Living in Japan Part 1: Preparations Before You Arrive

As some of you following us on Facebook and Twitter probably know, I recently relocated to Japan for research, with the intention of sticking around for at least a year or two. Despite being several years into my doctoral work, and having studied abroad in Japan for six months and one year respectively in the past, I realized that this time around I was entering a whole new world: residency.

Previously, I either lived in an international dorm or stayed with host families or at sharehouses. With this trip, suddenly I became an adult in Japan without ever having any experience doing adult things, such as apartment hunting, setting up utilities, purchasing furniture and appliances, setting up a bank account, etc. Make no mistake—no matter how old you are, if you have never done these things in a foreign language before, they are terrifying. You’ll feel lost and frustrated and realize just how many minutiae you want to know that you didn’t even realize you didn’t know until faced with major decisions and loads of paperwork. But fear not—you are not alone!

I’m still learning the ropes myself, but in the next couple months I intend to put out several articles detailing some of the experiences I’ve had along with suggestions on how to go about them more efficiently that I probably did. I’ll be listing stores, writing up information on processes and procedures, and also providing links to other articles and blogs I found particularly helpful in my quest. Hopefully these articles will serve as a kind of “master list” compiling some of the best stuff out there and adding to them.

So where do you even begin planning for a long-term residency in Japan? What should you keep in mind before you leave, and expect to do after you arrive to get settled in? I’ll be writing these articles in several parts, and though some information may seem obvious, I’ll be adding extra comments with some advice based on my experience and research. Below you’ll find bullet-pointed suggestions on preparations before arrival, with details beneath each point. If you have anything to add from your own experiences, please feel free to leave comments below!

Photo by kozumel

Photo by kozumel

Before you leave


  • check the weight limits and charges for suitcases according to the carriers you intend to fly with, and ship anything extra

Depending on what airline you’re flying, charges for your suitcases will be different. Some airlines only allow one checked bag for free, others will let you have two. Depending on how much stuff you want to take with you, and depending on whether you’re flying domestic to make a connection to a major hub going to Japan, you may want to set aside around $200 for luggage fees. I had to check my two suitcases to fly to a hub, to the tune of $50 each, then had to pay a fee for my second bag flying to Japan for $100. This was in part because my reservations had to be booked separately for domestic and international carriers. Others may not have to pay quite so much. Also be careful about having overweight bags—my limit was 50 lbs (anything over was a $90 fee), but these policies sometimes fluctuate and differ by airline. Check your airline’s website to be sure of their conditions.

Anything extra you may need that doesn’t fit into two suitcases can be shipped—my large boxes cost about $100 each to send out, because airmail is now the only option to Japan from America.

  • pack those things that you might not be able to find easily in Japan that you really can’t live without

Be sure to pack daily use items that you may not be able to find readily in Japan. Some things you might not realize you can’t get until you arrive, or they might be difficult to come by without going to a store that carries imports (which can get expensive). Some things I’ve found I wanted to take with me as well as some things I’ve picked off of other lists on the internet include:

  • deodorant

The stick kind—Japan has mostly aerosol, which most people find unsatisfactory – there are stick deodorants, but you might have to work to find them – see article links below for some good information on this.

  • over-the-counter drugs

Things like Advil, Sudafed, etc. Check Japan’s policies on bringing in over-the-counters, though! many over the counter things like Nyquil are illegal, though I’ve heard of people bringing them anyway. You can get things for gas, cramps, headaches, etc. easily in Japan, but if you don’t know what they’re called you’ll have to do your research or be prepared to ask some awkward questions at the counter.

  • tampons

Although pads are abundant, tampons are sometimes difficult to find (only 1 brand or so), and if you need something more than regular or super, you’ll find yourself in a bind. Some alternatives are available through bilingual adult stores like Love Piece Club.

  • makeup suited to your skin tone

Foundation, in particular—everything else is abundant

  • socks/shoes

If you have larger feet—as a girl with size 9.5 feet in the states, this is about 28 cm or 29 cm in Japan, and the largest shoe/sock size most stores carry is 24 cm, or a ladies size 6/7. I can usually stretch out size 25 cm socks when and IF I can find them, but it can be frustrating.

  • condoms

Depending on your needs—I’ve known a number of people to order them online from overseas while in Japan for an extended period of time. You can also order them from places like Love Piece. If you have allergy-specific, non-latex needs it’s probably better to bring your own or have a friend on call in the States to send more your way when you need them.

  • tissue paper

When I wanted to wrap presents for immediately after my arrival, I absolutely COULD NOT find tissue paper to wrap a small gift in to put in a little bag – they usually sell little lacy bags to place presents in, but if you’re dead set on wrapping per-American-ways, bring some of your own tissue paper.

  • fluoride toothpaste

Several sites list this as a thing not easily able to be found, but a fellow blogger has informed me that Aquafresh has fluoride now. Look for フッ素 on the tube!

  • any prescription medication you may need

It may be difficult to obtain while abroad, so bring whatever you need with you. In my experience, it was fairly easily to ask my doctors to get a year supply of something I needed, provided I had proof of my travel and an insurance override from my carrier.

Links with more information:

  • don’t forget the appropriate omiyage (souvenirs/gifts) for people you will be indebted to
Photo by Steven Depolo

Photo by Steven Depolo

The tradition of gift-giving in Japan is deeply ingrained in everyday culture, and it is important for you to bring some small (relatively inexpensive) gifts for people whom you know you will receive help from. For example, I wrote an omiyage list for my arrival that included a good friend, my former host mother, her best friend (with whom I became close), both of their families’ children, the acquaintance of mine who was helping me apartment hunt, and my future academic advisor. Figuring out the most appropriate gift for each person or family can be difficult, but usually the best items to buy are local foods or items from the area you come from or go to school at. For example, Michigan’s cherries are very popular, so I brought several jars of cherry jam/preserves with me. For omiyage for my host brothers, I brought Amish-harvested honey sticks. Small candies or snacks not available in Japan also go over very well. The more “local” or “American,” the better. If you’re going to a setting where you need omiyage for a group (your department at school, your BOE, et al.), small, individually wrapped (if possible) items are good. A box of cookies or chocolates, etc.

Of course, your list of gifts aside, it also doesn’t hurt to plan for the unforeseen help you may receive with some extra omiyage. I brought an extra jar of local jam just in case, which was a good thing, because it ends up my landlady is extremely nice and has treated me to dinner a couple of times on top of helping me get some issues with my apartment sorted out after I moved in. I felt relieved to have some way to repay her kindness. Presentation is also important, so be sure whatever you bring is packaged and presented nicely.

Links on the do’s and don’ts of omiyage giving (though you might find some conflicting opinions):

  • don’t forget important documents like your identification (passport, license, documents, etc.)

Having your license and passport so you have identification is a no-brainer.  If you’ll be applying for a Japanese driver’s license, bring any old licenses you have too if you’ve changed states recently. (You have to prove you’ve been driving for 3+ years  or so and your new state license may not show that.) Also be sure you have copies of other important documents, like any acceptance papers for fellowships or notices of affiliations with universities. I had to have a statement of my fellowship benefits to provide to a real estate agency in order to get my guarantorship through my program confirmed. You may at one point or another need proof of your income, etc. Also, be sure to bring any tax documents you need to file during the following year, as being out of the country sadly does not exempt you from paying Uncle Sam.

Edit (10/02) – Nyssa added:

About drivers’ licenses right after you arrive: it depends on what country you are coming from but there is an international permit based on treaties that can be used with your home country license while in Japan. That document by itself has no legal authority; it acts as a translation of the valid license you are already holding. At least that’s my understanding of it. They usually only last a year and then you have to test for a Japanese license (again, varies by home country). I got mine at AAA in the US before I left and the fee isn’t huge ($25?). I’ve even done it the opposite way when my American license had expired, so I used a valid Japanese license plus international permit so I could drive in the States while on vacation. There are lots of resources about this online.


  • check the location of places you will be staying at after you arrive from the airport, print maps, and write down any phone numbers or addresses you might need – you cannot rely on there to be easily accessible internet!

As someone who didn’t own a smartphone until a month ago, I knew it was likely that I’d find myself lost in the various side streets and station exits trying to figure out where I was going after I arrived, with no internet alternatives to help figure it out. If you feel completely confident asking for directions, all the power to you; people are very nice and willing to help you figure out where it is that you’re going. But I knew that regardless of whatever abilities I had to ask how to get to my hotel, after 23 hours of traveling, 100 lbs of luggage to drag around, and arriving in 95 degree weather, I wasn’t going to feel like being lost and talking to anyone (in any language) during my jetlagged haze.

So I suggest being sure to print out maps, addresses, and phone numbers for anywhere you need to go immediately after arrival. There is a dearth of free WiFi in Japan (UNLESS you are a tourist in Tokyo) so you probably won’t be able to whip out your phone or iPad and connect anywhere that you are. More on the internet/WiFi in Japan in a future post. You will also need to have an address/phone number for the location you are staying (hotel, dorm, house, etc.) or that of an acquaintance to fill out your customs form upon arrival at the airport, so keep this on hand!

  • if you’re unfamiliar with the train system, look up any particular lines you’ll need to take to get from point A to point B
Are maps like this really even helpful? Sometimes, I wonder. But better safe than sorry.

Are maps like this really even helpful? Sometimes, I wonder. But better safe than sorry.

Also important for those of us that don’t have fancy smartphones. Be sure you know how to get from the airport to a major station and then how to switch train lines to get to your next stop. If you’re not familiar with extremely large train stations like Tokyo Station, even if they have English signs they can be intimidating when you’re exhausted and flustered going up or down four floors. If you’re going to end up in a much more local station that maybe that doesn’t have English signs, be sure to note the kanji somewhere and know the stations/lines you need by name/reading so that you can ask directions and show someone.

  • check how much traveling will cost you from the airport, and bring enough cash to exchange for travel/food/hotel money if you need it

Contrary to general opinions about money exchange at airports, it’s not going to be too much more expensive there than anywhere else to exchange your money upon arrival. I would say bring enough money to account for food for a few days, any trains you’ll have to take (the Narita Express from Narita airport, for example, is about $30), and anything more you might need for emergencies or hotel costs. Using international ATM cards can be done at local convenience stores or post offices, but you will get charged fees for overseas withdrawals.

  • make business cards

Much like gifts, the exchange of business cards is also a standard (and VERY important!) form of communication and connection. If you know that you’re going to be in contact with people who are important to your work or friend/acquaintance network, you might want to order business cards before you leave. I’ve only ever used, though I had to use photoshop to make image-based templates to get a double-sided bilingual card going because their templates don’t allow text on both sides. I’m sure there are a number of other services for cheap cards in the states—if you have any particularly good suggestions for bilingual text options, please let us know! Alternatively, I have been told it’s very easy to find somewhere to do business cards on the Japan side very quickly, since it’s such a social staple. You may want to ask friends or colleagues where they go in Japan so that you have cards handy for any social occasion, but also be aware you may want to take care of this before you leave, too.


These suggestions have all been the very basics of preparing for your international trip to Japan, but I’ll be adding a series of articles with more detail on other aspects of everyday life in the near future, particularly about getting set up for 一人暮らし (living alone) in a Japanese apartment. Stay tuned for more soon! Any questions? Comments? Leave em below!

Next Article: Living in Japan Part 2: Getting Your Residency Started

About Paula

Paula lives in the vortex of academic life. She studies medieval Japanese history.
This entry was posted in culture, graduate school, housing, living abroad, main posts, study tools, useful links and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Living in Japan Part 1: Preparations Before You Arrive

  1. toranosuke says:

    This is great. A lot of things I should have planned for better even just for this brief one-month jaunt this summer. And, like yourself, I’ve never yet dealt with apt hunting, utilities, etc in Japan, so this will come in very useful. Looking forward to the next in the series.

  2. Steve says:

    Thanks Paula! This looks like a lot of useful information even though I’ve only gone to Japan as a tourist. Would you know if International TAQBIN (Kuroneko, ) be a useful way to ship some things to Japan?

    • Paula says:

      I used the US postal service or UPS, but I’ve heard many people swear by TAQBIN, and the internet seems to have many people who have also used Shipmates (, although largely for bigger moves (including furniture, etc.). You might want to look at comparative pricing between TAQBIN and US services to see what’s cheapest, depending on the weight and amount you want to send. Also, something to be aware of for UPS is that you may have to pay a customs fee to the delivery guy when your item arrives Japan-side. I think it was about $13 for my last box (which was fairly heavy).

  3. Nyssa says:

    I thought of something to add if you’re looking for anything more specific in the documents section. About drivers’ licenses right after you arrive, it depends on what country you are coming from but there is an international permit based on treaties that can be used with your home country license while in Japan. That document by itself has no legal authority; it acts as a translation of the valid license you are already holding. At least that’s my understanding of it. They usually only last a year and then you have to test for a Japanese license (again, varies by home country). I got mine at AAA in the US before I left and the fee isn’t huge ($25?). I’ve even done it the opposite way when my American license had expired, so I used a valid Japanese license plus international permit so I could drive in the States while on vacation. Sorry this comment is quick. There are lots of resources about this, but I don’t have a particular one on hand now.

    And US taxes while abroad….I’m not going to touch that one right now, but you’ll probably come back with more info about that in the future. 😉

    Cheers to a great article, Paula! And many more to come!

  4. Pingback: End of Year Cleaning and Suggestions | What can I do with a B.A. in Japanese Studies?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s