Handling everything from bank accounts, insurance to new year greetings cards, sometimes it feels like mailing a letter is the last thing you do at the yūbinkyoku (post office).

Marked by its distinctive “〒” symbol, Japan Post (JP) has been a mainstay of busy shopping areas, cities, suburbs and villages since 1871. Taking inspiration from the then-General Post Office in the United Kingdom, the Japanese post office provides a n easy way for you to connect with friends and family across the country and abroad.

These days, the connection offered by the post office is even more important — especially for a large part of the population who aren’t as savvy with iPads and Zoom. True, compared to the high-speed connectivity of a video call, sending letters and parcels home may seem slow and old-fashioned. However, there’s a special tactility to sending a thoughtful gift or a letter to a loved one from afar — and sometimes, such as when you’re moving house, it’s an unavoidable necessity.

But working out how to use JP’s services can seem a little daunting; for starters there are the various types of postal services, forms and packaging — even figuring out how to write an address can be headache-inducing. Here are some helpful pointers so you can use Japan Post like a pro.

Japanese addresses

You might have a card or package ready to send, but there’s always the difficulty of working out how to write an address in Japanese. At first glance, the Japanese address system is complicated; many streets lack names, aside from significant roads. Towns and cities are divided into areas and then subdivided again into blocks, called chōme.

A Japanese address starts with the postal code and then the prefecture, city and area, followed by the name of the recipient (largest area to smallest). Thankfully, if you write an address in English it should still get to its destination, but the format of the address can cause confusion. In English, it’s OK to reverse the area (smallest to largest), with the name of the recipient, the prefecture and postal code at the end. Just make sure to write it clearly.

You’ve got mail

Sending mail in Japan doesn’t need to be an ordeal. In fact, the system for sending items is simple. Post is priced in different categories: for example, a postcard costs ¥63 to send domestically; a letter under 25 grams costs ¥84. Kitte (stamps) can be picked up from convenience stores, but it’s often easier to get them over the counter at the post office itself.

One thing to note: At larger post offices you will need to take a number from a ticket machine and wait until it’s your turn — otherwise just take your place in the line. If you have already written the address on the envelope, usually all you need to do is head up to the counter, hand over the letter and the post office employee will simply weigh it and offer you the correct stamp.

Sometimes, the person behind the counter might be kind enough to take your letter and do the rest of the process themselves; most times though you will be given a stamp. Just put it on in the corner of your envelope or postcard — there are wet sponges on tables in post offices to affix stamps — and then it’s just a case of posting it.

A posuto (post box), traditionally red, will usually have two slots. The left slot is for normal mail and the right is for international, large-size and express mail. Simple enough. But during the December rush to send new year cards, these slots can get recategorized. Check you’re using the correct one before you make the final drop.

Sending post and packages abroad

With all the unique crafts and delicious snacks Japan has to offer, there’s surely going to come a time when you want to send packages to friends and family overseas. A first trip to the post office can seem daunting: there are a lot of options and forms that serve to make it much more complex than it needs to be.

Fortunately, sending letters abroad is as easy as sending one within Japan. Simply write the address, make sure the country it is being sent to is clearly marked and hand it over to the person behind the counter. You won’t even need to tell them that it’s going overseas: they will weigh it, confirm the country and might even offer you a choice of stamps.

You may also be asked to affix an airmail sticker before posting it in the international mail slot in the post box.

International parcels are a bit more complicated and require a little more Japanese. First things first: you will need a box for the package. These can be bought from the post office for a few hundred yen; reusing your own cardboard boxes and packaging is fine, too (you can even pick up leftover cardboard boxes from many supermarkets). Just be sure to peel off any distinctive tape or stickers, first. There’s a variety of different shipping types to choose from depending on how quickly you need your parcel to arrive at its destination.

For super speedy delivery, the Express Mail Service (EMS) is a priority service that aims to get post anywhere in the world within two to four days. Airmail is also fairly expedient, taking around three to six days, but is also one of the most expensive ways. Another relatively cheap option is economy air (SAL), which takes between six and 13 days. Opting to send packages via surface mail is the most cost-effective mode, especially if you’re not in a rush and sending large, heavy packages. Delivery takes one to three months.

One note: COVID-19 has limited the shipping options available — and increased delivery times — to many countries, so double check online before you lug that box to the counter. Mail to the U.S. in particular is essentially limited to standard-size letters; parcels can only be sent by surface. Maybe hold off on sending anything perishable. If you truly have to send something for guaranteed delivery within a week, private options such as DHL or FedEx, that have their own fleet of planes, will be a better bet, albeit considerably more expensive.

Recently, JP has been pivoting to its own label-printing service, the Electronic Advance Data (EAD) system, instead of handwritten package labels and customs forms. You have to register in advance online, fill out customs information (thoroughly) and then print out the form before going to your local branch office.

Staff at the post office will go through the paperwork with you line by line, so make sure everything is accurately categorized. Though not yet technically required for international destinations other than the U.S., in some cases, JP will enforce using EAD forms for all destinations. Better to be safe and just sign up now, so you don’t have to make a second trip; besides, then there won’t be any issues reading handwriting.

Then all you need to do is hand your parcel over and pay for the service you have chosen, the rate will vary depending on the destination and the weight of your package. (The maximum weight limit is 30 kilograms, but depends on the destination.) In addition, JP is very stringent on restricted items; make sure you have not included anything on the “dangerous goods” list, or they won’t mail it.

This is the first in a two-part series about utilizing the various services offered by Japan Post.

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