Monday, 28 February 2011

Be Prepared! Or "What Should I Bring to Japan?"

It has rained constantly since last night, and my feet are soaked. I thought to myself as I walked to school this morning; "I wish I'd brought some wellies* to Japan with me". A size 7 in the UK, it's hard for me to find shoes that fit comfortably here in Japan. Perhaps I'm not looking hard enough, but so far I seem to be just squeezing into the largest size available - not comfortably, might I add. This got me thinking about the things that I wished I had brought with me to Japan. As there are a new batch of Interac ALTs coming over in just a few weeks, I thought that it might be helpful to write a few pointers. I have blabbed on a lot, so at the end I have written a concise checklist for easier viewing.

*Wellies = Wellington Boots (British English), aka gumboots, rainshoes... these things!


It isn't that you can't find shoes or clothes in Japan, it's just that larger ladies will have a hard time of it.
By "larger" I mean "larger than your average Japanese girl". I have a friend who is - in UK sizes - around a size 10, but here she has to buy a Large. There are clothes shops over here that cater to bigger people - after all, the average size of a Japanese person has increased a lot in the last couple of generations. Some of my 14-year-old students tower over me. Still, when you're used to shopping at Primark (where you can buy a pair of jeans for under 10 pounds), the average price of clothing might make your wallet cry. Luckily, I had the foresight to cram my suitcase full of shoes and clothes that would fit me.

Some things to remember:

1) If you are a lady with larger breasts (i.e. anything over a C-cup, I think) then bring a plenitful supply of bras. If you're on the heavier side, it can be hard enough to find fitting bras in your own country, let alone in Japan!

2) Interac will expect you to turn up to work dressed smartly. Japan is a very conservative country when it comes to business dress, and while you will soon notice most teachers walking around in tracksuits, you will also soon discover that they keep very formal suits stashed away for when members of the Board of Education show up! Also, as you are not employed by the school but there representing Interac, they like you to be professional and smart at all times. So, think about how many shirts and suits you will need (taking into consideration how often you will wash them). Also consider the changing seasons - in summer, even a short-sleeved shirt will feel hot. Skirts are a blessing (sorry, guys)! However, in winter, you might curse the lack of long sleeved shirts in your wardrobe. Don't wear a black tie! In Japan, this means that you have just come from a funeral. If you find people bowing deeply to you and giving their condolances, you should check the colour of your tie. This generally goes for black suits, too. Some people take "don't buy a black suit" to mean "buy a ridiculously vibrant suit in pink or orange", but again - Japan is a conservative country and might not appreciate that. Then again, you COULD end up with children chasing you, shouting "kakkoii!" (cool!!) - my advice would be to buy suits in grey, brown, dark blue, beige or pinstripe... you could spice it up with a colourful shirt or tie. I normally wear black trousers with a black pinstripe jacket (it's pinstripe, it's OK!) and whichever shirt I grab... most of my shirts are white, but I have a bright red one in there for dull days, too.

3) Look into the climate of your town. If you're up in Hokkaido, you're going to need a lot of winter clothes, as it's cold and snowy for a large percentage of the year. The further south you get, the hotter it gets. Summer in Japan is generally very hot and humid, so you'll appreciate sandals, summer dresses, shorts etc. Also, if you're near the coast, don't forget your bikini/swimming costume!

4) Never underestimate the small things, like a plentiful supply of socks. Very few of my socks match, but in an environment where you might be removing your shoes a lot, it's wiser to have some that match. Also, if you're lazy (like I am), you'll run out of socks and underwear far too quickly and have to buy more while you wait for the rest to dry.

5) Shoes - as I said, some waterproof shoes, some sandals for hot weather, some nice work shoes... also, in Japanese schools, you will be expected to take your "outdoor shoes" off at the entrance and change into "indoor shoes". If you forget them, there are usually some slippers available, but they might slide off and be quite cold, so it's good to bring some comfortable shoes (cycling shoes, dance shoes, sandals).


I'm sure you've heard this one, but bring deodorant! I'm talking about the roll-on kind and also the spray-on, perfumed kind. You'll appreciate them on those sweaty summer days (another reason to bring a surplus of clothes).

I've found make-up to be expensive here, and the foundation too watery to apply properly. I'm addicted to Maybelline's Dream Mousse foundation and have asked my best friend to send me some on various occasions. If there's a particular brand that you really like, I'd bring over extra supplies. Another thing that I found hard to find here was shower gel! I don't know why... I can find plenty of body wash, but when I find shower gel it's about 2000 yen a bottle... but on that note, don't worry about shampoo. I bought a MASSIVE bottle of Pantene conditioner for about 300 yen, and then you can buy refill packets, which are a little cheaper.

For the ladies... I've been told that Japanese women don't use tampons so much, so they are a lot harder to find. If you have a preference for them, I'd bring over a couple of boxes.
For everyone... just something to consider: I have heard rumours that Japanese condoms are smaller than some other countries. I have also heard that they are not as "good"... and well, some people just have brands that they trust (in the UK the ones with the "kite mark" are the tried and tested ones!), so keep that in mind! Saying that, I've been boxes of condoms here with Pikachu or Rilakkuma on them, so it's always worth buying a box for the comedy value.

Jeff also adds - if you use contact lenses, then bring a plentiful supply over!


You can't get some food past customs. I'm not 100% sure of the kinds of food that would not be allowed, but usually meats, dairy products, vegetables etc. Also, think about what might melt or get crushed. If there's something that you really can't live without, then bring it over. Remember, you can always get people to send you care packages later on!

I read a few comments last year about being unable to get peanut butter in Japan. This is not true! You can buy big jars of Skippy peanut butter for 300-400円 and it's delicious. They sell it in Seiyu and other supermarkets, although if you have an import store near you, you might find other brands, too. Import stores generally have a lot of things that you might be missing from home at slightly higher prices. If you're in or near a big city then the likelihood of finding them increases.

Also - - or - you can get some of your favourite food from back home delivered to your door.


I'd advise bringing your laptop over, as you will probably be able to access the internet from your training hotel as soon as you arrive - an easier way to let your loved ones back home know that you arrived safely without finding an internet cafe! You can buy laptops here, but I'm guessing that the settings will all be in Japanese, plus you'd be starting from scratch without your documents/music/pictures...

If you have a mobile/cell phone, chances are that it won't work in Japan unless it's on a 3G network. I know that British phones definitely don't work here (that is, there is zero signal). It might be worth bringing your phone over to act as an alarm clock, though, for the couple of weeks before you get your own phone here.

One thing that a lot of people forget is adapters or power converters. Japan has the same two-pin plug design as the USA. They're pretty cheap in the UK, but I couldn't find them quite as cheap over here.That's for your laptop, camera charger etc...

Other things to think about - cameras, camera charger, iPod, PSP or DS (good way to pass time on the plane!)...

Things from your home country

A lot of people have asked me about "omiyage" (souvenirs). In Japan, people often bring back souvenirs  from trips away, even if they just pop to the next city for the weekend, and share them with their colleagues. Sometimes they bring one thing to each member of staff individually. Other times they leave a big box near the tea-making supplies, so that everybody can help themselves (within reason). Usually they are individually wrapped pieces of food (small cakes, cookies etc), perhaps something that the area is famous for. Japan is very big on areas being famous for different foods - for example, Hamamatsu is famous for eel (and unagi pie - a biscuit made from crushed eel bones.... nicer than it sounds!), Hokkaido is famous for apples (I think). Within Japan, you can find tons of these boxes at every train station and supermarket. If you can bring something stereotypically famous from your own country, individually wrapped - perhaps with pretty packaging - then it will be appreciated when you first join your schools. HOWEVER, don't worry about it too much, please! A lot of my friends said that they didn't bring any, that they don't expect it from you, so as long as you're friendly and professional, nobody's going to like you any less for forgetting omiyage.

Still, if you do want to bring some... from the UK I brought some teabags and toffees in very English tins (shaped like double decker buses and Big Ben clock tower), which I bought from a souvenir shop in London. I also saw some suitable things at the gift shop in Heathrow airport. If you're from Canada, something maple themed... if you're from Australia, something involving kangaroos or koalas... if your state in the US has a specialty, perhaps.... but don't worry too much! Overthinking it is just unnecessary stress, and the gifts will only take up space in your suitcase. You can always buy something for them when you a) actually know how many schools you have and how many teachers are in them and b) travel somewhere in Japan.

It's nice to have things from back home to show your students - perhaps some money, leaflets/flyers for popular attractions (if you bring a few you can use them in activities sometime) and pictures. Sometimes, I find that I just want a picture of something simple - an English dish, my house, a typical British street or Christmas tree, and find that Google images just doesn't cut it. There are things that you might never think to take pictures of, but if you can print a few off (or at least take them on your camera and print them over here) you might be grateful of them later.


Personally I didn't do traveller's cheques, as I had read that they were difficult to exchange. Others have told me that as long as you get the cheques in Yen - which is difficult to do - then it should be OK. A lot of people at training didn't have enough yen on them to pay the up-front apartment fees and tried to withdraw money with their bank cards from back home, but some had trouble doing that... I'm not sure why, as my HSBC Visa Debit card works fine on most convenience store ATMs - it charges a little for withdrawing money, but it's a good thing to have around in a cash emergency.

What I actually did was exchange a whole ton of money into Yen and transported it all over in my suitcase... dangerous, scary, but it was fine once I was here as I had enough to survive until I had my bank account set up and my first paycheck. Word of warning: a lot of exchange places might not have enough Yen on hand, so it's good to go in a week or so before and ask them to order it in for you. Japan is a cash society - most things are paid for wish cash, and so people carry large wads on them at all times. It is also generally a safer country, so you don't have to worry as much about the risks normally associated with carrying a lot of cash on you - just be careful and streetwise and you'll be fine, I hope!


It's possible to get English books here, but you probably won't find them in every book shop - and when you do, they're somewhere between 1200 and 2000 Yen a book. You can order them online, though, or get kind relatives to send them to you. If there are a lot of English speakers in your area, you might be able to swap books. In Hamamatsu, I have managed to acquire a lot of books from other people, which I have then passed on to other people.

As for "learning Japanese" books, you can buy plenty of them over here, so unless you've already started filling in a workbook or something, I wouldn't weigh down my suitcase.

So, in summary:

Shoes: Indoor shoes, formal shoes, summer shoes, maybe some waterproof shoes
Clothes: Business attire, seasonal wear, underwear, socks
Shower gel
Contact lenses
Food (as long as you can get it past customs)
Camera, camera charger, iPod etc
Omiyage (if you want to)
Pictures, money, flyers etc from your home country
English books

That's all that I can think of right now! If anybody thinks of anything that I've forgotten, please comment below!


  1. Regarding the ATMs, most banks in the US/Canada (and probably just about everywhere else, too) have daily withdrawal limits. If you try to withdraw 300,000en in one go, it probably won't work. Typically the ceiling for most US banks is $500 to $1,000 per day (though this can generally be raised by making a phone call to your bank before you go!). Even if you do this, though, many ATMs also have caps on how much you can withdraw from that specific machine or network.

  2. I suggest bringing toothpaste because I've heard that the kind here doesn't have fluoride. Though I've never actually looked at the toothpaste here so I can't say I really know. But based on the amounts of fillings even the kindergartners already have, I'm guessing that the Japanese toothpaste isn't as good.

    And Gwynnie already said this, but I just wanted to emphasize that bringing pictures from home is a great idea! I just took a couple quick pictures around my town and showed them to the students and teachers. They found the most mundane things interesting. In one picture pretty much everyone commented on how the pedestrian crossing light was different than Japan's.

    Also, another thing to add to the shoe list (so many shoes! I know!) is indoor gym shoes. At my schools I need a different pair of shoes to wear in the gym. Though since you wont wear these for a whole lot of time, you can probably get away with buying a pair in Japan even if they aren't the most comfortable. But if you have really huge feet, then you should probably bring a pair.

    Anyways, this seems like a really thorough post. Nice list! :)

  3. Nice post, Gwynnie! Very useful for all those newbies coming along.

    Can I add that, in my experience, there's no need to bring shower gel as it is readily available here (disguised as "body soap" but does the exact same job). However, I have found it almost impossible to get real bubble bath in Japan. Tokyu Hands does stock it though, if you're in a bigger city.

    I completely agree about shoes and clothes - god my mum has sent me so many pairs of shoes and smart work clothes in the last 3 years!! I found buying socks and knickers was ok though - Uniqlo is the best! (If you're already Japan-sized I guess there's no need to bring so many clothes and shoes - there's some gorgeous stuff available here.)

    In response to what Jenna said about toothpaste, I heard the same thing but I buy Aquafresh here in Japan and it seems fine to me. Cleans my teeth, anyway...

    Finally, as for contact lenses, I brought loads with me but since then I have had them sent to me from Daysoft ( Depends what kind you use I guess, but they have been a godsend to me since I've been in Japan! Fast, reliable and cheap! :)

  4. You actually can get decent deodorant here, and anti-perspirant. It's a myth that deodorant is impossible to find or doesn't work. I wrote a post about it (with links to places to find it - so won't go into all the details here.

    Tampons are another myth - they are generally easy to find and even if you can't find them for some reason you can easily order them from, flying pig, FBC, etc. I actually bought and did comparisons of the sizes between American and Japanese brands, and the regular and super were basically the same size for both countries' brands. (I've got the pics posted if you want to check then out for yourself).

    Toothpaste - most toothpaste actually does contain flouride. I went through a daily goods store and read all of the ingredient labels and only 2 or 3 (out of maybe 12 or so) didn't have flouride. This seems to be another one of those myths that gets passed on. You want to look for フッ素" or "モノフルロリン酸ナトリウム.

    Definitely agree about makeup - although more for color reasons than type (you can get all the same kinds here you can get in western countries, even if the brand is different.

    Condoms are typically smaller, yeah, but you can find Durex in some drugstores and they are typical western size. ( though stocking up beforehand is probably a better idea.)

    You can get English laptops here in Japan, though honestly it is more of a hassle. Buying a Mac here is the easiest way to go about it. Most Japanese PCs only come with Japanese keyboards. Changing the system settings isn't a big deal though. But all around I think it's easier to just bring a laptop with you, like you said.

    I might add pain meds, like ibuprofen or Tylenol. You can easily get them here, but they are more expensive ( for fewer pills). I think just bringing a bottle with you to last a while is a good idea, especially at first.

  5. Well I am new recruit coming in on MArch 22,2011. I have question is advisable to use USD in Japan because in my country Jamaica Yen is not readily available to locals

  6. Thank you for the comments, guys!

    I'd like to add that maybe the black suit thing isn't definite. I've just heard some people say that they were advised not to wear black suits.

    PAIN MEDS - definitely!! I'm pretty convinced that the ones I buy over here are ineffective.

    Toothpaste... you can get Aquafresh here. I read a lot of research suggesting that fluoride actually isn't good for you, so I normally buy fluoride-free toothpaste in the UK anyway!

    Anonymous... you can bring USD over and exchange it at the airport when you get to Japan, I'm sure!

  7. I've never lived in Japan, and only visited once, but here are my recommendations (which may be not be that good).

    1. Bring your PS3 (not your X-Box. X-Box games are harder to come by and X-Box live works like crap there, but the PSN is way better than in America)

    2. Bring a towel - That way you can take a shower in your apt the first few days before you do most of your apt shopping.

    3. Extra pair of glasses - It is always nice to have an extra if one breaks or is lost.

    4. Kindle (if you can afford it) - I sold a bunch of old school books to amazon to pay for mine. It makes getting English books a snap, and I can check my email on the 3g in case I have to wait a while for my internet to get hooked up at my apt.

  8. Toothpaste - No fluoride but also I heard there's no fluoride in the water either so I try to always get it from home. I figure it's good to expose the teeth to a little fluoride at least!

    Tampons no probs at all. They even have them in the conbinis here.

    Deodorant after 7 years of searching not found one product that works. Def bring it from home.

    Contact lenses no probs either.

  9. i don't know what post to put this under...

    what is your monthly salary in japan? i have taught in korea and have been told that without the masters and celtas and x amount of experience that get you the best jobs in the middle east, korea is the best place to earn and save. unless you party all your money away. like i did. and will be doing again. soon. ugh.
    can you save much there?

    things in korea that were hard to get were sometimes the foreigner size clothing... deodorant was impossible to get, decent toothpaste... llyfrau cymraeg...

    all the best out there. mynytho representing... ;-)

  10. Wait, who are you? O Mynytho dwi'n dod.. ti'n nabod fi?

    The best paying jobs are in the middle east... but as a woman, I don't really fancy being there so much!