A few insider tips on what to bring to Japan can make all the difference. We share what we’ve learned in this essential Japan packing list for first time visitors.
I’m not going to insult your intelligence here by telling you how many pairs of socks to take or what size bag to pack, we all have our own dress style and you’re either a pack into your hand-luggage person or you’re not, it’s no secret that I’m not.
What I’m going to cover here are a handful of items that I’ve found indispensable on each and every trip we’ve made. I hope it will be helpful to you too as you count down to your holiday and put together your Japan packing list. If you have any questions please leave us a comment at the bottom of this article or through our contact page.
Table of Contents
- Our Japan travel essentials
- What to wear in Japan
- What to leave behind
Our Japan travel essentials
1. Comfortable and easy to remove shoes
To see Japan you’re going to walk a lot, unless you’re spending most of your day on a bus on an organised tour it can’t be avoided. The primary mode of transport for locals and visitors alike is a combination of the super efficient public transport system and your feet. Like most big cities the streets are busy and people in general move at a moderate to faster pace. With days or weeks on your feet you are going to want to be kind to them. I know you may want to make a fashion statement in Tokyo but I’m going to side with your feet on this and suggest comfortable shoes. I know, BORING but your feet will thank you for it. If you want the chance to dress up for that splurge at one of the many Michelin starred restaurants then go ahead and pack your killer heels but for your urban exploration reasonably flat and comfortable shoes that won’t give you blisters and you can walk all day in are what you are going to want.
We regularly walk 10 to 20 kilometres a day in Japan, you don’t have to do that much but it is surprising how quickly it clocks up.
The second trick is to pick shoes that are quick and easy to take off and put on. You’re going to be doing that a LOT too, far more than you’ve probably needed to do in other countries. In Japan you will not only take off your shoes when you enter someones home but also in most temples, shrine buildings, castles and anywhere there’s a tatami mat floor.
2. The Japan Rail Pass
Our top money saver when travelling in Japan is the Japan Rail Pass, we’ve bought one on every trip so far and I’ve already got the next one planned and it’s going to require the pass too. Not only does it save us money but makes life so simple when you are moving between cities or if you take longer distance day trips as we often do. The JR Pass isn’t ideal for every trip or traveler so if you aren’t sure whether you want to get one I’ve written a guide on EVERYTHING you need to know about the Japan Rail Pass so you may want to take a read of that. For me it’s one of the top 3 things that I must have in my bag as I head for Japan.
3. A stored value travel card
The Japan Rail Pass works on Japan Rail lines (or ferries) but there will no doubt be times on your travels where you want to use subways, buses and non-JR trains. The best option here is to tap and go with a stored value card such as the Suica or Pasmo. Changes over the past few years have made these much more useful as they’re no longer region specific. I used to have one for Tokyo, another for Osaka and a seperate day or weekly pass for Kyoto as neither of the others worked.
Not only can you use these little gems for your transport but they also work in some Konbini (convenience stores) and many vending machines making them a convenient way to have cash on hand without carrying a heap of change. You can also top them up with your credit card converting it effectively to cash.
Further Reading | Tips and Tricks on getting the best out of transport in Japan
4. Your favourite earphones
It’s a fair distance flight to Japan from Australia, the USA or Europe so you’re going to want some entertainment and comfort on the plane. You’ll also likely spend some time on bullet trains, local trains, subways and possibly even buses where you may want to block a bit of external noise, listen to the latest podcast or just relax with the some music. We like to minimize the number of times we move accommodation and as a result we tend to take longer day trips, it often means early starts or a reasonable commute back after dinner and time in transit starts to add up.
I’ve had the wireless Vasa Bla earphones in my purse constantly over the past 6 months (thanks Sudio Sweden) and absolutely love their design aesthetic, comfort and sound quality. With their own leather pouch to protect them they’ve also been very durable for daily use and are always floating around somewhere in my bag or backpack. Recently they sent us a second pair for Drew so he can stop eyeing up mine and a pair of the new Regent wireless over ear model to try. The over ear model offer the benefit of cancelling out the majority of external noise which is great in busy airport lounges and in flight and they’ve been super comfortable, like sound pillows for my ears.
Sudio Sweden have been kind enough to offer a discount code for 15% off to our readers using the code 2AUSSIETRAVELLERS at the checkout. You can see their latest range here.
5. Cash and your ATM card
Something that surprised me on our first visit to Japan is that despite its advanced electronic technology, automation and love of gadgetry the consumer banking system is positively antiquated and cash is the only accepted payment in many places. For those of us used to swiping a card or even our phone for everything from a cup of coffee to a major purchase this may take some getting used to. While I suggest arriving in country with some cash if at all possible you will undoubtedly need to refill your wallet if you’re there for more than a few days.
EFTPOS machines that operate in English are fairly easy to find, especially if you are in the major cities. The post office machines which are our preference have an English button as do the machines in Konbini (convenience stores). The 7-Eleven is our back-up which has always had the English cash machine option but Lawsons and the slew of others are now also available.
To keep your expenses down check what your bank fees are for withdrawing cash from an international ATM before you leave home, withdraw cash in the largest sum you are comfortable carrying at a time to avoid frequent transactions and always withdraw from your current or savings accounts, taking a cash withdrawal on a credit card incurs interest immediately, there is no free credit period.
6. Pocket Wifi & battery backup
There are some key apps and websites I like to have immediate access to travelling in Japan. The top two would have to be Hyperdia, a free site for checking everything from when your next train leaves to working out a complex 3 week bullet train initerary around the counry and Google Maps of course. It also gives you the chance to do some planning on the fly, stay in touch with what’s happening at home, emergency translation and keep your social media up to date.
Some of the pocket wifi devices double as a battery pack which is ideal but if not I always carry a battery pack for on the go recharging of my phone, iPad, earphones, camera battery and a myriad of other items as one of my essential items. My current favourite is the Cygnett 10,000 MAH. This one is big enough to charge a number of devices multiple times but is the maximum size that you can carry without limitations imposed by some airlines and flights, I wouldn’t be at all happy to have one confiscated before I boarded a long flight.
I usually have at least one pair of glasses in my bag every day because I live in a subtropical region with a very high number of sunshine days. What did surprise me though is that I also wear them every day in Japan, no matter what season I travel in.
In the shoulder seasons of spring and autumn those grey skies can cause a huge amount of glare especially when you walk around looking up at the blossom. On winter visits again we found the combination of clear but cold days and the reflection from snow and wet ground made them essential.
I wear graduated prescription lenses in my sunglasses so they are equally good whether I’m reading a book and sipping a cocktail beside the pool or driving, hiking and shopping. This has meant that I’ve often been limited to the city stores to purchase my personal weakness, sunglasses. Recently online glasses retailer Vision Direct gifted me this gorgeous set from Giorgio Armani as part of the launch of their new service. Under their new arrangements you can now get your eyes tested at their local partner opticians and even try on the various styles while still getting the benefit of great online pricing.
8. Your Camera Gear
What makes the cut for camera gear is the part of packing I always struggle with most. It generally comes down to how much I can fit into my 7 kg of cabin baggage as I won’t trust camera gear or electronics to the hold of the aeroplane. Really I can barely help myself here but I would say make sure you have a camera, something with more creative control than your phone if possible, it really is the most photogenic country.
I love my Olympus OMD EM1, it’s a fabulous camera and takes incredible pictures on a small and light body so it’s much easier to fit that into my bag and to carry all day when travelling. If it’s just one lense it would have to be the Olympus pro 10-40mm (or 20mm – 80mm in full format terms) so that’s almost always attached. If I have to go down to one strap it’s my womens cut Black Rapid cross body to be ready to shoot all day at a moments notice.
Then it comes down to whether I have space and weight limit left, I do like to take a long lense and a discrete prime for street photograhy but they don’t always make the cut. My tripod is more likely to makeit into my case now since I invested in the small but surprisingly robust Manfrotto BeFree Compact in it’s own travel case and then theres whether or not to pack the Gopro and all it’s associated gadgetry or the gimbal for smooth video. Oh so many decisions.
9. A Travel Day bag
Some may prefer to travel with a tote or large handbag. I do myself in some countries but in Japan I prefer the travel backpack for carrying around day to day. My current one is made of leather, is robust and the perfect size to fit of tonne of stuff in it but still looks stylish enough to pass as a handbag when it needs to rather than something I used to carry my school books in.
It took me a while to find the perfect travel backpack for me, not as long as the perfect beachbag of course, that search continues after many many prototypes. My daily travel bag needed to be stylish, sturdy so I can load it up without damaging it, easy to clean, not too heavy when empty and fit all my day to day bits and pieces, including a DSLR camera and iPad. Not a really big ask surely?
Meet my Roma by Mahi Leather, isn’t she cute but more important for a travel day bag she is comfortable and functional.
10. A small towel
This is a little quirky but while Japanese public toilets are generally kept really clean and supplied with toilet paper they generally don’t have air dryers or paper towels for drying your hands. If you plan on visiting a few shrines and temples throughout the day you will also need to do the customary hand washing as you enter each one, in the cooler months this can leave you with very sore and chapped hands after a few days if you don’t dry them well. After a couple of times just giving them a shake and wiping them on your jeans isn’t enough.
Many Japanese women will carry a small towel with them known as tenugui, they are available in many souvenir shops and are generally a smooth cotton fabric rather than the terry cloth common in the West. These multi use items are re-purposed for everything from drying your hands and mopping your brow at a hot summers festival to a makeshift apron and wrapping a bottle of sake for a gift.
11. Travel power accessories
I have two items in this category, the first thing into my bag when packing for Japan is a power adapter as our plugs are different. Recently I’ve added a second gadget to my already overload plug and cable holder but think it’s well worth while. I’ve always drawn the line at packing an extension board but have been won over by the new power cubes, they take up very little space plus allow you to charge up to 6 devices at once with 4 power plugs and 2 USB sockets and only the one power adapter needed. These are so convenient you’ll want to use it at home too.
With at least two cameras, two phones, a laptop, two tablets plus sundry gadgets such as wireless earphones and fitness monitor there’s a bit of a bedtime routine involved plugging everything in so it’s ready to go in the morning, downloading camera cards and backing everything up.
12. A paper map
While I do like to have Google Maps on hand to help me find my way to that hard to find restaurant or garden, I also find having a paper map, both of the city and subway, indespensible. Time and again in Japan we have found people putting themselve forward to help us out if we look the slightest lost and in those cases it’s so much easier when there’s a bit of a language barrier, not helped by my heavy Kiwi accent, to be able to show it on the map and get pointed in a direction to get us back on track again.
One of the first hotels we stayed at gave us a map on checkin with a big cross where the hotel was so we could give it to a taxi driver or to anyone for help if we did become lost. It was a great idea and one I have kept up since in any country where I don’t speak the language. I also pick up the hotel business card with their address on when we first check in and slip that into my wallet just in case.
In cities with more complex subway systems such as Tokyo and Osaka a subway map is also useful as there are often several intersecting lines in the one station and you may need to change lines along the way. You learn it really quickly but initially having your own copy to count down the stop was really helpful. We’ve also jumped on a subway headed the wrong way at least once, it’s easy to do when you’re new to it as all sense of direction becomes quickly turned around underground.
What to wear in Japan
Japan is fairly moderate in the range of what is acceptable to wear, especially if you’re a visitor. Even in the big cities tidy casual attire is quite acceptable for your urban exploration. Somewhere like Tokyo you’ll probably see the full spectrum from the morning swarm of impeccable grey suits to Lolita dresses and fluffy character onesies. Somewhere in the middle is your best bet, you don’t need a new wardrobe to visit Japan but there are a couple of taboos still to keep in mind. While very short skirts are common, visible cleavage is not, necklines are generally kept modest and tattoos are still not widely accepted in Japan, they may cause offence and in some places such as onsen (public hot pools) you will usually be refused entry.
We’ve visited Japan in most seasons and the biggest tip on dressing for Japan’s climate is to wear layers. The weather can be highly variable from one hour to the next especially in Spring and Fall. Depending on the direction of travel an hours trip on a train can have you in a vastly different climate, learn from our Kyoto sunshine to Nagahama snow faux pas and even in the apparent consistency of Sapporo’s snowy winter we benefited from layering. Every time you step into a restaurant, shopping centre or even a train you are going to be toasty hot even if there’s a blizzard enveloping the city outside.
As a general rule I’d also suggest mix and match packing even if that’s not your normal style. Be brutal, if it doesn’t go with at least 2 other items in the suitcase it stays behind. Items that can be dressed up for the evening and down a bit in the day are most useful and as with shoes, prioritise comfort over cute.
What to leave behind
Sometimes what you leave out of your case can be as important as what you put in. Here are a few things to consider if you’re trying to reduce the volume.
Basic toiletries. Most hotels, and we’ve stayed in a fair few across Japan now, have an exceptional selection of body care products. Beyond the standard shampoo and soap they regularly have toothbrushes, nail files, even razors. The one thing I have wanted on occasion and is often missing is body lotion, the air conditioning and dry air leave my skin parched. I wouldn’t travel without my holy grail products for a full trip but if you want to make use of the popular luggage transfer service or take a single night somewhere with minimal luggage such as Koyasan then this can be an option to fit what you need into your overnight bag.
The other reason I might intentionally pack light on skincare and hair products is that most of my all time holy grail beauty products are Japanese brands. These aren’t cheap over there but they are significantly better priced than at home so Shu Uemura, SKII, Shiseido and the best ever Biore face sunscreen are coming home with me in bulk. Plus of course you need a bit of space to try a few new things each trip.
Umbrellas. Yes it does rain fairly frequently and you’ll likely end up wanting one but umbrellas are cheap and widely available in every second store. Simple umbrellas are considered disposable items in Japan which I find a bit counter intuitive given their approach to waste and recycling. It’s also the only thing that seems to be regularly ‘stolen’ in Japan, you go into a store, leave it in the rack outside if it’s wet and it seems to be considered fair game for ‘borrowing’ if you take too long to come back and claim it. Again a strange contradiction in this country which in our experience is exceptionally safe for people and property.
Hairdryer. There was ALWAYS a hairdryer provided as there is pretty much everywhere now so save the space in your bag, it might take a couple more minutes without the super-powered version but it’s not that bad.
So there you have our top 10 essentials when packing for Japan and a couple of things you can potential leave behind. Have a fabulous trip if you are heading off soon and please do drop a comment below if you have any questions, or suggestions of your own that belong on everyone’s Japan travel checklist.
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