I am getting ready to relocate to Japan for one year. This is my 9th trip to Japan, and my 2nd time going for 1 year. And I am starting to get terrified. Of course, there are all the usual pains of moving – saying good bye, packing and hauling all my stuff, creating a new routine, figuring out all those life necessities (apartment, cellphone, banking, health insurance… you know).
But what makes me feel queasy is the hollow sense of isolation that I always hits me when I land in Japan.
That feeling is probably not unique to moving to Japan. I also felt it (although not so extreme) when I moved across the country from Massachusetts to California for graduate school. No one was there to greet me at the airport. No one was there to make sure I had a comfy place to sleep and a warm meal my first night. The first time I moved to Kyoto in 2010, my apartment was bare. And I mean totally bare – no appliances, no furniture, not even a light fixture just a bare hookup in the ceiling.
I weathered this transition before, and I am sure I can do it again.
If you are also getting ready to move to Japan, congratulations! There is plenty that you can do ahead of time to make sure that those first few weeks go smoothly. Here’s what I have been doing in the past couple of months to prepare.
OH WAIT! I did not tell you why I am going to Japan. (Forgive the brief aside.)
I am attending a 10-month intensive Japanese language program. Specifically, I am headed to the Inter-University Center (IUC) for Japanese Language Studies in Yokohama. The program is billed as “intended for students who are embarking on career in Japanese studies or profession in which fluent Japanese is necessary.”
I have been considering this program for years. It is highly prestigious in the small world of Japanese language and culture enthusiasts. I actually applied back in 2011, but decided to attend graduate school instead. This year happened only thanks to Kosuke! He pushed me to apply just 10 days before the deadline. I was quietly enjoying my Christmas break, when Kosuke got the idea that I should apply for IUC. I never considered myself a last-minute person, but many of my applications (Fulbright, graduate school) have been desperate up-against-the-deadline scrambles.
My sincere thanks to my very generous professors, who did not blink an eye when I asked them to write a letter of recommendation in a week. Thank you.
Okay, back to the main topic – Here’s are 10 tips for ways you can start getting ready to move to Japan, before you even board the plane.
#1 Find a place to live.
I would recommend having your apartment ready when you land. This is a challenge, I know. The Japanese real estate market is mostly ill-suited to short term stays by foreigners. Leases are often lengthy (my first internet contract was 14 months), and might require a guarantor in Japan. Despite the challenges, I have always managed to find my apartment in Japan before moving. Usually I asked for help from people connected to my host program or university. When I first moved to Japan in 2010, the secretary of my faculty advisor visited real estate offices and found an apartment for me to live. For this coming year at IUC, I got connected to a current student in the program. She introduced me to another student, who introduced me to their landlady. If you have no connections in Japan, there are also online services. One time Kosuke and I used LeoPalace, a short-term apartment rental service in Japan. However, the options are limited and overpriced in my experience. These kinds of services are not my first choice, better to try to find housing through someone in the country.
I know some brave souls who are okay with the uncertainty of showing up and not having a place to live. The no-plan approach might be a fun adventure for traveling in Japan, but if you are going to live or settle in Japan for long term, I would not recommend it. Pretty much everything in Japan – cellphone, health insurance, foreigner registration, banking – requires a mailing address. Housing is the first step to getting lots of other important and necessary details ironed out. Don’t spend your precious first few weeks in limbo.
#2 Buy whatever you want to take with you.
About a month before I leave on a trip to Japan, I start a list of everything that I want to take to Japan. Yes, I know that millions of people live perfectly comfortably in Japan buying whatever is available there. I guess I am just overly fussy but there are a number of items (mostly food) essential to my life that I really start missing when I am in Japan. The list includes – coffee, local Santa Barbara honey, quinoa, and chocolate. Besides food, I also make sure that I have a long-term supply of any other personal care and cosmetic items that are hard to buy (or more expensive) in Japan. Those items include my all-time favorite Curel Daily Healing Original Lotion. (Although Curel is owned by Japanese cosmetics company Kao, this lotion is weirdly expensive in Japan.) Also I bring an extra tube of 2.5% benzoyl peroxide treatment from acne.org. If you have never been to Japan before, it might be difficult to know which items will less available there. The first time I went to Japan, I packed a one-month supply of any item that I used regularly (like shampoo, conditioner, lotion, soap) to be on the safe side. That way I had plenty of time to figure out a substitute for any of my regular items. When I am tired and overwhelmed from getting used to a new place, the last thing I want to do is be standing in the aisles of the pharmacy trying to figure out the overwhelming number of options all written in Japanese. (Just to note, and I am sure this goes without saying, but make sure whatever you want to bring is allowed to go through Japanese customs.)
#3 Make a schedule for when you will talk to your loved ones.
I make sure that I decide ahead of time how and when I will reconnect with my family and friends. For me, having a plan is essential to battling my sense of isolation. I say “how” because fast internet can be hard to find in Japan, especially in a place where it is okay to make a video or phone call. When I first moved to Japan, my internet took 2 weeks to install. During that time, I only had access in the lab where I was studying, but then I could not video chat without bothering my labmates. Waiting those 2 weeks was tough. And “when” because unless your loved ones live in Indonesia, Korea, Palau, or other UTC+9 countries, then you will have to deal with the time difference. For me, it is 13/14 hours to the East Coast, and 16/17 hours to California. Kosuke and I work out when we can talk, and make sure there is a time and date scheduled. Having a concrete plan gives me something to look forward to.
#4 Pack a few unnecessary but “comfort” items to bring from home.
I am all for lean packing. Especially when I am hauling my suitcase through the train station of Japan, I always promise myself that I will bring less next time. And I have gotten pretty good at living out of a single suitcase. BUT I try to find space for a few items that are not really essential but that make my space feel cozy. Things like my favorite stuffed animal, or a some meaningless desk doodad. Once I set up my apartment, even if it is a bit austere or unfamiliar, having a few of my favorite things around me will make it feel like home.
#5 Research the exact path to wherever you will sleep the first night.
This bit of advice is not only for people moving to Japan, but also to anyone just traveling to Japan. Make sure that you know the exact path from the plane to your bed the first night. My level of preparation on this point borders on extreme. I research every bit of the path from public transportation routes, to fares, to street walking directions. I even virtually “walk” the path from the nearest public transit stop to my apartment or accommodations using Google Maps Streetview. And I print out every bit of information that I can find – maps of the station, bus schedules, detailed walking maps, directions and contact information for AirBnB hosts. I figure out exactly how much money I will need and make sure that I have enough cash (or whatever form of currency is accepted). My basic assumptions are: 1) I will not have internet access and 2) I will be very jetlagged and disoriented. I aim for painstaking detail in physical hard copy that even a child could follow. I know it sounds insane, but after a few experiences getting lost and wandering around with my suitcase, I do not take chances anymore.
#6 Get in touch and make plans with friends.
If you know someone in Japan, make plans to meet up with them before you even arrive. Why? Time moves quickly, and your time there is a precious opportunity to reconnect in person. Currently I am in Chicago, and I did not make my usual effort to set up plans before arriving. About a week into my stay, I got in touch with a mentor of mine and found out that they had just left Chicago and would not be back until I left. Too bad! And it could have been prevented by making plans ahead of time. Throughout the year, I keep several running lists of different locations where I might travel during the year. Currently I have 5 lists for different locations – “People to see when I am next in” – Japan/Boston/Los Angeles/Santa Barbara/Chicago. During the year, if I connect with someone and think “I should really grab coffee with this person when I am next in Chicago,” then I add their name to the list. About a month before I travel somewhere, I check the list and (usually) make sure to reach out to everyone.
#7 Make a budget.
I guess this is general life advice but I suggest making a rough budget before moving to Japan. If you have never lived in Japan before, you can make an estimated budget using your current expenses. Of course, some things will be more or less expensive in Japan but having a rough benchmark is still useful. For me, a budget is useful because it helps me be realistic about how much my trip is going to cost. It also allows me to go shopping without feeling guilty. If I go shopping with no budget, I am never sure how much is reasonable to spend and I end up worrying. If I know that I budgeted a certain amount for souvenirs or clothes or cosmetics or whatever, then I can shop and just enjoy the experience. (The budget also ensures that I don’t overspend, which is way too easy for me to do in Japan.)
#8 Find your local city (or ward) office.
One of the first things you will have to do when you arrive in Japan is visit the local city (or ward) office (called “shi-yakusho” or “ku-yakusho”). This is the office where you will register to receive your official residence card. You can also apply for national health insurance here. Fair warning – filling out all the paperwork can take a while. So find the office, check the hours, and plan to spend most of the morning there to take care of everything. Ideally try to do this within a week of arriving. I am flying into Tokyo on Thursday, and I am planning to spend Friday at the Yokohama city office. This is one of those pesky chores that needs to be done. Don’t delay!
#9 Do a little goal setting.
Every time I go to Japan, the circumstances are different. I have been for research, for vacation, for visiting Kosuke, and for study. I find that once I am there, I get swept up in excitement of being in Japan and also all the day to day tasks of getting settled. Before I even go, I like to make a list of what I hope to accomplish during my time there. (To be honest, sometimes I procrastinate, and do it on the plane right before landing. Well, that’s still before arriving!) The list keeps me focused. If I find that I have a free afternoon in Japan, then I can just check my goals and try to make progress towards one. In some cases, my goals are about my attitude. The first time that I went to Japan, I decided on two goals: 1) I would take a photo whenever I had the urge, even if it might be embarrassing or inconvenient, and 2) I would say “yes” whenever someone invited me somewhere. Yes, one day I found myself photographing a snail (see above!) on the side of a busy road in the rain, while drivers peered at me from their cars. And yes, sometimes I broke my own rules, like when I got invited to a club at 1:00am in the morning. But as a whole, those two simple goals led me into all kinds of wonderful adventures, friendships, and memories. I’m still deciding my goals for this coming year. We will see what happens!
#10 Give yourself some buffer and kindness.
In college, one of my friends told me that whenever he moves somewhere new, he just does not worry about his budget for two weeks. He buys whatever he needs, and worries about getting back to his budget after adjusting for a few weeks. I like this attitude – create a little buffer and generosity to yourself. Moving to a foreign country, or really anywhere new, is disruptive. Don’t be too hard on yourself. In my first week here in Chicago, I left my wallet in my office desk. I realized when I was standing at the grocery store register with my full basket. I had to trek the mile back to my office to get my wallet. I felt embarrassed at the time, but it was okay. There are to be some mishaps and mistakes. It will get better! And when it does, then you’ll know you’re making progress on your way to being fully settled.
Thanks for reading! Are you heading to Japan soon? Or have you lived there before? Do you have any tips to share?