I was in my Japan apartment holding a bag of rice and haggling like it was a market place in Delhi. Both of these facts were unexpected.
At the end of August, I am planning to move from Sapporo to Tokyo. With a distance exceeding 1,000 kilometres, I dismissed the notion of a wheelbarrow and contacted three moving companies. I had initially attempted to find a firm that would speak to me in English, but had failed miserably. The limited options I had dug up either had non-competitive rates for a domestic move or ignored me completely. The upshot of this found me seated on my sofa with my long suffering graduate student acting as translator.
The first company I had met alone early in the afternoon. They were a major national moving firm called 'Art 0123'. The basics of my move had been described in an initial email exchange: current address, new address and rough inventory. I had hoped that the sales assistant would sweep in, do a swift sweater-and-book count and present me with a quote. That had almost happened, but we had become bogged down in a discussion regarding my washing machine. After calling my student for assistance, I had persuaded him to join me in person for the next two companies.
As my eyes swept over my belongings to seek out anything that would cause respect for me as a professor to evaporate, I reflected that at least this first visit had been short and straightforward. After confirming the details, the sales person had told me to expect a quote tomorrow and left. The next two companies should not take long.
I was wrong. My poor language skills were the only thing that had been saving me.
The second company was 'Sekai'; perhaps the biggest of the national firms with a panda as their logo. Their man arrived. He gave me a bag of rice as a gift. Then he refused to leave.
Seriously, the guy might even now be hiding in my bathroom.
We had swept through my apartment in minutes and moved on to discussing different moving packages. He estimated my belongings would fit into one of their smaller trucks. This was not apparently true for all single people. Panda-man noted with a wry smile that serious collectors of anime figurines[*] frequently needed much larger vans to transport their precious cargo. I wondered if this had been raised out of surprise that my apartment was not a collector's emporium: Adult in her 30s living alone? If you're not collecting anime figurines what ARE you doing?
Panda sales assistant than tapped furiously into his tablet and showed us the estimate on the screen. It was high. Being the first official estimate, it was hard to tell exactly what to expect. However, the English-speaking company that had returned my call had given me a hint. In a refreshingly honest conversation, their sales person had explained that their domestic quotes were typically almost double that of the non-international Japanese firms. Their rough estimate (based on my descriptions) clocked in at roughly 400,000 円 (~ $4000 / £3000). Divide that by two, and you had a ballpark of 200,000 円. Panda company wanted 320,000 円.
I said no.
My internet searches had suggested that you should ask at least once for a discount. By that, I had assumed a drop of a few 10,000 円. I therefore suspected the quote would remain high and I might have to rethink moving costs. More furious tapping carried on as I thought this through.
A new figure appeared: 270,000 円.
I agreed it was better, but still more than what I'd been hoping. However, I'd consider it. I thought that the sales person would nod, agree and leave. He did not.
It was affordable, I concurred. I would definitely consider it. However, there was another company due to arrive and I really felt I had to see them and hear their quotes after arranging the appointment. On cue, my building intercom buzzed into life. The Panda sales assistant had been with us for an hour and the next moving company had come for their assessment. I stood and apologised.
"Just a minute!" 217,000 円
... if I agreed today.
Japan is a country of extreme exceptions. The culture is so reserved that people greet one another with contact-less bows, but then strip completely nude and climb into communal bathtubs. Prices are flat fees that are non-negotiable, include sales tax and there are no tips... except (it was transpiring) for moving companies. It was clear the different companies were fiercely competitive and used each others quotes to set their own prices. Right now, the biggest moving company in Japan had lowered their starting price by roughly $1000. It hardly gave me faith I was been dealt with fairly, but the company's top-notch customer ratings suggested they shouldn't be dismissed in irritation. I wondered if I stalled still more, they might actually pay me to move.
I did agree the price was great, but said it simply wasn't fair to commit without considering other offers. With the third moving company now at the door, the salesman capitulated. He printed me out a copy of his last quote (using a portable printer in his briefcase) and bowed his way out of my apartment. I apologised to company #3.
"It happens all the time," he assured me.
I concluded I knew nothing about Japan.
This third company was a medium sized moving firm called 'Prorow' that seemed to mainly focus on Hokkaido. Their sales assistant won me over almost instantly by petting my cat. Tallis had been attempting to engage both the last two sales people in extended conversation but to no avail. This new one acknowledged her and set down his company's product leaflet. Tallis promptly sat on it.
Then the intercom buzzed again. It was the Panda sales assistant. Taken aback, I allowed him back into the building. It turned out to be mundane: he needed me to sign the invoice to prove I'd seen it. I did so, shoo'd him back out the door and returned to the Prorow guy. He asked me what price I was aiming at for the move. I considered him speculatively.
"Around 200,000 円," I told him.
His figure came in at 160,000 円. The dates for the actual move were slightly different and my belongings would travel in a shared truck down to Tokyo. Neither of these points seemed terribly important, but was the company too small to be reliable for out-of-town moves? Their sales person agreed they were smaller than Sekai, but had been in business for ten years and had this under control. I asked if I could respond tomorrow. This request was accepted without any complaint and the sales person left without me contemplating lobbing my copy of 'Galactic Dynamics' at his head.
Then the intercom buzzed. It was return of the Panda-man III.
"I tried to call you to thank you," he explained. "But your telephone number doesn't work."
This was because the number I'd provided was the university office and today was a national holiday.
"Ahh...," said Panda-man. Then he dropped his voice conspiratorially. "... and the Prorow quote...?"
I exchanged a look with my student. "160,000 円," I told him.
He looked stunned. "... how?" he asked.
We explained about the shared moving truck and the different dates for moving out of Sapporo.
"I'll be in touch," he told us.
It was starting to sound like a threat.
One day later...
"What's your bottom line?"
The question was addressed at me as I sat in the Faculty of Science's International Support Office at Hokkaido. I tapped my fingers on the desk. "If Sekai get their quote close to Prorow... under 200,000 円... and they can move me no later than the Wednesday of the week I'd like to leave... the job is theirs."
I still thought this was a long shot. Panda-man had said anything under 210,000 円 was impossible, but that had been before the Prorow quote, and had assumed a Friday move date. I had liked Prorow, but Sekai were a much larger company and dealt with moves nation-wide. Even though Prorow were an established medium sized firm, I couldn't shake the horror stories of friends using local firms across the world. When moving out of their area, there was no incentive to keep you as a customer. This led to shit happening.
We called Sekai. They called back.
New quote: 156,520 円. Wednesday move date.
That's less than half their original quote and a saving of 163,480 円 ($1603 / £1235). There is no spoon.... or.... price. I'm going to lie down.
[*] Otaku. You know who you are.
[Side note: for anyone scanning the internet as I was this week to gain an understanding of moving costs in Japan, these quotes include a packing service for a 2DK apartment. In Japan, it is common for movers to pack, but you can save money by doing this yourself.]