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How I Threw (Almost) Everything Away When I Moved to Japan -- and Don't Regret It

by Louise Hung Jun 18, 2015

Two things went through my head when my Japan move became a reality.

1. I hope I’ll still be able to watch Netflix (I can)

2. What the $%&! am I going to do with all my stuff?!

I don’t like the term “pack rat,” I prefer the term “sentimental keeper of mementos.” That’s a term right?

Before moving to Japan, I saved everything. I was an expert at jamming my precious possessions into every little nook and cranny an apartment could offer. No space was unexploited, no suitcase ever stood empty. When you save everything, you get really good at shoving things into other things.

But with my Japan move looming, I realized that most of my stuff was going to have to go. Not only did the thought of moving boxes and boxes of STUFF to Japan make me want to barf, but even if I got the STUFF there vomit-free, where would I put it all?

The apartment I’d be moving into (which my husband had already been living in for a few months) while large by average Japan standards was, and is, smaller than most studio apartments.

Yes, our Japan apartment in Yokohama has a living room. But that living room is also the kitchen, dining room, pantry, office, bedroom, and closet. The bathroom, with its shared bathtub-sink arrangement makes me envy the spaciousness of airplane bathrooms. We were lucky enough to get an apartment that can accommodate a western-style bed (few have them), but the bed comes at the cost of it being THE central “decorative” element in our home.

Storage space? There are drawers under the bed, room in the tiny closet we share with our clothes, and a small loft over the kitchen sink.

I’m not going to lie, excising so much stuff from my life hurt. It was like surgery, selectively cutting away things that I’d grown attached to like a third nipple or a parasitic twin.

But do I regret tossing the excess stuff? Not at all. I now love the fact that I could easily pack up my life in a day or two — my belongings fitting into two suitcases and five small cardboard boxes. My relationship with possessions has completely changed.

So if you’re moving to a foreign country with tiny apartments, downsizing your life, or just need to purge your life of clutter, here are a few simple ways to get rid of a lot of your stuff, and not regret it.

1. Irreplaceable vs. I might need this when I’m the Queen of Mars

A few years ago when I worked in a fancy office in Los Angeles with celebrities breezing through our doors, I developed an obsession with shoes.

Cheap shoes, expensive shoes, “one-of-a-kind artisan-made” shoes, ugly shoes, cute shoes, painful shoes, REALLY cheap shoes — you name ’em, I bought ’em. And while for a few years I kept buying shoes, I never tossed any of them. Somehow I’d gotten the romantic notion into my head that “I’d walked in all of these shoes, so each pair told a story, had a memory” bla bla bla. We can all roll our eyes together on that one.

I’ve never admitted this before, but I moved ALL of my dozens of shoes from Los Angeles to Honolulu. I know.

When it came time to pack my shoes for Japan I just stared in horror at the mountain of leather, pleather, canvas, and rubber dumped into the middle of my bedroom floor.

So I decided to start digging through my collection with the mindset that I would only keep what was irreplaceable, special, truly necessary for my life.

I was shocked that after an hour or less, I’d whittled my collection down to five pairs. Five pairs out of more than two dozen.

The shoes I chose were ones that either a) I wore almost daily or, b) really held some sentimental value and could not be replaced in Japan or anywhere. For example, the shoes I wore at my wedding that I actually still wear all the time, made the cut.

But what I realized in that harrowing process was that there is a distinct difference between an irreplaceable keepsake, a tangible reminder of life events, and something that you want, but can easily be replaced ANYWHERE with a tiny bit of effort.

I realized that I was keeping a lot of those ridiculous shoes because I might need them one day…maybe…possibly. As an obsessive “over-preparer” (when I go on vacation half of my suitcase is underpants), I was preparing for a hypothetical future that would probably never happen. I was saving my future-self, the future-hassle. I was being future-lazy.

So keeping in mind the difference between “irreplaceable” and “maybe I’ll need this one day when I’m the Queen of Mars” (so NEVER), I proceeded to go through all my stuff from shoes to knick knacks.

The Goodwill in my Honolulu neighborhood received a HUGE donation of shoes and “Possessions Louise Divorced Herself From” that evening.

2. You’re not going to fix the Chicken Lamp

Oh, the Chicken Lamp.

The base was a misshapen rooster-dinosaur-looking-thing, and the shade was red (faded to brown) with little rooster-dinosaur-looking-things strutting around it. It was an ugly lamp, and I loved it. When I moved into my very first apartment in St. Louis, my dad bought it for me as a housewarming gift.

It really did have sentimental value, so it moved from St. Louis, to all my Los Angeles apartments, to Honolulu. As you can guess, with all that moving the Chicken Lamp took a beating. The misshapen rooster-dinosaur-looking-thing became more misshapen over the years. Remember Jeff Goldblum in The Fly</>?

But from the get-go, I knew the Chicken Lamp couldn’t come to Japan. He’d have to go to that great, big barnyard in the sky. As much as I loved the irreplaceable Chicken Lamp, I couldn’t rationalize bringing a lamp — a broken lamp — to Japan.

Even though the Chicken Lamp made it into the “irreplaceable” category, I knew I wasn’t going to fix him. I’d eventually end up lugging a rooster-dinosaur-looking-thing paperweight around the world.

The Chicken Lamp was the first of many old friends to fall. As much as I’d like to think I’m going to roll up my sleeves and fix all those broken picture frames, decorative boxes, crumbling side tables, and ceramic figurines, I’m not.

If an item has been gathering dust for months or years waiting for you to stop watching reruns of Murder, She Wrote and fix it, it’s probably not going to get fixed. As hard as it is to admit it, it’s JUNK, and needs to be treated as such. It’s absurd to take up precious space with JUNK.

Upon examining the recesses of my storage spaces, I was amazed to discover that most of my larger possessions were in fact, JUNK.

So with a heavy heart (and a heavy garbage bag) I threw away the Chicken Lamp and friends. He may be gone, but his memory lives on.

3. Two simple questions: Why do I have this? When did I last use this?

I put the Two Simple Questions in the same category because the answer to both questions is often the same: I don’t know.

In the thick of my packing, I opened up a decaying cardboard box that my cat had been using as a scratching post. In it, I found a squashed, straw hat stamped with the word “BANANAS!” It was so strange, and I got such a laugh from the discovery, that I actually considered keeping it. FOR MEMORIES.

But the cardinal rule of de-cluttering, downsizing, or just THROWING S**T OUT is: If you don’t remember it, you don’t need it.

I didn’t even have to ask myself the questions I’d been asking myself all day, “Why do I have this? When did I last use this?”. I knew the answer was a resounding, I DON’T KNOW. Egads I hope I never wore that hat.

When going through my stuff, these last two questions always seemed to seal the deal. If I could convince myself something was irreplaceable, and that it didn’t need fixing, the Two Simple Questions usually put the nail in the coffin.

We gather stuff in life, and there’s a pleasure to that, but once that pleasure has run its course, best to let things die a dignified death.

I pulled the plug on the “BANANAS!” hat.

Looking around my apartment now, I can honestly say that nothing feels accidental, nothing is just “taking up space”. Anything I chose to bring into my home has a purpose, be it practical or sentimental. In the handful of mementos I brought with me, I know exactly why they are dear to me. For the first time in my life I think I really understand “sentimental value“.

It’s a truth that seems counterintuitive, but in throwing out (almost) all of your stuff, you gain so much more than you had before.

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