What to Bring to Japan: An 8-Item Checklist

If you’re planning to visit Japan, there’s definitely some stuff you should and should not bring.  And moving to Japan?  Whoa, then you really need to consider what to stuff into your gym bag.  But not to worry!  As always, Ken Seeroi is here for you, doing all that pesky thinking business so you can kick back with a margarita and relax.  Here’s all you really need to know.

1. Clothes

First, carefully select your all of your best clothes and neatly pack them into two suitcases.  Then put the suitcases in the trunk of your car and drive to the nearest forest.  You’ll also need a can of gasoline.  I guess I forgot to mention that.  Then once you get there, you’re going to want to send your clothes to Fashion Heaven in a massive conflagration because no one in Japan wears stuff like that.  This goes double if you’re a guy.  Japanese people place an insane amount of importance on personal appearance, and what’s popular overseas is usually not popular here.  So if you want to look good in Japan, buy clothes in Japan.  Unless you’ve got some crazy size, like you’re super fat or much over six feet tall, in which case, okay, you shouldn’t have burned your clothes.  Sorry about that.

2. Shoes

Men six-foot-one or less won’t have trouble finding clothes that fit, unless they’re bulky.  The same is probably true for women of average sizes, albeit my research is limited to rifling through your drawers and closets while you’re in the shower.  But shoes are another matter.  Men’s shoes top out at about 10.5 or 11 in most stores, so if your feet are bigger than that, you’re going to have to bring shoes, and ones that match Japanese fashions.  Yeah, I know, it’s a conundrum.

3. Medicine

You know how you can go to a 7-11 in the U.S. and get some Tylenol and Tums?  Well, you can’t do that in Japan.  I don’t know why.  You can buy a fifth of whiskey, cigarettes, and the weak Japanese equivalent of Playboy twenty-four hours a day, but you can’t get one freaking bottle of aspirin.  You can get yourself into trouble, but you can’t get yourself out.  It’s weird.

Now, you can go to a specialized “drug store” and get all that stuff.  The problem is once you wake up at 3 a.m. with the flu and a temperature of 400 Fahrenheit, finding an open drug store is going to be your own private hell on earth. But what are the chances you’ll catch something? I mean, it’s not like you’re eating strange food and riding packed trains with ten thousand sick people a day.

Whatever you do, don’t bring non-prescription meds into Japan or you’ll be going straight from Customs onto an express train for the penitentiary. Even for prescription stuff, you better make sure you have a letter from a Japanese doctor, a selfie of you and the Emperor, and a note signed by Jesus.

Instead, after your plane lands, take a taxi to the nearest drug store and pick up some local medicines for the crushing hangover and explosive diarrhea you’ll have in a few hours. Talk to the pharmacist, who’ll pretend he doesn’t speak basic English but actually does. You may never need the stuff, and can just throw it out at the end of your trip, but that’s the cheapest insurance you’ll ever buy.

4. Illegal Drugs

I know a dude, let’s just call him Jacob, since that’s his name, who majored in Japanese in college, got to the point where he could speak it pretty well, then interviewed and landed a job in Tokyo. You can probably guess where this is going. After three months of teaching English, dating Japanese girls, and basically living the dream, Jacob got himself busted at a party for smoking pot. He was immediately deported, and his first email from the U.S. contained only one line:  “I’ve ruined my life.”

Look, it isn’t easy getting to Japan. Even coming for a visit takes a nice stack of cash, and moving here is a major ordeal of securing a job, a visa, and an apartment. Then you do one thing wrong and Boom, you’re back on a plane to your home country. Japan isn’t cool with drugs. Me personally, I’ve got no beef with however you want to live your life, but know that you’re taking an enormous risk using any kind of illegal drugs in Japan. And carrying them through Customs?—Man, you’re on your own with that one.

If you do drugs, then let me tell you how you’ll get busted. Think about if you were at a party with like a famous actor or a basketball player or something. And then all of a sudden he fired up a crack pipe and started making out with this cross-dressing prostitute or something. Like something amazing you couldn’t believe. Would you tell anyone?  Hell yeah, you would! You’d be on the phone with all your friends, like, “Guess who I saw smoking crack and making out with a hooker in drag!”

Well, that’s basically you in Japan. You stand out, and whatever you do, people will talk about it.  And like the Breck syndrome, they’ll tell two friends, and they’ll tell two friends, and pretty soon a couple of detectives come knocking on your door. This is true of drugs, but it’s also true of other things in general. I hate to say it, but don’t share secrets with Japanese people. It’s not their fault. You’re just too damned interesting.

5. Food

One of the main reasons I came to Japan was for the food, so whenever I travel to the U.S., I take a suitcase full of dry natto, umeboshi, and katsuo-bushi, just to confound the customs officers, if for no other reason.  But most people aren’t me.  I’ve learned that. So you’re probably going to want to bring whatever Captain Crunch or Nestle’s Quick you can’t live without. Bear in mind, of course, that Japan is a well-developed, international country, so you can fulfill your desire for a bag of tortilla chips bigger than your apartment and a block of cheese the size of a human head at CostCo.

6. Toiletries

Japan has an astonishing array of soaps, hair-care, and skin-care products, so why anyone would want to bring their own is a mystery to me, but some people do.  I guess if you’re crazy about your Crest with Triple Whitening Action you’d better bring it, but honestly, you can probably find the same or better here.

7. The Internet

Okay, you can’t really bring this, but you’re going to have to deal with it right away, so let me tell you what little I know.  First of all, Japan has very limited free Wi-Fi, so don’t expect to find a hotspot pretty much anywhere.  Secondly, don’t buy a landline internet connection when you move into your apartment.  Instead, get a smartphone and tether it. Japan has LTE, which is pretty blazing fast, and then you can use your PC at home, at work, in the izakaya, anywhere. To do so, you’re either going to need a Japanese smartphone, or somehow get your smartphone to work in this country, but you’d need to do that anyway. Another option is a wireless modem, like a personal hotspot. I had one of those for a while, and it worked great too, but now that I’ve got a modern phone, it does double duty as a modem as well.  Pretty amazing technology, really.

8. Books and Magazines

The thing about paper is, it’s heavy. You might as well just be carrying firewood. So you’re gonna want to think twice about bringing that leather-bound Chronicles of Narnia collection.  On the other hand, the range of English-language books and periodicals is incredibly limited in Japan, so if there’s something you really want to read, download it to a Kindle or something before you leave.

That’s About It

Honestly, about 90 percent of what I brought to Japan eventually ended up in the trash within a year.  I brought three suits and a couple pairs of cool jeans that turned out to be way out of style, not that I had a clue at first.  I thought they looked good.  And all of the expensive shirts and ties I brought—jeez, what was I thinking?  If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t spend a yen on clothes before I left; I’d just come with a pocketful of cash and an empty suitcase, then go straight to the first UNIQLO when I got off the plane.  Honestly, you could probably come to Japan with no suitcases at all.  Now that would be cool.

66 Replies to “What to Bring to Japan: An 8-Item Checklist”

  1. I have to disagree with clothes and toiletries. I’m a pretty normal size but I can’t get decent clothes in Japan. The trousers are all too small in the junk area – I’m not bragging, its just fact – and any trousers that fit me round the waste a about a foot too short in the leg. As for tops, anything that should be the right size is way too tight in the shoulders. Japanese just have a different body shape. And you need to bring your own toothpaste because Japanese toothpaste is as weak as water. Two years on their stuff with a healthier diet than back home and my teeth has so many holes I can’t close my mouth without wncing like I swallowed an ice cube.

    1. I’ve heard that said about the toothpaste, but I actually prefer Japanese toothpaste over American. In fact, I’m eating a tube of デンター right now. So minty . . .

      And a small update, since I just got back from the drug store . . . there were five different varieties of Aqua Fresh, including one called Shiny Whitening. So assuming one could live with that, lugging over tubes of toothpaste should be unnecessary.

      As for your trouser situation, I dunno, I’m a tall guy and not particularly thin (owing to my delicious diet of Japanese beer and potato chips), and have no trouble finding sizes. The fit’s another issue. Clothes here are fitted for like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Everything’s tight, including in the junkal region. They’re not comfortable, only fashionable.

  2. What’s with East Asia being so hard on weed? Korea is the same way, and China will straight up execute you if you get caught with too much. Funny thing though, many of my Korean friends openly declared that should they ever visit me in California, they’d love to “experience marijuana.” Why a culture would ban weed and socially pressure everyone into rampant alcoholism is beyond my comprehension.

    So basically, the way I see it, if you really really need to get high, you have to combine categories 3 and 4- like Napoleon with his markers, you’re just gonna have to mix and match.

    1. Yeah, I’m trying to picture a huge Woodstock-like scene in Japan, where everyone’s laying out stoned on the grass and women are dancing without their shirts on, and people forget to show up at work the next day and the trains all come late and no one cares. If weed ever came to Japan, I’m not sure if it would be chaos or a blessing, but it’d probably be a lot more like America.

  3. Great read Ken! Really enjoyed this one. I wonder if this advice is more for the Tokyo bound or is it universal for all of Japan. For instance; if you went to Okinawa, would the same advice apply?

    1. Well, few places on earth are as fashion conscious as Tokyo, so you bring up a good point. My impression of Okinawa is that it’s far more laid back than the rest of Japan, although sadly I’ve yet to make it there. As for the rest of Japan, from Hokkaido to Kyuushu, even way out in the sticks, people tend to dress well, certainly nobody would be caught dead in just a t-shirt and a pair of shorts. Even the farmers have special farmer clothes, and so somehow even they look cool.

      As for product availability, Japan seems quite uniform throughout. There are supermarkets and drug stores in every place that resembles a city; unless you’re planning to stay on a farm, you’ll be set.

  4. Hi Ken, I was thinking: every time Japan gets a new Prime Minister or reshuffles the government, do you experience a “crackdown” on foreigners or hear about calls for tougher police action or whatever these new brooms like to announce to please their voters?

    It’s always an easy target to associate vice with outside influences, especially with the response of “put them on the next plane”. Or is it hot air and they leave the oldtimers like you alone?

    1. Yeah, that’s a good question. Me personally, I haven’t experienced any harshness from the police or the government, nor have I heard of much. Other than being stopped on my bike, that is, but that was really my own damn fault. Sure, some people are going to treat you like you’re five, but that’s partly because they’ve dealt with foreigners who just stepped off the plane with a suitcase full of manga and visions of joining a karate dojo.

      Once in a while there’s some nutty group standing in front of the station with a loudspeaker blowing noise about Okinawa or Korea or something, but everyone seems to generally ignore them. Hence the loudspeaker.

  5. Hey Ken,

    THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR WRITING THIS!! I’m glad my question gave you writing inspiration cos it’s definitely given me a better idea of what to pack (and what not to pack). Too bad you didn’t have more experience with women’s clothing though – hope you continue your “research” though so you can provide us females with more info 😉

    I was kinda concerned about what to bring especially with clothing – like, do most people teaching at eikaiwa wear /only/ white shirts? Meaning, would I have to pack a million white shirts in case the dust from China make my shirts orange, like what happened to you? Or are blue shirts OK!? But I guess you’re right, Uniqlo and other shops should make shopping ok – so I’ll just bring a hundred white shirts instead. I guess I’m just worried cos I’m a bit taller and bigger than the average Japanese woman, so I wasn’t sure if I’d find clothes my size.

    Would you recommend bringing omiyage from your home country, to give to people you work with? I’m from Australia, so maybe people would be excited to eat Australian food? (though to be honest, aside from the very occasional kangaroo and/or crocodile meat, it’s pretty much the same as anywhere else).

    Also, do you know if a smartphone from overseas will work in Japan? I’ve got a Samsung Galaxy III which I’m pretty fond of, but I’m not sure if it’ll work with Docomo/Softbank/other mobile providers? I think there’s an expectations to get a phone + plan?

    Thanks again for your help!

    1. Shirts, omiyage, keitai . . . all right, let’s go down the list.

      In terms of clothing, the Tokyo wardrobe tends heavily towards whites and blacks, but even in formal offices you’ll find people wearing other colors, so I wouldn’t worry. As long as you dress well, nobody at an eikaiwa will care about something so small. Instead, they’ll stress about something infinitesimally smaller, and spring that on you when you least expect it. But that’s just part of the fun of working in Japan.

      For omiyage, honestly, I wouldn’t bother. I know, I know, before I got here, I read all that stuff about politeness and reciprocation and came with cases of maple syrup and bags of chocolate-chip cookies for everyone. The truth is—and okay, this is just my own experience—that Japanese people aren’t that simple. They’ve seen a million English senseis come through their doors bearing gifts and bowing and being all genki, and then seen those same senseis peace out six months later and go back to their home countries. You’d get a lot more mileage by showing up for work early every day and establishing a solid work relationship with them first, and then when you take a trip to Kyoto for your holiday, you can bring them back a bunch of sembei and everyone will be pleased as punch.

      As for phones, a lot of people here use the Galaxy III, so I’d guess that you could walk into your local AU or Softbank shop and set up a plan with them. It seems pretty unlikely that your current plan would cover Japan, but that stuff is constantly evolving, so I can’t say for sure. If nothing else, it’ll be a nice way to show your photos from home.

      1. Thanks for all the advice, it’s really appreciated! What would people like me do without your trustworthy advice?

        I’ll let you know how things work out in a few months! 🙂

  6. I would have to disagree with toiletries, too. I usually bring lotions, sunscreen and other skin care product because lots of the Japanese ones have bleaching agents in them.
    Hair shampoo and products are aimed towards a different kind of hair (I was told by my hairdresser, after trying to figure out why my hair had gone from bad to worse after 6 weeks…) so I prefer to take them from home, too.

    I’d also like to add a few things from a female perspective:
    You can get clothes in bigger than Japanese sizes but they are harder to come by. I recommend shops on rakuten and uniqlo.
    Female shoe sizes go up to about 24.5 or 25 max. I don’t know about US shoe sizes but in Europe I’m a 39.5 and that is pretty average.

    And, on a different topic: depending on your citizenship, if you bring drugs into Japan and get caught, you will be put into jail and stay there for a good while. I don’t recommend it. Really.

    Other than that, thank you for your blog, I always enjoy reading it.

    1. Thanks for the female perspective. I’m kind of a guy’s guy when it comes to stuff like that. As long as I’ve got a bar of soap, I can basically accomplish showering, laundry, the dishes, and brushing my teeth. But there are a lotta-lotta products in Japan (although reading them is another issue), so as long as you’re not picky, you’ll be fine. But actually, women probably shouldn’t listen to the advice of guys on matters such as this.

  7. I like your central message here–What should you take? Whatever the hell you want. And that’s right on the mark, I brought way too much crap and I never used any of it. I don’t wear any of my old clothes, I ate my jumbo-sized, resealable bag of sour patch kids, and … well, I don’t think I brought anything else. Clothes, sour patch kids, and a resume. And that was pretty much all I needed, and I didn’t even need that.

    One thing I should have brought more of, though, was proper deodorant. I’m not really a sweaty guy, or a smelly one, but Japanese deodorant is crap. And it’s almost never antiperspirant. Hell, the only thing my Japanese girlfriend ever asks for when I come back from the States is 3 or 4 sticks of Secret. The only deodorant you can get in Japan is spray or that weird roller-ball alcohol based crap.

    Also tethered internet is fine for browsing or checking email, but if you’re streaming or torrenting or gaming or skyping or doing basically anything aside from checking your email, a dedicated landline is probably a better call.

    1. I know, I used to come back from the States with several pounds of Mennen Speed Stick. Then I found the big silver can of Japanese AG+ and switched to that. I think it’s just deodorant, not antiperspirant, but that and lowering my standards seems to do the trick. I’ve found that having generally low standards contributes greatly to one’s enjoyment of living overseas.

      As for tethering, I gotta say, it works great for me. It’s my only internet connection, and it’s fine for watching movies, downloading stuff, and all-purpose usage. I’m on AU, and never see any lag at all. A friend of mine uses Softbank and spends pretty much all day watching movies, so it seems to be working for him as well. But maybe gaming or something more data-intensive would require a faster connection.

  8. Oh and I do have to laugh about the drugs issue. I indulge in a little smoke here and there back home, and especially when traveling. Not something I’ve ever seriously picked up, but it’s enjoyable in the right atmosphere. Telling Japanese people that you’ve actually smoked pot is like telling your parents you’re addicted to meth and you’ve just pawned your car to pay for the habit. Serious, serious business. I think it’s like five years for simple possession? Anyway, kids, listen to Ole Ken here, and leave that shit alone. I miss it, but I’d seriously leave at the slightest whiff of weed, let alone smoke it myself. It just isn’t worth it.

  9. Well, I’m glad to read that clothes will be available in my size most likely. I’m tallish so I was worried that I’d be stuck with the clothes I came with.

    It’s a shame that books weigh so much but there’s a solution to this and that is: learn to read Japanese! Japan has one of the worlds highest literacy rates and reading is awesome language practice!

    Also Ken, a completely unrelated question(s) for you: A) How old were you when you came to Japan? Curious for personal reasons.
    B) Are you a fan of Gaki no Tsukai? It’s the sort of thing I imagine you’d like.

    1. The current generation of Japanese people seems pretty tall to me, so you’re in good company. I’ve seen a number of high school students, and even the occasional middle school student, over six-feet tall. Hell, I was in line behind a lady at the supermarket last night and she had to have been 6-2. I’d had a few beers and I was just looking up at her like, God, you’re huge. She was probably the tallest Japanese woman I’ve ever seen, actually. Maybe she sews her own clothes or something.

      I agree that reading is awesome for language learning—essential actually. So learning to read Japanese is one solution. Not the easiest solution, but one.

      Yeah, people sometimes ask how old I am. I feel 18, does that count? But I’m not, so (also for personal reasons), I prefer not to go there. But I wasn’t super young when I came here. The mystery deepens.

      B) Isn’t this C or D? Whatever. Yeah, Gaki no Tsukai is pretty funny, although I don’t really watch it. I probably would if I didn’t live in Japan, which is weird, when you think about it.

      1. Haha, that’s good to hear. I feel like a lot of bloggers and information sources perpetuate the stereotype that Japanese people are all short.

        Reading isn’t an easy solution, but the easiest solution is rarely the best in the long term. You have to think about the future yeah.

        I can understand why you would want to keep your age secret don’t worry. I just worry that I might end up trying to get to Japan when I’m like 28 or something which might be way too old.

        I like Gaki no Tsukai but I think part of the gimmick is that it isn’t standard for people like me. You can just turn on tv and watch it though.

        1. I agree about bloggers and other information sources. A lot of what I read about Japan (and learning Japanese) seems to just repeat the same information, much of which is untrue, at least from my perspective. That’s one of the reasons I started this site.

          28? Dude, that’s no problem. I was hanging out at a bar last night with a foreign guy who was 60 (before getting all drunk and seeing the enormous woman), and he’s doing fine here. If I had to guess the average age of English teachers in this country, I’d probably say 32. So no rush.

          1. Ah awesome, glad that you could help make some things clear. I really do think you’re one of the best Japan bloggers if only because you actually reply to comments (and you’re funny).

            I’m glad that you answer my stupid questions. Also my Japanese study is going well!

            1. I actually think you’ve got good questions, and, well, thanks for reading all the stupid stuff I write. Glad your study is going well. Mine is too—so let’s keep it up; a little each day will pay off in the long run.

        2. Confirming what Ken said. I’m newly 30 and doing fine dating/going out with college students. I don’t even really want to hang out with people that young (about the only commonality we share is “yes, another beer would be fantastic”), just saying that nobody really cares because 1) you’re foreign and 2) nobody can tell the difference and 3) you’re foreign.

  10. Eee. I don’t understand why you speak so much English if you live in Japan. Shouldn’t you be writing haikus or something?

    Wow, Japan sounds so enticing right now. Wish I could go.


    1. Actually, funny you should say that, because I recently wrote a haiku for a haiku contest. Didn’t win. Stupid Japanese people, don’t even know a great haiku when they see one.

      But yeah, other than this site, I pretty much never use English. It’s actually scary how much stuff I do in Japanese. At least, I’m scared, but probably the people I’m speaking with too.

  11. Think you got it all down. But when I lived there I was hard pressed to find normal deodorant. In Japan they use that spray stuff and it just wasn’t for me.

    I lorded over a gallon of advil or something everytime I went to Japan. Definitely a necessity, especially with all those nomihodais.

  12. When I first moved to Japan I only planned to stay for a year.
    You’re only allowed to bring medicine for I think 1 or 2 months, if you want to bring more you need to fill in a special form. I’m not sure if they changed that now. After all it’s been many years since I came here.
    I managed to sneak in my meds for 1 year! ^^;

    My shoe size doesn’t exist in Japan and trousers and sleeves are usually too short for me.

    Also make-up is a problem for me because all that Japanese stuff is way too bright and white for me. Why the hell do Japanese women like to look like ghosts? I’ll never get it! T___T ….

    1. Yeah, now that you mentioned it, I recalled reading some stuff about bringing in medicine, which I’d completely forgotten about. I checked into it, and it’s actually very restrictive (limited to a 1-month supply of prescription drugs, and some normal over-the-counter stuff is prohibited). http://japan.usembassy.gov/e/acs/tacs-medimport.html I’m pretty sure I’ve violated this myself. I doubt you’re going to do hard time for a bottle of NyQuil, but you may want to be careful.

      As for make-up, who doesn’t want to look completely white? Sickly pale is the new tan. Get with the fashion!

  13. I intend to invest 5 years of my life in learning Japanese, reasons;
    1. changing career over from pure technology to technology translation,
    2. am a martial artist and wish to further my training out there,
    3. have always been facinated by their culture.

    Is there any email address on which I can converse with you at length?



    1. That’s certainly ambitious, but since you have the discipline necessary to master martial arts, you should be well set for learning Japanese.

      Feel free to ask questions here, so that other people can read the answers, as well as contribute their own insights. I’m by no means the last word on all things Japanese. I still push when the door says pull, and that’s when it’s written in English.

      1. Thanks for the encouragement.

        Is the Japanese Language Proficiency Test really a good measure of a person’s command at a particular level?

        I’ve been searching for the past 4 months and have found a Japanese instructor in my city (Bombay, India) who’s considered best of class, even her fees are higher than most others. She’s cleared JLPT Level 1 (top most level) and has been conducting classes for the past 3 years. Is there any way to ascertain whether she’s really as good as she’s considered to be?

        Her next batch starts in the first quarter of 2014, is there anything I can do in the meanwhile to facilitate my training?

        Thanks again.

        1. Well first of all, I’d like to congratulate you on deciding to study with an instructor. That’s really important. So what does a JLPT1 certification really mean? Well, similar to the belt system martial arts, it’s an indication that the person has mastered various forms and can perform them under controlled circumstances. A black belt is no guarantee you won’t get your ass kicked in a bar fight, but it does indicate a certain level of mastery. So the JLPT is like that. A 1-kyuu certification is a very high level for a non-native speaker, and should be sufficient to get you pretty far along.

          I used to be of the opinion that “Only Japanese people should teach Japanese,” but I’ve come to reconsider that. These days, I mostly look for someone who’s a good teacher. Someone with a solid plan, a textbook, and a knack for explanation. Some people are naturally good teachers, and some naturally awful, and finding the former is easily as important as language ability.

          As for prior study, yes, if you haven’t already learned hiragana, followed by katakana, then do that now. I’ll be writing about how to do so in more detail soon, but it’s not rocket science, so you should be able to knock that out on your own. But let me know if you need more guidance.

  14. Thanks a million for taking time out to answer my questions, really appreciate the kindness.

    About the Hiragana and Katakana alphabet system, would you be in a position to suggest books I could purchase? Amazon has an over-abundance of books on that topic making it quite difficult to figure out which would be really good from a beginners perspective.

    1. No problem. I personally used Jimi’s Book of Japanese for




      I should say, though, that although it’s nice to have a physical book, you don’t actually need it. You can find plenty of hiragana and katakana charts on the internet, and the task is really just a matter of writing and memorizing 5 characters or so a day until you have all 46 down solid. Probably the nicest thing about these books is that they provide several vocabulary words for each character, which gives you an immediate feel for how they’re used in real life.

      Just think, once you know hiragana alone, you can read about half of all the Japanese out there. (The other half is unfortunately kanji, but maybe it’s best to close your eyes and pretend that doesn’t exist for now.)

      1. Those books definitely have a good support system for the beginner.
        Heading over to Amazon to get them.

        Thanks again.

  15. What are a bunch of things you wish you knew during your planning for your trip to Japan (outside of what you’ve already listed/discussed)? I’m moving over there for an extended period and I’m still amidst planning and shopping for everything I may need during my stay. Any ideas would be awesome.

    1. Well, that’s partly what this site is about, I suppose. But it’s a good question, so at the risk of repeating myself, I’ll try to add a little more.

      1. Japan really has everything you need. Unless you have specific clothing sizes that are far outside of the norm, you really don’t need to bring anything. Really. It’s a first-world country with an amazing array of consumer products and services. Pack light. Lighter. No, lighter than that.

      2. Japan is sometimes described as though it were some mystical place with all these special rules and customs. It’s not. Like I guess British people could make a big deal about the proper way to put vinegar on the fish and chips or something, but they don’t. Because they’re British. Japanese people, on the other hand, love to go on about all their special ways of doing things, taking off shoes and using chopsticks and whatnot. Of course, pay attention to how things are done and try to do them correctly, but don’t make a huge deal out of it. It’s just a normal country, not some Kung Fu rerun.

      3. I actually wouldn’t bring a lot of gifts for people. I always read that when you arrive, you should have some souvenirs from your home country, and I used to do that, but now I’ve stopped. No one was ever that thrilled, like Wow, a donut! Just what I’ve always wanted. The exception is if you’re meeting someone’s parents or doing a homestay or have some other personal relationship. In that case, bring some cookies. Seriously, don’t bring anything dumb like maple syrup.

      4. Learn some Japanese, but not too much. Unless you really want a new hobby. Everyone, and I mean everyone, knows thousands of words of English. So rather than spending months trying to expand your Japanese, learn how to tap into their existing English vocabulary. Rice, fish, beer, toilet—they know these words. Noodles. Okay, they don’t know that. So say “spaghetti.” They know that.

      I could probably go on for about a year, but off the top of my head, that’s what I’d say. Hope it helps in some small way.

      1. Now now ; ! Maple syrup? Never? I go to Osaka every 2 years for a visit and stay on the 26th floor in their place which is like staying in Manhattan with all the floor to ceiling windows. I’m always asked to bring 3 things, please: See’s chocolates (only available in the west coast and made in the San Francisco bay area where I’m from, peanut butter, creamy and chunky, and maple syrup. Butter is very expensive in Japan, coming from Hokaido monopoly so I bring 4 pounds of salted and unsalted from Costco. I tell my friend, food you want, I’ll bring it, but other junk, no you have too much crap as it is. I like your column and advice and could tell you how easy things have been for me, clothes and all and no difficulties. I also travel first class so backpacking and nickle and diming it our way beyond me at this stage of my life.

          1. Heh yeah…See’s Candies actually started in LA, though now based up in SF. I used to bring it too and then a friend pointed out that they have it in Japan now. Then I started bringing Blue Bottle Coffee…but that’s in Japan now too. Now, I just take them out drinking and everyone’s happy ;p

  16. I just found your blog, and I’m quite in love with it, so here, have a comment on an ancient post.

    You’re so wrong about clothing. I’m a tall, slim lady with hips and a bust, and 90% of Japanese clothing won’t fit me. Pants won’t pass my hips, shirts won’t button, and sleeves aren’t long enough. I can sometimes buy skirts, large winter jackets and T-shirt’s made of stretch material. Also underwear is a nightmare. If you’re bigger than a C-cup, forget about it. What Japanese call C is an American B, by the way.

    I’ve also had trouble finding decent menstrual products in Japan. All the pads are super slim and it’s hard to find something for heavy flow! I’d suggest bringing a menstrual cup or reusable cloth pads.

    Their hair products are almost exclusively for people with thick, dry, hair, so if you’re a fine haired blonde with oily hair you’ll have trouble finding decent product, so shampoo is a must. Also their acne products all suck. I ordered foreign products off rakuten. I rarely see Japanese with severe acne, so maybe they just don’t need the powerful stuff.

    Anyway, those are my recommendations.

    1. Glad you found the site. Thanks for the comment!

      I really appreciate the female perspective. Certainly, depending on a person’s body composition, it might be hard to find appropriate clothing and products. Probably as a guy, I’m not really tuned in to these sorts of things, plus I’m not picky.

      On the other hand, I think it’s important to point out that there are a lot, a lot of products in Japan. We literally spent years in our home countries, learning what all the various products were and how they worked, until finally narrowing it down to one or two favorites. Then you get to Japan and have to start all over again.

      Over the years, I’ve found Japanese products that suited my needs better, and when I venture back to the U.S., I actually can’t find anything that works as well. The shampoos have too much perfume, the bath soap is too bubbly, and the hair color is all wrong. Don’t even get me started on the food, since there’s nothing to eat in that country.

      So I guess it’s just a matter of perspective. The longer I’ve been here, the more I’ve become accustomed to Japanese products and clothing, to the point where I’m actually afraid of going back to the U.S. All the clothes fit like potato sacks and the products are just weird . . . it’d take me years to find ones I liked.

      1. Darn. Well I’m back in town with my new foreign bought suit and tie. But I’m six foot 3, and it is really really hard to get anything that fits me here. I am still a complete newb to dressing myself, so I don’t have much of a sense of what is in “style”. Still, I’ve noticed that I have started looking at what other men are wearing suit wise and making mental notes, so maybe I’ll have a better idea in a few months.

        1. That’s awesome, seriously. I mean, just noticing how people dress, that’s important. I was out yesterday, and ran into a group of three Western guys walking down the sidewalk dressed roughly as well as the homeless. Old wrinkled jeans, nylon jackets, backpacks. Ah, makes me proud to think, Those are my people.

  17. My son has a great opportunity to go to Japan next month and stay for about a month. He doesn’t know the language. What is the quickest way for him to learn some Japanese to help him communicate while he’s there?

    Thank you.


    1. Wow, that’s excellent. Congratulations to him.

      You ask a really good question that really deserves it own post, but I’ll try to give you a quick answer here. Let me re-frame it a little more broadly. When you first come to Japan, you face a number of challenges, of which language is one element.

      1. There’s a lot of written information that you can’t understand. Signs, menus, shop names, it’s all a big blur of kanji.

      2. There’s just a lot of stuff, everywhere, all the time. This goes times a thousand if you’re in Tokyo. The sheer volume of sensory information is mind-blowing, particularly if you’re from like Kansas or something.

      3. There is a system for doing things that you’re unfamiliar with. Sometimes it looks like the same system you have in your home country (ordering food at McDonald’s, buying a candy bar at a convenience store), but often there’s a little twist that will prove confusing, like how to hand over the money, or where to stand while you’re waiting, or why your fries come with only minimal ketchup.

      4. Finally, there’s the fact everyone speaks Japanese. In many ways, this is the least of your problems.

      So how to address these challenges? Well,

      1. you could learn some important kanji. Like the kanji for man 男 and woman 女, and then at least you wouldn’t walk into the wrong bathroom. But frankly, for most people, that’s going to be really hard to do in short order. I’d probably just write that off myself, unless your son really wants to geek out on the written language, in which case, have at it.

      2. Probably watching some videos of Tokyo would be good way to get a feel for what you’re stepping into, except for the fact that most made for Western audiences tend to exaggerate Japan’s weirdness. It’s really just a very normal place. But there’s a lot of stuff, that’s all.

      3. This is probably the biggee. Now, you can search online for various tutorials about how to do this and that, but they’re mostly just a waste of time, since they’re usually concerned with etiquette, which misses the point. Don’t mistake Japanese people for being more polite than anybody else, and don’t assume you have to behave “properly.” You don’t. You just have to follow the system in order to avoid chaos, like stopping when the light’s red and going when it’s green. That’s not politeness; it’s just a rule to avoid the breakdown of civilization. Unfortunately, there are simply too many systems to study them effectively. How to step on and off the train alone could occupy and entire tutorial. Don’t even get me started on using the toilet. But the good thing is, for most things, you can look around and see what everybody else is doing, and behave appropriately. Okay, that doesn’t really work for the toilet, but you’ll figure the thing out.

      4. The language. First, please remember that every Japanese person knows thousands of words of English. Literally, thousands. So now, if you’re starting to learn Japanese, and you learn say, two hundred words, which language would it be best to speak? I’d vote for English, rather than trying to stumble through some poorly rehearsed Japanese that you’re probably mis-pronouncing anyway. Now, don’t get me wrong, if you want to learn Japanese for fun, hey, it’s a great hobby. But if you just want to get your message across, learn how to speak Very. Simple. English.

      Part of speaking Very. Simple. English. is learning how to just shut up. Don’t say, “Excuse me, do you speak English? I’m looking for the nearest train station.” You’ll get nowhere with that. What you want to say is, “Station. Where is the station?” And that’s all. Then say it again. Nothing else. No, “Ummm, sorry, please, excuse me.” Limit your words and choose simple words.

      On top of that, it would be good to memorize a few survival phrases in Japanese, just in case. “Where is the toilet?” (Not “bathroom.”) And any special needs you might have, like “I don’t eat red meat.” But most of the challenges are cultural, not linguistic, so don’t worry too much. Above all, have fun. Hope that helps a bit.

  18. Great post, Ken!

    Finally, I found a post giving more details about internet. 🙂 I have been wondering whether it would be worth it to get a broadband connection at home. Everyone says that it all depends what you want or need. But as someone who hasn’t lived in Japan for a long time, I feel like I don’t have enough experience/knowledge to make a good decision on this.

    After reading your post, I think I wouldn’t apply for a landline internet connection. I would like to ask your advice on several things, though:

    1. What mobile phone plan and network would you recommend? I’ve heard many say that the iPhone 5 is a good deal, but I’m just worried I’ll be confused with the many different plans available.

    2. Is mobile internet stable enough for video chatting and downloading heavy files? I’m thinking of using the Phone for tethering as you’ve mentioned so I’ll rely on this connection for everything.

    3. Is it better to buy a pocket wi-fi and use it for internet; or is it better to just use the iPhone 5 for internet?

    Thank you so much for your help! ^_^

    1. Thanks for those questions. It goes without saying that I’m not an expert on this, but I’ll give you my impressions, for what they’re worth.

      1. You’ll be confused. I’m confused. Everybody’s confused. That’s because there are a lot of companies offering competing products and plans that keep changing, and it’s not that easy to sort through them. So you really have to shop around and do the homework. Wish I had an easier answer. Okay, just go with AU. How’s that?

      2. Yes, absolutely. I use a tethered iPhone 5 for everything. It’s my only internet connection, and I’ve never had a problem. I Skype, download stuff, upload stuff, and whatever else one does with the internet, I do that too.

      3. I used to have a pocket wi-fi modem thingee, and it wasn’t any faster than my current phone. That just meant I was carrying around one more piece of hardware. Maybe there are other, faster pocket wi-fi thingees, but I’m super happy with my phone and its speed.

      Okay, that being said, here’s the important thing to note. Many plans will limit you on how much data you can use during a month (typically something like 7 gigabytes). Up to that point, your connection will be blazing fast, and afterward it will be slower. You can still connect just fine, but you won’t want to watch any videos, is what it amounts to.

      So you may want to shop around for a plan that offers unlimited usage, without the data restriction. Otherwise you’ll get to watch YouTube for half a month, until you hit the limit, and then have to find something more productive to do with your time. Perish the thought.

      1. Hello Ken!

        Thank you so much for taking the time to read my questions and for giving detailed answers!

        I’m so relieved to find out that I’m not the only one confused. 😀

        After hearing about the data usage limit, I think I’ll go with the pocket wifi. 🙂

        I think you’re one of the nicest and most talented bloggers around. Not only do you take time to respond to comments, you also give thoughtful responses and handle weird comments quite well.

        I hope my family members don’t think I’ve gone crazy.. I can’t help but laugh aloud as I read your posts.

        Keep it up! ^_^

        1. Oh stop, you’re too kind. No okay, don’t stop.

          It’s true, the data limit is a pain, but I would compare the cost of getting a phone with unlimited data against the cost of getting two devices. I think a phone with an unlimited data plan, if you can find a good price, would be an excellent solution. Either way though, having mobile internet is awesome. Then you can use the internet out in the park with beer and potato chips on summer days. I mean, theoretically and all.

          1. I’m going to Japan soon. My husband has idea you don’t eat food in public except
            ice cream. So beer and potato chips in park? Is that OK.?

            I like that most Japanese know some English. I don’t speak a word of Japanese.
            I think your suggestion of keeping it Simple when I do speak English is a good one
            but in way seems rude.

            I’m just going to look like a person who clothes are from different country.
            I think if your into style buying your clothes in Japan is good idea. Are their
            places that make clothes for you?

            Thank you for having your blog.


            1. Wow, there’s a lot of stuff in what you wrote.

              So, eating in public, yeah, it’s probably not a great idea in any country. In a park, okay, that’s like a picnic, so you get a pass.

              I was walking down a sidewalk in Texas, years ago, eating a fajita I’d just bought from a street vendor, when one of my buddies, this big Texan dude, came up to me and said, “Eating while you walk, that’s kind of gauche, don’t you think?” I’d never thought about it, actually, but he did kind of have a point. So even in Texas, there you go.

              Japan’s no different. You’ll want to repeat that phrase 3 times out loud.

              About language in Japan, well, two things. First is that many people know a lot of English. A crazy lot. But the second is that they’re also petty horrible at communicating, even in Japanese. It’s really rare to speak with strangers, so right off the bat, if you’re approaching someone to ask a question, they’re going to be like, What the hell’s going on? and start looking for that emergency exit. Maybe it’ll help if you’re wearing a backpack, holding a map, and look utterly clueless. Yeah, that’ll help.

              So if you just bust up to a random stranger and be like, “Excuse me, but where might I find the Hachiko exit for Shibuya station?” that’s not gonna work. Nobody can parse that sentence. But if you to go to the station attendant at Shibuya, now you’re in better shape, ’cause telling people where to go is part of his job. And if you said to him, “Hachiko exit?” and gave a little palms-up gesture, then you’d be fine. At which point he’d probably reply in perfect British English, “Ah, that exit is particularly difficult to access from our present location. You’ll want to ascend this flight of stairs…”

              As for being rude, repeat the phrase I gave you above another 3 times.

              Japan doesn’t generally do order-made clothing. Go to Thailand for that. But there are bazillions of stores where you can get fashionable clothes, assuming you’re not from a race of giants. Don’t worry, you’ll have a great trip.

  19. Hi Ken, nice article!
    I’m moving to Japan in 2 weeks for a year, I’ll be an English teacher.
    Here in Scotland, I have a sim only contract for my phone (no phone included in the contract, i had to buy it separate) which allows unlimited data, calls and texts for £25 per month.
    Do you know of a similar service in Japan? I am really looking for unlimited data but haven’t managed to find a plan like that in Japan.

    1. Man, I wish I could help you. When I moved here, I had a lot of questions and little information, so I wish I could give back in that way. Unfortunately, cell phone stuff (and pretty much everything else outside of the cost of a bottle of shochu) is beyond my area of expertise. Although I would like to hear what you find out once you’re here . . . maybe it would help somebody else.

      And by the way, the price for a “keep” bottle of shochu, 25%, should be about 1800-2000 yen. Less, and you’re doing well. And I mean 黒霧島 Kurokirishima, of course. You got that and you won’t need a cellphone.

  20. This is one great article!! Made me laugh with all those intricate descriptions of stuff. And your comments are as hilarious as your post. Anyhow, I will be travelling to Japan 2 weeks from now and have no itinerary yet. Hopefully shinjuku would treat me nice.

  21. Oh my god, yes, you are good. I’m like your counterpart but for Spain.
    So if you ever venture into that part, I am you.
    Thanks, great job. You make, traveling, visiting, teaching or moving to Japan, fun.
    Way cool!!!
    Yeah, I will buy you a beer when I’m in Tokyo.

    1. Thanks much. I’ve always wanted to visit Spain. In my mind, it’s this exciting, exotic, sunny country with friendly people and beautiful women. Just like Japan. I mean, before I actually moved here.

  22. (Curious, I asked my sis who is a professional Hair dresser for her opinion…) One of the reasons people bring there own shampoo and conditioner to Asian countries is because, despite having a great range of product, their products are designed for Asian Hair, which has a different structure and makeup than western or European Hair and using their products for long periods of time can actually cause damage to your hair. (It’s important to use a shampoo and conditioner that is made for your type of hair)…

    Just thought I’d share, for the other curious minds out there…

    1. That sounds reasonable. But the more I think about it, the more I’m not so sure. I mean, when we talk about “Europeans,” is that the Scandinavian girl with fine, blonde hair, the ruddy Irishman with curly red hair, or the Jewish guy with thick, twisty black hair? There are certainly a range of hair types here in Japan as well, from straight to wavy to full-on afros.

      And how much are shampoo manufacturers really dialing in their products to account for biological differences? I can imagine having a shampoo remove more or less grease, or add more conditioner, but that’s about it. There must be a thousand different shampoo companies in the world—how different could they really be? Understanding their compositions and effects sounds like the subject of a doctoral thesis in Chemistry. My guess is that most people, even professionals, are picking products based on the color of the bottle and a few words printed on front. Maybe a picture of a horse or some flowers or something.

      At any rate, you can find Western hair-care products all over Japan. Salons delight in selling products from Europe, perhaps because they look so “exotic.”

      This was kind of interesting too: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4458934/

  23. So glad to find your blog. You give me laughs on days when there’s not much else to laugh about. I’ve travelled to Japan several times, studied some Japanese and can find my way around. Big Japan fan. Now that I can’t travel, you’re providing me a vicarious way to be there. Thank you!

    1. Thanks much. Yep, we’re all a part of the Big Wait. Even within Japan, people are doing their best to avoid restaurants, karaoke, bars, and travel, so you’re not missing much. These days I spend a lot of time watching Netflix movies about Japan, like Wow, so that’s what it was like before everybody wore masks and stayed home. That’s the Japan I want to live in. Come on reality.

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