What You Really Need to Pack for a Trip to Japan

Everyone will tell you that Japan is like being on a different world- everything is so fast-paced and technologically advanced, all somehow with a kooky twist. Beyond the standard undies, toothbrush, and deodorant, what does one pack for an expedition to the land of zany robots and Godzilla? Here's what I wish I would've known to bring with on our honeymoon to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hakone, Japan: 

  • Pocket wifi- If I had to pick my number one thing to bring with you to Japan, it would be this, which is absurd, because I often see budget travelers who don’t even discuss the prospect of getting a pocket wifi. As I’ve mentioned in pretty much every other article, I am pretty committed to budget traveling; however, I am also all about evaluating the added value of whatever I’m spending my hard earned money on. For around $90, we picked up the wifi unit we reserved at the Global Advanced Communications counter at Haneda airport; traveled around Japan with it tucked into Justin’s backpack (and, oh, using it for Google Translate, map applications, public transit schedules and routes, restaurant and attraction hours and reviews, social media, to Google various random Japanese cultural phenomenons, and about a zillion other uses); and seamlessly dropped it off in a mailbox at the airport for our return flight. Worth the $90? I’d say yes. If you’re super strapped for cash, it probably wouldn’t be impossible (although much more challenging and time consuming) to travel around Tokyo without a wireless device, as wifi is available in some public spaces (and the most important functions, like Google Translate and Maps can be downloaded and/or cached for later use). However, if you’re traveling outside of Tokyo, wifi is incredibly challenging to find and the utility of getting a portable internet device grows exponentially (I'm not sure I found a single place in Hakone, a small mountainous resort town we stayed in, that had wifi).

If you’re nervous about the whole rental process while you’re in Japan or travel a lot internationally, it may be worth considering purchasing your own portable wifi. Be careful about pre-purchasing SIM cards for your wifi device outside of Japan, however- most SIM cards won’t work outside the country they’re purchased. Here is a great guide for buying SIM cards in Japan, but honestly, unless you’re going to be in Japan for a really long time, I think renting a device is likely the better option here.

  • Over-the-counter drugs- Japan has super strict regulations regarding the sale of over the counter drugs. Why does this matter? Come talk to me after you’ve been piledriving fistfuls of mochi day in and day out. I have a stomach of STEEL and after several days in Japan, let’s just say my digestion system was acting a fool. You know what’s less fun than having stomach issues while you’re in the wonderful world of Japan? Trying to decipher Japanese packaging of what may or may not be digestive aids, that’s what! Taking a somewhat educated guess at what’s going to cure your tummy issues is essentially the set up to a Van Wilder movie.

I also wish I would’ve picked up some sort of sleep aid while I was in the United States. I was incapable of falling asleep on the plane ride en route to Japan and really struggled with jetlag the first several days we were there. Over the counter sleep aids are completely nonexistent in Japan and my trip would’ve likely been more enjoyable had I not spent my first several days in a sleep deprived stupor.

  • Collapsible backpack- I rarely carry around a purse and didn’t want to mess around with that while we were in Japan- but between the two of us, we had a LOT of stuff to carry everytime we left our Airbnb, including our passports (it’s Japanese law you need to have international identification on you at all times), cell phones, the power bank, pocket wifi, umbrella, jacket, etc., etc. We had brought along this collapsible backpack we had purchased on a whim prior to the trip and it. Worked. Perfectly. When we were traveling between cities, we could easily collapse the backpack into its self-containing pouch and whenever we reached our destination, boom- we’d have a handy place to stow all of our stuff! The upper small pocket was the perfect place to stash our passports, while the long outer pocket stowed out electronics, which made for convenient access, even while our cell phones were charging. Besides making our time in Japan as easy as possible, it may also help you on the way home by offering an excellent additional carry-on to fill with your new treasures on your way home!

Bonus- while we specifically picked up this backpack for Japan, we wind up using it on almost a weekly basis for smaller trips around the U.S. or even for day hikes (it fits my tripod, Justin's drone, jackets, water bottles, etc.- it really comes in handy)!

  • Comfortable and stylish slip-on shoes- When we were in Japan, we walked at least ten miles a day, so bringing comfortable shoes is a must. Justin and I both mostly wore Chuck Taylors the entire time we were there- while Chucks have a timeless charm and are reasonably comfortable for lots of walking, they unfortunately presented a big issue- (1) you will likely have to take your shoes off by the door of at least one restaurant or other business you go to per day and it is SUPER annoying to have to figure out where to sit down to put your shoes back on and not block the doorway and (2) Tokyoites are UBER fashionable. While Chucks are nostalgically hip and felt appropriate in, say, lowkey Kyoto, I definitely felt like my footwear screamed "I'M FROM A FLYOVER STATE" in comparison to the the cutting edge fashionistas of Tokyo. Not to worry, though; the clear solution seems to be comfy and cool slip-on shoes.

While I’m still on the hunt for the PERFECT travel shoe, I feel like classic Vans are a pretty trusty standby! For the ladies, I feel like a chic black flat can literally be worn with pretty much anything and for the fellows, maybe a preppy boat shoe is more your style? Whatever you do, I would definitely prioritize comfort, ease of taking on and off, and style (in that order) for an awesome experience wandering around Japan.

If you do decide to get some new kicks for your trip, though, make sure you wear them around for a few weeks before your departure to break them in- I brought these awesome brand-new basketball sneakers to Japan, but never actually wore them for fear of them being a poor choice for how much walking we were doing or causing painful blisters. It was a waste of precious luggage real estate and a missed opportunity to add some flair to my limited wardrobe in Japan.

  • Power bank- As mentioned above, Justin and I were constantly relying on our phones not only for maps and translations, but also for taking photos (unfortunately, the only thing we used at the time for photos, but I digress…), which, in combination, was a complete and utter battery suck for our phones. Justin had picked up a power bank prior to our trip and it REALLY came in handy. This battery is just under the maximum watt hour capacity permitted  by the TSA to bring aboard a flight and supports fast-charging of devices, which is awesome for modern phones and tablets. This particular bank can charge up to three devices at a time (via micro USB, USB-c, or Apple’s lightning connector), so Justin and I were able to charge our three collective phones throughout our flight (the USB ports by our plane seat didn’t work for charging). This ensured that we were able to quickly and easily navigate to our Airbnb, despite the hours (and hours and hours) of Netflix we watched en route, as well as charge our phones or pocket wifi when we were on the go. Total lifesaver (and really affordable for how much value we got out of it).

  • Grounding adapters and powerstrip- If you’re from the United States, Japan, in part, uses the same type of electrical outlet (a two prong Type A plug). While the voltage differs between the two countries (100 volts in Japan, as compared to 120 volts in America), this change is typically tolerable for most electrical devices (for any type of expensive electronics, you should confirm that the device may be safely charged at that voltage). While this two prong outlet will work for some of your travel needs, like charging cell phones or power banks, it may not work for powering larger devices, like laptops, which typically use a three-pronged “Type B” plug. Although these plugs are allegedly found in Japan, I didn’t see any of them in our three Airbnbs or in public spaces during our trip. We wound up purchasing a couple grounding adapters  to charge our laptops while we were there; if you have multiple larger devices, though, I would recommend picking up an adapter and an AC outlet power strip, like this one- with its USB ports, Justin and I would easily be able to charge our three phones and both of our laptops. Since we were hardly in our Airbnb, we didn’t have a lot of time to rotate charging various devices and it would have been really convenient to be able to power all of our devices at once.

  • Rain jacket- Japan is well known for its rainy season (from May through July) and, as an island country, has more rain than I’m used to here in the Midwestern United States. While it only rained once while I was in Japan, it was an all day, dreary, persistent mistiness kind of rain that may have persuaded some other folks to stay inside all day. With my trusty rain jacket, though, Justin and I hiked up a mountain, saw some temples, walked through the Bamboo Forests of Kyoto, etc., etc. Don’t let it rain on your Japan parade; bring a rain jacket (this one served me well!).

  • A clear umbrella- On the same note as above, I wish I had brought a clear umbrella instead of the ultra lame purple one I packed. Not only does it not obstruct 50% of your view when you use it, but it makes for way cooler pictures. You can pack a collapsible one that you can use for other world travels (as you know, it rains in other countries as well) or you can pick up one while you’re there- many convenience stores and even subway stations sell clear stick umbrellas pretty cheap (like less than $5 cheap). Since these umbrellas don’t collapse, they will be difficult to pack up to take home, but you can always leave it as an offering at a subway station or Airbnb for another traveler.

Seriously, imagine how much better the second picture would be if I was holding a clear umbrella?

  • Fashionable clothes- I generally like fashion and try to look reasonably stylish in my day to day life. While traveling, though, I have a not so great habit of defaulting to comfort, which means lots of jeans, lots of hoodies, and some Chuck Taylors. While no one is going to throw rocks at you in Japan for looking comfy, Japanese people are, as mentioned above, pretty fashionable, and I was definitely more self-conscious than normal because of the clothing I had packed and less inclined to try out more upscale places. While we were there, a huge trend on both men and women seemed to be these gorgeous thick-knit sweaters (I like this one for women and this one for men), which in and of itself is not any less comfortable than a hoodie. I actually wound up picking up a fluffy pink sweater in Shimokitzawa and wearing it around Tokyo the last two days to look slightly less ‘Murican. While trends like these surely come and go, I’d definitely advise on putting a little bit of thought and effort into what you’re planning on wearing and maybe finding a healthy balance between your clothes’ comfy and stylish.

As with most locations, packing layers is also wise. During our trip, we were exposed to temperatures ranging from the high 30s to around 85 degrees (3-29 degrees Celsius) from our hellishly hot plane ride to Tokyo to the chilly November mountain air to the nap-inducing warmth of Japanese subways. By bringing a cardigan and a jacket (stylish, of course), you can comfortably navigate your travels.

  • Water bottle- As I mentioned in this post, if you’re anything like me, you’re going to get the most thirsty on your flights to and from Japan and with all that walking while you’re there, you’ve got to stay hydrated. Luckily the tap water in Japan was clean and delicious and I’m glad I was able to minimize my waste as much as possible (not to mention save money) by packing my trusty water bottle. For our upcoming travels/hiking adventures, I’m planning on getting this one, with a filter system that safely removes 99.99% of waterbourne protozoa and bacteria, rendering clean drinking-water from streams, rivers, and yes, even Japanese taps. Better yet, every purchase ensures clean drinking water for a kiddo in need for an entire school year. Good for travel, great for hiking, awesome for the world.

  • Cash and international debit card- While credit cards are becoming more commonly accepted in Japan, I found that most restaurants and vendors exclusively accepted cash, especially outside of Tokyo. Prior to our trip, Justin and I took out a significant amount of yen to take with us and also picked up a prepaid travel debit card through our bank, which is essentially a debit card preloaded with yen that was not supposed to incur any international transaction fees upon our withdrawals. While this is a cool idea in theory, it was nearly impossible to find an ATM that would accept a non-Japanese debit card and we wasted a good portion of one of our last nights in Tokyo scrambling around Shinjuku Station looking for a Travelex ATM. I would highly recommend checking with your bank prior to your departure to ensure your debit card will work internationally and upon your Japan arrival, locating an international ATM near where you're staying at the beginning of the trip (they are often located in larger subway stations and some Lawson and Family Mart stores). I highly recommend preemptively taking out cash from the ATM at your convenience, so you don't have to waste a bunch of time trying to locate a mythical international ATM in a labyrinth of a subway station on your last night in Tokyo, like us.  Here is a helpful article on finding a good international debit card.

  • Plastic bags for recycling/waste- Okay, so this is one that you don’t need to necessarily pack, but I would channel your inner hoarder and stash any plastic bags you pick up from convenience stores while you’re there. You may have heard in passing that the Japanese don’t have a lot of trash cans but until you get there, it’s hard to really understand how few receptacles there are (Justin and I no joke would do a happy dance every time we found a trash can in Japan; they’re like Japan’s unicorns). Plastic bags are really handy to store your trash in your backpack until you’re able to find one of these elusive receptacles. Justin had a gnarly cold while we were there, which made him CONSTANTLY blow his nose. One day, we unfortunately did not have any plastic bags and we literally just had to fill our backpack with old used tissues. Don’t be like us- stash that trash like the wise traveler you are.

For me, these items are essential to having a smooth, awesome time in Japan and honestly, most of these items are likely a good idea for most  destinations (maybe not you, plastic bags). Do you have any must-haves while traveling in Japan?

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