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What to Pack for Japan

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This week we are pleased to present a guest post by Joe Baur, a travel author and podcaster who’s constantly looking to get off the tourist trek in search of new stories. He enjoys few things more than a hoppy beer and chorizo in good company. Give him these things and he will be your friend for life. Visit his website to get to know Joe better.

I’m on day four or five of my hike along the historic Nakasendo Way with Walk Japan when we take a bit of a detour off the main trail and get dropped off by shuttle at Karasawa Falls. The thundering waterfall is as picturesque as any I’d seen before, surrounded in a valley of dense forest.

The fall season came late to Japan — concerning to climate scientists, but selfishly idyllic for those of us in hiking boots. The array of browns, oranges, and reds sneaking through the dense fog were as stunning as I had come to expect from the Japanese countryside. I could sense my lungs thanking me for the literal breath of cool, fresh air.

Had I been two weeks later, I might have been bent over to warm my hands against my body and missing the sights. Two months earlier and I’d have been sprawled out on the ground, sweating through my clothes in exhaustion.

Of course this is just one side of Japan. There’s the chaotic side borne out of Tokyo’s technocratic utopia where millions of people trek through the city like lemmings, eyes glued firmly to their mobile devices, when their attention isn’t grabbed by the absurd number of flashing lights shooting out of establishments ranging from hotels and restaurants to pachinko parlors and robot cabaret shows. It all depends on what part of town you’re in.

What you pack for Japan depends entirely on which Japan you’re going to see. Then, you need to consider the season you’re traveling in since the land of the rising sun, indeed, sees winter, spring, summer, and fall. Here are the essentials broken down by urban and rural Japan packing list.

Comfortable Shoes

Japan is a pedestrian country, first and foremost. People here walk. They walk to the store, walk to the train, walk to their bikes, and they walk for sport. Japan’s infrastructure is arguably the best equipped in the world for pedestrians, so that means you need to prepare your feet with some comfortable walking shoes. Whether it’s on a hiking trail or over urban sidewalks, your feet are going to be racking up the kilometers unlike any other destination on the planet.

A pair of Chacos’ Outcross 2 hiking shoes were a perfect match for Japan. They’re easy to jam into your luggage and are much more forgiving to bag space than heavy-duty hiking boots, which are more than likely unnecessary unless you’re Bear Grylls-ing it.

Though the mesh might be a little too forgiving during the colder months of the year, an easy solution for that is layering up on socks. Otherwise, these shoes are absolute champions on the walking trails and there’s no reason they can’t get you around the city, too. In fact, the collapsible-heel construction makes it easy to slip in and out of your shoes. This is handier than ever in a country where you routinely have to take your shoes off before entering a museum, monument or restaurant — primarily in more rural corners of the country.

Double Use Hiking Pants

Save yourself some extra bag space by using a pair of hiking pants that have a khaki look, so you blend in a little more nicely when you stop for a quick tea or for something more substantial, like a bowl of miso soup or even some udon noodles. Sure they won’t be as clean (or fresh) as an unworn pair of pants, but nobody is going to bend over and start sniffing your trousers. (If they do, then you’re having a different conversation.)

L.L. Bean’s Cresta Hiking Pants are a great option for blending in both to the hiking trails or rural Japan and the casual scene of Tokyo. They’re breathable and dry quickly should you get a little wet on the trails. Throw on a nice flannel button up shirt and nobody will mistake you for a schlub dressing out of convention.

Rain, Rain, Go Away

Those colorful vistas throughout the Japanese countryside don’t just appear out of thin air. Remember that fog mentioned early on? Rain falls in Japan, especially around June and July. The last thing you want is to get caught seven kilometers from the nearest town without good protective rain gear on your back.

There’s a reason why outdoor enthusiasts continually run to Patagonia for their gear, so no surprise we’re looking at them when it comes to a rain jacket. The Stretch Rainshadow Jacket is a popular pick for women and men, built to withstand a jungle downpour or alpine blizzard. This jacket is lightweight and therefore perfectly packable for your trip to Japan.

Urban Japan Packing List (7-10 days)

  • 2 pairs of pants (one pair jeans, another khaki)
  • 3 t-shirts
  • 3 button up shirts
  • 4 underwear
  • 4 socks
  • 1 sweater (for the months outside of summer)
  • 1 jacket (something heavier in the winter)
  • 1 nice, comfortable walking shoes than can double for something a bit dressier
  • Toiletries

Don’t Bring:
Fancy clothes — Unless you are absolutely certain that you’ll be invited out to something that requires a suit, dress and/or dressy shoes, there’s no need to bring them along. Save the space by assuming casual to smart casual will cover you for the trip.

Rural Japan Packing List (7-10 days)

  • 2 pants (one pair hiking, the other jeans)
  • 1 pair hiking shoes, like the Chacos Outcross (if you’re in the countryside, you won’t have any need for something dressy)
  • 1 hiking t-shirt (make it a “tech tee” during the summer, and don’t worry about quantity — you can do laundry if absolutely necessary in the hotels)
  • 3 t-shirts, sweatshirts or button up shirts, depending on the season
  • 4 underwear
  • 4 socks
  • 1 light rain coat or winter jacket depending on the season
  • Toiletries

Don’t Bring:

Doubles on hiking clothes
— You can always air out your gear after the day’s hiking or clean them at most hotels if absolutely necessary. Doubling (or tripling, as some packers do) on your hiking shirts, pants and socks will eat away at your bag space. Instead, reuse your hiking clothes and keep the stinky stuff out of your bag of clean clothes.

Swim shorts — You’ll want to hop in the onsens (Japanese hot baths), but custom demands doing it au natural.

TL;DR

Japan is an experience unlike any other and is one of those rare instances where expectations meet reality. Being a country that demands constant exploration so you’ll want to pack light and keep moving whether you’re in the countryside, in the city or getting your mind blown.

  • Pack light
  • Don’t bother with hiking boots
  • Choose flexible pieces made from technical fabrics for versatility and ease of washing and drying
  • Decent walking shoes are a must, for urban or rural experiences

Have you been to Japan? What did you pack?

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