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How I saved ¥40,000 doing it myself

by Amy Chavez

The day I leave Japan, the country will be worse off for it. The Japanese will have lost a cartoon character in their comic strip of life. Once I am gone, who will they laugh at?

I am here to ensure the entire country has plenty to scratch their heads about. I even surprise myself at how I seem to, unknowingly, push the limits of strange things that foreigners do. The movie version of “That crazy gaijin” should be out soon.

Just the other day, I added another grand faux pas to my repertoire when I went to the customs office in Kobe. I have imported things into Japan via cargo ship plenty of times before and have never had any problems. But the goods were delivered directly to my house for a domestic transport fee that was usually twice that of the international cargo fee.

Now, if there’s a cheaper way to do something-foreigners will find it. Whereas the Japanese are happy to pay for convenience, we’re happy to not pay for it. We think, “Hey, I saved ¥40,000 by doing it myself!” But the Japanese say, “Poor sods. For just ¥40,000 someone else would have done it for them!”

You know what really separates Japan from so many other countries? Their unwillingness to pile stuff on the roof of their cars.

In the United States, people are very good at using that extra space on top of the car that potentially goes up as far as the universe, or at least as high as the next overhead bridge (the movie “Vacation” with Chevy Chase comes to mind). If you lived in a bridgeless area of the world, you could even strap your skis on to the roof of your car vertically rather than horizontally.

In Japan, you hardly ever see anything more than a purpose-built snowboard, ski or surfboard rack on top of someone’s car. Or the occasional kayak. I once had a taxi driver refuse to take my bicycle because he would have had to tie the trunk down over it. How untidy! I’m sure the Japanese have never ever seen someone pile a bunch of junk on top of their cars. At least they hadn’t until last week.

Let me explain. When my husband and I originally sent things to Japan from overseas, we drove the stuff to the cargo company in a small economy car. Inside were tiles for our house in Japan and boat parts, including custom-made cushions for the inside of our 44-foot sailboat. There were eight cushions altogether: a set for the V-berth and another set of very long ones for inside the cabin. We rolled up the cushions and tied them up neatly in bundles, like giant foam sushi rolls. The tiles were still in their original small but sturdy cardboard boxes that could easily be lifted individually.

When we drove up to the port at Kobe customs, however, we were surprised to see that our stuff had increased in volume by 100 million times! Everything had been repacked in individual wooden crates with half-foot walls between them. The mountain of crates was now the size of Mars. If they had put insulation into the half-foot walls, the crates would have been perfect homeless shelters. The boat cushions had been laid out flat inside plastic.

Suddenly, nothing would fit into our borrowed medium-size car anymore.

My husband and I went to work with crowbars and hammers to disassemble the crates while the Okaken and Seino Kangaroo-bin trucks deftly shimmied in and out of the warehouse getting loaded up to deliver people’s cargo for them. Two hours later, the Kobe customs staff joined us, fearing we wouldn’t get the job finished by closing time.

At 4:30 p.m., when all the crates had been reduced to kindling, and aware that in Japan you always have to take your garbage with you, we shoved all the splintered wood into the car. We barely managed to fit in the bag of sawdust, steel plates and spent nails. The boat cushions went on top of the roof, the V-berth cushions facing forward for proper aerodynamics.

But there was one last part of a crate that would not fit inside the car, mainly because the metal plates in it made it too strong to be broken down. Nails were sticking out in every direction.

So we threw it on top of the car, tied it down to the boat cushions and drove away, all to the collective sucking in through the teeth of the Japanese customs officials standing around to witness “Unbelievable stuff attempted by gaijin.”

“Are you going straight home?” The custom’s lady had asked us, just trying to be polite. “Oh no,” I told her, “We’re going shopping at IKEA now.”

At IKEA, we strapped a new sofa to the top of the car and were finally ready for the four-hour drive back home. But it was raining so hard, the drive was slow going. The highway was inundated with water, and I considered putting boat fenders on the sides of the car (Chevy Chase with fenders!).

By 1:30 a.m., we pulled over at a rest area to sleep. While in Japan people abandon old cars and leave them until weeds and vines are growing out of them, for humans to live out of your car for even 24 hours is completely unacceptable. (What’s the difference, we’re all living things!). Heck, if it hadn’t been raining, I would have slept on the cushions on top of the car.

At 5 a.m., we were back on the road and we made it home later that morning. And hey, we saved ¥40,000!

But is it any wonder the Japanese are not so keen on immigration?