Gear Check | Some Luggage Advice for When Traveling in Japan

Donny Kimball’s Instinct Backpack and the gear that he always brings with him when traveling

Lately, I have oddly been bombarded with questions on social media regarding what types of equipment one should bring along when visiting Japan. Honestly, this is one of those topics that you would think has been covered to death by now. As evidenced by the puzzling number of queries from my followers though, this doesn’t seem to be the case. That stated, this is also a topic that I am somewhat hesitant to cover. You see, while I am certainly a well traveled guy, I also live and work here in Japan. When I embark on my adventures, it’s typically for two or three day stints. This means that I am not in the best position to be giving advice to overseas tourists. While I’ll try to address the issue as best I can using my own experiences as examples, please be sure to take my advice with a grain of salt.

To begin with, know that you should do whatever you can to avoid dragging around a massive suitcase. Hauling oversized luggage is liable to cause some serious headaches among the locals with whom you are going to be sharing public transportation. Moreover, having a hefty bag with you at all times will slow you down considerably due to the additional logistical challenges that will undoubtedly present. Rather than cart your suitcase around the country, I suggest designating a central “home base” such as Tokyo or Osaka and from here set out on side trips toting just a backpack. Consider using services such as Ecbo Cloak to store your suitcase while on the go. Alternatively you can also opt to simply ship your suitcase on to your next destination.

Notoriously, I am a light packer believing this makes for a much better travel experience. Honestly, as a quasi digital nomad, I can manage for days on end using a single backpack without issue. It’s basically a meme at this point and I often catch a lot of flack from friends like the YouTuber Chris Okano when I show up for a four-day trip holding only a tiny bag. While I would never encourage anyone to strive for the levels of minimalism that I aspire to, I do recommend that you avoid the ultra-large rucksacks carried by many backpackers. These bags essentially come with the same logistical complications as the aforementioned suitcases but are even more despised by local Japanese residents. The backpacker has never been a cool look here.

With this advice in mind, you will want to invest in a reliable and durable bag. Also be mindful when browsing equipment to purchase a bag that has sufficient carrying capacity while also not being too harsh on your back. My current go to is the Instinct Backpack. For the longest time, I wasn’t actually all too picky about the type of bag that I was carrying. This all changed recently when the charitable folks over at Instinct Backpack offered me an opportunity to give their product a road test. While I certainly may be a tad biased given their kind generosity, this bag has proved to literally revolutionize how I travel. Moreover, I’m also noticing that I suffer from fewer aches and pains following a particularly arduous day on the beaten route.

So, what makes this backpack from the UK so different from all the others? Well, for starters, the pack was specifically designed with wayward travelers and on-the-go creators in mind. The Instinct Backpack uses a modular packing system whereby you can affix any number of smaller pouches to the bag’s interior via easy-to-detach Velcro. Known as Instinct Incubes, these smaller receptacles each have their own dedicated purpose for helping to eliminate clutter. What’s more, there’s even an Instinct Backpack app that makes packing a breeze. Just plug in your adventure’s themes (eg. hiking, photography, etc.) and the app will instruct regarding what Instinct Incubes to bring along. How neat is that?

As handy as the Instinct Backpack’s modular scheme is, my favorite feature of the bag is undoubtedly the USB charging port. By plugging in a portable battery source, you can actually charge your smartphone directly from the backpack itself. This detail removes much of the unwieldiness associated with using these batteries while allowing you to continue snapping Instagram pics. Additionally, the Instinct Backpack is also a pickpocket’s worst nightmare. While Japan is often hailed as one of the safest countries in the world, it’s always best to cap your downside when traveling overseas. Here, the Instinct Backpack delivers in spades. Moreover, the pack also has many hidden pockets for critical items that you cannot afford to lose like passports (which, by the way, you’re legally required to carry at all times).

Anyway, while you need not heed my recommendations regarding getting yourself an Instinct Backpack, you should consider splurging on equipment of equal caliber. You’ll be doing far more walking in Japan than you’re accustomed to back home and an inferior bag is going to seriously take its toll on your body. Trust me on this one; it’s a night and day difference. Keep in mind that many of Japan’s best attractions sit atop some rather steep hills or towering mountains such as northern Japan’s magnificent Yamadera temple complex. Visiting these solemn sites often requires that one haul their behind all the way up a never ending flight of craggy stairs. The last thing you need is a poorly balanced backpack!

Now that we’ve covered the importance for selecting a reliable bag, let’s talk about what you actually want to put in your pack. The following list highlights the items I typically stuff into my Instinct Backpack before hitting the road for a standard two-day, one-night trip…

  • Toiletries: Toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, cologne, melatonin, nail clippers, comb, hair wax
  • Clothing: Extra pair of socks, change of underwear, extra T-Shirt, gloves, rainproof windbreaker
  • Electronics: Macbook Air, iPhone, pocket Wi-Fi router, headphones, high capacity mobile battery
  • Chargers: Macbook Air Charger, dual USB wall charger, USB charging cables (Lightning & Micro USB)
  • Misc Others: Stretch band, softball & golf ball (for mobility), erasable pens, collapsible water bottle, umbrella

Of the list above, nothing really seems all too outlandish other than the odd personal items I use to work out some muscle kinks. After all, this is Japan we are talking about and many of these necessities can be purchased at any time of the day at the ubiquitous convenience stores. Still, one item that I highly encourage you to bring along with you is deodorant. You see, despite the fact that Japan gets deathly hot and humid during the summer months, the practice of masking one’s scent with deodorant is sorely lacking. Sadly, the best you’re going to find here is something similar to AXE body spray.

Now, as a tourist, you’re also going to want to account for additional space for items such as souvenirs and other trinkets that you pick up along the way. Other than that though, most of the important stuff can be easily found on the road. Though this might not be the most budget friendly option, it beats having to carry around stuff you won’t need. Hell, these days the convenience stores have even started offering T-shirts, underwear, and the like. While these items are more or less geared toward the salarymen who have experienced overly sloppy night, that doesn’t mean you cannot take advantage of these necessities.

To conclude this post, here’s the Cliff Notes version of what I’m suggesting…

  • Leave your main suitcase back in a major city and make multiple overnight side trips from that home base.
  • Invest in a solid backpack that is well-balanced while also having sufficient capacity to hold whatever items you’ll need for two to three days.
  • Avoid overpacking and just splurge on anything you need while on the road. In a pinch, many essentials can be bought at the convenience stores.

Thus far, I’ve given this advice to a handful of friends and family members who have had better experiences given they are not bogged down hauling a massive suitcase. Hopefully this will give you a better idea of what items and equipment to bring while navigating around Japan. If you want to snag yourself an Instinct Backpack, you can do so via this link today.

Until next time travelers…

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Donny Kimball
Donny Kimball

I'm a travel writer and freelance digital marketer who blogs about the sides of Japan that you can't find in the mainstream media.

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