How To Move House In Japan

If you can't see the video above, click here.

It can be very hard to find an apartment in Japan. There are many agents about but assuming you can negotiate the Japanese language you still have to find somewhere suitable. Then you probably need a guarantor, someone who will vouch for you as a responsible person and pay for you should any money problems arise. You'll also need lots of money for the deposits, key (gift) money and the movers fee. You could be looking at well over 5 months rent in total!

All that we may cover later on, but this blog is all about the actual move. What do you need to do? Read on.

  • Say goodbye! - You probably made lots of friends where you live and your work will hold parties for you even if you didn't get on that well. So enjoy some goodbye parties with friends and coworkers. At work, be prepared to make a little speech about how much you liked it there, even if you didn't. It'll be appreciated. If you are a teacher like me, you have the extra chore of saying goodbye to students. Most won't mind too much (what good is English anyway?) but some will be genuinely sad and may come to you crying. Then, of course, there are a few presents you can expect from each party. Work customarily gives money. Students may give sweets. Friends might give... anything! They are your friends, not mine. How should I know what they will get you?

  • Visit city hall!  - Within two weeks of moving, you will need to go to city hall or your local ward office to fill in a form telling them that you are moving. They usually have an English guide but its basically just your name and address and the address you are moving to. You show that at the desk and they make up an official document for you which you must deliver in person to the city hall or ward office closest to your new address. So, yes, you even have to do this if you are staying in the same city but changing ward. While you are waiting for the document, they will tell you to inform the health insurance department too. So go do that... if you want health insurance, of course.
  • Packing! - Well, first you have to find a moving company, unless you are lucky enough to have your own large car, a friend with a truck or no belongings. Movers are tricky devils. There are certain periods like holidays where everyone moves. If you want to move then, they will charge you an extortionate amount. Be flexible, suggest many dates, ask which is cheaper. Most of all, do not accept their first offer. We had one company try to charge us 650,000 yen for a move (about 6,300 USD). Another company, who we chose, offered a price of 192,000 but we ummed and ahhed them down to 90,000 yen. Anyway, they will give you boxes for your stuff but they will come and take your furniture as it is. They do all of the work, so don't worry about heavy lifting.  Get to work packing those boxes. Each one should be completely sealed and clearly labelled with both addresses.
  • Clean up! - It's a strong tradition in Japan not to return deposits anyway, they tend to use them for cleaning and replacing tatami, but if you want to stand any chance of getting it you need to clean like crazy. Everything of yours should be packed or thrown away. You will have a lot of garbage, and the normal collections probably won't take it, so you should check your city hall's website for the phone number of the environmental services, and you need to ask them to take away your big pile of trash. You may be charged for this. You can also get furniture and appliances taken away for a cost. If you need to replace any papou can also get furniture and appliances taken away for a cost. Then you just need to sweep the floors, mop and wipe surfaces. The whole place should be sparkling! Time to return your keys to the owner or letting agency and say goodbye.
It's clean....

  • Move yourself! - You should be left with just yourself and the few valuables you will carry with you to your new destination. Time to go! Jump in that car, grab that train, stop that cat-bus or whatever it is you'll be doing to get to your new home.
  • Unpacking! - The movers will bring everything into the apartment. They'll even place things where you ask them. So all you have to do is to unpack the boxes. Sounds easy, but its the longest job really.
  • Shopping! - The Japanese have a strange tradition of taking ceiling lights with them when they move. So you may have to go and buy some from the local home centre as soon as you can. You may have to buy other things too. Anything large you can get from the home centre. Anything small you can get from a 100 yen store. See our other blog entry here for more information. Don't forget, you'll also need to buy some food to stock your cupboards. That calls for a trip to the local supermarket.
  • Check your services! - You'll have a leaflet, and perhaps a friendly landlord, which will tell you about things like how to sort your garbage and when to leave it out for collection. They might also enquire about contributions to a community newsletter or cleaning bills in more expensive places. This is also a good time to take your change of address document to the ward office. 
  • Enjoy! -  I'm sure you have plenty of things to do, but don't forget to take time out to enjoy your new place. Look around, enjoy the view, explore the local area. You did it! You moved house in Japan, and hopefully you'll never have to do it again. Am I right?
Have you moved house recently or are planning to move? Have any questions or tips? Leave a comment below.


Revamp, coming soon!

Hello lovely Tea Timers!

This is an announcement to say that at the end of March we will be moving from Sendai to Kyoto. Our live in Japan will begin anew in a bigger city, with many interesting new places to look at. As such, we are going to start up the blog and youtube channel with a focus on settling into a new life in Japan (for first timers, as well as relocaters like us) and life in Kyoto.

So, you can expect lots of history, temples, castles, geisha, cuisine, but also modern shopping, city life and of course our new home and family, which will see one exciting new edition very shortly! Join us in April to find out who is joining the Sakura Panda Tea Time family!

In the meantime, we are always active daily on Twitter, Instagram and Vine with weekly posts on Facebook too .

Join us!


Japanese High School Culture Festival (文化祭 Bunkasai)

If you can't see the video, please go here: http://youtu.be/B75SlPdYqVc

Japanese high schools are already very different from western schools. Students are quiet, they listen, but they have to learn by rote and drill lessons. They have to clean the school themselves, which I think is a great activity for distilling in them respect, you know, that thing completely missing from Western youth. There's other things as well, but as a reward the teachers let the students take control of the school for a weekend in summer. The result is the Culture festival, commonly referred to in Japan as the bunkasai. 

'Culture festival' is a very vague translation. The event covers the variety of games, shops and events that each school club and individual classes want to do.Then there are bands and other performances in the main hall or courtyard (depending on the school) and food stalls at the gates. Click the video above to see exactly what goes on in these events.

The decorated school entrance. It's different every year.

The event is open for two days. On the first day, Saturday, they open in the afternoon and its mainly a closed event for the school and family. Then on Sunday they open in the morning until afternoon for the public. Anyone can go, but it is usually family of students, teachers and the occasional students from other schools who maybe have friends there. Though it's entirely possible they are spies planting bugs and explosive devices in strategic locations.... 

Preparation for the event begins as early as May. Students have to think of what they want to do, confirm it with the student council, and book a room. Then, it is not uncommon at lunchtimes and after school, to find students practicing dance routines and singing in the corridors. I try to sneakily see what they are doing, but nobody wants to be labelled Pervert Teacher, so I don't take photos and sell them online or anything. The practicing continues through the holidays and then the festival is usually on the first weekend after school restarts. In the days leading up to it, some students will go to the gates of other schools and hand out leaflets for their own bunkasai, in a cheeky bit of competition. 

My Bunkasai haul from a previous year, minus all the food... errp!

The Friday before, lessons stop at lunch time, with the afternoon set aside for preparation.  On that day, students transform their classrooms into funfair attractions. They draw pictures on the chalkboards, make posters, tinsel, and whatever they need for their games. I love walking round and speaking to people. It's great to see what everyone is up to, find out their games, and see who wants me to visit. Then when I go, I usually spend a fair few coin on each of the events, but I do come away with a bag of random goodies.

So, does it look like fun? What stall would you hold for this festival?


Import Shop

If you can't see the video, please go here: http://youtu.be/BqPjVhszfNo 

When you've been in Japan for a while, or if you spend a lot of time cooking, you may find yourself craving some of the ingredients from back home, some of those things that Japan just doesn't have. You'll be very surprised at a Japanese person's reaction to beans on toast, for example. Don't despair at the differences though. There is an answer, and no, it's not smuggling canned goods back into the country or having your mum post you suspicious looking packages of baking flour. Go to the import shop!

The import shop is not a building that has been carried over from another country 'Up' stylee. No, it is in fact, a shop that is full of imports, much like a paper factory isn't made of paper either. Crazy, I know.

Inside, you can find allsorts of things. A lot of them will be from your home country, but most of them will be from other countries because, as much as it may shock Americans especially to hear this, there are other countries out there. Did you think you had just wandered into Chinatown or something? Take a look at our video above to see exactly what one import shop in Sendai has for sale, but rest assured that if you want something, you can probably find it there.

It's actually a very good place for cross cultural communication. For example, when I was growing up I loved Pez. However, they stopped selling them in the UK long ago and so I wasn't able to get any for quite a while (though I did have some willing American friends who sent me a few). Now, in Japan, I can go to the import shop and get plenty of Pez, though they are usually Disney, Hello Kitty or Thomas the Tank Engine for some reason. I'm still searching for that monkey pez. Hint, super strong hint. So it allows us to get items from other countries. Great for lovers of real Indian curry, mexican food and gravy!

There are two main import chain stores in Japan. The first is Jupiter, shown in the video. They have a lot of snacks, sweets and cooking ingredients. The other chain is Kaldei Coffee, which, wouldn't you know it, have a large selection of coffee. They also do gift wrapped selections for special holidays and events, and you can have a free cup of coffee to drink as you wander around the store. I often wander around just to get the free coffee, and I don't even like coffee!

So, don't worry too much. If you are craving something in Japan, you can get it from the right place, but it might be a little more expensive. Don't buy regular Japanese stuff here!  I also still recommend that you bring as much toothpaste and deodorant from home as you can. Those are terribly weak in Japan.


Cherry Blossom Viewing Party (Hanami 花見)

If you can't see the video, go here: http://youtu.be/xZzSoYvbz38 

Sakura, or cherry blossom, is one of the most iconic images of Japan. It's such a big part of their culture that they have parties about it like we westerners celebrate New Years. Why is it such a big deal?

  • Its beautiful: Just look at it. Petals of soft, creamy pink are just so lovely and rarely seen in nature. So why not celebrate it? It's beauty is emphasized even more by the fact that its appearance is fleeting. The Sakura blooms for a week or two in spring and then its gone....Just dust in the wind, dude. Dust. Wind. Dude.

  • It's mysterious: Old folklore tells of how the Japanese version of Romeo and Juliet died and were buried under a white blossom tree, but the tree took up their blood and became a pink color. Is this strange vampire plant really the origin of the beloved blossom or is it just the romantic tale that pulls at people's hearts? Because a lot of people would have had to die with seeds to make all these cherry blossoms.

  • It's Japanese: If there is one thing that is guaranteed to make a Japanese person like something, then its it being Japanese. Seriously. Japan is one of the few countries where imported food is cheaper because Japanese will pay more for their own products. The Japanese have certainly made the Sakura their national symbol. No where else will you find so many cherry blossoms and they will tell you that at any given opportunity.

The Party

When the Sakura comes out people flock to every park, river and locale to have their Hanami. 'Hana' means "flower" and 'mi' is "look" so it is a flower viewing party. Essentially it is a picnic. And a great excuse to get drunk. Friends and families, students and teachers, workmates and companies, they will all arrange a Hanami and enjoy eating and drinking under the pink blossom. A common sight there is the blue plastic mat. People reserve their spot hours, perhaps days in advance by putting down their blue sheet for their party. Often junior members of companies, or whatever group, are chosen to do this because no one likes waiting around for so long and they are at their bosses' mercy. When it finally comes though, its a lot of fun and not quiet at all. In fact, you have to wonder if people are looking at the flowers because so much attention is paid to the food preparation, so much drink is had and often there is live music or music playing through a tannoy. It's a full on party. I mean, party on, dudes.

Of course, such activity is dependent on the weather, and it is notoriously unpredictable this time of year, especially lately. So many people have eyes on the weather reports, which also offer a forecast of expected dates for the cherry blossoms to bloom in different regions of Japan. It begins in the west of Japan (Fukuoka, Hiroshima) around the end of March, early April, and then the wave of pink moves across the country, hitting the far north of Hokkaido in May. Here in Sendai we get the cherry blossoms in the middle of April and so the Sakura Panda Tea Time crew headed out to our local park to join in the festivities.

It's a great tradition, one that people fight to take part in around work or school commitments. It's also a great bonding experience for friends, as who doesn't love a party or a picnic or nature... Or pink?! Or bananas? I can't guarantee bananas, but sometimes..... 


The Hundred Yen Store

If you can't see the video above, please go here: http://youtu.be/2yGp9hsp-ac

What can I say about this blog entry that hasn't already been said? Well, pretty much everything, because I haven't said anything yet. All I need to say is very short though. If you come to Japan and there is something you need to buy, go to the hundred yen store. I'm not even going to ask you what it is you want. Just go.

The hundred yen store, as you can see in the video, has pretty much everything. Okay, they have been short of nuclear powered time-travelling robot maids suspiciously often, but you will not believe the range of goods this shop sells. Everything from snacks and ready meals, to party hats and money tins, from garden hoes  and pet collars, to stationary and kitchen cleaners, it's there.

Now you might think that not every hundred yen store is as big as the one we explore in the video, and you would be right, but don't worry because even the smallest store has an amazing variety of goodies. In terms of storage, it's as close as we'll get to Doraemon's 4th dimensional pocket for at least a century. 

You might also be thinking that all the bargain store goods are cheap rubbish. Fear not. Although there is undoubtedly better quality goods from a brand store or specialist, the quality of these items is well beyond what a layman might need. It is also well beyond the (frankly speaking) shitty bargain stores in the west.

As such, the hundred yen store is the perfect place to go when you first move to Japan. It will have everything you need to furnish your home at a reasonable price and will save you a lot of time, energy and money. Of course, if you stay in Japan and explore your city, you will find better specialised stores with their own bargains and advantages, but until you have that time, 100 yen store it is! I visited there almost every day when I first came here and I still go there often when there is a little household knick knack I need or a cheap prize for students.

Have you ever been to a 100 yen store? What's the strangest thing you saw there?


Japanese style bars / pubs: Izakaya

If you can't see the video, go here: http://youtu.be/pe0EMLeYH1I

This topic wasn't on our schedule, but we found ourselves in an Izakaya on a quiet night and Nat said "Hey, we could make a video now". So we did. And there was much rejoicing. 

So what is an Izakaya? In short, it's the main, traditional watering holes in Japan. This country has a lot of bars and I'd be more surprised than an aeroplane pilot who finds a bunny in his headlights if you can go to a Japanese city and not find a British themed or styled pub. You might even find one that's a major gaijin (foreigner) hangout and make some new friends... or run from new enemies. You know, whatever your social circle. So, yes, Japanese folk can drink like the rest of us... well, at least they have the opportunity. However, it is a borrowed Western idea, just like McDonald's (except beer actually improves your health), just like baseball, just like some other cool similie I can't think of right now. Don't judge me! 

Izakaya are the true Japanese style establishments that primarily exist to ply the customers with alcohol just as long as they ply the owners with money. So, in it's basic principal it is also the same. However, there are many differences. So here they are in handy list format:

  • Greetings and shoes: Don't be surprised if the waitresses bow and greet you at the door and then ask you to take off your shoes. If they don't take your shoes at the door then they will probably ask you to when you enter the private room.
  • Private rooms: You can sit at a counter in some places (it is cheaper) and you can sit at an open table if you like, just like a regular restaurant, but Izakaya also have private areas marked out by sliding doors and in here you are in your own little drinking world. Have a look at our video to see how it works. The awesome thing is the staff can move the walls and doors around to make different sized rooms based on requirements. Confuses the hell out of drunk foreigners.
  • Food: At most, in the west, we would scoff some crisps, nuts or mini-pizzas (in those posh gaffs), but Izakaya are very close to being restaurants. They offer a full menu and often a huge variety. Though some may specialize in certain types of food. You'll have to shop around to find one with a menu you like, but be adventurous. There are some strange but fantastic foods. I swear once I picked stuff at random and I got fresh baby squid on ice. Of course they have normal food too. Also, because Japanese think it is bad to drink on an empty stomach, you will be forced to accept a small dish of snacks on your arrival, along with your towel. This is not free! But you can't refuse it either. Otherwise ninjas jump out of the walls and take you away.... no one knows what happens next.... 
  • Drinks: They have all the usual and all the types of Japanese drinks such as sake (rice wine), shochu (potato or rice spirit), umeshu (plum wine). 
  • Towel: Wipe your hands! Wipe them!
  • Cute slave: The waitress is at the mercy of you and your magic summoning button all night. Use it wisely, and be nice to the girl. She has to put up with a lot.
  • Sharing: The western man's drink time snack is his treasure, take it without permission and be at the wrath of his insatiable drunken cravings. However, in an Izakaya, the idea is to share. Some dishes will be very small and compliment one another. Others, like the chips (french fries - see the video) will be very large and meant to be shared. The idea is that people order bits of whatever they like and then you sample a different set of whatever you like on the table, while you are chatting, singing, dancing and insulting a fellow gaijin's home country and choice in women. Or something. 

So now I have tempted you, how do you find them? Well, like I said, they are everywhere. If you can find any building with bars and restaurants in it, there will be an Izakaya but it can be hard to tell exactly which is which. You could keep an eye out for the kanji that says Izakaya (居酒屋).

The easiest way however, is to let someone show you. Around any meal time that isn't breakfast, but especially at night, there will be plenty of people in Izakaya uniform (or super thick winter coats, if it is winter) carrying a menu. As you walk near them they will shove the menu in your path and spout a sales pitch. That's your cue! Nod enthusiastically! Speak to them if you can. They work for the Izakaya and they will take you to their restaurant. If you want a certain something or you see something on their menu, tell the worker and they will likely call it down to the Izakaya on a secret radio and warn the others you are coming. They will probably show you to an elevator if it isn't on the ground floor, and then you can laugh as the same person sees you off and then runs all the way up (or down) the steps to greet you when you get off the elevator and show you inside. They do that sometimes. It depends how many workers there are. Feel free to discuss deals and special offers with these people. It is their job to entice people inside, and that is often why they will be girls. 

There is another type of person who wanders the street at night, looking for customers, and that is not an Izakaya worker, but karaoke. You can usually tell them apart as the karaoke name will be branded on their clothing. 

So that's it! Take some friends, have a party, enjoy your Izakaya!

Have you ever been to one? What was the strangest or most amazing food you ate there?