Nov 302007

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!

  3 Responses to “Fight Travel Gizmo Clutter. (Or, Travel Less Dumb!)”

  1. Some good advice. Packing light is important. When I first when to Japan everything I brought fit in a carry-on with room to spare for a 25 day trip.

    Electronic gadgets are nice, but I don’t like bringing them on trips. Charging is a pain in the ass and the chargers are awkward and take up space. Travel is also hard on gadgets and you are likely to wear them out. Honestly, I wouldn’t bring an iPod. You miss so much listening to music while walking around. You’ll also miss a lot of chances to meet and talk with people. Digital camera is about all you need.

    I suggest bring real paper backs. Get them as your used book store and leave them in hotels as you travel or give them as gifts. I even rip up large books as I read them so I have less to carry. Gives me space for things I buy along the way. You can do the same with your travel guides, or even better, rip them up beforehand and only bring the parts you need.

    Microfiber towels are great. Especially a large one for helping to dry your clothes out quickly.

    Never bring cotton clothes on a trip. Check travel catalogs with Magellans, Travel Smith, Ex Offico, Tilley. Some of it is expensive, especially Tilley, but it’s often very well made. Two pairs of pants and a 3 shirts is enough to get you through a trip of any length in good weather. Bring 2-3 pairs of underwear and socks that you can wash in the sink. Some of my stuff dries so fast I can wash it in the morning squeeze in a towel and it’s just damp. Wearing it for 15 minutes dries it out completely. Check the humidity though and bring extra socks and underwear if needed.

    Stain sticks are great. Some of the travel soap you can also used to wash clothes. I recommend bringing a small container, but you don’t need much unless you are really roughing it. Note that it won’t sudds up much.

    Rain gear, a very light rain jacket is best and the most flexible. You don’t need to spend the money for gortex. If you are staying in the cities in Japan don’t even bother bringing an umbrella. Just buy them in the conbini’s or any station. Yeah, they are cheap, but it’s better just to get rid of it when you don’t need it. (300-500 yen)

    A compass is useful to find your way around, especially if you get confused with maps. I’d recommending getting maps that show the exit numbers of stations. Watch the signs in the stations closely and you’ll always know where you end up.

    Here is the overall rule of thumb. If you are going to a civilized area and you have more then one carry-on you have too much stuff. Keep taking stuff out until it fits. You’ll enjoy your trip a lot more.

  2. There are a lot better headphones. All in ear phones by Shure out play and reduce noise (without audio trickery) more than any BOSE product.

  3. @Charles: Yes, I way overpacked for that trip. Too much crap. I’d like to pack it all in one suitcase, and sometimes I do, but it’s not always doable.

    Looking back at this post, I’m laughing. I bought way too much crap, but some of it is really useful stuff. Like the carabiners, the hangers with the clothespins on the ends, the microfiber towels, and the sink plug. Oh, and those packing bags that you can suck all the air out of. Those are handy, too.

    The umbrellas you get at conbinis aren’t worth 300-500 yen. I tried that in Kyoto and was miserable. I’d recommend bringing a cheap rain suit or a poncho. Nothing fancy, just something cut for Westerners. I’m 6’1″, so the stuff they had was tiny. That, or get a nice big umbrella over here that collapses.

    I don’t know about the mysterious travel soap. I don’t think you really need it, unless you’re staying in dorms. Even then, you can get soap at grocery stores or conbinis. If you’re staying in hotels, they usually have big dispensers of soap right by the shower.

    Most of the coin laundries in Japan will automatically dispense detergent into the machine when you use them, so unless you’re washing a lot of stuff in the sink, you don’t need to bring Woolite, either.

    But I wholeheartedly agree on the stain stick. Those things rock.

    As for gadgets, I’ll always carry some with me. My laptop has since died, and I replaced it with a 3.3 pound Vaio. I’ll never carry a heavy laptop again. That was miserable. But I like writing when I’m in my hotel room, and I need to keep up with what’s going on. I also use it as a place to dump photos, too.

    If I can get an unlocked iPhone, that will solve most “gadget” problems. I love my iPhone… too bad I can’t use it overseas without going into a money coma.

    I can’t use in-ear phones, because I have inner ear problems. My otolaryngologist specifically warned me to avoid that type of earphone because of the damage they can do.

    So the Bose headphones were the best compromise for me. Even if I didn’t have inner ear problems, the idea of jamming things into my ear canals doesn’t equal pleasure in my book.

    Bose prices tend to be pretty outrageous, but the headphones work really well for me. I’m half deaf anyway, so I’m not too concerned about what I’m missing. I just need something to kill the noise, because the noise itself will give me a migraine.

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