If you are like me, you prefer to travel light, but even then there are certain things that you should always have on you whenever you head out for the day in Japan.
Certainly, it makes sense to travel with your passport on your person. Still, here are some additional reasons why it is good to have your passport readily accessible in your travels. First, you'll need it whenever you check into a hotel. It is common practice for Japanese hotels to use your passport for identification and verification of your reservation. Second, your foreign passport can get you discounts! Some duty free shops will only honor tax-free if a foreign passport is produced. Other establishments may simply offer discounts for foreign passport holders. Finally, for JR Rail Pass users, the passport is the validation document for using the pass. Most train stations do not require you to show the passport in conjunction with the Rail Pass, but you do not want to make it out somewhere on the rail pass without your passport only to have a more strict station attendant stop you for not having a passport on hand!
2) Train Map (paper or electronic)
In today's age of technology, paper maps are becoming less and less important to carry. Still, free wi-fi can be difficult to find in many parts of Japan (one exception: all 7-11's have Wi-Fi), so as you head out anywhere, be sure to download train maps to your phone ahead of time or grab a train map at the starting point of any journey. Be mindful that there are often multiple train lines (e.g. JR and Tokyo Metro), so you may have to have more than one handy. Your safest bet is to download pdfs of the train maps to your mobile phone (for example, JR East is here, and Tokyo metro is here). These are important to keep handy and will save you trouble as you attempt to find your way around Japan.
When I arrived in Japan for work, I was told always to carry business cards and umbrella, since those would be the two things I used most often. While Japan often has beautiful, sunny weather, it is prone to downpours, particularly during the early summer months. Spare yourself soaked clothing by carrying an umbrella with you wherever you go. For those of you who will be staying at hotels during your stay in Japan, most hotels will conveniently have umbrellas available for patrons (either in the room closets or at the front desk), so do not necessarily think that you have to purchase umbrellas before traveling to Japan.
4) Handkerchief or Towel
Most Japanese restrooms do not supply paper towels. As such, a handkerchief or towel becomes a must-have item, lest you want to rely solely on the back of your pants for your entire trip. Of course, I recommend picking up a handkerchief here in Japan--they are high quality and often come with interesting or beautiful prints.
5) Business Card or Pamphlet from your Hotel
When checking into your hotel, either grab a hotel meishi (business card) or pamphlet from the counter or request one from the staff. This way, if you need help getting back to your hotel for whatever reason, you can produce the business card or pamphlet, either of which will have the hotel name and address in Japanese to guide your driver back to the right destination.
Expert Traveler Item #1: Sensu (folding fan)
If you are traveling in Japan in the summertime, pick up a sensu (folding fan) as soon as possible. Ever since the Great East Japan Earthquake, Japan has become more energy conscious. One of the initiatives has been to minimize the energy used for air conditioning. As such, having a small folding fan can make certain legs of train rides or strolls through museums far more bearable for the traveler who is not used to the humid Japanese summers (although I would argue no one ever gets used to them!).
Expert Traveler Item #2: Plastic Bag
Ever since the Sarin Gas terrorist attacks in the Tokyo subways in 1995, garbage cans have become a rarity in public areas. As a result, when traveling you may find yourself in need of a trash can with no other alternatives. If possible, carry a plastic bag with you whenever you leave the hotel room each day just in case, so you can carry any trash you accumulate without any fuss until you find one of those rare public trash cans to dispose of your trash properly.
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