Japan - What should I pack? What do I need to know?
I get a lot of questions about what to pack and specific information about the culture for first-timers to Japan. Japan was always number one on my list of international travel and in 2009 I was lucky enough to go there for the first time. Since then, I have been a couple more times, exploring the culture I love so much more and more. I still have not been to so many places on the island and intend to go there more in the future.
I am definitely not an expert in this category. Sylvia Gunde is probably the best contact for this and the main reason I know anything about traveling to Japan. However, just as a supplement, here are some things that helped me or I wish I had known when traveling there as a first-timer. Make sure to read this at least two weeks or so before your flight as some of these things you will need to reserve and purchase in advance.
Packing for Japan
luggage and extra luggage - Sylvia turned me onto Calpak and their efficient, beautiful luggage with packing cubes to help organize everything inside (my OCD side's dream). I mention "extra luggage" because you really should bring an extra carry-on or similar that is empty to bring all the goodies you will buy home. LISTEN, you WILL buy stuff to bring home. I don't care who you are and how frugal you are, you WILL buy things.
Dramamine - I am old now and get motion sickness very easily. Also I am a big fan of sleeping on planes to pass the time. Bring some Dramamine if you are like me.
neck pillow - Again, long flight and I like to sleep. Good neck pillows are hard to find and thank goodness for Sylvia introducing me to Muji's neck pillow. It is a godsend.
JR pass or Suica/Pasmo card - Public transit is big in Japan; you will use the trains everywhere. They are very efficient and you can travel all over the country on them. If you intend to travel AT ALL outside of Tokyo (Osaka, Kyoto, etc.) then you should buy a JR pass because it costs so much to go on the bullet train. You can get one from a Japanese travel agency or check online. However, if you just stay in Tokyo and use local public transit, then get a Pasmo or Suica card at any train station and just load money onto it. It's cheaper (couple bucks per ride), easier (JR pass you have to stop at the conductor and have him check ID every time you enter the station whereas the passes just go right through like our TAP cards), it can be used for almost any public transit (buses, train, etc.), and you can even use it to buy other things (convenience stores, some restaurants, vending machines, etc.).
retractable pass holder - You will want a retractable pass holder for your travel card above that clips to your purse or something easily accessible because you will need to scan it all the time. Something like this. You can buy these in Japan easily in department stores as well.
pocket wi-fi - I found getting a pocket wi-fi was much better than getting an international plan or renting a phone. You can get one from a Japanese phone/mobile shop - I got mine from the Japan Wireless Mobile Shop in Mitsuwa Marketplace Torrance. You basically rent one for the duration of your trip. Just make sure to pick it up no earlier than when you want to use it (day before your trip or day of if you can) and return it promptly after to avoid extra day charges.
external battery - Again, since you will be walking around all day away from your hotel and any charging stations, an external battery is essential. You will need the extra juice for your phone, pocket wi-fi, earbuds and anything else throughout the day. And don't forget the charging cords as well!
headphones or earbuds - Not only is Japan a far flight (11+ hours from Los Angeles to Tokyo), but you will be walking around a lot and using public transit. Headphones are nice to have for these circumstances. I love my AirPods from Apple, but I buy everything Apple. Just any lightweight, noise canceling set would be nice.
camera - I always bring a camera, and whatever you bring purely depends on what you want to shoot (casually, photo only, video only, distance or close, etc.). However keep in mind it should fit in your purse since you will be walking around all day every day. I like the Canon EOS M Mirrorless series or the Canon G7X if you want to shoot video as well (both are lightweight, versatile and easy for anyone to use).
yen - The national currency in Japan is Yen, which in converting is basically 100 yen to 1 US dollar. You will want to make sure to get some from your bank ahead of time to bring with you. How much really depends on your trip - where you go, what you do, what you want to eat, what you want to buy to bring back, etc. The first time I brought a few thousand yen and even after trying to spend I didn't go through it all.
coin purse - Since most of the currency is in coins, you will want to bring a coin purse. You can get some cute ones in Japan if you'd like.
hand towels - Japan is very green and clean so there is no trash around. This carries over into the bathrooms, where there are rarely paper towels or hand dryers to wipe your hands. Also, Japan has a lot of humidity during the summer and you will want something to wipe the sweat with. You can get some really cute ones in Japan from department stores.
umbrella - It rains often in Japan, and snows often in winter, so you will want an umbrella. You can buy cute ones for really cheap at a convenience store or department store in Japan, or just bring a pocket one from home.
tote with zipper - You walk a lot in Japan and therefore carry everything with you throughout the day. The most useful thing in this case is a good tote bag or large purse to carry everything listed here, anything you might buy, and more. Also good to have a zipper on it to keep everything secure and hidden since you are constantly in public areas and in tight quarters on the train.
comfortable shoes for walking - You will be walking A LOT, if I did not mention that several times above. You will want comfortable, sturdy shoes that you can walk in all day and will last all day. I love to torture myself, so you will find me in short leather booties (sturdy, but probably not the best for my poor feet at the end of the day). Some cute trainers, like these Athletics Trainer Shoes by Adidas, would work nicely. I have some favorites by Nike as well, but I can't find them right now.
layers - Summer in Japan is hot and humid with some rain, but the air conditioning will be blasting inside any building or train. Winter in Japan is freezing with snow, but the heat will be on high inside any building or train. Therefore, it is best to dress in layers. You will be constantly going from hot to cold, so wear lightweight, breathable layers.
[SUMMER] bug spray - In the summer, mosquitos are everywhere and you will get bit a lot and often (because you are exotic to them and taste amazing). Bring bug spray!
[SUMMER] fan - It gets very hot and humid in the summer and you will want a fan to cool yourself down. You can buy cute travel ones in Japan in the departments stores and such if you want.
Preparing for Japan
Japan's lifestyle is very different from the United States and I feel there are some important things to note before going that will make your trip easier. After all, it is a very respectable culture and you do not want to offend anyone (like some YouTubers...you know who I am talking about...).
As mentioned before, Japan is a very green country. You will not see any trash cans, only recycling. Keep that in mind when you need to throw something away. If you got trash from a vendor, there is most likely somewhere to throw it near the vendor. They do a great job in keeping everyone in line with keeping the streets clean.
There are two types of restrooms primarily: Western (toilets above ground) and Japanese (squat toilets). Western are what you are used to, but most likely bidet style (their bidets even have music on them that you can play so no one hears you pee). Japanese will look like holes in the ground that you squat over. Most of Tokyo has Western, but just know that you may have to squat (well obviously this is easier for guys). Check out this video Sylvia did on Japanese toilets.
Temples are places of respect and strict tradition that vary depending on the religion, so as you enter one take note of the patterns of what locals are doing around you and make sure you only take part if you can do it right (or not at all since you most likely do not follow the religion and therefore cannot properly give your respects).
All clothing in Japan is meant for Japanese people, so that means clothing sizes are very small in comparison to America. For example, I am a size 6 in shoes here but a Large in shoes there. Keep that in mind when buying clothes and souvenirs.
Throw away everything you know about trashy food in the United States. Denny's and McDonald's, for example, in Japan are REALLY GOOD. Denny's is actually home cooked lunch and dinner meals that feel like your Japanese grandmother made them. McDonald's there is actually made fresh and again very good in comparison.
Starbucks is also really good in Japan, with real matcha lattes and seasonal favorites. Going during Sakura season is the best! Not only will there be beautiful cherry blossoms but Starbucks has exclusive cherry blossom merchandise that is adorable!
If you are a fan of Pokemon, go to the Pokemon Center in Yokohama and get a stuffed Pikachu! They are usually limited editions, like the Mario and Luigi (see below pic) ones I got when I went last.
Vending machines are everywhere and filled with hot (red labeled) and cold (blue labeled) drinks! Use them. I love the hot milk tea, iced green tea and the hot corn soup. Sylvia did this video, with me randomly in it, on them!
Convenience stores, like 7-11 have everything you could possibly need and want! Check them out. You'd be surprised how much you will find, and actually how good it is! Check out this video Sylvia did on them.
Usually everyone can tell you are a foreigner (gaijin) so they will speak English around you, but it may be good for you to know some basic words in Japanese. Surprisingly, Tokyo is filled with a lot of Japanese-only speakers still and you may have some difficulty ordering at restaurants and such. Look up specifically how to order at restaurants, where the train station is, where the toilet is, arigato or domo for thank you, etc. Sumimasen for "excuse me" or "pardon me" in particular is very helpful as a foreigner because you will constantly be bumping into people or apologizing for not understanding them. It is respectful to learn the appropriate response and when to use it. For instance, when to use arigato or domo are very specific times.
On that note, do not hesitate when walking like Americans do. If it looks like someone will bump into you, they won’t. Trust me. They are used to constantly dodging each other and you will ruin their flow if you sit there and hesitate. Just keep walking towards your destination. People will avoid you.
DO NOT TALK ON YOUR CELL PHONE OR EAT ON TRAINS. This is illegal.
Walk on the right at all times, and stand on the left (especially on escalators).
Always move in towards the center when on trains, do not stand by the door if you can help it (even if you are getting off at the next stop).
A lot of this goes back to the idea that you do not matter in the grand scheme of things - the greater outweigh the few, if you will. You must always be respectful and aware of those around you. I don't mean to be on edge all the time or put others ahead of yourself. Have a good time, enjoy your vacation! But it would be a lot better (and they will thank you and reward you for it sometimes if they see you are being particularly respectful) if you keep in mind that you may be disturbing the natural flow of life. If you try to take a picture and you notice you accidentally bumped into someone, apologize and little bow with sumimasen. I promise you will notice you have a much better time in Japan if you keep in mind that you are in a very structured, respectful society that is trying to function for the greater good.
She may hate me for this, but contact Sylvia for more! :P
She is awesome - fluent in Japanese and often travels to Japan (at least once a year usually). She knows lots of good places to eat and see, and could connect you with great bilingual locals if you’d like. I would ask her for more and for what locals like to do, especially in the areas outside of Tokyo (I have been to Kyoto and Osaka, but I am less familiar with them). I linked to many of her videos above as well just so you can see more about them, and they are fun videos to watch!
On that note, Sylvia's packing video is very conclusive and pretty as well. Check it out!
I also like this blog written by friend Ruby on first-timers going to Japan. I love the detail in how she described popular destinations in Japan.
Bottom line, Japan is an spectacular place to visit with something new to see every time. It really never gets old. And the food...*drool*...grab some good traveling buddies and have a blast! I hope these tips will help! And please share with me anything you feel I missed or any questions you may have! I am always looking to improve this list in particular since Japan has become kind of a hot spot lately.