Recently, I've been getting a lot of questions from guests via email about what they should be packing for their time in Japan. This sort of thing varies by season (it's always gonna be hotter and colder than you assume, trust me), but it got me thinking about some general advice that could go a long way when packing before joining us in Japan on one of our full or half day Kyoto tours.
So here are 5 things that you might want to consider bringing with you to Japan no matter what time of year you're going to be visiting in.
1. Comfortable shoes that are easy to remove
You're most likely going to be doing a lot of walking in Japan. Most historical sites and temples are quite old and don't feature even surfaces and modern conveniences like escalators or elevators. You'll encounter stairs and ramps - both stone and wooden - at most temples and shrines as well. Even if you plan to travel mostly by public transportation or private taxi, expect to spend a decent amount of time on your feet in Japan.
Comfortable shoes are a must here, but be careful about choosing your travel shoes. I meet numerous visitors who make the mistake of buying new kicks just for their vacation, and then have to walk around for a few days in a shoes that they haven't broken in yet! Also, some shoes that can withstand a little bit of water would be useful, as Japan can be wet and rainy year round. Finally, since the Japanese are obsessive about taking their shoes of indoors, bring some shoes that are easy to slip on and off. I usually take my shoes off half a dozen times on a day visiting temples and shrines in Kyoto, and having to stop and retie your laces each time is a real hassle.
2. Cash... specifically Japanese yen.
Japan is still very much a cash-based society. Credit cards are accepted at most hotels and fine dining establishments, but good luck trying to pay with card at a local handicraft shop or traditional market. It's not uncommon for Japanese people to carry the equivalent of several hundred US dollars in yen on them at all times. This was a big change that I had to get used to when I moved here, and I was constantly running out of cash after getting used ot just using debit cards always back in my home country.
Changing money can be inconvenient here, as it's not always easy to find a bank or exchange office. Instead either exchange your money back home before arriving, or use ATMs here to get yen. 7-11 convenience store ATMs will accept almost any foreign cards, and the charges for international transactions at 7-11 are minimal. Japan is a very safe country, so don't worry about carrying all that cash around!
Bringing certain foreign medicine into Japan can be risky (more on that in a sec), but most common over the counter stuff might come in handy while traveling here. Walking in to a Japanese pharmacy when you don't feel well is a daunting task, most shop clerks don't speak English, and being given a box of something to take when you can't read the labels can be quite scary. Stopping into a convenience store to pick up some simple medicine isn't really possible here, as you usually have to go to a pharmacy or drug store for even something as basic as aspirin.
Common medicine like aspirin, Tylenol, and generic pain relievers are quite weak in Japan (I usually have to take a double dose to feel any effect), and sometimes they simply don't do anything. I've found the same thing with allergy medicine. if you suffer from seasonal allergies, you might want to consider bringing over a few pills in case the pollen here hits you hard. Allegra and Claritin are available over the counter here, and there are all sorts of other Japanese medicine for allergies. Something to help your stomach in case Japanese food doesn't agree with you might be a good idea as well.
But be careful when carrying medicine into Japan. There are strict regulations on some medicines that are considered common over the counter brands like Benadryl or Vicks in other countries. For example, most of the cold medicines pictures above are not allowed in Japan, but a few of them are. Some prescription medicines as well need to be accompanied by a special doctor's note when you go through customs. You can read some more information about this here, and a few minutes on google should help you find out if your particular medicine is allowed to be carried into Japan. If you think you might need to take something to get you through your vacation, bring it but do the research first!
4. A pillow
Huh? A pillow? Don't they have those in Japanese hotels? Well, yeah they do, but they usually are terrible, especially if you're picky about where you lay your head at night.
Japanese hotel pillows tend to be very firm. Sometimes they are even filled with little beans or microbeads that are not only very hard, but quite noisy as they slide around under your head! Other hotels try to show off their luxury by providing overly fluffy and very tall pillows that strain your neck. It might not seem like a big deal to you now, but the possibility of ruining your vacation with poor sleep and a constant stiff neck is not a risk most travelers want to take.
Bottom line is this: if you are at all picky about pillows, consider bringing your own. You can get travel sized or even inflatable pillows at most travel shops or even at the airport before takeoff. If you're reading this on the plane on the way over, steal the little pillow they gave you on the airplane! You'll be thankful you have a backup when you see what some places expect you to sleep on here!
5. Printouts of your hotel reservations and travel plans
Japan is getting better with public wifi, but don't expect to be connected everywhere. I've heard plenty of stories of travelers who can't access the train ticket info or directions to their hotel they've bookmarked on their phone because of the lack of wifi.
Simple solution: print this stuff out! Not only is this a foolproof way to avoid electronic debacles, but having a paper with your name and reservation number on it works wonders at check in desks where staff members don't speak English and communication is difficult. Looking up Japanese addresses is notoriously hit or miss, so print out the map ahead of time and show it to a local if you get lost. It might seem old fashioned, but better to be prepared with paper than lost with a cellphone with no service.
Some of those five items might have got you reconsidering your packing for Japan. Well, I don't mean to make you unpack that suitcase and start rearranging things, but here are 3 items that you do NOT need to bring to Japan:
1. Pajamas and a toothbrush
This sounds crazy at first, but hear me out. Almost every Japanese hotel will provide you with pajamas to sleep in, and many take it step further and give you an actual yukata robe to wear around. (This can usually be worn as you walk to the public bath in the hotel, but avoid wearing your robe into the lobby and restaurant areas). I've yet to stay in a hotel here where they don't offer sleepwear of some kind, so leave the PJs at home!
Almost all hotels will include a toothbrush and toothpaste set in the bathroom as well. Some casual places might charge you a few hundred yen for it, but you will never have to worry about having to go without a proper dental scrubbing in Japanese hotels.
2. An umbrella
Even if you have a favorite umbrella that's accompanied you throughout your travels, leave it at home and save the suitcase space. As wet as it is here most of the year, you don't need it. Most large hotels will provide guests with umbrellas at the front desk, or you can pick up a surprisingly sturdy cheap one at any convenience store. At the end of your trip, leave it in one of the umbrella stands outside a convenience store for someone who gets caught in the rain in a pinch (we've all been there).
With all the hustle and bustle on the trains here (especially in Tokyo) and the massive clumps of umbrellas people leave in umbrella stands outside of buildings, there's a good chance your umbrella is going to get forgotten or misplaced along the way. Opt for a 500 yen convenience store umbrella instead of a fancy one from home.
3. Closemindedness and unreal expectations
Yeah I know, this isn't something you can "pack" but it's sure something that some visitors find ways to bring over with them. Wherever you're coming from, when you get to Japan you're in a different world. It's going to be unlike anything you've experienced before, and it might get a little weird or uncomfortable. Maybe even a tad stressful.
Ok, maybe VERY stressful.
But remember that it's you who should be adapting to what is going on around you. You've come to another countryto experience something different, and you have to learn to go with the flow to a certain extent. Just because the staff at a hotel or shop can't communicate with you properly about something that is a big deal to you doesn't mean they're not trying hard (I see this one all the time). Be patient and remember that they're doing their best and working with a language barrier, and that what might be a big issue to you is something they place little importance on in Japan. Be mindful that what you think is a simple request can snowball here into a massive ordeal for Japanese people (you'll see what I mean if you try to make a menu substitution at a restaurant). Learn to be flexible and take things as they come, and you'll enjoy your vacation here all that much more.
In the same sense, keep you expectations about Japan open as well. Upon arrival, you might find it's not the land of Hello Kitties and geisha and samurais on every street that you expected, but that doesn't mean you still can't have an adventure here. If you are interested in traditional Japan and someone invites you to the modern art museum, go check it out anyway! Break out of your cultural comfort zones and experience all Japan has to offer. There's so much to explore and discover here outside of what you might be expecting that you're bound to find some interesting new experiences if you broaden your expectations a bit.
Alright, zip up that suitcase and hop on the plane... because you're ready to come to Japan! Be sure to experience all Kyoto has to offer with a tour from KyoTours Japan. Read all about what makes our tours special and check out our full tour listings, and then follow us on Facebook and Instagram to see some of the sites that await you in this beautiful city.
See you in Kyoto!