[caption id="attachment_1197" align="alignleft" width="590"] Small ramen shops and izakayas are some of the best places to eat in Tokyo. However, they often only accept cash – so take out enough yen before your trip.[/caption]
Many travelers assume that Japan is an easy destination to pack for – and for the most part, they are correct. This is the land of convenience stores, which are open 24 hours and found on almost every city block. If you forget to bring toothpaste or socks, you can easily swing by a “conbini” to purchase these items.
However, Japan has a few cultural quirks that make certain products difficult to find. I’ve been traveling to Tokyo and other Japanese cities ever since I was a child, and learned some of these lessons the hard way. In particular, there are five items that you might easily overlook – resulting in allergy attacks, mosquito bites, and other misfortunes.
I hope you find the following packing tips helpful for your next visit to Japan. For travel guides to the craziest underground clubs, restaurants and shops in Tokyo, check out my La Carmina blog and my specialized trips on Odigo!
1) DEET mosquito repellant
Since Tokyo is a metropolis, many people assume that mosquitoes are scarce. They often find out too late that these biters are big, and lurking even in major districts from the spring through the fall. In fact, some of the worst bites I’ve ever had were from walking through Shinjuku – one of the most developed areas in the entire country!
Too often, travelers come unprepared for mosquitoes and wind up with welts before they can purchase repellent. Then, they’ll stop by every pharmacy and be unable to find any spray that contains DEET. In Japan, this chemical is not commonly used, and specialized stores will only carry it in low concentrations.
In my years of mosquito-fighting experience, I’ve found that only 30% DEET will do the job. I encourage you to buy this product from camping stores before your trip, and carry it with you at all times. When I was shooting outdoors with Travel Channel last June, the crew wore Japanese “natural” spray and got bitten all over their legs. I put on my camping-strength DEET and didn’t get a single bite.
2) Ibuprofen pills
It’s also surprisingly difficult to find ibuprofen in Japan. Advil, Motrin, and other popular anti-inflammatory painkillers aren’t carried in the country. While Japan does have some ibuprofen products such as Eve and Meridon, these pills are often coupled with caffeine, and the dosage is far lower.
Traveling can be rough on the body, and I often find myself experiencing unexpected, minor aches. I always pack at least a small bottle of Advil when I travel to Japan, to nip these pains in the bud. A note: Japan has harsh drug importation laws, but you won’t get in trouble for bringing a small bottle of brand-name ibuprofen into the country, for personal use.
La Carmina’s collection of must-pack items for Japan includes mosquito spray, plug adapters and Japanese cash. She also takes her Miffy notebook with her wherever she goes, to jot down memories of her travels!
Japan uses the same two-prong outlet system found in the US and Canada, and these days, most electronics are dual voltage (meaning that North American devices will work when plugged into a Japanese outlet). Many travelers assume that they therefore don’t need to bring an adapter.
But they forget that many North American electronics (particularly laptops) have a three-prong plug – which won’t fit into a two-prong outlet without an adapter. If you’re staying at a hotel, the front desk will usually have converters for you to borrow. However, if you’re renting an Airbnb, you might find yourself desperately searching stores for an adapter. My solution: pick up a universal one before you arrive. You’ll find it a useful tool anywhere in the world, including in Japan.
4) Japanese yen
Here’s another surprise for first-time visitors: many shops will not accept credit cards. Despite the high-tech trappings, Japan remains a cash-based society. It’s not unusual for family-run shops, izakayas, and small noodle shops to accept only yen – which can pose a problem if you’re unprepared.
In addition, while ATM machines are a-plenty (and found in most convenience stores), they’ll generally only accept cards from major banks and credit cards. Some of my friends have debit cards from less-known banks, and they were unable to use these machines.
I always take out yen out from my bank in advance, before I fly into the country. The rate is generally better than if I exchanged money in Japan, and it means I have cash in hand right away. Take out more foreign currency than usual, since you’ll wind up paying for most things in yen – including unexpected purchases like cute souvenirs!
[caption id="attachment_1199" align="alignleft" width="682"] Mosquitoes lurk everywhere in Tokyo, even in cosmopolitan areas like Akihabara. If you’re going bare-legged during mosquito season, be sure to bring bug spray with you.[/caption]
5) Allergy signs in Japanese
If you don’t know Japanese, you might find communication difficult as many locals don’t speak English. For small matters, this is usually not a big deal: you can use sign language and basic vocabulary to ask for directions and other simple matters.
However, when it comes to serious allergies, communication is literally a matter of life or death. A growing number of Westerners suffer from food allergies, especially to nuts. In Japan and other parts of Asia, such allergies are not as common. As a result, chefs may not fully understand the ramifications of using peanut oil and other triggering ingredients -- even if you say “peanut-su allergy” with perfect intonation.
My friend Naomi Rubin (www.naomiyaki.com) created this clever poster to help travelers with allergies. We encourage you to save this graphic to your mobile phone, and also print it out (so that you can hand it to a server, and he can take it into the kitchen for the chef to read). You are welcome to customize the text and graphic for your specific allergy. The poster currently reads:
“I am extremely allergic to the following:
All nuts, including peanuts and peanut oil.
Please make sure that my food does not contain any traces of these ingredients, or I will be severely ill. Thank you.”
[caption id="attachment_1196" align="alignnone" width="584"] Nut allergies are not always understood in Japan. This illustrated sign by Naomi Rubin (www.naomiyaki.com) clearly communicates “if I eat nuts, I’ll die!”[/caption]
I hope you find these packing tips helpful for your next trip to Japan! If you have other advice to share, please leave a comment below.
Check out La Carmina's profile for her expert view of Japan. There's a great mix of cute food, kawaii shopping, spots for animal lovers and some great off beat parts of Tokyo!