"What about tomorrow?" The three men in the blue uniforms of the Sekai moving company were crowded around a cupboard containing shoes. This is a standard feature right by the entrance of any Japanese apartment: the movers had not yet got further into my home.
"It's fine," I assured them in my limited Japanese. "You can pack everything."
"But... tomorrow..." One of the movers looked across from the cupboard and gaped in shock. "Aahh!" he pointed at my feet. His two colleagues crowded close. "She's wearing shoes."
It was entirely true. I was inside my apartment. Wearing shoes. The professional relationship I had with these gentlemen was forever ruined.
When it comes to footwear, the Japanese are OCD. Enter any structure with a roof and an irrlstable desire strikes to whip off your clogs, constrain them in a locker or shoe closet and don a pair of slippers. All without letting your socks touch the floor. This compulsion can apply to restaurants, offices and most especially, houses.
Despite growing up in a household where no one uttered the words 'indoor shoe', I had largely conformed to this cultural norm. The habit had become sufficiently entrenched that I frequently lost shoes on my visits home. I'd leave my trainers by the front door and return to find them tided away in some undisclosed location. However, on this particular day, I'd left my shoes on.
I had good reasons. The movers were about to lift at least four very heavy pieces of furniture that had not been moved in five years. I have a cat that becomes immensely furry in winter and a shedding bomb each and every summer. A small amount of street dirt was not going to be the outstanding issue.
The movers were clearly horrified. Their shoes remained by the door and their brand new socks ensured my floors were touched with only the most virgin of cotton. I felt if any of us were going to go to bed that night, we needed to get past the shoe closet.
"Sit here?" One of the movers picked up my office chair and placed it in the corner of the room. I was unsure whether that suggestion was to ensure my comfort, or just get my sinful shoes off the floor. I dutifully sat and watched my apartment get boxed.
I had been told to expect three movers that afternoon. In fact, there were initially four and then this dropped to two. Three was apparently an average. Their packing was quick, if questionable. Possibly because they'd allocated a whole van for my move, there seemed no attempt to conserve space. Instead, bags, drawers, random baskets and anything else remotely in a container was placed bodily into a box without examination. If the box then didn't close, its flaps were just stuck together so the cardboard was at least roughly round the object.
This was slightly alarming: no checks were made that the contents of said bag or drawer could survive a jostling truck ride unaided. Since I had sorted through my possessions throughly over the last few weeks it was probably fine: apart from a general purge of useless items, I'd also ordered everything so there wasn't a china teapot hidden amongst indestructible-looking computer cables.
... still, I'm reserving judgement until I see everything in Tokyo.
Two hours in and most of the small items were in boxes. Two of the movers left to leave the remaining two with the larger furniture. My bookcases were wrapped in thick brown paper that made them look like coffins. No doubt, this would confirm all my neighbours' suspicions about what foreigners did in their spare time.
Around this point in the proceedings, I inadvertently chose to make the movers' lives a living hell.
"The desk has never been taken apart," I told a power-tool wielding mover who was advancing on my office desk. "It can stay as it is!"
The desk was big, but this was true. It had moved whole from Florida to Canada to Japan. I therefore knew it could fit through the door to my apartment. Unfortunately, I'd forgotten how this was achieved. And exactly how difficult it had been.
"Heh. Uh. Sorry," I said sheepishly when the movers eventually appeared back upstairs without the desk. They told me it was fine. Their teeth were still clenched.
As the larger pieces of furniture disappeared from my apartment, I had abandoned my enforced seat and (shoes and all) zipped behind the movers armed with a vacuum and wet wipes. It was while scrubbing down the kitchen I realised I might have a slight problem: my period was threatening to start.
Now, not being 13 (and with an appropriate reminder app on my phone), I was not altogether unprepared. I had a small bag of toiletries in (relatively) easy reach. The problem was the movers had just sealed off my bathroom.
To move furniture out of my apartment, the moving company had taped thick tarpaulin mats over the walls and floors. My hallway, the outside corridor and elevator were protected from scratches ... or from stains during a particularly bloody murder. Unfortunately, the route to the elevator went past my bathroom which had been sealed off by one such mat.
I reviewed my options: (1) demand toilet entrance. Likely successful, but after the desk I didn't want the movers also thinking how easily they could cover up a homicide. (2) Pray. Tempting due to the least effort but concerning due to the possibility of blood on a non-matted area. (3) Run to the convenience store. Possible, but I couldn't remember which store was nearest with a toilet. (4) Use the shower room which I still had access and hope no one looked through the frosted glass.
I went for (4). As far as I am aware, no one noticed. They were too busy wrapping my sofa into a giant brown paper sausage.
Finally, the place was empty. My vacuum had exhausted its battery so thoroughly that it couldn't be quickly recharged. The floors were still a bit grimy, but a big bag of wet wipes would probably do the trick. I was exhausted. And I'd done almost nothing.
As the movers finally departed, I realised I'd forgotten to pack my large scrubbing brush. I presented it to one of the men with an apologetic grin. He looked like he had seen that before. Only once they'd left did I realise the tarpaulin hadn't been entirely successful: there was a kick in the plaster by the door. The company is coming back to examine it tomorrow. I'm wondering if they'll bring up the desk.