Pre-Departure: Preparation and Packing
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Packing for JET
Planning for any move is stressful, but Irish JET programme participants are asked to move halfway around the world to Japan, so it’s understandable to find it a daunting task! But, equipped with a practical mindset and an understanding of the limits placed on you, preparation and packing can take away from the moving stress.
Depending on the airline the JET programme uses for the flight to Japan, the average Irish JET gets a luggage allowance of around 20kg in their checked luggage, and one carry-on bag. When thinking about how to use this allowance, we need to find a balance between practicality and comfort. Our possessions are part of our lives, after all.
Pack what you imagine you might need for 24 hours if your luggage is delayed (it can happen – another reason you won't want to be wearing your jeans arriving in Haneda). Bring a light shorts, Tshirt, sandals outfit to change into on the plane about an hour before you land. You do not need to dress to impress when first landing in Japan. You will also be waiting in a long queue to get through immigration (no fun in Irish climate summer clothes). If you are bringing prescription medication through customs be mindful of where you packed it. Customs officers will want to see it along with the form you need to prepare well in advance.
When you step outside the airport to embark on that long bus ride to your hotel – the heat and the humidity will have you sweating (if not sweltering) – pack a small face towel or something to mop your brow. You may be queueing outdoors for the bus for a while – a hat, fan and a bottle of water will make you the envy of all your co-travellers (have a 1,000 yen note handy to pick up a drink from the drinks machine as you pass through the airport). You'll need a pen to fill out a number of forms during the bus ride. If wearing open-toe sandals or flipflops, its always a good idea to keep a pair of socks in your bag rather than go barefoot when you step into somewhere that requires shoe removal.
Double-check your Orientation Suitcase (One guy arrived in Tokyo to discover his mother had repacked his bags and only left him with sneakers to wear with his suit).
Humidity can wreck your stuff. Leather can grow mouldy, faux-leather on your shoes, bags or iPad case can start peeling in the heat. Anything your treasure (designer clothes etc) that you don't want to see ruined may be better left at home.
Packing up at Home
If you are leaving boxes of your stuff with friends or family – label the contents well and keep notes for yourself as to where that something you suddenly realise you need is.
This really comes down to your placement location. Japan has a wide variety of climates, from the hot and humid southern Ryukyu islands to the cold winters of Hokkaido. As a Pacific rim country it also experiences a rainy season called tsuyu in the early summer. With a bit of experience it can be easy to write off the worst inclement weather as equivalent to a Lahinch bank holiday Monday, but without the proper clothing you may find yourself high and dry (or soaked to the bone!).
Whether you’re arriving in April or August, as a rule, it’s safe to assume that your placement will be a fair bit hotter than what you’re used to from Ireland when you arrive. Loose, breathable clothing will go a long way to beating the heat. If your placement is known for colder weather during the winter, it may be worth budgeting out space somewhere for a heavy jacket, though you should always remember that whatever you can’t bring, you can always buy on arrival.
Clothing sizes in Japan generally trend towards the smaller side, you may be a size or two larger by Japanese standards. This goes the same for shoe sizes. Japan measures shoe sizes in centimetres, and most shops don’t carry shoes above 27cm (men’s size 9 in Ireland). While there are online shops with more variety, bringing a good pair of shoes or two will go a long way.
It is also important to understand your workplace’s dress code. Many workplaces operate under a “cool biz” or similar policy during the summer where the dress code becomes lighter and more casual, though you may be expected to dress more formally during winter months. In general, at least one set of formal clothes for workplace events (school commencement, end of year meetings etc.) is a good addition. CIRs generally have to dress more formally than ALTs, but this also varies from place to place.
A few general dress code tips based on some alumni experiences - the colours most worn by Japanese teachers on formal attire work days are black, grey and navy. If you stick to one of these colours, you should have no problem blending in with other teachers and staff. A word about necklines/ cleavage – for workplace attire NO V-necks (anything simply dipping in a V below the collar bone could warrant a complaint from a conservative principal to your BOE). If you are not a skirt wearer you will not become one in Japan – Penny's do very affordable black pants suits that will cover you for first days at school, graduations, and other unexpected formal occasions (eg funeral).
Deodorant sold in Japan can be of lower strength than in western countries. Lads who have a backlog of Lynx Africa gift sets from Christmases past would do well to bring a few along.
Again for men, beards aren’t as popular in Japan, and the average men’s cosmetics section in a shop will be filled with plenty of options for getting rid of beards, but not as much for taking care of them. If you have a preferred brand of beard care product, it may be worth packing a few refills.
Japanese hair care products generally are tailored towards straight hair types. Those with curly, wavy and other hair types may also want to bring an extra bottle of their preferred product.
Similarly, Japanese makeup products are generally tailored to fair skin tones, so it may be helpful to bring extras of your favourites that are designed for a darker skin tone.
The above examples can usually be bought online via Amazon and other online retailers once you’re in Japan, but often at higher prices. Planning beforehand can go a long way to saving some money and keeping you confident and in good condition.
As a rule, if you are actively taking any medication, it is best to bring a copy of your current prescriptions for reference by doctors. While finding English-speaking clinics can be a challenge, most medical practitioners will know or recognise some degree of medical English. Used in conjunction with a medical glossary as necessary, this is the most effective way to get prescribed the medicine you need or its Japanese-market equivalent.
However, Japan also has very strict laws related to medicine and medical imports. Some active ingredients that are commonly used in the west are illegal in Japan. This is especially common with stimulants of any kind. For example, amphetamines commonly used in the treatment of ADHD are all illegal in Japan regardless of use. If you are currently using medication and intend to bring it with you to Japan, work with your doctor to double check it against the List of Controlled Substances kept by the Narcotics Control Department.
The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare has a full explanation of rules surrounding bringing medicine with you to Japan. Essentially, one month’s supply of a prescription drug and two month’s supply of “Other Drugs” or over the counter medicine can be brought to Japan without declaration.
One of the biggest concerns that new JETs from any country have is “what omiyage should I bring?”. If you don’t know, omiyage is Japanese for “souvenir”. In Japanese culture, souvenirs are regularly given not just to family and friends, but coworkers as well. The intent is to give thanks for welcoming a new staff member, or to thank coworkers for working during their absence on a holiday or business trip.
In JET culture, on the other hand, many new JETs get very concerned over what they should bring, and read way too much into the importance of the concept, budgeting out money and space to bring bottles of Jameson for their principal and so on. There's no need to buy each teacher a souvenir. And no need to fret over it – they appreciate anything. Like any gift, what’s important is the thought, and your Japanese coworkers will appreciate that you’ve carried something for them all the way from the other side of the world, even if it’s small.
A good move in general is to prepare many individual wrapped sweets. This is the most common kind of omiyage in Japan, and is popular because it’s easy to give out, and recipients can easily keep them in their desks until snacktime. A box of Roses chocolates, Emerald toffee eclairs or similar is a great choice. (Imagine that box sitting open on a communal tearoom table in the Japanese heat with ants on the prowl).
Some Irish seaweed companies sell sealed sample bags of Carageen Moss – this was a big hit and light to pack. Fig-rolls are popular, won't melt, but might be heavy for your luggage.
If you’d like to give something more personal to an immediate supervisor or similar, a small gift box of Butler’s chocolates is a good move. Be aware it's going to be HOT when you arrive so your chocs may melt. If you are going for chocolate – pack them in a freezer bag to keep them cool. Bear in mind that our chocolate is generally too sweet for the Japanese. (You'll soon understand when you taste Japanese choco). A small bottle of Irish whiskey can also be a good present, but do keep in mind that not everybody drinks! Something like a box of Barry’s Tea to share at the office works great and tends to be more accessible to everyone. Showing a bit of consideration towards the recipient of any gift goes a long way.
For the whole staffroom – fun-size bags of Kit-kat, dairy milk (or anything light) will go down well because they are individually wrapped and people can pocket them for later or take them home to the kids. Usually they will leave your edible omiyage out on a communal table where people make tea. You can present the omiyage for the staffroom to your vice-principal, supervisor or at your first English Dept team meeting. OR make a personal tour around the staffroom during a quiet time with your bag of goodies open and offer each colleague to take one (a great way to introduce yourself, break the ice, and discover who the closet English speakers are – STEM teachers usually).
The gift you give to the principal will generally be shared with the Admin office team – (for principals pop it in a nice gift bag). For your staffroom colleagues, there's probably less need for fancy wrapping.
Your packing doesn’t have to be completely practical functional, nor should it be. Indulging in our hobbies are an important part of our mental health, so there’s nothing wrong with setting aside room for some books, games, art supplies and so on. Be reasonable though: blowing 4kg of your weight budget on your PS5 may not be the best idea… but your Miggle D Giggles soft toy might just fit!
Doubly useful are any keepsakes from Ireland. As JET programme participants are international representatives, there will come times when it is useful to show off a local team jersey, or perhaps even a small-sized hurl and sliotar. If you know your placement involves a lot of interaction with young children, a picture book of Irish myths and legends might make for a fun storytime activity. ALTs and CIRs alike are called on to introduce their countries, and you’ll no doubt find such props useful.
Finally, if you’ve a bit of extra space some Irish food and drink such as Barry’s Tea or packets of Tayto might be a nice treat to get you through the early days of your placement. Happily though, Irish-run businesses like the Kyojin Store as well as international delivery services like Paddy Box can give you access to a taste of home even in Japan.
There is no one correct way to pack for your time in Japan. It is a country with a wide variety of climates and challenges that you may or may not be prepared for. By knowing where you are going and knowing your own needs you will be able to prepare in a sensible, effective manner. Just go easy and take your time working out what you need, and the rest will follow.
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