First off, congratulations to those of you short listed for the 2008 JET Programme, (and to alternates, also. Hang in there, I was an alternate too!)
This post probably isn’t necessary to put up for another month or two, but many of you are itching to know what to take, I’m sure. Every year, hundreds of new JETs make tough decisions about what to bring, maybe shed a few tears, but will invariable bring stuff they may find they’ll never use. This list is to help you make those tough decisions, and hopefully give you a lighter bag to carry around Tokyo (at the height of summer, mind you) and eventually to your placement.
Clothes: Duh, right? Of course you need clothes, but how much is the trick. Remember, Japanese on the whole are shorter and thinner than the average Westerner, so finding stuff in your size can be difficult. But even if you are packing your wardrobe knowing you’ll be buying little to nothing here, you can still over pack. I took home a grocery shopping bag’s worth of clothes my first Christmas home because I just never wore them (also, some were too big for me by Christmas, whoo-hoo!). You also are packing for a climate that will vary from oppressively hot in summer to teeth-chattering cold in winter. Layers are key.
Shoes: While I encourage you to go light on the clothes, shoes are a different story. I one told my JTE my shoe size, and she replied with a “honto da!” (really?!) so, that should tell you how available shoes in my size are (I’m a Japan26, btw). Bring a few pairs of good, comfortable shoes, and don’t forget you’ll be keeping one pair at your school most of the time.
Laptop: If you’re debating getting a new laptop, definitely get one at home, it’ll be cheaper and may even have better specs. You should have little to no trouble getting your computer to connect to internet, printers, etc, and you can install an IME to type in Japanese.
Deodorant/Sunscreen: I can’t speak from experience with the deodorant, but everyone told me it sucks in Japan, so bringing a couple sticks with you is probably not a bad idea. I however can attest to the horribleness of sunscreen: way too expensive and way too greasy. Bring a good sized bottle of your favorite brand.
Dental Floss: If you happen to like the little dental floss pick things, you’re in luck, they’re plentiful and pretty cheap. As for regular ol’ dental floss? Any store that carries it will have one or 2 varieties, and it’s at least 3 times more than I can buy it at home.
Outlet converters: In Japan, plugs are two flat parallel prongs, and the voltage is 100v. People from the US: your plugs will be fine UNLESS you have a 3 prong plug, then you need to buy a converter. Also check your AC adapters and make it says your electronics can run on 100volts, it will mess your electronics up pretty quick otherwise.
Some of your favorite DVDs: J-TV can be entertaining, but really, how many game shows and shows with celebrities eating can you take? My limit was about 2 weeks before I busted out my DVDs. Also keep in mind that it can take weeks to get home internet set up. DVDs are thin, light, and can fend of the culture shock/homesickness.
A big bottle of pain killers: Over the counter medication here pretty much does jack, which is probably why Japanese people run to the doctor for every little thing. I brought plenty of Alieve when I came here and I’m happy for it.
Big beach towel: I was lucky enough to have everything I needed in my house – except towels (whether I would have actually used a towel left by my predecessor is a different matter). When I went to buy towels, it was ridiculous; over 6000 yen for 2 bath towels and a hand towel. Granted I didn’t exactly shop for the best deal, but 95 degrees, 80% humidity and no shower for 2 days doesn’t exactly make one feel like holding out for a bargain. I get my towels home and they were thin and just plain small. If you have room, I suggest a nice, fluffy bath towel.
Thermals: Besides Okinawa and maybe some parts of Kyushu, it gets chilly in Japan. Houses are not insulated, and the heating system at schools consist of nasty kerosene “stoves” that effectively heat about a 6 foot radius around it and not too much farther (plus a window needs to be open when it’s running so people don’t die from the fumes!). I bought some thermals at Christmas and man, I have no idea how I was surviving without them.
A photo book/postcards of your hometown: When introducing yourself to the kids or to the other teachers, these are handy and give you something to talk about (especially if your Japanese is limited). A map of your home country is probably not the worst thing to bring either. I brought a World Altas (just a thin, paperback one from Barnes and Noble) and I actually used it a lot, if only because people like to see the maps in English.
Rubber stamps/Stickers: If you’re teaching at elementary school, these things are a surefire way to win over the kids. Even in junior high, the kids seem to enjoy getting a sticker on journal entries and such. Rubber stamps are probably better because, as the other ALT in town once said to me, they’re easier to give out, and the kids get just as excited about them. Think Disney, especially Stitch, the kids here love Stitch, don’t ask me why.
O-miyage (souvenirs/small presents): You will hear many differing opinions on whether or not you should bring omiyage. Some will insist that it’s a necessity, and just as many people will insist it’s a waste of suitcase space. No, it’s not a necessity; omiyage is most commonly given when a teacher returns from a trip (it’s more an apology for traveling while others were working than anything). Frankly, most people don’t expect you, as a foreigner, to even know about omiyage. That said, giving omiyage is definitely an easy way to make a great first impression. If anything, consider bringing some small gifts to give to the people that go above and beyond in helping you get settled in Japan; it’s a small gesture than they will remember forever. These gifts don’t need to be elaborate. Small is good, edible is even better (but do remember you’re coming in summer, so avoid anything that melts easily).
Feminine Products: Guys, feel free to just to the next section. Ladies, if you use tampons, I definitely suggest bringing as many as you can as there aren’t many varieties at the typical drug store. Pads are . . . okay, but I like my home brand better.
Also, if you use birth control, it’s advisable fill out all the (tedious) paper work that will let you bring a years supply over. This is a country that legalized birth-control in 1999, after all.
Take it or leave it
Electronics: Some people wanting to buy a new camera may hold off until they get here, which there’s nothing wrong with, but just because Japan’s the home of Sony and Nintendo doesn’t mean electronics are cheap here.
Toothpaste/Toothbrush: Aquafresh is pretty much the only familiar brand here, so if you’re married to a different favorite brand, buy a new tube of it and bring it on over. Japanese toothpaste doesn’t have fluoride, so keep that in mind. They also really like toothbrushes with tiny little heads for some reason.
Shampoo/Conditioner/Other Hair product: If you’re a drug store shampoo kinda person anyway, you’ll be fine. I personally have very curly and very thick hair, so you can imagine my skepticism when people insisted I just buy conditioner in Japan. If you have pretty specific hair needs, you should probably bring plenty of that stuff over.
Paperback books: There is a good amount a down time at school, especially during the summer or spring breaks (think you don’t have to be there when the kids aren’t there? Think again!), so this is as good as time as any to catch up on your reading. However, I suggest only bringing whatever you’re willing to leave behind (as well as only bringing paperbacks). *Tech Update* I wrote this post before Kindles and iPads were in vogue, and these gadgets certainly eliminate the need to bring bulky books, but having a fancy gadget at work (especially a tablet computer), even if you are just reading, isn’t going to look great to your co-workers, and may put your students into a tech-envy frenzy.
For the love of Nobunaga, don’t bring the following
Any household items: I would assume that those goes without saying, but apparently there are people who are inclined to bring pots and pans. You can easily buy all that here, if you even need to. With a few exceptions, you will be moving into your predecessor’s digs so you’ll probably inherit most of the utensils you need. The only thing I’ve had to buy for my kitchen has been a spatula.
Anything bigger than your suitcase: In the JET video that comes with the handbook, one kid brought a bicycle, a bicycle! Luggage restrictions have tightened up significantly since then, which is all the more reason to seriously consider leaving the skis or guitar at home. The cost of bringing it here + the cost of taking it back * the number of times you’ll use it = probably not worth it.
Phrase books/Japan guides: Any bookstore with any kind of “English” section will have Lonely Planet and some Japanese phrase books. And as with the household utensils, there more than likely will be some phrase books/guides at your house or desk when you arrive. There was a small library of phrase books here at my house when I arrived.
Japanese Language Textbooks: Again, any decent sized bookstore will have books for studying Japanese, or you can buy it on Amazon.jp. JET also offers Japanese Language correspondence courses, and they’re actually pretty decent considering they’re free (you can only get one course level per JET year). And of course there’s websites, smart phone/iPod apps, etc.
Hardcover Books: I know I just suggested bringing books to fill your downtime at school, but I must insist you avoid any hardbacks. Bulky, heavy, and just not worth hauling around. Buy the paperback version or leave it at home.