10 Tokyo Travel Light Tips
If you read Planepack (www.planepack.com.au), you will know that I am passionate about traveling and flying light. Since 2010, I’ve flown long haul with carry on luggage only. I do not check in anything. All it takes to travel light is foresight, preparation and clever packing. It also helps to follow Planepack’s tips:
Tip #1: Your bag
My first essential light travel tip is: do not travel with a big suitcase. Even if you cannot slim down to 7 kgs carry on, please travel with the smallest bag possible. There are many benefits for traveling light: no waiting for bags when you reach your destination; you can get in and out of public transport and hotels easily; you are flexible when changing travel plans; limiting your wardrobe makes dressing decisions easier; you can lift, carry and run with your own bags — no need to rely on someone to help you — and more! Some of my observations in Tokyo:
It’s challenging to fit large bags in trains.
I caught the Narita Express train from Narita Airport to Tokyo and my carry on bag fitted into the overhead rack with ease. Other passengers were not that lucky: they travelled for an hour and fifteen minutes with their large bags at their knees — not a comfortable way to start your holiday. I’m sure there must be a place to store large suitcases on the train, but I didn’t need to find it. Traveling with a small, light suitcase makes getting in and out of Tokyo trains and subway easy.
It’s challenging to fit large bags in hotel rooms.
I stayed in three different hotels and the rooms were much smaller than Australian rooms. In one case the double bed was flush against the wall with very little space on the other side, so I scrambled to get in and out of bed, never mind finding space for a large case. I lifted and stored my bag on a shelf on top of the wardrobe nook. Normally when I travel I like to unpack my clothes, but this wardrobe only had hanging space — so my clothes lived in my bag. If I’d had a heavy or larger bag, it wouldn’t have fitted in that space.
Restaurants are small.
If you’re at a railway station having lunch, it’s challenging taking a large suitcase. When I travelled from Kyoto to Tokyo, I parked my bag at the restaurant entrance — along with the child strollers. Carrying a smaller bag was more considerate towards others. In Tokyo, the locals are so courteous, I wanted to return their kindness.
I travel with minimal toiletries. I advise light travelers to buy any further toiletries on the other side to avoid the possibility of having your cosmetics dumped at customs. Remember you can carry only 100 ml containers through customs.
But don’t worry, all the Tokyo hotels — those that I stayed at — have excellent
- quality soap
- hair conditioner
- complimentary toothpaste, ear buds, shower caps, face cloths
As an aside, I had heard that Japanese toilets are a little unusual. Once I got to Tokyo, I thought the toilets were terrific and was soon using the variety of water sprays with gusto. I particularly liked the heated seats (wish we had those in Canberra). Be aware you might need to squat at some of the more remote toilet facilities, but every toilet was spotlessly clean and had toilet paper.
Tip #2: Pack light
The essence of light travel — and therefore my second light travel tip — is to pack light. To do that, prepare and plan your wardrobe. I’ve written about packing light at Planepack. In Tokyo, I travelled during summer, so I found it exceptionally easy to travel light.
During the day, I wore one of my three t-shirts together with short track pants. I rotated this wardrobe over the 10 day stay. Most of the Japanese tourists were conservatively or modestly dressed — so I didn’t ever wear my very short shorts!
In the evenings I swapped my short track pants for my long, lightweight pants and a top that looked a little smarter than my day wear t-shirts. I also took a light wrap — in case of cooler nights.
You don’t need to pack a nightgown or slippers as you get pyjamas and slippers in the hotel rooms. There was nothing better than shrugging off my sweaty t-shirt and pants before slipping into the cool, cotton pajamas for an afternoon nap.
All of the hotels I stayed at had coin-operated laundries so washing my clothes was cheap and easy.
Tip #3: Wear comfortable shoes
Every day I visited one or more shrines, temples, parks or lookouts. I even walked up a mountain (in Kyoto). I hiked through subways, railway stations — and of course the shops. My Stepz app clocked me as walking an average of 12 kilometres per day. That’s a lot of walking! Consequently, my third travel tip is to wear comfortable shoes.
I’ve been wearing Merrell walking shoes for a few years. For this trip, I had originally planned to take only my light, black Merrell walking shoes as they go with everything, both day and night. But at the last moment I decided to travel in my stouter walking shoes — and pack the day shoes in my bag. Luckily I made that decision as I wore the stouter shoes over a range of terrains: pavements, cobbled streets, pathways, bush walks.
Wear good socks with your walking shoes — don’t wear anything that will chafe your feet, especially in the heat. A side mention here: I wore compression socks (knee-highs) on the flight in and out of Japan — and never experienced any swelling of my ankles or feet.
I didn’t pack any sandals — I thought I might buy some in Japan, but never did.
I can’t stress enough the importance of wearing broken-in shoes — rather than new ones specially purchased for the trip. It’s all about comfort!
I know that some light travelers like to wear dressier shoes in the evening. I believe that you can get away with your black street shoes — no one ever notices your feet! Unless of course your trip requires you to wear an evening dress . . .
Tip #4: Leave your references at home
It’s a good idea to research Tokyo — blogs, websites, books — making notes, charting your course and researching places to visit. You might build up a file of notes, some handwritten and a few print outs. What to do with those? In previous years, I used to buy travel guides that I carried with me — not any more. My fourth travel light tip is to research first, and then leave your (heavy) reference books at home.
Photograph anything you need — references, coordinates, hotel details — and capture those on your phone.
Use the photos app as well as your calendar for booking details. I jot down information in my notes app: it’s easy to search across it even when you’re offline.
I used Google Maps all the time, not just for directions, but also timetables, places of interest and restaurant reviews. In a few instances I also pulled out my compass app — very useful when underground in the subway, needing to find the a specific — northern! — exit.
Japanese language app
Prior to our trip, I was fortunate to spend time with my Japanese/English language buddy. He gave me tips about Japan as well as a few language exercises, which I tried to memorise. If you’re keen to learn more than a few words of Japanese — and I travelled successfully with the barest of communication skills — there are Japanese language apps, like ‘Learn Japanese’. But it’s easier and quicker to make yourself understood with sign language. Every Japanese person that I appealed to for directions went out of their way to help me.
Follow the signs
The Japanese subways, train stations and airports have the best directional signage I have ever seen. You’d be hard pressed to get lost anywhere. The only mistake I ever made was to catch an express train that didn’t stop at my station — it was a bit daunting to see my station flash past — but about five stations further down the track I exited that train and caught the next one back in my direction.
All major signs, directions, instructions and maps are available in English as well as Japanese.
Tip #5: Be prepared for the heat
I visited Japan in July to escape a few days of the Canberra winter. Friends and family who’d been to Japan warned that it would be wet and humid at that time of year. We didn’t have any rain for 10 days, but it was fairly humid (not as bad as Vietnam a couple of years ago). I did get quite hot and dehydrated so my fifth light travel tip is to prepare yourself for the heat and humidity.
I appreciated the excellent rest rooms at all public venues: clean toilets and wash basins; soap and running water at all of them. At the shrines I enjoyed communal water fountains where you catch the water in long-handled cups — oh so deliciously cool to tip that cold water over your hands, neck and face. But none of the rest rooms have paper towels (Japan is incredibly clean and tidy and there are no street bins — so take your rubbish back to the hotel with you.) My advice is to purchase a small face towel and do like the locals do: wipe your hands, face and brow everytime you need to. Good to mop up the perspiration or water. Some of the locals drape a small towel around their neck: excellent for keeping cool when visiting shrines.
While in Japan, I discovered the delight of using a parasol. Like the locals, both men and women, I twirled my light, foldable sunshade to protect me from the Japanese sun. I bought my umbrella in case of rain, but I used it as a parasol every day, at shrines and gardens where I walked long distances in the sun.
I had packed in a soft, wide-brimmed hat that I wore on our first day in Tokyo. Once I’d bought my parasol, I gave up on the hat: it made my head hotter than using the parasol, which allowed the light breezes to cool my hair and head.
I carried bottled water with me everywhere. I found the humidity uncomfortable — and slightly embarrassing to be the only red-faced person huffing and puffing through Tokyo; none of the locals seemed affected.
Tip #6: Leave a big camera at home
I’m a keen street photographer: I like to capture moments — and people — in the streets, at shrines, shopping, eating, walking and talking. My sixth light travel tip is to use your smartphone as a camera.
In the old days, we used to travel with a camera each plus a video camera (and all those chargers, bags and other paraphernalia). These days, Mr Petman and I each have an iPhone — and that’s it.
While I would use a tripod for flatlays at home, I would not recommend traveling with one — unless it’s a very small, lightweight collapsible one. I saw a few intrepid photographers carrying and using tripods at shrines. They battled to negotiate these pointy objects through the crowds. It’s challenging to set up a tripod, particularly where walking space is confined, with swarms of people all around you.
Leave a big camera at home: it’s bulky, heavy and takes up a lot of packing space. Having said that, Japan does offer the professional photographer gorgeous vistas, buildings and subjects for photography. So if your trip is all about photography, then it’s worthwhile to take your camera.
Tip #7: Use wi-fi for internet access
I think it would be very challenging these days to travel without communication tools and social media. My seventh light travel tip is to ensure you have internet access when overseas.
My preferred way is to use wi-fi wherever possible. Buying international data roaming from Australia is expensive. Purchasing a mobile overseas means switching mobile numbers. I prefer to access wi-fi at the hotels — and all hotels I stayed at included wi-fi in the price. You can usually access free wi-fi at public places, but the speeds are not always the best.
Portable wi-fi routers
I was lucky that a friend lent me his portable wi-fi router (with a Japanese wall plug/adaptor). This neat little gadget fitted comfortably in my hand bag so I used it all the time when out and about. There is a huge variety of portable wi-fi hotspot routers on the market. I would highly recommend using one to access the internet when you travel, whether in Japan or elsewhere.
The main advantage of traveling with just one device — in my case I used only my iPhone7 — is that I only needed one charger/adapter/cord. That’s a change from the old days when we travelled with tangled wires and cords — another benefit of travelling light. All the Japanese hotels where I stayed have USB points throughout the rooms. This makes it easy to recharge your phone next to your bed while catching up on Facebook and Instagram.
Tip #8: Light shopping only
Japan is a mecca for electronic goods: cameras, phones, TVs — but also well known for steel products like knives. The workmanship is exquisite and I believe the shops will post your knives to your home address as you cannot transport sharp objects in your carry on luggage. In the spirit of Planepack and travel light, here are a few ideas for light purchases:
Japanese paper is beautiful and world renown. The paper shops have a fine selection of notepads, writing papers, gift cards and other stationery. These gorgeous papers also make excellent gift wrap back home. It’s worth it to buy products just to see how beautifully the shop assistants wrap them. Paper folding is an art in Japan.
I learnt that there are different lengths of chopsticks: the salesperson used a chart to measure my grip size — and of course there are chopsticks in every colour, texture and style. I bought a pair of lacquered and polished wood chopsticks — with a small design on the wood — packaged in their own little textile wrap.
You can buy small cloths — in traditional and modern patterns — to use as wraps for anything: presents, food, transporting small objects — and the shop assistants will guide you on how to fold and wrap the cloths.
I was warned before traveling in Japan that ATMs are not as prevalent as they are in Australia. — most places use cash. But you can find ATMs in the convenience stores like Family Mart, 7-Eleven and Lawsons.
Talking of convenience stores brings me to vending machines, available at all railway stations and most street corners. These are useful for purchasing bottled water, beer and snacks. I’d been advised to purchase a Suica or PASMO transport card, which one can use at all the vending machines. As I couldn’t decide between these or the other cards on offer, I elected to use cash instead. Every vending machine and railway ticket outlet takes cash and they are extremely easy to use.
Tip #9: Try all the food
I think eating in Japan deserves its own post. The food is truly exquisite and there is so much to choose from. My ninth light travel tip is to try all the food. It’s light, tasty, beautiful to the eye — and if you go to the right restaurant, you will have the added pleasure of engaging with the proprietor.
I had read that some of the best eating in Japan is to be had at the railway stations. I imagined these to be small, poky, dim little places. What a surprise then to discover the railway station food halls. They are modern, brightly lit, full of all kinds of shops (Gucci, Prada and Fendi included) and with aisles dedicated to restaurants.
Explore these restaurants, choosing the cuisine — like the other diners — based on pictures. Every restaurant has a menu at the door — usually in Japanese and English — showing off their delightful foods. Some go even further and have plastic replicas of the meals in the restaurant windows. Plastic replicas sounds strange, but there’s a whole industry of plastic foods in Japan.
For me, the best eating experience was at the city street restaurants. I enjoyed peering into tiny premises, ducking under the fluttering cloths, to enter a tiny establishment, directed to the counter seating by the proprietor’s daughter. This was where I had what I imagine is the real Japanese cuisine. And what experiences those were: from my favorite sushi to chicken gizzards (not my best meal). I tried as much as I could manage in four days, but I doubt I even scratched the surface. I’ll have to go back for more!
Tip #10: Explore more of Japan
My tenth light travel tip is to explore the cities and country. As I went for 10 days only, I spent four days in Tokyo and six days in Kyoto, but travel in Japan is easy.
I elected not to buy the Japanese Railway (JR) pass, which is effective if you intend to use the train quite a lot between many Japanese cities and destinations. I limited my stay to two cities and only caught the Bullet Train once. If I’d bought the JR pass, I believe the cost of that trip would have been included in the fare. I think the transport/railway tickets is dependent upon what you want to see and do while in Japan.
I used city transport: the subway, trains and busses (and taxis a couple of times). In Tokyo I bought a three-day subway pass — a convenient and cost effective way to zip around and under Tokyo.
Whichever way you decide to go, keep in mind that you’ll be walking a lot. Getting through the subway means you’ll cover long distances, both up and down stairs, escalators and through long corridors, which makes travelling with light luggage an excellent idea. But as I wrote earlier, it’s unlikely you’ll get lost — as long as you follow the signs.
Japan is so many things: colorful, busy, young, sophisticated, ancient — and very user friendly. All the roads, services, buildings, access routes — everything you need to touch or use — are well designed, thought through and crafted for people.
I loved wandering off the main roads, exploring the streets less travelled, trying to picture myself living in Tokyo. I doubt I could have enjoyed travelling the way I did, using public transport everywhere, if I’d had large and heavy suitcases to drag and carry, particularly in that humidity.
I hope that these ten tips give you a taste for Japan, but also persuade you to leave behind your baggage and to experience the lightness and beauty Tokyo.
If you enjoyed this post, you can also buy my small and practical ebook, Tokyo: 10 Top Light Travel Tips, available from Planepack for $2.99.
Meet the author
Slobodanka (Bobby) Graham loves travel, photography, friends, family and sketching.
She is a digital publisher and content entrepreneur. Slobodanka is an eternal optimist, hoping to convert the world to Planepack’s philosophy of light travel.
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Originally published at www.planepack.com.au.