3 Pocket-Sized Travel Essentials for Japan

When packing for Japan, the general theme is – PACK LIGHT!

Go the luggage store. Buy the smallest suitcase you can find, even this suitcase will probably seem like a giant once you arrive in Japan. Having a compact bag in Japan will make traveling so much easier.


By “light”, I mean that everything packed into a rolling carry-on suitcase and maybe a small shoulder bag. (In other words – No checked bags.) There are lots of advantages of packing light (whether traveling in Japan or somewhere else):

– you don’t have to wait to check your bag at your departure point

– you don’t have to wait in line at the baggage carousel when you arrive

– your luggage is safe with you in the cabin and won’t get lost or stolen

– you will generally have less to haul around with you (and more space to buy stuff!)

In Japan, I have found that packing light has special benefits.


With a compact bag, you can easily take advantage of the fantastic train system, which will take you pretty much anywhere in the country. Be warned though, there are often lots of stairs (and not many elevators) in the stations. So being able to quickly lift and carry your bag is preferable. Also stations might look close together, but in actuality making that connection might require a long trek through underground tunnels.

These 3 pocket-sized travel essentials will not weigh down your suitcase and are musts for traveling to Japan!

Confession – I am no packing expert.

Okay… now while I am recommending that you travel light, I have a confession: I am a heavy packer. I aspire to pack light, but I have a long way to go…

The master of packing light is my older brother.


For holidays, he used to arrive home from college with just a small duffel. In graduate school, the duffel shrank to a backpack. Just. A. Backpack. No hampers of dirty laundry for him! Somehow he managed to fit a couple changes of clothes, shoes, a computer, and everything else he needed in a backpack. And I don’t mean a large hiking backpack, just a regular Jansport book bag. He could easily pack up and be out the door in 10 minutes.

Me… on the other hand. Well, let’s just say that my parents used to have to rent a van to bring all my stuff home from college.

My stuffed sophomore year room. Notice all the goodies hiding under the bed…

I wish I could be like my brother.

When he came to visit me in Japan, he brought his trademark backpack. Only his backpack for 2 and a half weeks! We did have to do laundry pretty frequently, but I was very impressed by his packing skills. I tried for a little bit to reach his level…

This is the only bag my brother brought to Japan for 2.5 weeks.

The moment I saw my three bulging pouches of bathroom stuff next to his tidy bathroom kit of lotion, sunscreen, toothbrush, and toothpaste, I knew it was hopeless.

I spy one, two three, four bags! >_<

Now I mostly pack what I want and just haul it around. The last time K and I left Japan we had three suitcases, a large cardboard box, and two backpacks. We could barely manage everything. Maybe it is time to start cutting back again… I have to ask my brother for his secrets!

3 Mini Travel Essentials for Japan

So while I am not a light packer, I aspire to be a light packer. And I have definitely seen the benefits of reducing my luggage when I am in Japan.

So in keeping with the principle of “pack light”, these mini travel essentials will definitely not overwhelm your suitcase. In fact, each can fit in your pocket! Don’t be fooled by their small size. I never leave on a trip for Japan without these.

#1 Tissues

(If you didn’t read my earlier post on why tissues are such an important part of Japanese culture, you can check it out here.)

tumblr_lgqwtnTZ8V1qbvmrjo1_1280.jpg Why tissues? I could be polite about this, or not…

I’ll be direct. There are lots of things that you can wipe with toilet paper. And one thing might be your behind.


In Japan, toilets sometimes don’t have toilet paper. Trust me, you will be happy if you have a couple tissues tucked into your pocket. You don’t want to become like DJ Kacho, who became famous in 2010 for tweeting about his lack of toilet paper –

“Urgent request, toilet paper in Akihabara Yodobashi Camera 3rd floor men’s restroom.”


(Credit: Kotaku).

Save yourself the embarrassment and bring your own tissues. Most of the time you will not need them. But just bring them.tumblr_lfxgxhV3vO1qbvmrjo1_1280.jpg

ASIDE – Not really travel essentials, more like life essentials.

When I am living in Japan for more than a month, I start to miss things from the U.S. – cheap fruits and veggies, air conditioning, my family and friends. A lot of these things, I cannot pack with me and bring to Japan.

Disgorging the contents of my suitcases at the start of my year in Japan.

BUT there are a few pack-able things that are pretty critical to my lifestyle and I start missing these badly after a week of going without.

I miss them enough that I make room for them in my suitcase. These are definitely not pocket-sized and they are probably only essential to me. So I am not recommending them on the 3 mini travel essentials list. But since I usually travel to Japan with these items (especially for longer stays), I thought I should include them here.

The items are – chocolate, nuts, and coffee.

Last summer, I was living in Japan. I packed lots of coffee but I neglected to bring enough nuts and dark chocolate. Yes I could purchase both chocolate and nuts in the import food store in Japan but the prices were over 3 times what I pay in the U.S. When K visited me, he brought me a bag full of my favorite treats.


It was the best present!

I wouldn’t recommend these treats for short, touristy trips. But if you are heading Japan for longer stays, you might want to think about what non-negotiatables from the U.S. you want to make room for in your suitcase.

Okay, now back to the pocket-sized list.

#2 Coin Purse

Japan is a cash oriented society. Usually by the end of my first day in Japan, I have already collected a whole bunch of coins.

Instead of having the coins jangling around in my pocket, it is much easier to keep everything tidy in a coin purse. It also makes paying easier. In Japan, you are not explicitly asked but there seems to be an unspoken expectation that you will thoughtfully pay with coins in order to minimize the change as much as possible.


There is the straightforward purchase, where you pay the exact amount shown. And I mean *exact.* For example, if your candy bar is 67 yen, then you pay 67 yen.

Then there is the more advanced purchase, where you calculate the amount to pay in order to make your change require the fewest number of coins possible. Let’s say that your snack purchase costs 463 yen. Then you might want to pay 1007 yen, that way the clerk will return a single 500 yen coin.

I always get really good at mental math when I am living in Japan. Having an assortment of coins in your coin purse at the ready will be a big help in Japan.


If you don’t own a coin purse, you can pick up a cheap one in Japan at a 100 yen store for about a dollar.

#3 Handkerchief

You might be thinking, “Why do I need a handkerchief when I already have tissues?” (See #1 on the list.) Well that’s because bathrooms in Japan aside from not having toilet paper, sometimes don’t have paper towels too. Lots of people carry handkerchiefs, or little hand towels, to use instead. Kids sometimes will have a handkerchief tied to the outside of their backpack for easy access.


There are lots of other uses though! You can use your handy handkerchief to:
– catch crumbs when you are eating a yummy snack.

– serve as a tablecloth for a fold down tray in the train.

– wipe your bike seat after it rains.

– dry yourself if you get caught in the rain.

– dab sweat from your face and neck during the brutal summer heat.

– get rid of stickiness on your fingers when your ice cream melts.

The handkerchief is a surprisingly ubiquitous item in Japanese culture.

Yummy lunch and my handkerchief in my lap!

Last January, I took the vegetable sommelier exam. Like many exams, you are not allowed to have extra items on your desk. You are only allowed two pencils, an eraser, and your answer sheet. Even water had to stored under the desk and you were not allowed to drink during the 2 hour exam.

There is only one exception – the exception is handkerchiefs.

Before the exam started, the proctor announced that people who would like to use handkerchiefs must raise their hand now. Two people raised their hand. The proctor asked them to place their handkerchiefs on the desk. She then unfolded and inspected the handkerchief on both sides for any notes or hidden materials.P1050562.JPG

The entire handkerchief announcement and inspection took almost 5 minutes and I was impressed by the care given to this seemingly humble item. You can read more on Japanese handkerchief culture here.

Where to buy handkerchiefs

Whenever I travel to Japan, I actually pack handkerchiefs both going TO and FROM Japan. My dad often requests that I bring back handkerchiefs for him. On my most recent trip, I picked up some nice cotton handkerchiefs at Muji. These Muji handkerchiefs are also available online in the U.S.

Screen shot 2016-05-02 at 10.49.58 AM.png

(Credit: Muji Online Store.)

Aside from the classic square style of handkerchief, you might also consider a traditional “tengui” handkerchief. Tenugui are longer and more multipurpose. You can use them for wrapping gifts, tying lunch boxes, or as wall hangings. Of course, you can also tuck one in your pocket.

One of my favorite Japanese textile makers is “SOU SOU.” They have a bunch of adorable designs available online, including cotton tengui handkerchiefs.

Screen shot 2016-05-02 at 10.51.27 AM.png

(Credit: Sou Sou Online Store.)

And that’s the end of my pocket-sized travel essentials list for Japan!

I loved this recent post by Local Girl Foreign Land on “Below 10 Days – Toiletries and Make-Up Packing.” Check it out! Her carefully selection and packing of items is inspiring to me.

Do you have any other packing ideas? Any tips to help on how to pack light? Leave comments or questions below.



Come back on Monday! New recipes and musings on Japan posted here every week.

2 thoughts on “3 Pocket-Sized Travel Essentials for Japan

  1. Joyce Belfort says:

    I am impressed by your brother too!! That’s a 35L? Seriously light (thumbs up)

    I love tenugui and those small onsen towels~~~ 😀 They’re sooooo useful for travelling. The ones that they sell at onsens are cheap and hardy I just love them. The regular towels are too big and heavy, but tenugui holds all the magic (love).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. J LeClair says:

      Hi! Yep, a 35L. That’s all he carries. Crazy light huh? He might be coming with me to Japan again this summer. I want to see his light packing again!! Your make-up bag also inspired me. I want to try it for my next trip!! Jessy


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