if you have an iPhone, iPad or iPod check out the Japanese app, it’s $9.99 but totally worth it.
Computer: Specifically a laptop. If you’re thinking, “Oh, I’ll buy one in Japan.” Stop right now. Unless you’re fluent in Japanese, want a Japanese keyboard and a Japanese operating system, do yourself and favour and go out and get one while you can. Load it up with movies and things to do for your first few weeks because it’ll most likely take at least 2 to 3 weeks to get internet in your apartment. I brought my laptop to work as well. If your Japanese isn’t stellar, think about having to lesson plan in Microsoft Word all in Japanese on a computer that is shared with the entire staffroom. Having a laptop in Japan is a connection to everything at home and in Japan. I used mine for tv, movies and music at home and sometimes when I was at work, I used it for work things or to surf the internet.
International Driver Permit: Even if you’re not planning to drive, just get one. After the rainy season in September, you might change your mind about biking to work everyday while getting pelted by rain that goes sideways. No, I’m not even kidding, it goes sideways. It’s $15 at the CAA, here’s the link. Look into it for your specific country and get one. It only lasts a year, but that’s all you might need it for. Just pray you’re not in Japan long enough that you have to renew your Japanese license, those were hours I will never get back.
Work clothes: Make sure you have at LEAST one suit. I brought 3, wore one everyday for the first 5 months, then realized I was the foreigner and could easily get away with less. The clothing hierarchy at school goes like this: 1) Suit 2)Matching athletic tracksuit 3) Dress pants and button up shirt, without a tie 4) Things that are unacceptable, except for during summer vacation.
Omiyage: This is something a lot of people don’t understand and because of that they go all out. Don’t do that. Just because you’re from a foreign country doesn’t mean you need to provide foreign omiyage. No one expects anything from you, because you’re the foreigner and you don’t know anything about Japan, honestly, that’s how they’re going to see it. People I worked with for 4 years, even in my last year, in a conversation in Japanese asked me if I could read katakana, when we were speaking to each other IN JAPANESE. So, honestly don’t stress. This is what I did for omiyage. I went around to my local members of parliament, members of provinicial parliament, my university and a few dollar stores. MPs, MPPs and Universities will give you TONS of stuff for FREE if you show them that you’ve been accepted to the JET programme and want to promote whatever town, city or university you are from. They generally give you buttons, pins and stickers, which are small and lightweight. These are great. I got my supervisor a dream-catcher, because I thought they wouldn’t exist in Japan and I could tell her it was something super duper spectacular Canadian, it took about 2 hours in Tokyo for me to see one dangling from a rear view mirror. They have Canadian maple syrup too and they don’t make pancakes, so while that’s something Canadian, it might not be the best idea and you run the risk of getting all of your stuff covered in a sticky mess. All of your new ex-pat friends will then continually make fun of you for smelling like syrup. Mine did and I didn’t even bring syrup. But I digress, go the pins and stickers route, I used them as prizes in classes too. For the people in my apartment building, I went to the grocery store and picked up small boxes of cookies (every grocery store has an omiyage section). It cost me about 1000 yen ($11), I then wrote a note in English, had my supervisor translate it and went around to each door in the building, introduced myself and gave out the cookies. I also spoke zero Japanese at that point.
Teaching Aids: I brought so much of this stuff and pretty much never used it. Don’t buy textbooks, don’t buy anything teaching related until you get to Tokyo Orientation. I’ll go over this in a future post, but all you need is Planet Eigo and you can buy it at the Tokyo Orienation. Bring a map of your home country and learn a few comparisons between your own country and Japan. Dear Canadians, Canada is 26 times the size of Japan, Ontario alone is 3 times the size of Japan. Make a mental note. Also, bring money, to bribe the kids with. No seriously, the kids, even senior high school, love to check out foreign money. Bring a few bills and coins that you can pass around during introduction classes. I brought about $5 worth of pennies and gave them out to kids when I ran out of pins, stickers and some other stuff I picked up at the dollar store. Tell them the penny is worth ichi-man (about $100) they’ll believe you for a little bit, it’s funny. Also, print out pictures of your house, city, family, hobbies, etc etc, either when you get there or before you leave. I used these for my introduction as well. I put the pictures on bristol board that I passed around the class. You may think, wow that’s a lot for one introduction. But remember, you do it with every class, in every school you teach in, every year. Also, bring something from your home country, a jersey, a shirt that says Canada/New Zealand/’Merica across it. Canadians, maybe a mini hockey stick, etc etc.
Bathing suit, you’re going in summer, there may be beach parties, be ready.
Japanese study: If you’re looking for a textbook I’d suggest Genki (the English website is currently being renovated but should be back up soon). Full disclosure: My Japanese is crap, I mostly learned by going to bars and clubs and getting drunk, so my advice should be taken with a grain of salt. Most people use the Genki textbooks and they’re used in universities, so they can’t be that bad. Another option is to look into the iTunes app that I linked above or other free apps that are out there. If you’re not going to go the app route, I’d suggest a phrase book from Lonely Planet for at least the first little while. I had one, but back in 2006 iPods weren’t what they are now. Because of it, I learned how to say “Sometimes I like to take mushrooms.” A sentence I’ve probably never even said in English before. USEFUL!! Some form of reference that is pocket-sized makes it easier to explore and go out and do things with other newbs that have very little Japanese under their belt.
Indoor shoes, you’ve probably already heard this, or will hear it, but ya, bring a pair of shoes for school that have never been worn. If you’re wondering what shoes you can wear, most teachers wear sandals so you can get away with anything, it feels weird wearing non-dress shoes with a suit, but you’ll get used to it and eventually you won’t wear dress shoes at all to work, what’s the point when they sit in a locker all day?
Makeup/Bras: This is clearly for the ladies, but if you’re a busty lady and you don’t like bleach in your makeup, then ya, do yourself a favour and get some of this stuff.
What not to bring
This may be a rehash of what’s above, but here we go.
Food: Please don’t be that guy. There are foreign food stores. They exist, not just in Tokyo. I lived in Fukushima city, it was a small city of 300,000 and we had a 4 foreign food stores. A box of Kraft Dinner (Macaroni and Cheese for my ‘Merican friends) was about 300 yen, that’s more expensive, but it got those nicotine withdrawal like cravings out of the way. Cities of 50,000 had foreign food stores as well, with foreign alcohol in them too. You may have to drive an hour or take a bus for an hour, but it’ll be available. Don’t stress.
Teaching materials: I already covered this, but do yourself a favour, seriously, don’t buy textbooks or anything like that in your home country. The Japanese school system is very strictly based on the textbooks they buy and other than that, Planet Eigo will help you out huge, you really won’t need anything else.
Power converters: Go ahead and buy one for your laptop if you can find it, but don’t be like me and bring power bars and take up space with ridiculous things. You can easily get one in Tokyo while you’re there for orientation or get one in your own city. I almost guarantee there’s an electronics store that has them in your city, unless you’re in the middle of nowhere, if so, ask your supervisor if you can get one when you go for your cellphone or get your predecessor to leave you one. They’re cheap.
Conclusion: Go light, seriously. Buy vacuum bags for sure, as they help with space, but they don’t change the weight of your clothes. So keep that mind. They’ll come in handy when you leave too. I brought ridiculous things I never used and realized I never needed. Think about it as an extended work trip. You’re going to have time off and travel. I know they say a minimum of 10 days with I think 15 national holidays, but I had 20 days off a year plus national holidays and I knew others who had more than that. When you travel, you buy things. You’re going to buy other things, souvenirs, clothes, all the good stuff that makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside. The stuff you buy plus the stuff you bring is what you’ll have to return home with. Winter gear can be bought there relatively cheap. I got a bad ass winter jacket for about $100 at Uniqlo. Think about that when you’re paying to ship stuff. If you’re a bigger person, don’t really sweat it, unless you’re a really really big person. I’m 6’1 and about 160 lbs soaking wet. I never really had a problem. But people bigger than me were fine. They have big and tall stores as well. There was a teacher at my school who was 6’5 and had to weigh around 220 or 230 and he had never been anywhere outside of Japan and somehow he showed up to work everyday, fully clothed, in clothes that fit. I know, MADNESS!!!
Here are a few things you can do to help yourself out.
Even before you know where you’re going, use the links at the bottom of my last post if you’re looking to ask questions to people in Japan. But once you do figure out which prefecture you’ve been placed in use the power of the intrawebs! Use Facebook, Twitter and a Google search to find your prefecture’s AJET (Association of JETs) chapter (UPDATE: Or check the JET Wiki that seems to have links to every prefecture’s AJET chapter website) Think of these chapters as the student council of the JETs in your prefecture, but with higher blood alcohol levels. Some prefectures have websites, facebook pages, forums, etc etc. These people will probably be searching you out as well, everyone loves a little bit a fresh meat and they’re eager to pre-judge the crap out of you. This is the fastest way for you to get in touch with your predecessor and more importantly get to know the people who will be living in the area when you get to Japan. Your pred and the people in the prefecture will be able to give you the most solid interpretation of your placement. The good and the bad. It won’t be one of those, every situation is different type scenarios, it’ll be solid concrete information about what to expect. Find these people, email them, friend them on Facebook, put yourself out there and make friends even before you arrive. Most JETs are very open to answering questions because everyone has been in that anxious unsure period before they leave. If there is an online forum, get on there. Be sure to try different combinations of your prefecture’s name and JET on the end if you’re having difficulty. For example, the Fukushima AJET group is called FuJET, Miyagi AJET is MaJET (I don’t get that one either), etc. Or just email AJET directly and ask them. They have everyone’s emails, hopefully.
Learn katakana. If you don’t know any Japanese, learn katakana at the very least. There are three alphabets in Japanese, one for foreign words (katakana), and two for Japanese words, hiragana and kanji (chinese characters). Not all words in katakana come from English, but a lot do. There are a lot of people who have very different takes on how to learn Japanese, but this way makes you the most functional in the least amount of time. If you go to a restaurant, chances are quite a few things will be in katakana and after you sound them out, it’ll be an English word, or something that sounds like an English word. Even words that some would assume would be in Japanese all the time are written in katakana, behold ライス (ra-i-su) also known as, rice. While learning how to read hiragana may help you, the words you read, unless you’ve learned them, mean nothing to you. Also, if you learn how to write katakana, you can show up and write your own name and that will amaze pretty much everyone.
That’s all I have for now, I’ll update this if I think of anything else. But honestly I wouldn’t stress about it. Like I said in the beginning of this, in as little as 4 months after arriving in Japan, you’ll look back at pre-Japan you and laugh at how stressed and anxious you were.
Here’s a little video to either bore you or excite you about going to Japan. My youtube channel has a few videos that I created over the years just in case you’re intrigued.