Sell-up or ship-up: moving your whole apartment to Japan

May 23rd, 2013By Category: Uncategorized

moving check list

When confronted with the prospect of moving half-way around the world, it is sometimes hard to know where to begin. Like Cynthia mentioned in her recent article, I had reached that stage where I had furniture I genuinely liked and which wasn’t as easy to replace as a flat-pack from Ikea.

Yes, I’m counting that as an official life stage: non-Ikea furniture.

Unlike most of my friends who had spent time in Japan, my contract was not for a fixed duration. I had been offered a faculty position at Hokkaido University which had the potential to last until I retired.

Unless of course, I was a complete disaster and was fired in the first week.

I gnawed a thumb nail as I nervously considered this possibility before deciding that this was a move we had to take one step at a time. Currently, we were on ‘packing’ not ‘sacking’.

I am originally from the UK, but at the time I was working in Canada, which meant that leaving furniture behind was not an option; it was sell-up or ship-up. With this in mind, I contacted three removal companies and asked for quotes. This was my second international move with furniture (my first ever overseas move was as a graduate student with two over-stuffed suitcases) and the previous one had been the gentlest possible introduction; a hop over the border from the USA to Canada. Despite this discrepancy, the two take-home messages I have apply to both moves:

[Tip 1] Go with a large national (or preferably, international) company.

A local firm has no interest in keeping your business since they are moving you out of their area. Almost all of the horror stories I heard about moving came from people who had been tempted by the cheaper prices of a smaller company. However, that said…

[Tip 2] Meet the representatives and go with your gut feeling.

When I moved from the USA to Canada, I used North American Van Lines. They were excellent which made this company the first call when I knew I was moving to Japan. However, while North American Van Lines are an international firm, they operate out of local franchises which may be of mixed quality. The people who I met in Canada were nice, but didn’t exude the level of confidence I required when handing over a huge amount of money and all my worldly possessions. For instance, after exchanging emails with one representative, I was then contacted by an independent moving consultant who they apparently hire for the bigger moves. This might have been fine, but he contacted me from a gmail account address without any warning this was going to happen. It did not spell out professional.

The company I did use sounded like they moved people to Japan every other Tuesday. That company was AMJ Campbell International and as soon as I contacted them, they transferred my inquiry to their branch for major international moves. I talked to the same person from the first meeting through to receiving my goods in Japan, and when I was contacted by the Japan-based firm handling the shipment from Tokyo up to Sapporo, I was warned in advance.

AMJ Campbell were able to advice me on shipping options (exclusive shipment which is fast but expensive versus a slower shipment shared with other customers), taxes and duties upon arriving in Japan (none) and the best date for collecting my belongings in Canada (the shared shipments only leave Vancouver once a month, so there was not point in picking a moving date only to have everything sit in Canada for 30 days). Their knowledge and organisation landed my contract.

The quotes from the three companies I requested all came out approximately the same: for my 1 bedroom apartment, it was $4000 without furniture and $6000 with everything I wanted to take. This included a office-sized desk, two tall bookcases, a sofa bed, a tall skinny chest of draws and a bedside table. It did not include my bed since I had a queen-sized frame and mattress which simply wasn’t going to be successfully crammed into a Japanese apartment.

To help with moving expenses, Hokkaido University offered me $4000. This left one question: could I replace my furniture with $2000? The best estimate I could create in advance was from eyeing up Ikea prices in Canada which suggested that it was possible, but not with the same quality of product. I signed up for the $6000 move and didn’t look at my credit card for a month.

One interesting difference between this move and my North American one was that the packing service was included in the price. I was told that because of insurance reasons, it was preferable for the company to pack for the customer. AMJ Campbell therefore made the insurance coverage vastly cheaper if you used their packing service, resulting in it being essential free.

Since packing an apartment is enough to bore me to the extent of throwing all my crockery into a plastic bag, I had no problems with this arrangement at all.

The men who came to pack up the apartment did a great job at protecting all my belongings but were not the best at following instructions. The first whiff of this was in the opening conversation when they arrived:

Me: “Please take everything in this apartment.”

Moving man: “How about that bookcase?”

Me: “…. yes, please.”

Because that six foot piece of solid wood actually isn’t aeroplane hand luggage. Incidentally, it also looks like a coffin when wrapped in padded brown paper.

The second proof was that they did not dismantle my office desk as required by the quote. This caused a price increase before I pointed out what had happened and it was discounted back down.

[Tip 3] You don’t need to watch the movers the whole time, but take a glance at what they’re doing in case of similar mistakes. This may end up with you watching your plastic tupperware being wrapped in six pointless layers of bubble wrap, but it’s worth that mental pain. 

I will say the final cost was higher than the estimate by $400, so it’s worth including flexibility in your budget to allow for this.

Shipping to Japan (via the cheaper shared shipping option) takes about 3 months. The movers arrived at the end of August in Canada and my shipment was delivered to me in Sapporo at the end of November. It marked the end of 3 months living with only a bed and a stuffed cat cushion. There was great rejoicing.

Great rejoicing by me, I should clarify. Not so much by the Japanese movers who were having to deal with getting my undismantled office desk into the apartment. By the end of the day, I had learnt that the word for ‘dangerous‘ in Japanese was ‘abunai‘.

Customs in Japan turned out to be extremely straight forward. My belongings arrived initially in Yokohama, close to Tokyo. I was contacted by the Japanese counterpart to AMJ Campbell who requested I mail them a copy of my passport and visa. The only strange moment was when they asked me why the cargo ship my belongings were on had made a stop in Hong Kong. I politely pointed out that –not being the exclusive owner of the shipping company– this hadn’t been a choice I had made myself!

While this move had taken time and planning and certainly had not been cheap, I have to confess it was actually very easy. Oddly enough, when your move becomes quite this big, many tasks cannot be done by you and become someone else’s problem. This hassle-free process was further exemplified by the Japanese movers not only delivering all the furniture and boxes, but also emptying their contents and taking away the packaging. Given there is a different type of garbage collection for each day of the week in Japan, it was a big bonus not to deal with this!

I did, however, have to move in and help unpack before my doujinshi collection was discovered. Some items are not made for just anyone’s eyes.

Author of this article

Elizabeth Tasker

Elizabeth is a science researcher living in Sapporo on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Originally from the UK, Elizabeth keeps her own blog about day to day exploits in the hope that writing them down will result in them one day making sense.

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  • Mwani says:

    Great article thanks!! I don’t know if I’m planning to move anytime soon but this definitely gave me a good perspective on different options, thanks!!

  • ryditya909 says:

    great article, keep writing

  • Elizabeth says:

    Ah! I’d wondered what you’d done. Storage is definitely worth thinking about if the country you’d return to is the same as the one you’re leaving from.

  • Elizabeth says:

    …. “That’s what she said”.

  • minecraft says:

    it was $4000 without furniture and $6000 with everything I wanted to
    take. This included a office-sized desk, two tall bookcases, a sofa bed,
    a tall skinny chest of draws and a bedside table. It did not include my
    bed since I had a queen-sized frame and mattress which simply wasn’t
    going to be successfully crammed into a Japanese apartment.

  • Elizabeth says:

    My pleasure! I’m glad people have found it interesting and potentially useful (if only to confirm they’re better off with a single suitcase!)

  • leslie nguyen says:

    Thank you for the read! Handy for sure to keep in mind ~

  • Elizabeth says:

    I’m glad it’s useful!

  • Y8 says:

    i will follow your guide,this is very goos for my job

  • Elizabeth says:

    Thank you, Sara!

    I suspect like you, I also suffered from the problem that no one I knew had ever made a (potentially permanent, desk, books & cat) move quite so far. It was hard to find information, or really even reassurance that this was a feasible endeavour!

  • Sara @ GaijinMom says:

    I have moved to Japan twice now, and you are the first person to offer useful information on how to do it well. I am bookmarking this and sharing it with everyone I know. 😀