Travelling Light in Japan

“When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money.”
Susan Heller

“He who would travel happily must travel light.”
Antoine De Saint-Exupéry

“We should travel light and live simply. Our enemy is not possessions but excess.”
John Stott    

“I travel light. I think the most important thing is to be in a good mood and enjoy life, wherever you are.”
Diane Von Furstenberg

Travelling light is even more important in Japan

Travelling light is important, but when you are travelling in Japan, it can really make the difference between enjoying your trip and living the hell of carrying around bags in crowded stations. In Japan, perhaps more so than in other countries, you will be walking a lot, and will be depending on public transit when is often crowded. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen foreign travellers struggling with their bags on a crowded train during rush hour. Not a happy sight to see!

How I developed a minimalist lifestyle

Over the years, I have moved many times. During the course of each move, I had been compelled to reduce unnecessary stuff that made moving costly and more difficult. With each move, it caused me to question what was important and what was not. Over the course of time, I gradually and imperceptibly developed a minimalist lifestyle. The other part of it was spending a large part of my life living in Asia, where housing accommodations are much smaller than what I was used to in my native United States.  

The final, decisive moment that transformed me into a minimalist was my recent move from Singapore to Tokyo. Unlike some of my previous moves which were company paid, this move was on my own budget. While life in Asia had caused me to downsize my life considerably, it was not until this final move that I had to take some painful steps to really downsize to the most essential. I had looked at the cost of moving all the items that I had accumulated and it was quite expensive,  so I made a calculated decision to limit what I could take out of the country to what would fit in four large suitcases that that two people could check in without any excess baggage fees. The process was painful, but ultimately very liberating.

I have also carried over the minimalist mantra to my travels. Travelling with less is really an essential enabler to travelling spontaneously. You can’t make a sudden decision to change your plans when you see something interesting when you are burdened with excess bags. Lots of luggage means advance planning and ultimately becoming a slave to your material goods.

When I travel in Japan – whether it overnight or for two weeks, my limit is a single lightweight 31 litre backpack. Even for longer trips, I would not need anything more.

Tips for travelling light in Japan

How do I do this? The short answer is with some very careful planning. Like writing, it is easier to write a long article rather than a short and concise one that covers the same topics. Here are some essential tips:

  • Don’t try to anticipate every possible need. Part of the problem for me in the past was the “always be prepared” attitude that I developed from being in the Boy Scouts. While being prepared is often a virtue, when it is taken to mean that you must pack everything in anticipation of every scenario, it becomes a burden. Instead, you should prepare for only the most likely situations.
  • What you don’t take, you can always buy. This might be a supporting point of the above, but in Japan most anything you could possibly need is available for purchase. One of the unique things about Japan is the prevalence of 100 yen shops that you can find just about everywhere. You can find everything from socks, underwear, towels, cooking utensils, umbrellas, ponchos, smartphone accessories and more. What’s more, at 100 yen they are so cheap as to be disposable.
  • Do take clothing and shoes that fit multiple uses. This perhaps one of the most important tips of all. For example, convertible trousers that eliminate the need to carry a separate pair of shorts, or walking shoes that have more of a formal look that you can use for both outdoor and city use. Stick with solid colors and avoid patterns that are hard to pair.  
  • For weather that varies, layering is your friend. Thick, heavy clothes are both bulky and heavy. It is much more effective to layer your clothing when it gets colder. If you have a heavy jacket and it turns warm, you are forced to wear it as you can’t really put it in a small bag. By contrast, a layer of thermal underwear, a shirt, a thin sweater and a light jacket can be just as warm.
  • Today’s high-tech fabrics make hand washing practical. I used to be an advocate of 100% cotton clothing, but with the advent of modern microfiber synthetic fabrics, they are just as comfortable and so so much easier to hand wash. The light weight and advanced wicking of these modern fabrics allow you to wash them at night and the will dry by the morning and don’t require ironing. They also tend to disperse sweat and odors more effectively and are much better for wearing multiple times.
  • Don’t take too many gadgets. Modern smartphones have been a savior to light travellers. A smartphone can replace so many other things that were necessities such as cameras, maps and travel guides. However, it is easy to over-do it. I tend to stick to a very lightweight laptop or tablet to write as I travel, my smartphone and a few supporting accessories like a small power brick. One otherwise unnecessary luxury that I do indulge in is my Kindle because it is the best way for me to read, but in a pinch I could also leave it behind. Remember, travel is about the journey and it is best to minimize your time you spent looking at a screen and maximize the time spent enjoying your travel experience.
  • Don’t assume that you always have to dress perfectly. Most people will know you are a traveller, so they won’t expect that you will always be dressed perfectly for the occasion, but there are some limitations. For example, should you decide to indulge in some fine dining, make sure that your shirts have collars and skip the jeans. Avoid travel clothing that looks too much like travel clothing – many items travel clothing are made with the proper materials but look more like street wear.
  • Don’t feel the necessity to buy souvenirs and trinkets at every stop. I know this is a hard thing for many people, as we love to buy stuff to show where we have been. But how many times have you bought something, and once you got it home, it went into some storage bin? I guess this is perhaps more of an extension of minimalism itself, but during the journey souvenirs can really weigh you down. If  you buy things, focus on purchasing them near the end of your journey, and choose items that are light and compact. Avoid useless trinkets where their only unique facet is that they have the name of the destination printed on it and are probably made in China anyway.
  • Realize that in a place like Japan, you can almost always find what you need if you neglected to pack it. What’s more, whatever forgotten necessity that you acquire along the way could double as a memento of your travels – for example a shirt woven with a local fabric.
  • Lighten your burden as you go. Sometimes you can just leave behind some older, worn items that might not need for the rest of your journey. I often save some clothes that were ready for retirement, and save them for one last trip – for example, I will wear an old shirt on a flight and just dispose of it after I arrive. With socks and underwear available at 100 yen shops, this is also an option for single use as these items can be bulky to carry around in large quantities for a long trip if you don’t have time for hand washing.
  • When packing, scrutinize every single item. It is easy to fall into the trap saying that it is only 200 grams I won’t notice it, but they can really add up. Take 10 of those small items and all of a sudden it is 2kg of weight which is quite a lot for a small pack.
  • Focus on the journey itself. One of the joys of travel for me is the ability to improvise in challenging environments. Part of this is to be constantly out of your comfort zone. Packing light is part of that, because you are often forced to improvise when you find yourself lacking something that you left behind.

However, there are some challenges

With that said, the most challenging situations to travelling light are:

  • Multi-purpose trips that combine business and pleasure. This is a hard one, but given your occupation, there can be creative solutions around it. Thankfully, many professions are becoming less formal, and something simple as a light blazer paired with trousers that look more like dress slacks, and walking shoes that look less like mountain shoes and more like dress shoes can do the trick. The secret is to plan ahead with these items that versatile and can serve a dual purpose.  
  • Multi-climate trips. Going from a cold to warm environment or vice-versa means that sometimes the burden will be double. The solution here is to make use of the previous tips – layering, multi-use clothing and buying anything extra you might need along the way.

Special needs such as medical devices or disability related. I think this is the hardest, and for many there really is no solution. I don’t have any experience in this area, but I have witnessed others in these situations make the best of it. If anything, it makes prioritisation of and exclusion unnecessary items even more important.    

Always learning

One final note – the planning for travelling light is not easy! It takes a lot of thought beforehand to develop the necessary prioritisations and choose the most versatile and critical items to bring along. You won’t always get it right the first time – it is a process of constant learning. One important exercise that I do after every trip is to review my usage patterns – if an item when unused, I review the context behind my original decision and I make a mental note for the next trip – this can be a packing list for the next trip. The most important thing is to not sweat it too much, and when in doubt, just leave it behind.

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