I carried a lot of useless stuff with me to Japan. It’s the sort of stuff you see in a catalog, and think, “Wow, that looks really useful!” when in reality you may use it once the whole trip, if you’re lucky, and end up having to lug it all over the place.
“But it’s so small, and folds away. It’ll hardly take up any space at all!”
Sure, that one thing is small, thin, and light, but when you add 10 or 15 of its little friends together, they start to take up a lot of space and add a lot of weight.
Think logically, and take only what you absolutely know you’ll use repeatedly with you.
- Inflatable seat cushion: was actually less comfortable than the rock-hard chair.
- Clothesline: never used it. I just found laundromats and did my laundry there.
- Money belt: never used it. It’s Japan, not Europe. Sure, you might need one in Europe, and you might want to keep one on you just in case, but even the silk ones are uncomfortable, and in a country like Japan where even petty thievery is just unheard of, it felt totally unnecessary to me. Naturally, if you’re worried about losing your stuff, then go for it. I wasn’t too worried about being robbed in Japan. Now Europe is a whole different story.
- Bicycle clips: didn’t need them. The bicycles there don’t eat your pants.
- Luggage locks: didn’t need them. I bought one of the locks with a short cable on it… didn’t need that, either. Locking your luggage is one of those marginal things. If they want to steal your stuff, they’ll get it, and the hasps on those locks are a joke. If you really want to break into a suitcase, all you need is a pointy object to undo the zipper, then just run the locked zipper over it again to close it.
- Travel wash/Travel soap: the little stuff you can buy in a bottle? Yeah, you don’t need that. Hotels have soap and shampoo, and it comes in big dispenser bottles, so you don’t have to worry about ruining the planet. That goes for any soaps/shampoos you bring from home, too. You just don’t need them, and all they do is add weight. If you stay in dorms, then buy your soap and shampoo there. You’ll smell like a local.
- Little travel packs of toilet paper: just as scratchy as the stuff you’ll find in the toilets there. I never used it. If you must bring something to take care of business down there, I’d recommend getting those little moist wipes that are individually sealed, if you want to avoid the sandpapery stuff.
- Carnation Instant Breakfast Drink pouches: Seemed like a good idea, but added a lot of weight, and drinking milk in the morning was just tough on my stomach.
- Flashlight: Never used it. Might still be good to have one, anyway.
Marginally useful stuff
- Travel blanket/bedsack: These are useful if you plan on staying in dorms. I used them a lot in the dorm I spent 2 weeks in, but after that, I sent them home because they were too bulky. I borrowed the bedsack. The blanket was too short, making it very uncomfortable as a blanket replacement for sleeping in beds/futons. Find a bigger version if you’re a taller person and you plan on sleeping in dorms.
- Foam neck pillow: Really comfortable, but a royal pain to take with you. Find an inflatable one instead.
- Foam head pillow (really small version): Useful for dorms and in-flight, but doesn’t store particularly well. I sent this home after I left the dorm. If you’re only staying in hotels, you don’t need it.
- Portable travel radio: Wasted money, wasted space. The only radio I would take would be one that’s integrated into something else. Besides, 99% of what you can hear is in Japanese anyway. If you want to hear stuff from home, there’s always the internet.
- Protein bars: Oh jeez. I took a ton of these with me, because I wasn’t sure about the whole sodium thing over in Japan. They were useful in spots, but not 10 pounds’ worth useful. Bring a few if you like to hike, but don’t bring too many. The food in Japan is wonderful, and there isn’t a protein bar out there than can compare. If you’re on a special diet, then check labels on the food at stores and conbinis. Even the food at conbinis compares pretty well to food you can get at any restaurant chain in the U.S., and it contains less mystery-ingredient stuff that comes in a chemical drum.
- Blindfold/Ear plugs: I had them, just in case. I didn’t need them, but I had them. Avoid earplanes. Chewing gum is cheaper to unblock your ears.
- Folding Travel Tray: Marginally useful, but I kept forgetting to use it. It does keep your stuff organized in hotel rooms, but you can just put it all in little piles on the desk, too.
Surprisingly useful stuff
- Woolite pouches: If you’re smart and bring clothes you can wash in the sink, you’ll need Woolite. You can get packs of pouches at places like REI, and some kits come with a very handy flat plastic flap that works as a sink stopper. Or just pour Woolite into a tube and save a few bucks.
- Coat hangers: 2 plastic ones are good for drying laundry, and less hassle to set up than a clothesline. Just bring two you don’t mind having broken by baggage handlers.
- Clothespin with hanger hook: 2 of these, if you can find them, are even better for drying laundry or wet towels. Also good for wet underwear. Doubles as a good way to keep hotel curtains shut.
- Microfiber towels: I used one small and one bath sheet. I sent the bath sheet home when I left the dorm, but it was a good towel. I kept the small one with me at all times as a hand towel. Most bathrooms in Japan don’t have paper hand towels, so BYO. Make sure you wash these a few times at home before you go abroad, and make sure you like them, because you may be using them a lot.
- Plastic Knife/Fork/Spoon set: Usually, you will get chopsticks and such when you go to a conbini, but sometimes they forget, or they run out, or whatever, and you’re left with nothing. That’s when your KFS set comes in handy.
Best of the Best
- iPod: It’s an iPod. It fights boredom. ‘Nuff said.
- Sony eBook Reader: I love books. I especially love trashy science-fiction and fantasy books. So I managed to cram about 30 or so of my favorites into this thing, and it totally saved me. It has solid battery life, so you can fight boredom wherever you go.
- Electronic Dictionary: In Japan, they call them denshi jisho, but I call them awesome. The latest models have a small touchpad on the base that you use to draw kanji on. It made my life there much easier. If you don’t know any Japanese, this won’t help you. It’s only useful for those with some Japanese knowledge.
- Bose Noise-Cancelling Headphones: I can’t get on an airplane without these anymore. The only downside is that they’re bulky, but they are worth the trouble. Enjoy the cone of silence.
- Carabiners: Yes, carabiners. They’re the hooks mountain climbers use to secure ropes. They’re also handy for clipping small bags to large bags. I love them.
- Cell Phone: I’ll go into more detail in a following post, but a good cell phone in Japan is really nice to have. It doubles as an alarm clock.
What I wish I had done/taken
- Better non-cotton clothing: I love cotton. I love how it feels on my skin. It makes me feel civilized. What I hate about cotton is that every drop of sweat stays on you all day, and sweat stains look nasty. I also hate how long it takes to dry when you wash it in your room. It’s not good for washing in the sink. Next time, I’m going to bring well-worn polyester layer-able clothes that wick sweat better, wash in the sink better, and dry in under 2 days.
- Less Luggage: I wish I had just had one small-to-medium sized roller.
- Stain Sticks: Both the pre-treating wash stain sticks, and the ones that remove stains on the go are things I pined for while in Japan. I’m sure I could have found them there if I searched long enough, but that’s wasted time, in my opinion.
- More Packing Cubes: These are great just for keeping stuff organized in your suitcase. I already had some gear pouches for cords and rechargers, but something a little bigger for things like brochures I wanted to keep, but didn’t need, or a small cube for dirty laundry, one for clean shirts, etc. When everything is just dumped in the suitcase, it takes forever to find the little things.
- A Good Compass: I needed one of these every now and then. When I needed it, I really needed it.
- Good Rain Gear: I still haven’t figured this one out exactly, but I think next time, I’ll bring stuff with Gore-Tex in it. It does rain a lot in Japan, and if you’re not prepared, you can prepare to suffer. Also, try to find a big umbrella that folds small. The ones you buy in Japan tend to … well … suck. Spend the extra money to avoid needless suffering.
In the end, you have to figure out what your specific needs are, and do what you can to meet them. But try to find things that multi-task, if possible. Pack everything early, and that way you’ll see just how much room the little gizmos will take up. For a long trip, try living out of your planned bags for a few days before you go, and see what you use/don’t use. Figure out what you think you’ll need, and then only take half. (Except medicines.)
Try everything out in real-world situations. Use the rain gear in real rain. Use the bedsack in bed. See how dark that blindfold makes the room. See if the radio is any good at picking up anything other than static. Try to avoid repeating my mistakes, please!