Saturday, 17 November 2012

Five unexpected things to pack for your trip to Japan

You don't need me to tell you to bring a phrasebook, yen and appetite for sushi when you travel to Japan. And the classic piece of travel advice about bringing half as many clothes and twice the money was never more relevant than in this pricey destination. But if you tuck these five surprise items in your luggage, I guarantee your trip will be just that little bit easier and more comfortable.

'Toilet in Helly Kitty Love
Hotel Room' by Rick Hall.
CC Attribution

1. Prunes

There's no delicate way around this. Going from Europe, where fruit and veg are abundant, to Japan where the green stuff was expensive and harder to come by, was a shock to the system. I'm used to walking around and being able to grab a banana for a few pence, but in Japan it seemed a much smaller part of the daily diet (and a wallet-busting one at that). I don't need to get colourful about what going from five-a-day in roughage and vitamins to a diet of fish and white rice can do to your body. Save yourself some money (and time on the toilet) by bringing a bag of dried fruit with you.

'My happy socks' by jm3. CC Attribution-ShareAlike

2. Slip-on shoes

Whether it's temples, restaurants or ryokan, your shoes will be going on and off throughout your entire trip. Tying and untying your shoelaces a dozen times a day is a chore (and stressful if you're visiting some of the more crowded temples like Fushimi-Inari in Kyoto or Senso-ji in Tokyo). Spare the gnarled fingers and double-bows by bringing some comfortable loafers or other slip-ons instead. While we're at it, bring socks you aren't ashamed of, as they'll be on display for a large proportion of your sightseeing.

My travel companion Normal Matt shows
off his Pocari Sweat. Photo by Anita Isalska

3. Reusable water bottle

Whether you are travelling during a sweltering summer or simply dehydrating from the effort of navigating Osaka's cavernous train stations, you'll be guzzling a lot of water. And the ubiquitous vending machines will tempt you with their succulent pineapple drinks, energy boosters and (my favourite) Pocari Sweat. But Y150-200 (US$1.80-$2.50) for a bottle adds up over a thirsty day of touring. This is an easily avoidable money drain, so either pack yourself a sturdy travel bottle or try Pocari Sweat once, rinse and refill (tap water is safe to drink in Japan).

Japan is a land of irresistible, but fragile, souvenirs. Gorgeous ceramics near the Tsukiji Fish Market, all-too-snappable souvenir chopsticks, and exquisite Kyoto candy that turns to dust in your suitcase. The lure of smashable novelty food like green tea KitKats is also a temptation for travellers, and I couldn't resist grabbing some cheap sake (in worryingly pliant plastic jars) to take home. Make sure you get the goods back in one piece by bringing some bubble wrap, tupperware boxes or at least some serious packing skills.

'Notebook collection' by Dvortygirl. 
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5. Notebook

Maybe you're already a travel diarist with a notepad and pen glued to your hands, but if not, then make sure you have something to scribble on during this trip. Many Japanese people we met were much more confident with written English than spoken English, so when our Japanese language skills failed, we had better results showing a notepad with a simple English questions written on it, rather than asking a question verbally in English. Having a receptionist write the hostel address in Japanese onto your pad is a great way to ensure you have no problems finding your way back (assuming your own Japanese skills are as scant as mine). If your memory is sieve-like (join the club), write a few Japanese phrases onto the pad so you have some of the language at hand - locals were eager to teach us some of the seamier phrases, so it was perfect to have somewhere for them to write these. As a bonus, a huge number of museums have souvenir ink stamps; it's fun to have somewhere to document your trip with these eccentric outlines.

Is there something you wish you had packed on your trip to Japan? Or something amazing that you brought back? Let me know in the comments!

Read more about my adventures in Japan in my article for Lonely Planet, 48 hours in Hiroshima.