living covertly in Japan

What to bring to Japan

Bonus points if you know who these girls are…

So you’ve got your job in Japan. Congrats! Now, all you have to do is figure out how to condense your life into a pair of suitcases before you board your flight and start your overseas adventures!

No pressure…

Some of these things I brought with me, some of them I didn’t; I would have done it all little differently if only I could contact past me to give that handsome bastard a heads-up. Hopefully, time traveling email is just around the corner along with Archologies, cloning extinct animals, and 3 1/2 more seasons of Community plus a movie.

#sixseasonsandamovie

Presents for teachers

When you arrive at a new school it’s respectable to bring a present for the teachers and staff. It should be something edible as per Japanese tradition. Now, why the hell would you want to waste valuable storage space on something like candy or cookies? Well get used to not understanding why you have to do certain things. This doesn’t mean you have to make like a trafficker and line your suitcase with Mars Bars and Snickers though. It’s really thought or imitation of thoughtfulness that counts here so try to get something that’s compact and small, preferably packaged individually.

something for everyone!

If you can’t fit anything into your bag and you refuse to leave behind a pair of jeans or that 5th box of condoms, then just wait and buy something in Japan. All airports, train stations, gas stations, and pit stops off the highway will have a decent selection. Pick something sweet over savory or spicy.

okay, I meant sweet like sugary, and if this is actually an option on the table… I wouldn’t share…

I left for Japan from Kansas City. So I bought a couple boxes of Bogdon Reception Sticks. They’re just candy sticks dipped in chocolate, there were maybe two dozen to a box. I brought 3 boxes, but I didn’t have enough for everyone unfortunately with six different schools.

Tips:

Dispatch company: If you’re with a dispatch company and you’re going to be working in a public school and you know how many schools you’ll have (I didn’t know until after I left training), plan on there being at least 40 teachers at each school. My first year I had 6 different schools. So doing the math that’s about 120-200 teachers and staff you need to get a little some-something. Unless you just bring a big jar of jellybeans, this isn’t really possible to do… at least whilst keeping your sanity. Don’t worry. You’re not really expected to. Get enough for your first school and that’s pretty much all you need. Personally, I had 2 main schools and 4 schools I went to on rare occasions, so I gave those Reception Sticks to my 2 main schools and the other 4 got nothing.

Eikaiwa: If you’re teaching for an English language school then it’s a lot easier. You’ll just have to get something for the Japanese staff at your school. Or not. You’re basically fodder that they use to keep their fires going… not that your situation is much different for a large dispatch company, but when you go the the public schools remember that the teachers are not involved in that aspect of the business, plus they’ll probably get you presents when they go places.

This is you. Well, maybe that’s an overstatement…

*Bonus points*

If you can get something that’s specialized from where you’re from with a little back story then you’re really doing things right. Of course it is Japan… we don’t have Jolly Ranchers, Starburst, or Tootsie Rolls… the less genuine among you could just tell your schools that your home town invented them…

Indoor shoes

I heard a story years ago that in Japan, even robbers remove their shoes. While that’s proven not true time and time again, Japan is normally very much a take-your-shoes-off-at-the-door society.

ummm… you were supposed to leave them at the door…

I don’t know how eikaiwas work, but at the public schools everyone takes off their shoes and changes into other shoes. Most Japanese teachers have at least two pairs of shoes at school, sometimes more.

I have two main schools currently and I keep a cheap pair of Nike’s at both locations. The school will assign you a shoe locker (or multiple lockers if there are multiple entrances).

I brought over several pairs of shoes so I didn’t have to do any unnecessary shoe shopping before I started work. For the schools that I visited infrequently, I brought some indoor shoes with me whenever I went, or if I forgot (I forgot most of the time), I borrowed the slippers they have for guests, which don’t fit and reduce the friction force to nearly zero.

Unless you’re a petit woman or willing to lose your toes they won’t fit.

Keep in mind also, that “indoor shoes” and “gym shoes” are not the same thing. If you plan on doing activities in the gym you’ll either do them in your socks or you’ll have to get another pair of sneakers.

Tips:

Leave your high lacing boots for the weekends. You want shoes that you can slip on and off quickly and easily.

Shoes & clothes

Shoes make the list twice for an entirely different reason. This pertains to anyone with large feet. If your hoof needs something bigger than a size 12US then chances are you’re going to be doing most of your shopping online.

Also Japanese sizes run snug. There are Nike, Adidas, the GAP, and Banana Republic stores around, so it’s not like you can’t find sizes that make sense… But if you’re really tall or really… well wide, or really muscular, you’ll have difficulty finding clothes, especially dress clothes. Now there are big-and-tall stores in Japan, but there aren’t many big-and-tall stores in Japan and I have my doubts how truly “big-and-tall” the clothes at the big-and-tall stores here are…

I’m lucky enough to fit into Japanese sizes, but I do run into some trouble because Japanese men typically have very little muscle mass so clothes are often tight across the chest, shoulders, arms, and thighs.

My arms haven’t been that thin since 6th grade…

Ladies…

Most Japanese women have tiny feet, are really thin, and fairly short. I imagine this would make it more difficult for taller girls.

That skirt is made to go down to the knee…

Also Japanese bra sizes are different. If you wear a C-cup in America then in Japan you might have to get an E-cup. My friends with lady bits have told me that the fit  is often a little off for them as Japanese girls tend to be tiny

Tips:

Men-Try not to be so tall, lose some weight, and don’t lift weights.

Ladies-Bras are highly over-rated, and I’m not willing to do cup-size guesstimates by email… so stop email me boobie pictures!

Rice cooker:

This seems like a strange and large item that would be something you could get in Japan easily. But Japan’s view on rice is completely different from mine. For me, rice is rice… I’m not ricest..

I don’t see color.

I went to 3 different stores in Japan before I found a rice cooker. “Why did you go to 3 different stores?” you might ask. Well, I am not a picky person unless it comes to pizza or literature. I went to 3 different stores because it took me 3 stores to find a rice cooker for under ¥6,000. Keep in mind this is just a device that cooks rice, quite possibly the easiest thing to cook outside of sushi prepared by Bear Grylls. Japanese rice cookers range in prices from ¥5,000 of over ¥100,000. (any rice cooker that costs over $1000 better double as a jet pack…) I paid around ¥5,500 ($68) for my rice cooker and that’s with a discount because it was out of stock, discontinued, and I took home a very dusty floor model with no box.

They said it had been there for years…

My first day of school I woke up and tossed some rice and water into my brand new Japanese rice cooker for breakfast.

Twenty minutes passed.

Thirty minutes passed.

Forty minutes passed, and I had to run to school with an empty stomach.

The silver lining is that the rice was ready for me when I got home after work…

Now this is a cultural thing that is maybe more psychological than science. Or maybe my Asian genes are broken. Or maybe Japanese people have evolved special rice-tasting-taste-buds that can tell the difference between rice coaxed for 50 minutes to be soft enough to eat and rice boiled violently for 20 minutes…

As a gaijin who just wants to eat when he’s hungry, I often miss my K-Mart bought rice cooker from Kansas.

Japan. Note that there is 1 button and that button makes my rice cooker cook rice. And that is fucking brilliant.

Tips:

There are second hand stores called “recycle shops.” They usually have great stuff, well maintained and for good prices. There are also discount stores like TRIAL, D-MAX, and Don Quixote where you can find cheaper rice cookers.

Can opener

Make jokes about how young I am. Fine. I’ll admit I had no idea what to do with this thing.

I’m sure that there are normal modern can openers in Japan. I’m sure that they also probably cost around $35 or so. No idea why. Save yourself the headache of looking for one and toss one in your suitcase.

Medicated shampoo.

I care about hair products like I care about Albanian economics, but I’ll admit that I have dandruff and having an itchy head is more annoying than 80’s music. I didn’t think that finding dandruff shampoo in Japan would be so hard. There were plenty of suggestions I found online, but really only one that I tried that worked. That’s a lot of worthless shampoo I bought!

I tried Merit, Sea Breeze, and Pro Tech. Merit seemed to actually encourage my scalp issues. Sea Breeze didn’t make things worse, but it didn’t help… Pro Tech did the trick for me, plus they hire hot girls to wear skimpy outfits and hand out samples in the city earning them much coveted bonus points.

Only took me two years to find.

Tips:

Korea has Head & Shoulders… I have it sent to me by my S. Korean smuggler contacts.

A DVD player

Japan is a different region code than America. If you’re a dinosaur like me and you still have a DVD collection then you won’t be able to play your DVD’s on a Japanese DVD player.

I’ve been nostalgiaing pretty hard for this show lately…

Tips:

Either convert your DVD’s to digital files, bring a DVD player, or buy a region free DVD player in Japan.

Medicine

I’m talking over the counter stuff here… don’t go bringing a bottle of OxyContin with you without doing the legal paperwork.

They’re filled with oxygen and it makes you incontinent. It’s called “Oxy Incontin”

Mainly stuff like allergy medicine, Advil, sleeping pills, cough drops, and Benadryl.

It’s not like Japan doesn’t have medicine, but when you’re breaking out in hives because you’re having an allergic reaction to some strange clam-like-looking creature you ate, you don’t want to have to look on the internet for an anti-histamine equivalent.

Tips:

Be careful with prescription medication. You might need a doctor’s note and you might need to have that doctor’s note translated. Refilling prescriptions isn’t exactly easy in Japan either, but as I have no prescriptions that I take I can’t tell you first hand what it entails.

Spices

Just bring what you really really want…

Japanese food doesn’t use a lot of spices that you’re used to, duh. You’d think that be obvious. Well, I didn’t really think about it until I was stationed halfway up the side of Mt. Fuji where the local supermarket’s spice collection consisted of salt, pepper, salty pepper, crushed red pepper, and ginger…

My 2nd least favorite spice…

Now some people have disagreed with me on this issue while others have clamored in agreement. I think it must depend on where you land on your first assignment. (Of course finding most everything will be a pain in the ass those first few months)

Now I’ve been able to find most spices over the years through import shops and larger supermarkets in more urban areas. If your part of Japan has a large immigrant community, like Hamamatsu City has lots of people from Brazil, then you’ll be able to find lots of spices easily, but the catch is it’ll be spices that the large immigrant population like to use, so Hamamatsu has a lot of Brazilian spices. Now I know as much about Brazilian spices as I do about Lithuanian marriage rituals, but I’ve heard Brazilian food is delicious, but that only really helps me if Brazilian cooking uses the same spices as that Dillons stocks on their shelves…

Or you get a Brazilian girl to cook for you.

But that first year on my side of the mountain, I wanted to recreate a little flavor from home at times, but I simply couldn’t find paprika or cilantro…

Tips:

There are some Costco locations in Japan and I hear some people use the internet, though I’m not a big online shopper unless we’re talking about Star Trek memorabilia…

I can find oregano, thyme, cumin, sage, basil, and a lot of other Italian spices in Japan as Italian food is very popular everywhere because it’s delicious. I have trouble recreating Mexican food though,and even those simple Italian ingredients might not be on your supermarkets shelf if you find yourself out in the middle of nowhere…

Backpack with a rain cover

Japan could also be called the land of the pouring rain. I’ve lived in two different places in Japan and they were both wet. Being that umbrella tech has yet to catch up with the incredible things they can do with tents, if you’re wearing a backpack in the rain while holding an umbrella then you’re bag is going to get soaked. (your legs and shoes and socks too probably)

This tent folds up to fit in a purse and keeps up to 5 Asian people dry in a monsoon. My umbrella barely keeps my hair dry…

If you’re like me your bag carries important stuff that doesn’t like water, like dSLR cameras, laptops, ipads, food, and work related papers.

I picked up a new Timberland backpack before I left for Japan at TJ-Max. It just happened to come with a rain cover. Talk about a lucky break, especially if you’re going use public transportation and even more so if you’re going to ride a bike to your schools… speaking of which.

A poncho with waterproof pants

Because this is the wrong way to become famous.

This is only if you’re planning on biking to school, though waterproof pants would be helpful for walkers as well.

Okay… This isn’t just random. If you don’t know how I got to this picture just hold your mouse over the picture…

You can buy them in Japan of course, but make sure you remember to do so… My first day of school it was raining so hard I couldn’t even see the school, I passed it and then had to back track through the torrential pour. Oh yeah, and I was wearing a suit… And I didn’t eat breakfast because my rice cooker… oh well, you get the point. It was a shitty first day.

Toothpaste

It’s not that Japan doesn’t have toothpaste. It’s that Japanese society has much different views on dental hygienics…

It’s called yaeba and it’s a dental procedure girls do because they think it looks cute.

If you’re worried about it a few tubes of Crest is an easy last minute purchase.

*edit

Recently I’ve been finding Aquafresh at the drug store!

Deodorant

If you have bad BO then you’re probably not Asian and your ear wax is probably wet not dry like mine. I’m not making any sort of inappropriate joke here, there are actual scientific studies correlating ear wax with body odor. It also explains why, after I work-out, I just smell a little salty and not like rotten eggs.

There are deodorants in Japan, but they’re not often used by Japanese people and they’re not very good, or so I’ve been told. If you have issues then bring some extra to last or you’ll just have one more thing that makes you stand out.

Still not blending in…

Misc

You’ll never realize what you miss about your current life until you don’t have it. Be it some sort of candy, animal crackers, goldfish, sunflower seeds, video games, pizza that doesn’t have mayonnaise or squid parts on it, or whatever else you take for granted.

Vacuum tech is lagging far far behind in Japan… and it’s expensive! Finding a vacuum for under $100 is a chore…

 Recap:

  • Gifts for the teachers
  • Indoor shoes
  • A rice cooker
  • Shampoo
  • DVD player
  • Medicines
  • Seasonings and spices
  • A backpack with a rain cover
  • A full body poncho
  • Toothpaste
  • Deodorant
  • Stuff you can’t live without

Was this list helpful? Did I leave something off? Disagree with anything? Please feel free to let me know in the comments below! If you’re headed for Japan soon good luck!

If you’re already in Japan check out the next post: Japan Living TIPS

Comments on: "What to bring to Japan" (9)

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  3. Good tips here – I’m especially a fan of secondhand shops as well.

    Although, toothpaste really isn’t all that different, and most of it contains flouride. I noticed you mentioned Aquafresh, which is a good one (although I use natural toothpaste anyway since regular stuff gives me canker sores). I did a bunch of research about toothpaste in Japan, though, if interested. I would say, unless someone is really attached to something they prefer to use, it might just be worth bringing a tube or two until you can find something here.

    As for spices, I’m surprised you mentioned this one, because most supermarkets have a variety of spices (some more than others). Import stores have a bunch as well, and then there’s the internet. Rest assured there is no need to bring spices to Japan! One of my favorite stores for ordering bulk nuts, spices, herbs and things from is Ohtsuya, although it is in Japanese only.

    Backpack covers are definitely good to have (gosh I never used one living in Seattle but went out and bought one promptly here!) They do have backpack covers at outdoor shops though.

    As for OTC meds, it’s handy having a big bottle of Advil or whatever with you from the US, although it’s pretty easy to find that and other meds at the drug store once you know what to look for. I would say bring some stuff with you for sure, but then don’t worry if you run out or need something later on.

    By the way, thanks for mentioning what anti-dandruff shampoo you tried. I’ve been wondering about that, if anyone has tried it and what types. Good to know!

    • @Ashley thanks for reading and commenting!

      As far as spices are concerned I’ve heard both people agreeing with me and people disagreeing with me. It’s taken me some time, but most spices I’ve been able to find in Japan eventually, but it was never easy. I still have trouble finding paprika and cilantro. I was mainly talking about spices that aren’t maybe used too often, or if there’s a special blend you like using from your home country.

      Oregano, cumin seed, coriander, sage, rosemary, thyme, dill, etc, are around, though not at most supermarkets where I live. It’s definitely not as simple as stopping by the spice aisle on an everyday shopping run for me.

      • Yeah, I mentioned some stores more than others have more of a selection, and there are some definitely that may not be at some supermarkets, although in the past 4 years I’ve lived here I’ve noticed more and more stores getting more spices and expanding their selections (much faster than I expected – kind of funny how things change quickly like that). I’m surprised you’re not able to find paprika, though (cilantro, yes, I agree, I’ve also noticed that can be more difficult to find). I don’t really do the blends though since they tend to have too much salt or other additives, but that’s just me. But I just thought it’d be easier to order spices online here than bringing them with (I guess unless you’re wanting one of those pre-blended ones).

    • Yeah, I don’t really online shop… must be my Y chromosome… thing is more trouble than it’s worth sometimes… I have noticed that it’s gotten easier, but both the supermarkets in my town have absolutely no selection. So you have to do premeditated shopping excursions, which is another thing my Y chromosome typically rules out…

      It’s actually my Japanese wife that likes getting the blends that she used to get in America. I’ve typically gone from scratch, but gotten frustrated here as I say, “Oh, I want to make a rub for my pork.” Then I have to go to the city and usually more than one store to find all the stuff I need…

      • That’s understandable. I guess for me online shopping is easier and less work than going out hunting for things, or going to the city, haha. But I suppose I do most of the online shopping and my husband more of the in-store shopping!

  4. AWESOME LIST! I leave for Japan in 4 days…a little freaking out with a little i can’t wait with a side of omg and holy sh@t. I got most of the stuff u talked about above ready..spices, extra deodorant, toothpaste, spices, little candies and extra stickers…working on getting pencils and stickers that have canada all over them. i’m in the process of preparing my first lesson and introduction, any ideas or suggestions? i’ve been told things to describe your home country, your likes, sports, food, what kids do here in canada?

    • I have a first lesson video on YouTube. It really depends on the level you’ll be teaching and your teacher. Hopefully your teacher will just ask you to do a brief self intro and then they’ll have the rest of the lesson prepared beforehand.

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