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In Japan, you can leave it all up to the moving company

by Philip Brasor and Masako Tsubuku

There is a video available on YouTube (“In Japan Moving is Less of a Chore and More of an Art“), sonorously narrated by an English gentleman, that explains in detail the wonderful services Japanese moving companies offer. Not only do movers pack and unpack belongings, they clean those belongings before and after moving them, bring their own special boxes, affix protective panels to walls and corners to prevent damage and even put on disposable socks before entering a residence. Moving companies in other countries don’t offer these services, at least not without charging extra for them. Moreover, Japanese movers are without exception polite and helpful, and they don’t expect a tip.

Forty years ago, moving house in Japan was basic. You rented the services of a truck and a driver. Everything else you did yourself. But the housing boom of the 1970s and ’80s, along with the attendant increase in consumption, gave rise to moving services that offered more. There are now about 200 moving companies in Japan, and almost all offer a wide range of services. Those mentioned above are considered a kind of standard, but companies can also compete by offering savings to customers who aren’t necessarily looking for them.

The fiscal year in Japan starts in April, so January to March is peak moving season. That doesn’t mean it’s more expensive to move during this time period, but it does mean it may be more difficult to take advantage of special offers. We recently moved in the middle of this season, but because we weren’t going far, we looked for companies that offered savings for short moves.

One major courier company that also offers house-moving services advertises a set ¥35,000 fee for one 2-ton truck and two movers who would make one delivery no more than 10 km away. This was perfect for us. Another condition is that the customer provides a three-day window during which the move can be made. The customer can’t choose the specific day or time but can indicate a preference. The company sent a salesman to look at what we had to move. Our plan was to use the service to transport all our large items—refrigerator, washer, etc. — and then we would move whatever remained ourselves by renting a small van, which is how we had always moved in the past.

Full-service companies who move entire families charge between ¥200,000 and ¥300,000, depending on distance and load. One theory of why Japanese movers can offer such great service is that Japanese homes are usually small, which is true to a certain extent — but that doesn’t mean people in Japan don’t have a lot of stuff. And weight is not the primary consideration. Volume is.

Even home-courier services don’t charge by the heaviness of a package. They charge by its dimensions. So while the full-service custom of having movers pack everything for you is a handy perk, it may end up costing more because the mover will probably use more boxes, which in turn take up more room — and the bigger the truck, the higher the price. That’s why many companies make their estimates based on the size of residence using Japanese real estate parlance — the price for a 1DK apartment (one room plus a dining-kitchen area) or a 4LDK house (four rooms, with a living room and dining-kitchen area) — and then add surcharges for circumstances that take more time, such as access to tower condominiums. And while movers disconnect and reconnect appliances such as refrigerators and washers, air conditioners are extra, as they require professional servicing. That’s why many people don’t bother moving air conditioners. It’s easier and often cheaper to throw the old ones away and buy new ones that come with free installation.

For us, the salesman made it clear that the 2-ton truck would be able to accommodate most of our things. The movers would disconnect/disassemble our large items at our old place and then reconnect/reassemble them at our new one, but we would have to pack everything else ourselves. Still, they would supply us with as many cardboard boxes and bubble wrap as we needed at no extra charge.

The point about the ¥35,000 deal was the time it would take, which is why another condition of the offer is the floor you live on and whether or not a service elevator is available. Parking is also a consideration. The only problem the salesman saw in our situation, however, was that we were moving our refrigerator to the second floor of our new residence and it would have to be taken up a narrow stairway. If it turned out the movers couldn’t safely get the thing up the stairs, then they would have to order a crane, which would cost an extra ¥20,000.

He left a written price guarantee, which is important since some movers have been known to quote a low estimate on the phone and then demand more after showing up to move your things, when it’s too late to change your mind.

The date we indicated as our preference to move was accepted by the company. The truck and its two-man crew would arrive at 2 p.m. The day after the salesman visited, the company delivered 20 boxes of varying sizes and a 1-meter roll of bubble wrap. The salesman had estimated that in addition to our large items, these boxes would also fit in the two-ton truck. We packed everything we could into them. A two-ton truck can carry a lot. One moving site says that an average 3LDK residence, the normal size for a small family, would require 50 large boxes.

The move went smoothly. Contrary to the usual burly image of movers, the two men the company sent were slight in build but worked with amazing swiftness. As it turned out, we could have fit a few more boxes into the truck but had run out, and the two movers had no trouble getting the refrigerator up the stairs of our new place.

The only snag was the washer. The waste water hose did not align with the drain in our new place. The movers had to put extra blocks under the machine so that the hose could be connected. Also, the intake device did not match the faucet, but for an extra ¥1,000 the mover would install an adapter, which he happened to have in his truck, though it was not a coincidence. The movers came at 2 p.m. and everything was finished by 5 p.m.

Choosing the right company via the Web

With more than 200 companies to choose from, it can be time consuming finding a mover that’s right for you, but there are a few moving portal sites that make the job easier.

One of the better ones is www.a-hikkoshi.com. You input the addresses of the place you’re moving from and the one you’re moving to; the date of the prospective move; the size of the residence; and other pertinent information. The site then suggests companies and the deals they offer.

Predictably, larger moving companies are prioritized. Also, beware: The site asks for your phone number, which means some of these companies are going to start calling you with offers of their own.

Philip Brasor and Masako Tsubuku blog about Japanese housing at www.catforehead.wordpress.com.