Are you planning a trip to Japan? Japan is one of my favourite countries in the world, yet it’s not on the typical backpacker trail, so be prepared to experience unique culture, cuisine, and adventure! I like to think of packing for a trip as an art, and as most travelers to Japan are doing a variety of activities (sightseeing, visiting temples, hiking, beaches, etc) it’s important to pack smart.
Here are 17 things to bring on your trip to Japan, as well as what NOT to bring:
What to bring to Japan
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3) Japan Lonely Planet guidebook – I don’t often travel with a guidebook, but I’m glad I had one in Japan. Whether it was an important custom, what food to try, or what to see, the LP guidebook was great to have in Japan. Tourist information can be limited, and not many people outside of tourist centres speak English. You’ll also find that you want to book accommodation and train tickets in advance and the book is very helpful in selecting locations and accommodation.
4) Japanese Phrase book – On that same note, a Japanese phrasebook is your friend. Japanese is easy to pronounce ,and the LP phrasebook spells things out for you both in kana (Japanese alphabet) and English phonetics. I’ve also used it to show people my question. Pointing to ‘where is the bathroom’ in my phrasebook was helpful on many occasions.
5) Travel insurance – On every trip you should bring travel insurance. Japan is a safe country and transit is fairly reliable, but things can still go wrong. Flights or trains can be delayed or missed or bags can be stolen. Further, you don’t want to be stuck in a tough situation if you have a health emergency or a family emergency back home.
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7) Railpass – Foreigners can get a discounted Japan Railpass if you order it before you go to Japan. You are not able to purchase the pass once you arrive in Japan so be sure to get it in advance. The pass will give you access to all the high speed bullet trains, and will help you explore the country!
8) Rain jacket: Women and Men – Weather in Japan is variable, so bringing a light weight rain jacket is a wise choice. If you’re travelling in September or October which is Monsoon season, then a good rain jacket is a must. I love the north face rain jackets which also make great wind breakers!
9) Phone/tablet/computer – A phone, tablet, or computer will help you stay in touch with friends and family back home, make reservations, check in with work, or document your travels. Personally, I travel either with an iPhone 6 and Macbook pro (for work) or an iPhone 6 and iPad 2 (for pleasure).
10) Scarf – A scarf is a handy item to have on any trip. It protects you from the sun and adds an extra layer of warmth if the weather gets cold. It’s also handy for entering temples if you’d like to cover your shoulders or chest.
11) Travel backpack – I prefer a backpack over a suitcase as it’s easier to haul on and off trains and walk with when you’re trying to find your hostel or Airbnb. I have 2 packs I love depending on the purpose of my trip. If I’m going for culture and cuisine and will be working along the way I love the Osprey Fairpoint 40. It’s carry on size and has a handy laptop sleeve. If you plan on doing any longer hikes I like the Lowe Alpine Airzone line.
12) Translator cards with any allergies – As I’ve mentioned, many people in Japan do not speak english. If you have any severe allergies to food or medication, I’d recommend ordering some pre-translated cards that you can show people in restaurants.
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14) Gifts from your home country – In Japan, gifts are very important. If you plan on Couchsurfing, using Airbnb, or staying with a friend, I highly recommend bringing gifts from your home country. Also if someone is particularly kind to you, it is offensive to offer money or give a tip, but a thoughtful gift from home can do wonders.
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16) Power adapter – For charging electronics on the go, bring your own power adapter with you. You may also need a voltage adaptor as it is different than in North America and Europe.
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Other packing list items for Japan
Mini hairbrush or comb
Feminine products (Thinx or Menstrual cup)
Medications and vitamins
First aid kit
Sweater or warm jacket
ATM card/Credit Card (not Amex)
Stain remover wipes
What to wear in Japan
The Japanese are open-minded about fashion and don’t expect tourists to know their customs. So you can wear whatever you feel comfortable in. However, there are a few basic rules you should try to follow:
1) Dress in layers. Depending on the activities you’re going to be doing, you may get warmer or colder. You also may want to bring a scarf or cardigan to cover up for a temple but be able to walk around in a tank-top in the hot afternoon sun.
2) Even in summer, cover up with light cotton. The Japanese don’t like to show a lot of skin. Covering up in warm clothing in the winter or light loose layers in the summer can help you feel more comfortable.
3) If you’re heading south, lightweight fabrics that give sun protection will be best. If you’re heading north thicker layers that are ready for mountain weather will keep you warm
4) Smart shoes that are comfortable to walk in, and that you can easily slip on and off when entering temples or someone’s home.
5) Shorts and tank tops are OK, but try to stay away from short shorts or very low cut tops (for both women and men).
What NOT to take to Japan
2) Spray tan: Sun protection is fashionable in Japan. Nothing bad is gonna happen if you lay on the bronzer, but you may get a few funny stares.
3) Too many electronics: Japan is the land of electronics, but even so it’s nice to disconnect. Outside of city centres you’ll find peaceful villages and beautiful nature. Leave any non-essential electronics at home.
4) Too many clothes: Instead, bring some packets of hand wash soap and wash as you go.
6) Lots of cash: Credit cards are accepted in most major towns, though you’ll still need cash in some places. However, there are plenty of ATM machines so you don’t need to carry too much cash on you at once.
7) Asia-wide guidebook: You’ll only get a peak into what there is to see and do in Japan. Getting the Japan specific guidebook is the way to go.
8) Overly casual clothes: Japan can be a formal place, you won’t see many people trapsing around in sweatpants or leggings. Bring clothing that’s versatile and that you can layer.
FAQs about travel in Japan
1) Is the tap water in Japan safe to drink?
Yes, in most places in Japan the tap water is safe to drink. However, if you’re worried about mercury you can pick up bottled water at one of the many 7/11’s
2) How prevalent is English in Japan?
Not very prevalent. In hotels, hostels, and tourist attractions people will speak English, but outside of that I wouldn’t count on it. However, people are still very friendly and will try their best to help you even if they don’t understand. This is where the phrasebook comes in handy.
3) When is the best season to visit Japan?
September/October for pleasant weather or April-June for the cherry blossom festival (if you can catch it!). Of course, if you’re there for skiing I’d recommend December – March, and the summer months if you want to do some island hopping.
4) Is it worth getting a Railpass?
Yes! I actually failed to get the rail pass before I went, and was slumming it on overnight busses and local trains to try to recover the cost. If you plan on traveling to more than a couple locations, the rail pass is definitely worth the investment, and much cheaper than buying individual tickets in Japan.
5) Do I need to tip in restaurants in Japan?
There is generally no tipping in Japan. Sometimes a tip may even be refused. Instead, slurping your noodles and making appreciative noises show you’ve enjoyed your meal!
6) Where should I eat in Japan?
Everywhere! The food is delicious! Osaka is a foodie paradise and has a lovely market where you can sample interesting cuisine. You’ll find Ramen bars dotting the streets in any city you go to with people standing up to slurp their noodles. Katsu curries, sushi and soba noodles are also abound. Trying an Izakaya which is an informal pub type place which offers small tasting dishes is a great way to experience local culture. The Japanese are passionate about their food and aim to find fresh ingredients. It’s hard to go wrong with the food!
7) What is the best way to get around Japan?
Train is the easiest way to travel. It’s comfortable and reliable. However, busses are also clean and comfortable, though slower.
8) Do I need a visa to visit Japan?
Most countries will get a visa stamped on arrival, but check here to see what requirements there are for your nationality.
9) How can I watch Sumo in Japan?
Find the dates of the Sumo tournaments here. To see a sumo match without breaking the bank, arrive at the stadium at 10am (or earlier) the morning of the match. You will then stand in the most organized rush ticket line you’ve ever seen. Everyone stands quietly and orderly and proceeds in the queue. They’ll then sell all the remaining tickets for the day at around $20 a piece. Just be sure to get there early to avoid disappointment!
Ps. An excellent thing about sumo matches is that you can bring in your own food and drink!
10) How can I travel on a budget in Japan?
Japan has a reputation for being expensive. And compared to China or SE Asia, it certainly it is. But there are many ways budget travellers can enjoy Japan. The people are very hospitable so Couchsurfing can be a lovely experience (though apartments are small so be prepared to sleep on a sleeping mat on the floor). You can also find cheap hostels or business hotels which will have either a small single room with a mattress, or a tube with a bed you can sleep in. These hostels and business hotels go for about the same rate as you would find in North America. Airbnb is another alternative to expensive hotels. Going to markets or cheap restaurants/ramen bars is a great way to save. I found that for around $10 (US) I could get a very tasty meal. Of course, you can also cook your own food and if you stay with a host I’m sure they’ll be happy to share their favourite recipes with you! Even take away sushi or noodles from the supermarket is as tasty as what you’d find in a lot of Japanese restaurants back home. Slow travel is also a great way to make any trip more affordable.
Gift guide to Japan
While tipping is generally frowned upon in Japan, giving gifts to your hosts is common practice. Here are a few things to be aware of:
- The numbers 4, 9, and 43 can mean bad luck! Don’t give gifts in these numbers.
- Hand the gift over with both hands (gifts should also be received with both hands).
- Food (especially sweets), flowers (but not lilies, lotus blossoms or camellias which are associated with funerals), and alcohol are the best kinds of gifts to give.
- Food or alcohol from your home country is even better (ie. Maple syrup from north-eastern America).
- If the gift is wrapped, your host will probably not open it right away, this doesn’t mean they aren’t excited, it’s just the custom!