Ask Angie et al: tips for packing for and shopping in Japan?

If you're wondering why I've been relatively active here while I'm supposed to be very busy, it's because I'm all demob happy. As of next Friday, Mr Edge and I are off to Japan for three weeks. It's been ages since we've had a really good, long vacation together and we're both beyond excited!

This isn't just a holiday, it's a field trip. I'm a huge fan of Japanese style and I'm a little overwhelmed at the prospect of travelling and shopping in my idea of fashion nirvana, birthplace of the holy trinity of Yamamoto, Kawakubo and Miyake. I'd love to hear from anyone familiar with the region as to what I should be packing, and once there, where I should be going! 

With regard to dressing, I've already abandoned any and all hope of competing with stylish locals, but I'd like at least to be prepared for every occasion. My travel capsule needs to cover the range of activities from rural hiking to city walking to more formal outings such as dining out and possible theatre visits, with the added complication of transitional weather. 

So my first question is: should I pack a few dressy options to compliment my basic urban tourist's wardrobe? Will I feel underdressed in polite company in smart-casual garb? Should I make space in the luggage for one or two wildcards or travel as light as possible, leaving room for all-important shopping?

Speaking of which, I need some shopping tips! Angie, as an expert shopper the world over and a seasoned traveller in the region, I'd love to know what retail experiences you think should not be missed! 

This post is also published in the youlookfab forum. You can read and reply to it in either place. All replies will appear in both places.

20 Comments

  • Angie replied 2 years ago

    How exciting. Be sure to check out my blog posts on Japan! 

    First of all, if you want to pack it all on a carry-on, Liz - I will be of little help because it's not the way I like to travel and pack. I feel I miss out on the trip enormously if I travel light. I need to feel my best at all times (especially in very fashionable places like Hong Kong & Japan), have lots of options for all sorts of activities, pack lots of pairs of comfy shoes, and bring back treasures and groceries. I'm a big foodie remember! 

    You will see it all in, Japan - and the fashion is very region specific. Impeccable modern classic chic in Ginza to hectic over the top costume fabness in Harajuku. From sweats to Kimonos across all ages and fashion personas. Men are often funkier than the women and definitely more daring with their hair. 

    (May I suggest covering up your tattoo from time to time. Tattoos are generally frowned upon in Japan (too much association with Yakuza). 

    YES, bring dressy items. YES, leave room to bring back treasures. Pack the stuff that makes you feel the most fabulous - but be kind to your feet. 

    Also, if you don't speak Japanese - hire a guide - at least for some of the time. No one speaks English - although the people are soooooo nice and will try to help you out. You will miss out on all the killer local stuff if you don't. (We were chaperoned by locals so had an INCREDIBLE experience). Must stay in a ryokan. 

    We loved Yokohama best - must ride on the shinkasen and eat from a bento box on the way (sooooo beautful). Tokyo was amazing and Kyoto is another world all together. 

    My favourite places to shop in Japan are the department stores (must go to their basement floor to check out the supermarket and florist - sublime). Isetan, Takashimaya, Sebu, Matsuzakaya, Parco, Daimaru - the first two are my faves. (I grew up with Japanese department stores when living in Hong Kong so they are comforting and nostalgic too). 

    I can go on and on about where to go and what to eat. I'll stop for now. (Take me with you in your suitcase?) 

  • approprio replied 2 years ago

    Thanks Angie! That sent me down a rabbit hole exploring the Japan posts, which I remember from the first time around. What a great set of photos! Compliments to Greg, as ever. And oh! The tux suit! Hope I can score anything half as fab as that!

    Yes to covering the tattoo. Some sources say it's not a problem but I'd rather not offend anyone. I'm packing long sleeves only and a supply of Elastoplast for the obligatory onsen visits. And yes, at least one ryokan and no Western food!

    As for the packing, I like to travel as lightly as my dressy nature will allow, but I know I'll want to feel good in such a fashion conscious environment. The challenge on this trip is mixing up city style with hiking gear, but mercifully it doesn't all need to fit in carry-on luggage. 

    Now I'm going to look up those department stores...

  • Lyn D. replied 2 years ago

    I am reading with interest!
    We travelled there 6 years ago but it was pre-YLF for me and I was pretty unaware of what others were wearing and didn't dress stylishly myself.
    Your trip sounds fantastic!

  • merwoman replied 2 years ago

    I could be green with envy...but am so happy that you are getting this opportunity!

    I visited my DS in Japan about  2 years ago - and received fantastic advice from Angie and several forum members. I've tried to link to my posts but I've forgotten how to do that :-(

    So if you search Merwoman Japan you should find several posts complete with food and packing tips, which may be of interest for you.  Have a wonderful and safe trip!!

  • DonnaF replied 2 years ago

    If you will be in homes, wear footwear that is easy to remove.  High top laces may not be your answer.

    I know you're not all that big by Western standards, but if you plan to buy clothes or footwear while in Japan, you may want to sleuth ahead of time to see how available your sizes are there.  Mind you this was 40 years ago, but my Japanese American friend could not find shoes big enough to fit, and she only wore size 7.5 or 8, so a Eur38 or so.

  • Diana replied 2 years ago

    Ooh, I am jealous.  I was in Japan (Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto) in December of last year and I absolutely loved it.  I packed quite lightly, all in a 22" spinner suitcase (carry-on compliant), and was glad I did so because I lugged that thing all around all three cities, on the subways and trains, up and down stairs, etc.  My trip was mostly urban although we did do some light hiking in the Kyoto area (we climbed to the top of Fushimi Inari and to the snow monkey park in Arashiyama). 

    Anyway, I mostly just wore my normal smart-casual jeans-based outfits and felt fine with it, if slightly more casual than the general populace.  (It was cold and I hate tights, so no skirts/dresses on that trip, but in warmer weather I would definitely have worn skirts.)  I had a black coat though which makes you blend in in almost every city, and there were enough people in funky shoes that my weird Naot boots didn't even stick out.  I brought my typical 3 pairs of shoes (tall boots, mid calf boots, and oxfords, IIRC). It was december so colder than you will experience.  Nothing earthshattering but I did not feel as though I stuck out.  I did have one dressier (businessy) outfit but it was only worn for the work portion of my trip (a one day conference at which I was giving a talk). We did not go to any super fancy places or shows, though.  I would not wear sneakers, ripped jeans, gear, or anything super casual but I think most other things are OK as long as you are not going to a formal place.  Remember that you may  have to remove your shoes so wear nice socks!

    My impression was that as a whole Japanese women tend to dress very ladylike; even when wearing jeans they will wear low-heeled pumps, for example.  Especially in Tokyo.  In Osaka, the style seemed younger and more casual - there were women wearing distressed jeans, for ex, whereas I saw zero in Tokyo.

    Can't help you with shopping as I hardly did any, except for food!  Donna makes a good point though - in Japanese sizes I am an XL with gigantic feet, LOL.  For the record I wear size 8-10 clothes and Euro 38 shoes. 

    It was amazing.  Probably the best trip I've taken in the last few years.  I want to go back!

    Random tip:If you're at all interested in food, we went on a tour of Tsukiji fish market and the department store food halls with Yukari from the Food Sake Tokyo blog, whom I highly recommend:
    http://foodsaketokyo.com/about/
    (At the very least, get her book for some great restaurant tips for Tokyo.)

    Angie is right that very few people, even in Tokyo, speak English.  (Which is interesting to me... I speak English and poor-but-passable Mandarin, which are two of the most widely spoken languages in the world, so I can usually communicate rudimentarily at least, but that was not the case in Japan).  Nevertheless, we got along OK for the most part.  (Your phone and google translate are your friends!)    We did have a couple of days with locals, the food tour above, and we spent some time with my Japanese colleagues in Osaka, so we did get to try some of the no-English type restaurants, etc. 

  • Gail replied 2 years ago

    I lived in Tokyo back in the 90's and everything Angie says was spot on.

  • DonnaF replied 2 years ago

    Oh-h-h, Tsukiji Fish Market: To get a sense of the scope, see if you can stream or get the DVD of Jiro Dreams of Sushi.  The documentary is around five years old.

  • Angie replied 2 years ago

    Liz, Diana is right - and I mentioned that in my street style roundup. Very few people wear jeans in Japan. We stood out because we wore jeans each day (apart from the fancy attire we brought for the wedding events). You will never feel overdressed in Japan. 

    Japan has a very interesting cultural juxtaposition of modern, high-tech futurism and very traditonal conservatism. This is visible everywhere. 

    There are no rubbish bins ANYWHERE. The country is worried about bombs being placed in them so you have to take your rubbish with you. It's a very clean country. 

    The vending machines around every corner are state of the art. 

    You can get green tea flavoured ANYTHING. 

    Each department store has half a floor dedicated to appropriate funeral attire. Cultural norms are very proper in Japan. 

    Eat at the SMALL izekayas that seat 4 to 8 people. Those are the best. Get that guide! 

  • approprio replied 2 years ago

    Thanks all for the feedback! Even more excited but by now the fashion neurosis has reached code orange panic & freak out level. I'm taking on the message of dressing up rather than down and I see a laborious packing thread in my future.  

    Angie, Diane, I am stunned to discover that the Japanese don't wear jeans when their denim is so legendary. It's not uncommon on the Japanese blogs I follow, but clearly not as ubiquitous as it is in Europe and the States. I'm not a huge jeans wearer myself and I wasn't planning on packing any, but I know for sure some of their raw selvedge product is on the shopping list of Mr Edge. 

    Diane, thanks for that link. We're trying to control the budget but we'll definitely look into it. It would be great to have some local input there. I'm not sure if we'll make it to Tsukiji, fascinating though it is. Not that we're squeamish or anything, but neither of us are particularly enthused about getting up at 4am to look at dead and dying fish. 

    DonnaF: due to the sizing issue, shopping options are probably limited to textiles, accessories and footwear. Inspiration though, that comes for free. Good thing I love to window shop.

    merwoman, I've found your posts and I'll look over your packing options. Apropos of nothing, your handsome son reminds me of my brother at that age. 

    Thanks again all! Really enjoying reading everyone else's Japanese experiences!

  • Diana replied 2 years ago

    I was somewhat surprised by the lack of jeans too!  I suspect that jeans are more of a menswear thing in Japan. The other thing that I found super surprising was that it's still by and large a cash economy.  Most restaurants, taxis, and smaller shops do not accept cards so make sure you have a ready supply of yen on hand. 

  • shevia replied 2 years ago

    No packing tips whatsoever but sounds wonderful and I hope you give us a full report when you return!

  • anne replied 2 years ago

    I remember people wearing jeans when I lived there in the late  90's. I noticed it because the fashion was to wear them with HUGE turnups

  • Sadie replied 2 years ago

    Have been to Japan many times (twice this summer alone) and love it there- the most amazing food, wonderful people, and beautiful sites. The country is amazingly safe and people are incredibly honest so travel is remarkably stress-free. Are you doing much train travel? (if so a JR pass purchased in advance in the US is very useful- and the App Hyperdia is great- you put in starting location and destination, and the App selects your train options in English and Japanese- just show this to ticket agent). 

    I wore jeans and saw more on chic Japanese women this summer than in the past. People dress more formally there: no bare shoulders, stockings (even in summer and even with sandals!) so a nice dress and closed toed shoes for fancier meals will be useful. We did it all in carry-on (18 " no less for each of the 2 week trips) because we took a lot of trains and there is not much storage (plus you really stand out if you are lugging big suitcases). We did some hiking, city touring and dining, and stayed in ryokans- both trips were a mix of business and pleasure so I needed  a wide range of clothing (happy to share packing list if you like- just PM me).

    Staying in a ryokan is a wonderful experience- the onsen baths, the kaiseki meals, the peaceful rooms with futons and tatami mats- all very different from western accommodations (added plus is they provide yukatas which cuts down some on the clothes you need!) We travelled to a number of remote areas where very little English was spoken, but never had any problems. I'm so envious- Japan is one of my favorite places to visit! Have a great trip!

  • skylurker replied 2 years ago

    Wish you a wonderful trip !

  • shiny replied 2 years ago

    It's been 10 years since we visited our friends in Kyoto. I agree wholeheartedly about the guide! Our friends served as our guides and we got to see local attractions, clubs and restaurants that would not have been available to us without them. 

    I would take a dressy outfit or two for sure. Shoes you can slip on and off are a must. And pants with hems that won't drag on the floor inside. 

    Back then I didn't know what I was doing, fashion wise. I packed simply, no jeans (didn't wear them anyway). Slacks and tops, a skirt, a dress. Then we stuffed the rest of the bag with small gifts for our hosts -- items they missed the most from the U.S. That left us room in our bag to shop and bring home items. 

  • MaryA replied 2 years ago

    We spent 2.5 weeks in Japan a few years ago and had a wonderful time. We were visiting our daughter who was on a university study abroad program and living in Osaka with a wonderful family. Sine our daughter is nearly fluent in Japanese we never had a problem with the language but I wouldn't hesitate to visit again even if our little "translator" was unavailable for travel. 

    I can't advise on clothing because we were there in December and January and we were so bundled up that it didn't really matter what we had on - no one could see it! We did travel carry-on only because we spent a lot of time on trains, both the Shinkasen and local trains. 

    However, I do have two tips. The first is about shoes - you take them off more than you think. Not just in homes but also at the entrance to many (but not all) restaurants. We even had to take them off at the entrance to the dressing rooms at the Takashimaya department store. The second is  about the konbini (Japanese convenience stores) https://www.japan-experience.c.....he-konbini. They are everywhere, are always open and have good food. We would often pick up breakfast food to keep in our hotel room and they have a shelf of hot cans of coffee. You can also pick up a bento box (pork tonkatsu was one of our favorites) and they will heat it up for you. 

    Enjoy your trip.

  • approprio replied 2 years ago

    Thank you all so much for your feedback! It's really helping me figure out my packing list. 

    Sadie: we have our JR rail cards sorted out and we're taking one small and one medium sized case (bigger than carry-on but not huge). This is not the lightest we've ever travelled, but we do need to keep it down. I'd love to hear more about your travels in the region sometime!

    Shiny, MaryA: I don't really do slip-on shoes and I'm packing with comfort as my priority, so none of my shoes will slip on and off easily. I think I'm going to have to suck that one up!

    And MaryA: that's fantastic about your daughter. Osaka has a reputation for being the most friendly city in the country. It must be an amazing experience for her!

    I'll be posting my packing list later today, and I'll be delighted with any suggestions on that.

  • Aida replied 2 years ago

    No tips but I am excited for your trip! I hope you have a blast :D

  • Sadie replied 2 years ago

    Use the Hyperdia App for the trains- it was invaluable and eliminated any confusion at the ticket counter.

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