The stereotypes about the amount of space in Japanese cities are accurate; space is a valuable commodity, and although efficient design and well-thought spaces help homes and hotel rooms feel more usable, you’ll want to adopt a minimalistic approach to packing when travelling in Japan.
I cannot stress enough that you will need to pack as light as possible. Not only will space be at a premium, you’ll be walking, taking the train, or using some other form of public transportation as your primary mode of transportation. You do not want to be lugging around huge suitcases and heavy backpacks as this is cumbersome and will cause the people around you inconvenience, but it will also tire you out quickly.
What’s in my bag?
For a 2 week trip to Japan the following items are usually in my bag:
- Checked Luggage
- 4-5 pairs of underwear (not including the set you’re wearing)
- 4-5 shirts, a mix of t-shirts and collared semi-nice shirts (not including the set you’re wearing)
- 5-6 pairs of socks (6-7 in rainy seasons) – I use ankle socks as they are small and compact (not including the set you’re wearing)
- Extra pair of shoes (in rainy season)
- 1 ball cap
- 1 compact umbrella
- 2 pairs of jeans (optimal in summer, maybe 1 at the most)
- 2 pairs of shorts (summer only)
- 1-2 hoodies/light sweater (fall, winter, and spring only)
- Lightweight compressible jacket or vest (If travelling in fall and spring) – I use an Arc’teryx Cerium LT vest or a cold weather cycling jacket
- Lightweight compressible jacket (if travelling in winter and not going to Hokkaido or up north, or skiing) – I use a Arc’teryx Cerium SL hoody
- Toiletry Kit
- Ski gear (if skiing)
- A few garbage or large ziploc freezer bags (for separating items if things are wet or dirty)
- Carry On Bag
- iPad mini (emails, eReader, etc.)
- Mobile phone
- Bluetooth noise cancelling headphones (I use the Sony WI-1000X – compact, good sound, good noise cancelling, and you can use them wired and wireless. Some airlines may not allow you to use bluetooth wireless headphone – plan accordingly)
- Small travel camera (like a Sony RX100 V or a Fujifilm XT-20) and accessories
- Multi-port USB charger with an assortment of cables
- Portable battery pack, at least 8000 mAh
- Portable WiFi (picked up at the destination airport)
- Dependable pen & notebook
- SuiCa IC card (for public transport – more on this later)
- Small pouch with passport, travel cards, loyalty cards, cash, etc. (I use the Moleskine passport holder)
- Japan Rail Pass exchange order/voucher (more on this later)
This basic kit easily fits into two bags with plenty of room to spare: a 20” rolling bag (I use a Victorinox CH-97 2.0 Tourist 20”), and a small to moderate size messenger bag or sling bag (your preference – I tend to use Ona Bags or Peak Design for my daily carry bags due to my camera equipment). For pocket carry, I use an Obtainium card holder, Keysmart key ring, and a money clip. To hold my travel documents, I have a Moleskine passport holder. If I am in a place with a safe, I will often lock my unused cash, cards, and home keys in the hotel safe, if one is available. Please note that tourists are always supposed to have their passport on their person when travelling in Japan.
I recommend rolling bags as it is easier on your feet and shoulders. Most of Japan will have relatively smooth surfaces so towing it around won’t be a problem. A backpack is a good second choice but is somewhat of a hassle as you will need to take it on and off repeatedly as you get on and off trains, whereas you can put a small rolling back near your feet without taking up much room on the train.
I also recommend small bags because because they are easier to store at the lockers which can be found at all train stations. If you are just stopping over at a location, can’t check into your hotel yet, or if you just want a place to stash your luggage for more freedom of movement, many train stations will have multiple locker banks. Most locker banks are now automated and utilize your IC card (more on this in another section) to pay for and secure the lockers. Many smaller stations still use coins, so it’s a really good idea to carry around a number of 100 yen coins with you.
Most of these lockers in a bank are rather small, enough for a moderately sized day pack. Medium sized lockers can easily fit a 22” rolling bag and a small backpack, and large lockers can fit full sized rolling bags, but the latter two have fewer lockers per bank and will more than likely be occupied. This is where a smaller bag will help out a lot.
This loadout assumes that I will set aside a morning every 4-6 days to do some laundry at the AirBnB, at a local laundromat, or using the hotel laundry service. This also allows you a good opportunity to rest and chill out for a few hours so you can catch up on e-mail, make yourself breakfast, or to sleep in a bit. Vacations should be relaxing after all.
I’ve found the best way to pack is to roll everything tightly and then group them into the smallest packing cube I can. Then I can stack the cubes effectively in my luggage. The other benefits of packing cubes are that it allows you to separate clean and dirty items so you don’t get confused what needs to be washed, as well as separate shoes so they won’t dirty the rest of your items in your luggage. Small pouches to hold cords, accessories, and chargers are useful as well in helping to organize your carry kit.
Pay close attention to the weather and seasons when choosing your clothes. I’ve found that Canadians can get by with much lighter clothes, mainly light jeans, shorts, and t-shirts or polos for most of the year in Japan. I highly recommend natural fibers such as cotton when travelling. Polyester shirts don’t easily wick away body sweat, which considering the humidity in Japan can make things uncomfortable.
I would recommend against buying clothes, shoes, or other wearables in Japan unless you’re quite petite and skinny – this goes for men and women. Tokyo and Osaka will have sizes for foreigners, but western sizing is rare in other parts of Japan. Shoes in western sizes are especially hard to find in Japan.
Flip-flops are not a good idea as you will be doing a lot of walking. A good pair of walking shoes with thicker soles, and some good cushioned ankle socks is a requirement. If you are travelling in an especially wet time of the year, usually mid-May through June but also in the pacific typhoon seasons until October (August and September is peak typhoon season), bringing an extra pair of shoes, and a few extra pairs of socks is a very good idea as it may take an extra day for your wet shoes to dry off in the house/hotel.
It is an absolute necessity to have a compact folding umbrella. It’s ok if you don’t bring one as you can easily purchase one at the convenience store for less than $6, or, you can swipe one of the many cheap discarded umbrellas which will be lying near a garbage bin after a rainstorm (Many people regard these as disposable items).
A high capacity battery bank and a small smattering of cables and adapters should be in every traveller’s bag. A good battery bank 10,000 to 15,000 mAh is sufficient to keep you powered for a few days as you will be using your phone and portable WiFi unit a lot in Japan (more on how to get one of these this in another chapter).
Do bring your smartphone. You will be using Google Maps a lot to navigate the train systems. Google Translate and the Google Assistant picture translate app is mostly accurate and very useful as well if you’re unsure of signs, menus, etc. If you’re travelling in a group with multiple WiFi units, apps like WhatsApp, Line, etc. are great for coordinating meeting up and staying in touch with people you meet while travelling and people back home.
If you’re not a photo geek, a small camera such as the Sony RX100 series camera, or something like the FujiFilm XT-20 is a good choice. You don’t want to be lugging around a large DSLR. Although it is safe and you need not fear muggers or thieves, you will come across situations where the bulk and weight will cause you back problems and it may be a tight squeeze into booths at restaurants, on the train, etc.
Serious photogs will have an idea of what you’re getting into and you will lug a decent amount of gear with you. I’ll go into how I try to lighten my load when I go on serious shooting trips in a later article specifically for photographers.
Other gear you may want to consider bringing are:
- A laptop computer. Tablets like an iPad will work for most purposes and will save you a ton of weight and bulk. I’m almost to the point myself where I find having a laptop more of a detriment.
- If you’re staying with a local family or if you are meeting people in Japan, it is customary to bring gifts. Ice wine, whiskey, or sweets are always a good option.
If you plan on returning home with a lot of gifts or purchasing a lot of items such as electronics, you can bring a larger suitcase. The better option is to ship any items you purchase home and then declare them as unaccompanied goods. Shipping is usually reasonable (to Canada at least). Just be aware that you cannot ship certain goods, such as dangerous goods or alcohol over 25% ABV (This is a new law).
Remember to check your country’s customs policy on limitations for what you can bring back; in Canada you are allowed $800 tax free excluding alcohol and tobacco. Meats and most plan products are not allowed. Commercially packaged and sealed food is ok. You must declare all food.
I highly recommend declaring all your items and keeping receipts for the major items you have purchased and are bringing back. I once brought back a $2800 camera, and I was only taxed $80 on it when I declared it. Not declaring is a great way to get hassled by the border agents. Being caught not declaring items means you are flagged and anytime you cross the border they will subject you to additional scrutiny, and possibly rejection for entrance into other countries.
The lighter you travel, the happier your travels will be. You have less things to worry about losing or damaging, you aren’t tiring yourself out moving a heavy suitcase around the country, and you can concentrate on enjoying your vacation.
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