Now that you know or have a rough idea of where you're going, there are a few (more) things you should take care of. Some of you may need to wait a bit longer to find out where in your prefecture you're headed, but it would still be helpful to do the following:
-Make a for sure, final-answer, decision about your placement
This is your final chance to bow out, but keep in mind you won't be able to apply again for one year, and I would be surprised if you weren't asked about why you dropped out after placement if you were awarded an interview in the future.
You're going to be charged with some hefty fines for things such as your airfare if you decide to drop out further down the road so think carefully if you're hesitant about your placement. Do the research and make sure you can survive for a year (or longer!) in your new home.
**Things to consider when making your final decision:
- Weather and climate- hopefully, you already did some research about Japan before you decided you wanted to come live here which means you know that Japan is hot and humid in the summer months and very cold and wet in winter. Now you can see just how hot or cold or precipitous it will be for you. Weather and climate is variable dependent not only on how far south or north you are, but also how inland or near the coast you are.
**keep in mind how this will match up with your daily life. EI: residential buildings DON'T have central heating, digging out your car from 10 feet of snow in the morning, dealing with seasonal affective disorder (I assure you that it's VERY real), and it's best friend, isolation.
- Your assigned grade level (if you are a prefectural ALT, you will be assigned high schools)- maybe you aren't being assigned to the grade level you wanted.
- City population/size- we all knew going on the JET program meant risking being sent to tiny villages in the middle of nowhere, but sometimes you can't anticipate what "small" means until you receive your placement. Check out your city population, how many conveniences and stores there are, how far it is to the nearest city, and so on.
- Surrounding environment- find out just how much nature you'll have to deal with.
-Look for goups and online resources for your prefecture
Now that you know where you're going, you can start doing some serious research. All prefectures have their own wiki made and run by fellow JETs that you should look for. Furthermore, Japan and each prefecture are each broken up into "blocks". The blocks for all of Japan start in the north with 1 (Hokkaido and the northeast region) and prefectures are divided according to area (Nikaho city is in the South block of Akita prefecture). All blocks have their own "block leaders" in charge of area events, maintaining contacts, and organizing the conferences. All prefectures also have a a bunch of "prefectural advisors" (PAs) in charge of taking care of their local area and the JETs who reside there.
In essence, you will be well taken care of here!
-Read your terms and conditions thoroughly
You're going to get a package in the mail from your board of education or municipality soon which contains a generic welcome letter filled out with your specific information (board of education, supervisor, apartment details, renumeration, etc.) and a copy of the terms and conditions of your contract. Read both of them thoroughly and make sure you understand everything. If you can read Japanese, compare it to the English version to make sure there are no discrepancies (my English version had an extra 0 in the renumeration amount and one version had an error in my new address). You should also receive a brochure or something with a little more information about your location such as famous places, sights, and things to do.
-Introduce yourself to your supervisor
Send an email to your supervisor introducing yourself (contact information should be in your info packet). If they don't speak English, this is a good chance to give your Japanese self-introduction a test-run! They are going to be greeting you at whichever transportation hub your destined for at your placement so breaking the ice now should make things go a little more smoothly.
-Find your predecessor (if you have one)
There is some strange rule out there where predecessors are not allowed to speak to you until a certain time (perhaps until certain details are ironed out/made official???). Put some feelers out there on facebook groups or other message forums and see what comes back. They want to get a hold of you too so you should connect at some point.
Once you find them, drill them with questions. Go crazy and ask as many as you can. Have a skype conversation if you can or ask if they would record a short video of your new home. See if they will still be there when you arrive (if this happens, one of you will need different accomodations until they leave).
Here is a list of things to consider asking about:
- state of the apartment (new? old? house? tatami mats or wood floors? futon or western bed) *video conference sessions are extremely helpful!
- what they're leaving behind in the apartment and what they want to sell
- rent and upfront payment
- how they get around
- whether your supervisor speaks English
- how much they spend a month on needs such as groceries and gas
- how much a typical electricity and water/gas bill are a month
- work dress code
- what you can expect from classes
- impression of your JTEs and co-workers
- any other work responsibilities
- information about any other schools or pre-schools you may work at
- how to dress for the weather and climate at work
- community activities (evening conversation classes, sister city exchanges, etc.)
- extracurriculars open to you
- the best phone service in your area
Ask your predecessor how to they get to work and whether there are any other options open to you.
I live about 15-minute's walk inland from the train station and my junior high school is located in town even further from the coast. Train wasn't going to help me at all. I can either walk 30 minutes to school or bike maybe ten minutes, but both are unpleasant in the rain and dangerous in the winter time. My choices were extremely limited.
If it turns out you'll be able to manage without a car, congradulations. Unless you have a bike that you spent a ton of money on and really really like, I would leave it at home. It'll take up a whole other checked bag in your luggage and who knows if it'll get damaged in-transit. You can buy a really simple bike here for 20,000-3,000yen. If you decide you can't live without your awesome bike, make sure whatever box you put it in is within dimension and weight limits with generous wiggle room just in case or be prepared for ridiculous overage charges.
If you need a car and your predecessor offers to sell their car to you, ask them for make, model, year, and pictures. Ask them about sha-ken (車検)- the mandatory car maintenance and compulsory insurance renewal that must be carried out every two years. Ask how much their voluntary (but your boe will make compulsory) insurance is. Ask them how much it takes to fill up the tank. I bought my car from my predecessor for about 200,000yen which wasn't a bad deal. It takes 5,000-6,000yen to fill an empty tank and on a busy month I fill it up twice. Ask if it is a kei or white-plate car (white-plate cars are normal cars that have a white license plate while kei cars have a smaller engine and have yellow license plates).
*Some notes about driving in Japan:
- DO. NOT. DRIVE. DRUNK. at all. as in, no alcohol can be in your system when you are driving. JETs are civil servants which means they fall under stricter penalites than other Japanese employees.
The penalty? Deportation. Go back to your home country. Do not pass GO. Do not collect 20,000yen (in fact, you'll end up paying quite a bit in terms of legal fees, airfare, possible imprisonment, etc).
You will hear horror stories that I hope scare the pants off you. Don't take the risk.
- There are options open to you in terms of drinking. These include: a service called daikou (代行) where a taxi drives you home while an addtional taxi driver takes your car home for you, and 0-alcohol beer.
- It's not as scary as it seems. If you're from the US, yeah, you'll have to drive on the opposite side of the road, but you'll be surprised how quickly you get used to it.
- There are a few dangerous things to watch out for: little white kei-trucks- you will know them when you see them. They're so tiny they zip around the road and in front of other drivers like they own the place, and old people- Japan is an aging society (in fact, Akita has the highest elderly population in Japan!) which means a lot of old people on the road both driving into incoming traffic and walking down the middle of the street because, let's face it, if you're that old, who gives a damn?
- There is NO "right-on-red" rule.
- Speed limits are much slower than in many other countries, but oddly, no one seems to follow them...
As I mentioned before, many JETs end up getting a car even though they planned on getting by without one. You may also find yourself in a situation where it would be helpful if you drove (maybe your driver is too tired/ill/drunk?).
You can get one very easily through AAA, you get it the same day, and costs less than $20. When you apply for one, you will specify what date you will arrive in Japan and this will serve as the effective date it becomes valid.
If you're doing this last minute, make sure you're aware of your local AAA office's business hours. They tend to be open only 2-3 days a week.
-Solidify your packing situation
You probably have a good idea of what you'd like to bring and leave behind. If you find that you lack anything you need, now is a good time to do some shopping.
Unfortunately, there are some things you will not be able to find in Japan.
Some things to consider stocking up on:
- deoderant: Japanese kinds tend to be spray-on and only contain scents to cover up smell instead of preventing sweat from forming in the first place. Brands that actually deoderize tend to not be strong enough for foreigners.
- make-up: make-up here is designed and marketed towards a south-east asian complexion. There's also a trend here where super-white skin is highly desirable so people with darker skin tones will have difficulties finding something for themselves.
- clothes: seems obvious, but Japanese clothing is cut for Japanese bodies and therefore shopping for clothes here is a challenge. I was surprised to find that there are sizes all the way up to XXXL, but the cut and proportion of the clothing remains the same no matter how big it gets. If you have any hint of curves, you will find that most clothes will seem baggy in areas and tight in others.
Clothes that you definitely WILL NOT be able to fit into: bras, shoes, and pants. I've bought stretch pants that work fine since I'm usually wearing them under something, but they still fit weird.
- compatible electronics: as I've mentioned in previous posts, make sure you bring media that's compatible what you already have or what you plan to buy later. Ask your predecessor if there are any DVD players or game consoles they are leaving behind and what they are compatible with.
- any importable foods you can't live without. There are 3 main foods that I get regular cravings for: burritos, pizza, and Culver's (American style burgers and cheese curds). The Japanese countryside is extremely lacking in authentic international food. Chances are there is an international market in your closest metropolitan area, but there are things that are either not sold or too expensive to justify buying in large quantities (a box of Kraft mac 'n cheese is almost $4 a box!).
- OTC drugs that are legal to import. You can bring two-month's worth of LEGAL (no cold meds or stimulants) over the counter drugs. If you have a chronic gastrointestinal illness and don't want to visit the doctor here for a prescription, bring your own loperimides. They are a prescription drug here and most of the OTC substitutes have little affect on foreigners. Bring any pain medications that you won't be able to find here if it makes you more comfortable than going with a Japanese brand you don't know or seeing a doctor.
Get any family planning needs in order. Men find that Japanese condoms don't fit very well and probably want to bring their own or buy them online. Ladies, getting birth control in your home country will probably be less of a pain than getting it here.
For those who need to bring prescription meds, get your yakkan shoumei done! Ask your consulate for the application and instructions
- Books in your native language or an e-reader (which I HIGHLY recommend since it'll save on weight)
This is also obvious, but take care to store it in a place you or someone you trust can easily get to in case you need something overnighted. No matter how many times you make that list and check it twice, chances are you will either forget something or change your mind about wanting it with you.
There is a JET here who recently realized she brought the wrong display adapter for her macbook and her things are stored somewhere in Arizona (she's from southern California). Make sure a person you trust has access to your things and is willing to ship things to you! Keep things organized so your trusted person can easily find things for you if you need them.
-Finalize your budget
Hopefully you've saved up a bit of cash by now and you can finally start factoring in things like your initial rent payments, any car-related fees, and what you'll need to spend on any furnishings. Whatever your situation, over-budget. You don't want to end up broke and who knows how far you'll be from an international bank that'll take your foreign debit card (if your bank even allows it).
Ask your predecessor whether your boe will give you a loan to settle bigger payments like buying a car. They may also furnish your apartment for you, but anything the boe buys becomes their property and therefore you won't be able to get rid of it without their permission.
I wish every one of you the best in your pre-flight preparations. Keep searching for tips and tricks to make things easier for yourself and double-check everything. Hang in there: pre-departure orientation will be here before you know it!