Traveling is exciting, especially when visiting somewhere new or particularly far-flung.
In the excitement, it's often easy to overlook the little things, and never more so than when traveling to somewhere with different cultural norms. For many people, Japan ticks both of these boxes.
So, to make the process of planning a little easier, here are a number of essential things to consider when packing for your trip. What's more, we'll also point out a few things you mightn't want or need to pack, and a further four things to take into consideration, especially if it's your first time heading to Japan.
What to pack for Japan
Comfortable shoes which are easy to slip on and off
It's customary to remove your shoes in many places in Japan, and not just in private homes and temples. Some hotels, restaurants and even office buildings may require footwear to be removed.
With this in mind, and considering there's lots of excellent walking to be done in Japan, pack comfortable shoes which are easy to slide off and back on again. Your feet will appreciate the comfort, and you'll enjoy not having to tie and untie your laces over and over again each day!
A good supply of socks (or slippers)
Further to the above, bare feet are generally unwelcome when visiting temples, homes or other indoor areas which require the removal of shoes. To be polite, ensure that you're wearing clean socks, or carry a pair of lightweight slippers with you when you're out and about.
Handy hand towel
Bathrooms in Japan often don't have paper towels or hand dryers available, as it's the norm to carry your own towel. As such, you'll want to keep hold of a small towel where possible. No bag with you? Consider a handkerchief or a small travel pack of tissues instead.
Smart casual attire
On the whole, Japan is a very modest nation. While you're unlikely to encounter many strict dress codes, there's an expectation that people will be modestly dressed when visiting most places, including restaurants, temples, and other attractions. No need to pack a suit or a ballgown, but a casual shirt or smart blouse won't go amiss... think "modern but modest."
Small gifts from home
Tipping isn't the norm in Japan, however offering a small token of thanks to your hosts, guides, or other helpful people you meet along your way is a common alternative. Nothing too extravagant; sweets or other artisan food products from home and not generally available in Japan are good examples. Always offer any gifts with both hands, as is the local custom.
Such gifts are not strictly required, but will always be appreciated. It's a bit like a souvenir ("omiyage" in Japanese), only in reverse...
Medication (even over the counter medicines)
Remembering to pack any prescription medications is generally a given when traveling, but you'll also want to pack any over the counter remedies you regularly rely on too, as it may be difficult to source them in Japan. While toiletries and other essentials are easy to track down, medication is less so, and with different brand names, it may be hard to find what you need.
You may bring a one-month supply of prescription medication into the country, and a two-month supply of over the counter products. If you have a delicate digestive system, consider that you'll likely be trying new, foreign cuisine options. As such, it may be a good idea to bring along something to settle your stomach in case what you eat disagrees with you...
Oddly enough, clothes hangers aren't so prolific in Japan. Therefore, if you're packing smart shirts or blouses (see "Smart casual attire" above), perhaps pack a couple of lightweight plastic hangers, just in case.
Don't rely on your existing power adapters, as Japan's 100-volt power supply is different from North America, Europe and most other regions of the world. While North American and Japanese outlets and plugs might look interchangeable, they're not, owing to voltage differences (120-volt vs. 100-volt).
What's more, buying any necessary adapters before you leave for your trip will save the hassle of shopping for them once you arrive. Similarly, you'll likely pay more for the correct adapter on Japanese soil than you might at home. If you're traveling with friends or family, grab at least a couple to save the inevitable arguing over who's charging their iPhone at any given moment...
You don't need to go mad, as major credit and debit cards are widely accepted, however in Japan, cash is still king, so it's good to have physical money on your person. Grab your currency before you leave as you'll generally pay less for it at home than if you try to convert $, £ or € upon arrival.
Portable wifi or travel SIM card
Less of "something to pack" and more of "something to arrange before you leave." A reliable wifi or mobile data connection can be hard to find in Japan, and arranging some form of local SIM card on arrival can be tricky too.
Don't risk running up huge data charges on your usual carrier's network. Instead, ahead of your trip, arrange for a portable wifi router or travel SIM card to be delivered to the airport for collection, or straight to your accommodation, all configured and ready to go. You can find out more about our own range of pocket wifi devices available to rent here.
...and what NOT to pack for Japan
First of all – don't overpack.
Beyond daily essentials (such as clean clothes, contact lenses and cologne), travel essentials (for example passports, plane tickets, an eye mask, and earplugs), and gadgets (like your camera, tablet and all necessary chargers), it's way too easy to simply take too much with you.
Japan's transport infrastructure doesn't lend itself terribly well to lugging around huge suitcases or multiple pieces of luggage. With this in mind, pack as lightly as possible.
Pack anything very specific or hard to track down, but leave the shampoo, conditioner and deodorant at home. They take up large amounts of space in your luggage, not to mention the risk of spilling, and are widely and cheaply available at Japanese convenience stores, often under the same brands you'd find back home.
Furthermore, many hotels in Japan offer a wide range of complimentary toiletries, much better than what you'd usually get in North American or European hotels, so there's a good chance that everything you need will be waiting for you on arrival anyway.
Short-shorts or low-cut tops
As touched on already, the modest nature of the Japanese culture means you're unlikely to get much wear out of revealing clothing. Instead, leave such items at home and pack more practical clothes which will lend themselves to a number of different activities and weather conditions. That way, you're packing for all eventualities and still saving space in your suitcase for things you buy on your trip and wish to bring home.
If you're traveling with a baby, don't worry about bringing a huge supply of diapers. Much like toiletries, in Japan diapers are readily available from brands you'll recognize, so instead of traveling with them, taking up space in your luggage, pick some up when you arrive.
Do, however, pack ointment and baby toiletries, formula, and activities for slightly older kids, such as coloring books and crayons, as these are slightly more difficult to find in Japan.
Instead of carrying bulky dictionaries and guidebooks, use your smartphone or tablet. Thousands of websites and apps exist to help you on your trip, from taking care of translations and navigating Japan's complicated city streets, to finding things to do or places to eat.
You'll want to ensure you have a reliable internet connection in order to use your device, however, so be sure to arrange a portable wifi router ahead of your travels.
Make sure your passport and the passports of any other people traveling with you have a minimum of six months validity left, and at least one blank page, otherwise you face the risk of being refused entry into Japan.
International Drivers Permit
If you're planning on driving during any part of your stay, you'll need to apply for an International Drivers Permit before you travel. Your home country's respective Automobile Association will be able to advise you on the steps you need to take. You should expect to pay around $20 for a permit which will be valid for 12 months, both in Japan and a further 150 or so countries around the world.
Most people can visit Japan for up to 90 days as long as they do not plan to engage in paid work, including those from the USA, Canada, Mexico, UK, Australia, and New Zealand, to mention just a few.
Those traveling from parts of South America, most of Africa, and large parts of Asia, including China, India, Russia, and others, will, however, require a visa. As a result, if you're in any way unsure, it's definitely a good idea to check with the authorities well ahead of your anticipated travel date.
Potential lack of escalators and elevators
"Older" parts of the country, especially including Kyoto and Osaka, are also infamous for the lack of "barrier-free" provisions in older stations. You may find that you're stuck having to haul your luggage up and down a few flights of stairs, so it's a good idea to pack light enough for this.
Other than that, good luck packing and we'll see you in Japan!