Getting to Japan has been a bit of a rollercoaster- applying and being accepted during a pandemic meant that we were not sure we were even going to be admitted into the country. Nothing went according to the usual schedule (which is completely understandable- it was then and still is now a whole pandemic!). Once it looked like we were actually going to get to come to Japan (visas obtained, tickets purchased, housing confirmed), I started trying to figure out the logistics of how to temporarily relocate the four of us. I found a few neat things, which I’ll assemble here in case they might be helpful to anyone else (none of these are affiliate links- I’m not that fancy).
First, do a quick health inventory of you (and your dependents, if you’re bringing any)- is everyone feeling good? Are you (all) up-to-date on well-visits, maintenance visits (glasses and/or contact lenses!) and any required inoculations? You can check the CDC’s website to see if you need any vaccinations or boosters for your destination- we decided to get Japanese Encephalitis shots (the shots available in the US are a two-shot series, and painfully expensive, but given the extensive collection of bug bites we’ve gotten in our first month, I feel pretty good about the extra insurance). I had to submit a medical clearance form for my fellowship, so I had recently had a physical, but I scheduled doctors’ and dentists’ appointments for my daughters (try to do this well in advance of your departure date, so that there’s time if anyone needs any follow ups, or say, 6 baby teeth extracted).
If you take any daily medications, check with the country you’re going to see if they are allowed, confirm the process to bring a supply with you (how much you’re allowed to bring, what documentation you need, etc.). It took me a few calls to my provider’s office and to the pharmacy to explain that yes, I want a 6 month supply and yes I know my insurance won’t cover it (I’m lucky in that my daily medication is very cheap, but if yours isn’t, it might be worth arguing with your insurance company to try to get them to cover what they should anyway!) If you find that you are not able to bring a sufficient amount for your stay, make a plan early for how you will obtain a local prescription (many countries, including Japan, will not fill foreign prescriptions) and a local supply, so you don’t run out. For Japan, the Ministry of Health’s website was extremely helpful- there are forms you need to fill out to bring in prescriptions or medical devices, as you will require a Yunyu Kakunin-sho. (My experience of this was very positive- they provided samples so I could fill out the form correctly, and I received the import certificate in two days, but your mileage may vary, so again, start early.
I made a list of all of our recurring bills to confirm what was already set to automatically be billed and paid electronically, and what was not (I also manage my mom’s bill payments, so I did hers as well). This not only helped me make sure everything would be covered and gave me time to sort out the bills that can’t be automated (our electric bill can’t be paid online, but luckily we live in a a very Stars Hollow-esque little village with its own power company, and Patty at village hall assured me we’d be fine with an estimated prepayment), but also helped me spot some areas where I could save (switching our ISPs to “vacation mode” was a significant savings for us). If you’ll be gone a long time, you might consider cancelling services (Internet, water, electric, etc) but double-check if there are reconnection fees so you can see if it’s worth it for you.
Speaking of bills, we had to figure out what to do about our mail. We don’t really get anything important in mail, but we have a small apartment mailbox that was definitely not going to be able to hold 5 months’ worth, and we worried about the possibility that we might miss something important. We thought about asking a friend to empty our mailbox periodically or forwarding our mail to a family member (and in fact, I forwarded my mother’s mail to my sister using a temporary vacation address forward) but 5 months is a big request. As she often has, Dr. Patricia Stapleton had a great idea that was super helpful- she suggested a virtual mail service might be a good solution. 6 weeks in, and Virtual Post Mail has been pretty good- we pay a small monthly fee, they scan the fronts of all of the mail we get, and we can request to have them open and scan anything that looks important (mail is shredded after 30 days, unless you request it to be shipped somewhere). The set up is a bit of a process- you have to set up forwarding through the USPS, and submit a notarized form to VPM authorizing them to open your mail, so plan for a few days. You also need to set up forwarding for each name (my husband and I have different last names, so I had to do two forms, and two forwards, and since I forgot to do one for the hyphenated names of our daughters, they’ve had a few cards returned to family members as undeliverable).
But overall, it’s working pretty well, and we won’t come home to 5 months of mail to sort, which will be very nice. And it means that when my husband received a jury duty summons, he was able to reply promptly (hilarious that he hasn’t gotten one in ten years, and then as soon as we land here, he gets one).
Far more important to our daily lives than snail mail, we had to figure out phones. I knew we’d need service in Japan, as I wanted to make sure our cell phones could work for maps, translating, and communicating with each other. I also knew I wanted unlimited data, as that’s what we are used to in the US (it’s a luxury, and I know I’m very privileged to have it). Our US cell phone carrier offered a very expensive roaming package we could use, but it wouldn’t be a Japanese number, so it would be useless as a phone number in Japan and also very expensive. Japanese SIM cards are a little challenging- usually, you need a Japanese address and bank account to get one, and contracts are often for 1 year or more, but I did find one company that would work very well for our needs (specifically: reasonable price and unlimited data). Mobal will ship you a SIM card in the US or have them waiting for you for pickup at the airport in Japan when you arrive. The monthly service for our two phones with unlimited data is about the same as what we were paying in the US, so it seemed like a good deal to us. Fair warning, if you want the SIM delivered to you, you will need to have them sent to an address on your government-issued identification, so plan ahead for shipping time (and time to pick up the package from where it gets sent if that’s not where you currently are). We brought our SIMs with us to Japan, installed them using in-flight WiFi, and were fully operational upon landing (which saved us time in the extensive quarantine-monitoring-sign-up-process).
That left me with the question of what to do about our US cell phone service. It wouldn’t work in Japan, so I was inclined to cancel it and save the money, but my husband argued that we’d lose our numbers (which we’ve had for a very long time). A week before we were supposed to leave, I happened to see a tweet from Anna Meier about porting a US cell phone number to google voice, and decided to try it. The process was a little confusing (I had to call and get an account number from my carrier) but ultimately it worked, and for a one-time $20 fee for each number, anyone who calls or texts us on our US numbers rings through to us via the Google Voice app on our cell phones here. This has saved my bacon several times- since Google Voice works on WiFi, while we were at the airport waiting to get checked in, our doctor’s office was able to call me at the number they have on file for me when they were trying to fix the clerical mistake they made on our COVID testing form. My husband has been able to call our daughters’ school in New York, and get calls back from them when needed without needing to ask them to set up a Skype or Zoom. We’ve gotten two-factor authorization texts from our American accounts without a problem. And when we get back to the US, we can port our numbers back to a new cell carrier with ease, since we still have the numbers.
Finally, think about what is very important to you that would be hard to get where you are going, and prioritize getting extra and bringing it with you. That might be a specific lotion, toothpaste, or in our case, a folding piano, a bike pedal exerciser, and new shoes for everyone- we don’t have a car here, and are walking/taking mass transit everywhere, so I wanted everyone to have backup shoes. This was especially important for my husband, whose size 14s are hard enough to come by in the US- I did not want to find out how to find them in Japan, where the usual maximum size in stores is 10. On a completely related note, a small luggage scale is a worthwhile investment- you can use it to make sure you avoid fees both going and coming back.