In this first post – out of a two-post series – I will cover the basics of what you should keep in mind when packing for Japan if you’re an incoming JET on the JET Programme.
The second post will provide an extensive list of shops, department stores, and online sites where you can buy everything from clothes, stationary, international food and drink, furniture and electronics in Japan. This post might help you save on luggage space as there are quite a few items that you could easily buy in Japan rather than bringing it from home (something that I wish I knew when I was packing…).
Packing for Japan
There are many factors that will influence what you will put into your suitcase, from your placement location, weather, type of school/s you’ll be working at, to suggestions made by your predecessor, current ALTs and supervisor.
Here are some points to consider when packing:
♦ Luggage weight restrictions: As soon as you know which airline you will be flying, find out what the luggage weight limit is. In my experience, South Africans normally fly out on Cathay Pacific and they are very strict with the 20kg limit – especially when there is a large group checking in on the same flight. I took two suitcases that came to 20kg combined, as well as a carry on backpack (under 7kg).
Too much luggage? Then send it via post/courier to Japan. I suggest only taking summer/autumn clothes with you in your luggage. You can always have someone post your winter clothes from home to you at a later stage – or just buy them in Japan if possible.
♦ Weather: When you arrive in Tokyo for orientation, it will be hot and humid! Make sure you’re wearing something that can handle the humidity when getting off the plane as you will spend some time outside the airport while getting your luggage sorted out before hopping on the bus to the hotel – you definitely don’t need to be wearing your work/business attire!
♦ School etiquette: Find out from your predecessor and/or supervisor what the dress code will be at your school/s – or even better, try and get them to send photos of what they wear, or the teachers wear, for good visual examples. In my experience, my base school was somewhat formal – for example, we had to wear clothes such as blazers/jackets during winter, and blouses (shirts with ties for men) during summer. However, my two island schools were quite relaxed when it came to the dress code and often I saw teachers walking around in tracksuits and t-shirts.
♦ Junior-high/elementary school: I only taught at senior-high schools, but I’ve heard from other JETs working at elementary and junior-high that the kids can hang on to you at times (especially the really young ones). Something to keep in mind wardrobe-wise. You want to wear clothing that will survive after being pulled on and stretch by little (cute) monsters.
♦ Shoes: I don’t know how I managed it, but I ended up with a lot of shoes in Japan – one for every type of weather and event!
The following image gives an example of the types of shoes I usually wore at my schools
Top left: I had shoes similar to these and used them mostly for when it was pouring with rain and had to walk 20 minutes (in the rain) to school. It’s always a good idea to have waterproof shoes for when you find yourself stuck outside in the rain (or snow!).
Top right: These were your every day slip-on, comfy indoor shoes. I had a few of these as I would leave a pair at every school in my shoe locker (instead of hauling one pair around everywhere). A lot of the teachers wore indoor shoes that were easy to slip on and off (crocs included). My base school only used indoor shoes inside the gym hall when we had assembly and other events, whereas my two island schools required them to be worn all the time.
It doesn’t matter what sort of indoor shoes you wear actually, I’ve seen all sorts of styles and colours – what’s important is that they remain indoor shoes and are never used outside.
Bottom right: These were the type of sporty shoes that a lot of the teachers at my base school wore as indoor shoes when inside the gym hall for assembly.
Bottom left: I wore shoes like these at my base school a lot of the time because it was a business school and the dress was a bit more formal than the others. They also came in handy for any formal events.
Other shoes I wore were boots during winter and pumps during summer.
Apart from that just find out what your predecessor uses to get an idea of what you might need. I think that if you are placed at an elementary school or kindergarten that you should consider wearing comfortable sneakers or gym shoes as you will probably be on your feet, running around, for quite a bit during the day.
Important: open-toed shoes or slip-slops (sandals) are usually not accepted at schools (though for casual, non-school use they are fine).
♦ Stationary: You will find a lot of items in Japan as there are a many stores that will sell your everyday stationary items (as well as amazing items that you didn’t think you needed until now!). My second blog post in this series will list places where you can buy all your stationary. But don’t let that stop you from bringing your own if you have the luggage space. 🙂
Though definitely do bring, if you can, stickers! My senior-high school students absolutely loved the South African-themed and animal stickers I bought from home, and they worked a treat as prizes for hard-working students and motivating others.
♦ Toiletries: A very wide subject to deal with, but will just touch upon it here. You should find a lot of similar brands of various toiletries in Japan at the health shops and pharmacies. A big thing everyone always says is bring your own deodorant. I would agree with this. I once looked for it in the shops and all I could really find was perfume-like deodorant.
♦ Personal items: If you have luggage space, then I highly suggest bringing items with you that will help you with dealing with the big move to Japan and settling in. It’s always nice to have something from home, be it a particular blanket, pillow, soft toy, pictures, posters, ornaments, etc. When I moved into my place I bought a cute little houseplant, which ended up growing quite a bit over the two years, and when I left Japan it was adopted by my one Japanese work colleague. 🙂
♦ Electronics: A lot of electronics can be bought in Japan. Everything from hairdryers, hair straighteners, shavers, tablets, laptops, cameras, etc. can all be bought at the large electronic department store, Edion – and the great thing is that there is a store close by the Tokyo orientation hotel.
In fact, I actually bought a hair straightener from there on the second night of orientation (thanks to the humidity that did wonders to my already curly hair…). If you do bring your own electronics, be aware of the voltage as it differs from east to west in Japan.
Whether to take omiyage – presents for colleagues, principal/s, supervisor, neighbours, etc. – or not, is always a hot topic discussed every year on the various online forums.
From my personal experience, I didn’t end up taking omiyage from South Africa as an incoming JET because I just didn’t have enough luggage space!
The thing is, omiyage is not generally expected from a teacher who is new to a school. None of the teachers who transferred to my school at the beginning of the school year in April brought anything. It’s more of a courtesy when you have gone on a business trip or away on holiday, and upon return you bring your colleagues small edible presents. It’s also done when leaving the school for good. So the the teachers at your school won’t be expecting omiyage from you when you first arrive (ie., they won’t think bad of you).
Though don’t get me wrong, as a foreigner, bringing small presents with you to Japan is definitely not a bad thing and if you can manage it then by all means take what you can with you – your colleagues will be thrilled to receive such a present!
But at the same time don’t stress if you can’t think of anything to take, or don’t have the luggage space, you can always bring omiyage from the times you take leave during the term holidays, go travelling overseas, or go back home for a visit, etc.
I actually made koeksisters (a traditional South African sugar-syrup infused fried dough) while I was in Japan and gave them as gifts to my colleagues, principals, vice-principals, and the students from the English Club. They went down really well and at the same time gave a little insight to my culture. 🙂
Some tips when deciding what to take as omiyage:
♦ Don’t bring anything that can melt, such as chocolates and sweets. It will be hot and humid when you arrive and who knows how long your suitcase will stand out in the sun.
♦ Small bottles of your country’s local alcohol/liqueur are a good choice, but do be aware that not all teachers will drink. So try to get some idea from your predecessor as to who does drink, especially if you’re wanting to give it to your supervisor, principal/s and vice-principal/s.
♦ Keychains, postcards and badges work well, especially if they feature logos, designs or photos of your culture/country.
For Incoming South African JETs:
♦ Do not take biltong – it will be confiscated at customs as no meat is allowed into Japan. 😦
♦ Beaded African keychains of animals go down really well. I bought a whole lot when I came home for Christmas the one year and used them as presents when I finally left Japan. I also used them as big end-of-the-year prizes for my English Club.
♦ Anything to do with the ‘Big 5’ is popular – be it stickers, writing pads with pictures of the animals on them, coasters, place mats. These all make very good ‘farewell’ presents as well.
Further resources for packing:
I know that I haven’t covered everything there is to cover when it comes to packing – I wanted to avoid turning this post into a book. This was more like things to consider when packing.
But the folks at Tofugu have a great post about what to pack if you would like to read more for further resources.
Do keep an eye out for the second blog post (found here!) where I will be listing all the wonderful places in Japan where you can do all your shopping – for everything and anything!
Have I missed anything important? Have suggestions and queries? Then it would be great to hear from you in a comment below or through my contact page.