Before this trip I wrote a post about how we made a very specific effort to pack light. I didn’t list out what we packed, but I made a mental note to revisit this topic later and talk about which things we brought that were most useful (perhaps unexpectedly), and which weren’t necessary at all. Some of these things were probably particularly useful because of the time of year (summer), and the activities that we were doing (traveling around a lot from place to place), so take all this with a grain of salt.
The most useful things we brought
- Sunbrella – The sun seems really intense in Japan. On days when it’s supposedly 75, it feels a lot hotter than it would in New York. I carried the sunbrella with me every day, and it was useful whether it was incredibly sunny, or there were sudden unexpected showers.
- Sunscreen – Again, I had to wear this every single day. But if you forget to bring enough, don’t worry – Japan is pretty serious about sunscreen. I don’t think I saw any that were less than 30 SPF, and most of them are at least 50 SPF. And they were a lot more pleasant than most of the ones I’ve gotten in America – less greasy and better smelling.
- USB Power Chargers – We were out for so long each day that we invariably needed to recharge our phones and pocket wifi sometime before going back to our lodging in the evening.
- Performance clothes – Even though most days we were just walking around cities, we brought a lot of clothes designed for hiking and biking, including socks and underwear made of merino wool. They were super comfortable, water resistant, quick drying, odor resistant, and generally really good for travel.
- Change purse – The smallest denomination of money that’s available in paper bills is ¥1000 – roughly $10. So, you end up with a lot of change almost all the time. Not convenient to just keep it in your pocket.
- Light-weight day pack – I thought I would mostly use this when we were hiking, but it was useful pretty much every day. I could throw my camera, my sunbrella, my shrine book, a parka, snacks, extra sunscreen, etc. into it and I felt I was ready for anything that we might encounter.
- Little fold-up nylon shopping bags – Also pretty handy. People in Japanese stores often like to give you a bag that exactly fits the thing you bought, so if you’re out and about for a day you can collect up a whole bunch of little bags. It’s good to have a bag to put all your smaller bags into.
Things we obtained in Japan that were also incredibly useful
Most of these are things we couldn’t have gotten before we left.
- Pocket Wifi – We rented this from Global Advanced Communications and it was totally worth it. I think it cost about $230 for 24 days, and we used it all day every day (except for the days we were on the Kumano Kodo trail, where the reception wasn’t so great). Not only for Instagram and checking in on Swarm, it was invaluable for maps and translations. The battery didn’t quite last the entire day, though, which is why we often needed to use our USB power things to recharge it.
- Sleeves – I thought this was just a funny style thing – women wearing a t-shirt and separate sleeves, like leg-warmers for your arms. Then one day my arms got sunburned, and the next day we went bike riding, and then I realized what they were for. We stopped in a store and bought a pair. Also, a sunhat.
- Suica card – This is a rechargeable card you can use to pay for several subway systems, as well as use it with some vending machines and in some convenience stores. It worked in every city and town we went to in Japan, and was incredibly handy. I wrote a short post about the Suica card when we first got to Japan.
- Shrine & temple seal book – I wrote a whole post about this too.
The things we brought but didn’t really need
- International Plug Adapters – Pretty much unnecessary. Japanese plugs are the same as any 2-pronged American plug. And since their electricity is 100 Volts, your 120 Volt devices should all be fine. You just can’t plug in 3-pronged plugs.
- Slippers – We went to Muji when we were getting things for the trip, and they had these foldable slippers that come in their own little cloth bag. I thought it would be cute to bring these with me. Turns out it was completely unnecessary, of course. Any place where you’re going to need to wear slippers will provide them to you.
- A tiny folded chair – I had heard about sitting Seiza style, and how painful it can be, and I realized we were not going to be able to do this very easily. So I bought this little chair-type thing that folds up to roughly the size of a small paperback book (see photo below). Turns out I really didn’t need it, because there are no places that expect Westerners to sit like this for any length of time. Even when we had dinner at a low table on tatami mats, there were cushions, back-supports and arm rests that sat on the floor for us to use.
- Some of our clothes – I tried to pack very little, and after I gathered up everything I thought I should take, I took out about 25% of my clothes and left them at home. It turns out I should have taken out 40-50%. I think there were three T-shirts that I never wore once, a long-sleeve shirt I never wore, and I could have gotten away with a few less pairs of socks and underwear since we had frequent opportunity to wash them. Because we were often staying in places where unpacking wasn’t really feasible, I couldn’t easily access things at the bottom of my suitcase, so I just tended to wear the shirts and pants that were close to the top. I only really needed 5 shirts, 3 pairs of pants, 1 pair of shorts, a dress, leggings, a parka, and a light-weight hoodie. 5-6 pairs of socks & underwear would probably have been fine. Plus, I could have used that extra luggage space to bring home more gifts and souvenirs!
- Rented Phone – In addition to the pocket wifi, we rented a feature phone with a local number, in case anyone needed to reach us or we needed to make a local call. I realized quickly that I didn’t want to give the number to anyone because if they called us and tried to speak Japanese to us, we wouldn’t know what to say. And we only used it to make a call three times. Aside from that it mostly sat it my purse and texted nonsense to random numbers because I didn’t know how to lock it. It was only about $88, but I’m pretty sure we could have gotten along fine without this.