Everything you need to know about packing for a trip to Japan
It’s one of the most dazzling countries on the planet, with a landscape that stretches from remote volcanic peaks to ancient sea shrines and neon cities of the future. Japan is a place where you can try everything; be it ninja fighting, hot spring bathing or foodie feasts in a labyrinth of eclectic restaurants and street stalls.
So, how to prepare for a trip to this land of a thousand contrasts? There are two things to bear in mind when packing for Japan. First, less is more. This is the birthplace of the minimalist movement; hotels are small, train travel is ubiquitous. You’ll want to be light and nimble on your feet, so beware overpacking.
Secondly, shopping in Japan is second-to-none: whether you’re looking at electronic giants, indy boutiques or super-malls that stretch for miles. If you forget to pack anything, you can simply buy it on the move.
Without further ado, here’s what you’ll need (or sate your appetite with a look at Flash Pack’s Japan adventure right here):
What to pack for Japan – at a glance:
- Flight tickets
- Local currency cash
- Credit/debit cards
- Important numbers
- A compact suitcase or backpack and day pack
- Other electronics and chargers
- Travel adaptor if needed
- Kindle or books
- Toiletries, including high SPF suncream
- Refillable water bottle
Layers are your friend here!
- Loose cotton tees and long-sleeved tops
- Light jacket, a fleece or lightweight jumpers, pashmina
- Activewear and waterproof trousers for hiking etc.
- Jeans, shorts/nicer clothes for city exploring
- Trainers/sturdy trekking shoes with a good tread
- Sandals/shoes for city walkabouts
- Swimwear if you’re heading for the beach
- If you’re travelling in winter: a warm jacket, thick socks, scarves/gloves/beanie hat
- Prepaid SIM card
- An RFID blocking holder for credit/debit cards
- A prepaid smart card for travel/eating out
- Japan Rail Pass
- Japan travel apps
- Downloaded playlist
- Handheld fan
- Compact travel towel
- Extension cable
- Long-haul flight heroes: eye mask, neck pillow, noise-cancelling headphones
- An evening outfit for going out in the cities
- A sarong, for onsens
Other Japan information in this article:
- The climate in Japan
- Vaccinations for Japan
- Booking hotels in Japan
- Tipping in Japan
What to pack for Japan – essentials:
No matter where you’re coming from, you’ll need a valid passport for the duration of your stay in Japan. You should also carry your passport with you wherever you go, and store a photo of the inside ID page in your phone and on email in case you lose it.
Bring a passport holder, too: you can store your important documents in the back, so everything is in one place and you have less to keep track of.
Visas for Japan
You won’t need a visa if you’re travelling to Japan from the UK, North America, Australia, New Zealand and much of Europe – covering a total of 68 countries. Citizens from these places will be granted permission for a short-term stay visa (a 90-day stay) on arrival in Japan. See here for countries that fall outside of this group, and which require a visa in advance.
To be granted a short-term visa on arrival in Japan, you’ll be photographed and fingerprinted. You may also be asked for proof of onward travel (your departure flight). It’s illegal to carry out paid work on a short-term stay visa: it’s for tourism purposes only.
Bring a physical copy of your flight tickets as well as having them on your phone: that way, you’re covered no matter what.
Insurance for Japan
You’ll need valid travel insurance throughout your stay in Japan, covering loss/thefts, medical emergencies and cancellations. Most providers will email details of your cover to you, so you have it safely stored. It’s a good idea to have a contact number for your insurer saved on your phone, too, in order to reach them quickly if needed.
Currency and cash
Japanese yen is used throughout the country, in bills of 1,000 yen (around nine US dollars), 2,000 yen, 5,000 yen and 10,000 yen, and coins of 1 yen, 5 yen, 10 yen, 50 yen, and 500 yen.
You can exchange currency at all major airports, banks and large hotels. Cash is used a lot in Japan so it’s good to have some handy at all times, especially if you’re travelling to smaller towns or villages. It’s also worth bringing a purse to store your small change in.
Save some case for the end of your trip: visitors to Japan pay a departure tax of 1,000 yen which goes towards the country’s infrastructure.
Credit and debit cards
Credit and debit cards tend to be accepted throughout Japan; however, you can’t always use them for short-distance trains or subway fares. ATMs are widely available in convenience stores, supermarkets, train stations and post offices in Japan. Be aware that they often charge for withdrawing money abroad and they don’t all stay open 24 hours. Services are available in English.
Think about bringing a spare credit card that you store separately, in case you lose your wallet. You can also store your cards in an RFID blocking holder, to keep them safe from contactless fraud.
Medication for Japan
Bear in mind that you can easily buy everyday basics such as painkillers or plasters over the counter in Japanese pharmacies, but you might want to bring a few essentials.
Don’t forget any prescription meds, along with your prescription. If you have a medical condition or allergy that requires particular attention, bring along a doctor’s letter that describes the nature of the condition and the treatment needed.
Important numbers for Japan
In Japan, you call 110 for the police, and 119 for fire and ambulance services. In the event of an emergency, you can also seek help from your embassy.
Japan National Tourism Organization operates a 24-hour helpline for tourists on 050-3816-2787. This provides both tourism information and emergency help for visitors.
Remember to bring a toll-free international number for your credit/debit card and mobile phone providers, in case you need to cancel either from abroad. Also store numbers for your local embassy in Japan, along with contact details for your insurance and flight providers.
Luggage for Japan
Bring a day bag for hiking and other expeditions, along with one compact suitcase or backpack. Bullet trains are the quickest and easiest way of getting around Japan, so try to go lightweight for your larger piece of luggage – you don’t want to be hauling something huge on and off platforms the whole time.
Japan has a strong minimalist culture, and its traditional inns, as well as the city hotels, are generally small spaces. You’ll be best off if you hone down your belongings as much as possible, siphoning off any unnecessary extras. Rest assured, Japanese shopping is fantastic – if you forget anything, you’ll likely be able to buy it out there, too.
What to pack for Japan – accessories:
Japan is positively brimming with fabulous photo opps, from blush-pink cherry blossom to enchanting temples and dynamic city landscapes. You might be happy to using your phone’s camera but if you have a DSLR hanging around and are keen to use it, here lies your golden opportunity.
Other electronics and gadgets
Take a Kindle along for the flight, train journeys and stretching out in Japan’s many places of sanctuary (check out some great Japan-inspired reading right here). Beyond that, a mobile phone loaded with a local SIM and apps will likely cover you.
Unless you think you’ll really need a laptop/ipad, consider leaving them behind. Going without is a good chance to unplug and truly immerse yourself in this magnificent country. Plus, the more valuables you bring along, the more stress you have in keeping track of everything (especially if it’s linked to your work).
As above: and don’t forget a guidebook or two if that’s your thing, too.
Travel adapter and chargers
UK and European visitors will need a travel adapter to use electronic devices in Japan, but this isn’t necessary for those travelling from North America.
Don’t forget a phone charger. Japanese bullet trains have charging outlets by window seats that you can request on booking. Charging outlets are also available at some of Japan’s larger restaurant chains.
You can pick up conversion plugs, chargers and transformers in Japan, too. Head for electronic quarters such as Toyko’s Akihabara or Osaka’s Nipponbashi, or a retail giant like Bic Camera.
Remember to bring chargers for all your electronics.
Toiletries for Japan
For the basics, you’ll need deodorant, a toothbrush, toothpaste and hand gel. Also any personal toiletries such as a hairbrush, razors etc. Hydrating spray and an eco-friendly version of wet wipes, such as bamboo cleansing cloths, are also a good idea.
High SPF sunscreen and lip balm with SPF is a must to protect yourself, especially during Japan’s scorchingly hot summers and if you’ll be quite exposed (e.g. with hiking).
Refillable water bottle
A reusable water bottle will be useful throughout your trip, from the plane journey to city excursions and beyond. Plus, you’ll be doing your bit to ward off the damage of plastic waste (see more on The Flash Pack Foundation for positive change in travel here).
What to pack for Japan – clothes:
What to wear in Japan depends when you visit and whereabouts you go.
What to wear in summer in Japan
While summers in Japan are swelteringly hot and humid, winter brings snow to the northern provinces – make sure you pack according to the season.
For summer travel, bring loose t-shirts, shorts/cotton trousers, sunglasses, a sunhat and a lightweight raincoat for frequent rainy season downpours. It gets a little cooler during the evenings, so you’ll also want long-sleeved tops or a fleece.
What to wear in winter in Japan
For winter travel in Japan, especially up north, you’ll need a warm layered jacket, sweaters, thick socks and gloves/scarves/woolen hats. You can pick up any of these things on the move, too, from Japan’s excellent shopping districts.
What to wear in spring and autumn in Japan
For spring/autumn travel in Japan, layers will be your friend – and these are generally a good idea in Japan no matter what the season. Cotton tees, long-sleeved tops, light jackets and thin jumpers will all help with adapting to the varied climate. Layers will also help with travel on Japan’s bullet trains, which can get chilly due to the air con.
What to wear for hiking in Japan
For hiking or kayaking in the mountain regions, bring a lightweight rain jacket, waterproof trousers and a series of breathable cotton tops. You don’t have to have full hiking boots, but sturdy trekking shoes with a good tread are a must.
What to wear for city exploring in Japan
Something a bit nicer but still practical is good for mooching around Japan’s intoxicating cities: think jeans or shorts, tees and trainers/sandals. You can end up wandering for miles, so you need something you’ll be comfortable in. Footwear with good tread is a must. Make sure this is closed-toe if you’re travelling during colder seasons.
What to wear in Japan – culture and customs
Japanese style tends to be simple and modern, with a kick of creative flair. If you want to try out Japan’s famous onsens, take a sarong. The hot springs ritual is same-sex and usually people go naked – but a sarong is useful to have if you want to lie out somewhere nearby (plus it doubles up as a pillow on the plane = win).
What to wear for nightlife in Japan
Planning on hitting up the nightlife? It’s quite a dressy affair in Japan. Get set to roll out your heels/jackets/sequins if that’s your thing – it won’t go unappreciated.
What to wear in Japan – recap:
- Flexible layers: loose cotton tees, long-sleeved tops, light scarves
- Something warmer: light jacket, a fleece or thin jumpers
- Activewear: waterproof trousers, breathable tops for hiking etc.
- City wear: nicer jeans/shorts and tops for city exploring
- Sturdy trainers: or trekking shoes with a good tread
- Sandals/shoes: for city walkabouts
- Swimwear: if you’re heading for the beach/hotel pools
- Sarong: for onsen visits
- An evening outfit: optional, for city nightlife
- Winter travel: a warm jacket, thick socks, scarves/gloves/beanie hat
What to pack for Japan – useful extras:
Prepaid SIM cards for phone data
A prepaid Japan SIM card means you can easily use your phone while you’re out and about without clocking up huge charges. Some plans include voice calling but really this is about being able to access Google Maps and other useful data services while you’re on the move and outside the realms of hotel/restaurant wi-fi.
Shop around to see what deals will suit you best: many providers do free shipping worldwide, so you can have your SIM card sent to you ahead of time – and get up and running with data as soon as you land. Alternatively, you can arrange to have it delivered to an airport kiosk, post office or hotel in Japan.
If you haven’t had time to plan ahead, you can also buy SIM cards direct from airports in Japan, or in gadget stores such as BIC Camera and Yodobashi Camera. Check out more info on prepaid Japan SIM Cards here.
Prepaid smart cards
To make your life easy and avoid carrying lots of cash with you, think about purchasing a contactless smart card such as Suica or Pasmo once you’re in Japan.They’re a really convenient way to get around and will save you lots of time.
Prepaid cards are widely used on public transport networks in Japan, including trains, buses and subways. They’re also accepted at an increasing number of convenience stores, vending machines and restaurants.
You may not need this option if you’re travelling with Flash Pack, as transport is organised for you. But it will come in useful for independent travel or if you’re planning on extending your trip.
There are 10 major smart cards in Japan, and what you buy depends on what region you’re in. Suica cards are only sold in and around Tokyo, Sendai and Niigata. In Osaka and Kyoto, you’ll need an ICOCA card. Find out everything you need to know about Japan smart cards here.
You can purchase the cards from ticket vending machines at stations across Japan, and the Suica card is available as a handy app, too.
Japan Rail Pass
Please note you won’t need to buy a railcard on any Flash Pack trip, as all train journeys will be prepaid and organised for you.
However, if you’re planning on extending your stay, or are travelling outside of Flash Pack, it’s a good idea to purchase a Japan Rail Pass (commonly called the JR Pass). These are exclusively available to foreign tourists, and offer great discounts on long-distance JR train journeys for one, two or three-week periods.
You’ll need to purchase a Japan Rail Pass online or at a travel agent ahead of your trip. You’ll be given a voucher that you can exchange for the pass itself within three months of purchase once you’re inside Japan. You can also purchase the pass direct inside Japan at major airports and train stations, but you’ll have to pay a higher fee.
It’s still worth buying a Suica or Pasmo card, since they operate in different ways to the JR Pass: the smart cards don’t offer a discount, they just make travel itself more seamless by storing credit. They also work in places that the JR Pass doesn’t (e.g. certain metro stations and bus routes).
Long-haul flight heroes
No matter where you’re coming from, you’ll likely have a long-ish flight to Japan – pave the way for a smooth, easy journey.
A sleep mask, ear plugs and a neck pillow will help you to relax, along with a decent pair of noise-cancelling headphones. Eye drops, moisturizer and chewing gum will keep you feeling fresh on the other end. Also bring along high-protein snacks such as cereal bars to stave off the munchies between meals.
Remember to prepack any carry-on toiletries in a clear, reusable ziploc bag so you can breeze through security without having to faff around. Find out more about how to pack the ultimate carry-on here.
Japan travel apps
There are a number of apps to load up on that’ll make your travels roll smoothly in Japan:
HyperDia is a timetable and route search app that’ll allow you to quickly plan your train journeys across Japan. Figure out the best connections and buy tickets.
Gurunavi lets you track down Japan’s best restaurants in your area and filter them according to whether you’re looking for sushi, BBQs, beer halls etc. You can also check out menus and make reservations.
Sushi Dictionary allows you to interpret even the most obscure sushi dishes, and provides background info on each.
Google Translate will serve you well on the language front, especially with its camera function to read and automatically translate signs. The language app Yomiwa is also useful for this purpose.
Google and Apple Pay can be hooked up to your Japan smart card (above) so you can easily keep track of what you’re spending and top up funds when needed. Again, this’ll help cut down on the amount of cash you need to take around.
Tokyo Subway Navigation will help you plan ahead and find your way around one of the world’s largest subway systems.
Ms. Green is a fun, manga-inspired app that’ll introduce you to Japan’s many cultures and customs.
Google Maps and TripAdvisor, for obvious reasons.
Other useful accessories
Many people carry small workout towels with them during humid summer months to cool off; you may want to follow suit. A handheld fan might be useful for the same reason. Don’t forget to download some good tunes onto your phone if that’s your thing, for a custom playlist to see you through transfers/relaxed evenings. Bringing an extension cable will allow you to charge multiple devices with one adaptor. A packing cube for all your chargers might also be a good call, along with a canvas laundry bag.
Other Japan information:
The climate in Japan
Japan’s climate varies dramatically, depending on when and where you go. Spring is generally cool and breezy, with clear, sunny days and the start of the cherry blossom season. The rainy season kicks in at the beginning of summer in late May/early June, bringing with it swelteringly hot and humid weather (especially in major cities; mountain regions are cooler).
Autumn brings with it an awesome swirl of forest colours, starting in the northern island of Hokkaido in late September and moving through south, ending in early December. Fall in Japan is cool, sunny and a great time to get out and about. Temperatures then plummet doing winter proper from Jan-early March, heralding the start of ski season and powdery snow in Japan’s northern regions.
Vaccinations for Japan
Routine vaccines should be up-to-date, and you may be offered a tetanus or MMR booster prior to travelling to Japan. Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B and Japanese Encephalitis vaccinations may also be advised depending on where and how long you’re staying. For rare, specific scenarios (such as adventure caving), you may also consider a Rabies vaccination.
Visit your doctor or a travel clinic around eight weeks before departure for more information. Check up-to-date health advice on via your country’s government or embassy website. If you’re pregnant, you should consult your doctor for specialised advice before travel.
Booking hotels in Japan
If you’re travelling on a Flash Pack trip, your hotels will be organised for you. Otherwise, you should do your homework and plan ahead to make sure you get the best deals. Japan is a popular travel destination and hotels book up quickly, especially in major cities.
Staying in a Japanese ryokan (a traditional inn with a hot spring, or onsen) is an experience not to be missed. Book a Japanese-style room with tatami mats, hanging scrolls, tea sets and many other beautiful features for a full taste of this tradition that dates back centuries in Japan.
Tipping in Japan
There’s no tipping culture in Japan, and there’s no need to tip at restaurants, bars or hotels, or when you’re using taxis.
The only situation tipping may be appropriate (although not expected) is with a private guide or interpreter. Always use an envelope for tipping: you can purchase these at convenience stores.