I'm starting to get really excited about the new JETs coming to Towada (and Shichinohe)! (Thanks for the comments, Bryan. I've fixed the old photo links, by the way!) It's really too bad that I'm going to be gone for the first two and a half weeks of August, so I won't be able to help them as much as I'd like, but hopefully I'll be able to prepare things and/or answer questions for them beforehand.
Anyway, all the preparations for the incoming JETs made me think about my own experiences preparing for Japan and my first few days/weeks/months here. There's a lot of stuff that JET/CLAIR tells JET participants, but this is the stuff that I personally thought was important (or regretted not taking care of).
Vaccinations: If you're thinking about traveling to Thailand, other Asian countries, or Indian from Japan, it's best if you get your hepatitis A/B and/or malaria shots before coming to Japan, as it can be rather expensive and troublesome to get it done here.
Documentation: If you're planning on driving in Japan, make sure you get an International Driver's Permit before you leave! Also, you should bring proof (old passports, original university transcripts, pay stubs, etc.) that you were in the country for at least three months after your driver's license was issued. If you stay a second year, you will need this in order to get a Japanese license.
Will/Power of Attorney: Just in case, get this done before you leave.
Credit Card/Banking Information: Make sure you inform your bank/credit card companies that you will be moving to Japan. Some companies may even mail your statements to you in Japan! Also make sure that you have the international contact information for your accounts, as well as your account information (especially if you want to transfer money home through a service like Go Lloyds).
Airline Rewards: Find out what airline you will be using to get to Japan. If you don't already have an airline reward card for that airline, inquire about getting one. For Canadians, you can get Aeroplan miles from Air Canada for your flight to Japan. You can also get Aeroplan miles from ANA and various other airlines that are part of the Star Alliance. (I flew to Singapore for free this May thanks to points accumulated from flying to and from Japan, plus a flight to Europe before I left for Japan.)
Join your local JET community (list serve, forum, MSN group, Facebook group, etc.; e.g. aomorilist): It's a good way to learn about what goes on in your local JET community, and you can find lots of stuff going on sale right now (cars, snowboards, etc.) from departing JETs.
In terms of packing, here's the short list (in no particular order) of what I'd bring, leave, limit and consider:
- laptop: you may or may not have a computer to use in your office/school
- sturdy backpack: you'll likely have lots of lesson materials to carry around; also good for trips
- cereal: Japanese cereal is too sweet for my tastes and North American brands are expensive (800 yen for a small box of Cheerios!)
- North American/ethnic spices (e.g. garlic powder)
- medication (e.g. cough syrup, Tylenol, Advil, Neo Citron, etc.) : you work with children, so there's a good chance you'll get sick, particularly in the winter, and if you get a local prescription, you will get five different types of medicines, most of which will be considerably less potent than North American non-prescription medicines
- toothpaste: Japanese toothpaste doesn't have fluoride and often doesn't foam in the same way North American toothpaste does; travel size ones are good to bring to school, since all students and teachers brush their teeth after lunch (up to junior high, at least)
- flat sheet: you never know what type of bedding your predecessor has left you
- battery-operated alarm clock: it'll take a bit of time before you get a cell, and plug in clocks will run slow due to the voltage difference; punctuality is important in Japan, so the alarm clock is vital!
- long underwear (top and bottom): winters are COLD, especially in old houses
- sports wear: all schools have sports days, so if you want to join in...
- indoor shoes (dress & sports): you *can* wear visitor slippers at your school(s), but I always feel like they'll slip off, especially on the stairs!
- ONE good black suit: for various school ceremonies and to make a good first impression with co-workers, city officials, etc. (for guys, I've heard it's hard to find dress shirts with the proper collar size and/or sleeve length, so you may want to make sure you bring a week's supply of dress shirts for work)
- lots of polo T-shirts: comfortable (especially in the summer) but (usually) formal enough for the office; can be layered with v-neck long-sleeved tees or sweaters in the winter
- mummy sleeping bag: use in the winter and save on heating costs!
- sanitary products (obviously, girls only): it's nice to not have to worry about such things; I brought a one-year supply and I don't regret it at all
- ONE towel: again, you don't know what your predecessor has left, but you can easily buy more in the 100 yen store, so just one is sufficient
- ONE bar of soap: North American brands are available in Japan (e.g. Dove), but it's good to have something to start with
- ONE toothbrush: you can always buy more at the 100 yen store!
- sunscreen: I know lots of ALTs who have gotten pretty bad sunburns (you also have to remember to apply it!)
- moisturizer: I've had allergic reactions (even in Canada), so it's a good idea to bring tried and tested skincare products
- USB key/external hard drive: good for printing things off a school/office computer and for sharing files with other ALTs
- 300,000 yen cash: I used the cash I brought to pay for my trip back to Canada (for a wedding) and most of my car in October
- layering pieces (v-neck long sleeve T’s/sweaters, etc.): outside, inside your home, and in school corridors it may be freezing, but in classrooms it may be boiling, so layering is the best way to ensure comfort in all situations!
- nice cardigan/blazer: again, layering is important, and a nice cardigan/blazer is good for dressing up a more casual sweater/shirt
- stickers (SpongeBob, Winnie the Pooh, Canadian/American, etc.): even up to third grade in junior high school, students love "seals"
- Japanese text/reference books: the first month--before school visits, before you have much real office work, before you have a car to get around with--is a great time to work on your Japanese!
- country/hometown specific food stuffs (for souvenirs: small bottles of wine/alcohol, local sweets, teas, etc.): the most appreciated omiyage for co-workers, and good for giving other nice/helpful people (English-speaking travel agent, eikaiwa students, etc.) you meet
- letter-size photo of your family: for your self introduction
- a few books you can read over and over and over again: English books are hard to come by in smaller cities/towns
- random souvenirs (pens, key chains, bookmarks, pins, etc.): I've got a bunch just taking up storage space
- Costco-sized shampoo: Japan has North American brands like Herbal Essences and Dove anyway
- bags that close with magnets: BEWARE! bank passbooks and some membership cards are easily de-magnetized
- stationary: Japan is the land of excellent stationary, and most of it can be found at the 100 yen store!
- T-shirts (five is plenty): unless you change everyday after coming home from school, you'll only really wear them on the weekends
- socks (a week’s supply is sufficient): Japanese washing machines are small, and few people have dryers, so you'll be doing laundry at least once every week, if not every couple of days (for girls, though, make sure you bring a pair or two of good pantyhose, since your office may not approve of bare legs!)
- jeans (two pairs are sufficient): again, you'll only really wear them on weekends
- English manga (if you’re a fan): students are always impressed to see manga in English; Bleach is still popular right now
- laptop backpack (I love the one I bought from Mec!)
- mittens: hard to find in Japan; gloves are not a problem, though
- reminders of home (favourite stuffed friend, a flag signed by your friends, etc.): comforting in your first few days/weeks
- favourite movies: it's fairly easy to find cheap DVD players that play North American DVDs
- baking supplies (vanilla, measuring spoons/cups): Japanese measurements of "cups" etc. are slightly less than North American ones (about 20mL off)
- swimsuit: especially for girls, you may find buying a bathing suit hard on your wallet and your self-esteem (Japanese sizing for swimsuits is a lot smaller than North American sizing!)
- hand-cranking emergency flashlight/radio (you can keep it as part of your earthquake preparation kit!)
- small first aid kit: maybe I just don't know where to look, but I haven't found an actual first aid kit (I'd like one for the car, and one for my earthquake preparation kit--because I'm cautious like that)
Other things you should know about packing:
When you arrive in Tokyo Airport, you will ship one piece of luggage to your contracting organization. You get the bill for the shipping fees later. What you should keep in mind when deciding which bag you'll send ahead and which you'll keep (assuming you bring as much luggage as you're allowed) is that you may be taking a plane from Tokyo to your city/town/village.
The domestic checked baggage allowance for JAL is 15kg per piece, with dimensions of 50 x 60 x 120 cm, up to a maximum of 3 pieces(?). The weight allowance for unchecked baggage (1 piece only) is 10kg. If you have heavier luggage, you will need to ship it the night before you leave Tokyo, and you will have to pay for the shipping costs on the spot. In order to receive your luggage the next day, you have to bring your luggage before 6pm (or thereabouts--make sure you listen to the time your Prefectural Advisor tells you!), otherwise it will take 2 days before it's delivered!!
Even if you're taking a train, you'll probably want to keep your Tokyo bag fairly small, since you'll have to put any large pieces of luggage in the racks by the exiting doors of the train (separated from the seating areas by doors). You may also have a fairly long walk to your train platform, so if you've got a massive bag, it could be quite difficult.
It starts to get cold in northern Japan (Aomori Prefecture, Hokkaido) in mid-September, so if you decide to send your winter clothes by seamail, you may want to bring at least one zip up hoody or something in case it gets cold before your package arrives.
When you're entering Japan, if you've sent things by seamail or you know that your parents or friends will be sending packages to you after your arrival, you should make sure to declare those items on the customs/immigration form to avoid having to pay duty on them later ("unaccompanied articles" or something like that on the form).
Anyway, if there are actually other incoming JETs reading this, please feel free to comment or ask a question!