If you’re not sure What to Pack for Japan, I’ve got you covered!
What should I to pack for Japan?
“I want to take you to Japan for your birthday,” my husband told me with excitement in his voice. I was completely shocked at first, but the more I thought about it, the more excited I was! As I started to plan the trip, my thoughts constantly went to, “What do I pack for a trip to Japan in the spring? What will I wear?”
In the past I’ve spent as much time agonizing over my wardrobe as I have the itinerary. When I travel, I want to be comfortable, chic, appropriate, and somewhat blend in with the locals. I did some research and decided to pack classic, basic items in a fairly neutral palette so everything would mix and match.
To sum up Japanese culture, they have a saying that loosely translates to, “If a nail is sticking up, hammer it in.” They value conformity and order. It shows up in the wardrobe as well as the rules of society. Don’t stand out, fall in line, get along. Individuality isn’t encouraged. Neutral, neutral, neutral. They value beauty, order, cleanliness, simplicity, and nature. This is reflected in their fashion as well.
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HOw to dress like a chic Japanese woman
After spending a couple of weeks in Japan, I observed that the Japanese are very fashionable, yet conservative and modest. They are usually classic and chic, though trendy, if that makes sense. For example, the cropped wide-leg pants (can we be honest and just call them gaucho pants?) were everywhere in Japan spring 2016, and nowhere in the United States (let’s all say a prayer of thanksgiving for that mercy). All the women were wearing them. But the conservative side comes in because the Japanese dress in almost all neutral colors: gray, black, brown, tan, cream, white, and navy. As they do in Europe, the Japanese also mix navy and black. Clothing is usually modest in cut as well, skirts and dresses aren’t too short, tops aren’t too low cut.
My turquoise trench made me stand out, but I don’t care. I love this coat and I love this color. Besides, it made me easy to spot when we got separated. The rest of what I wore passed the Japanese wardrobe test: neutral, neutral, neutral.
I passed one Japanese woman wearing a bright yellow anorak, and we gave each other a knowing look that we knew we were going against the trend, and we were ok with it. There was a genuine connection of kindred spirits in our brief moment. I got a nod of approval from her as she went on her way. Typically my husband and I dress to blend in and not make ourselves even more of a target than we already are as Americans, but this coat definitely stood out in the crowd.
Trench coats are huge in Japan as well as in Europe, and nearly all of them were tan, with the occasional black or navy one. I have a tan trench, and the thought of wearing that color for two weeks made me cringe. It’s not a good color on me, and I don’t feel good when I wear it.
One thing I noticed about their trenches is that many people wore them buttoned up perfectly, instead of one or two buttons, and knotted elegantly and intentionally, not haphazardly the way the French do. If they were worn unbuttoned, instead of tying the belt in the back, they reverse buckled across the back instead of the front so it stayed very neat and tidy. In fact the French aesthetic of slightly undone and, “I woke up like this,” is the opposite of the Japanese style. Even though they might be wearing the exact same pieces, there is no casual, slightly rumpled finish. In Japan their clothes were pressed, creased, tidy, neat and intentional.
What I packed for our trip to Japan
This is what I wore in late March/early April in Japan as we traveled as far north as Nikko and as far south as Himeji. This same wardrobe would serve me well in Holland, Belgium, France, England and Italy. My packing selections turned out to be perfect for me. I checked the weather right up until the day we left and made a couple of adjustments. The key is light layers so you can mix and match to dress for the crazy weather changes that happen in spring. From one day to the next, from morning to afternoon, the temperature and weather conditions can vary wildly.
I typically pack black, white and blue and a small splash of color, which this time was actually a brighter hue of blue, turquoise, my *favorite*. This will allow you to blend in in most European countries and Japan. Honestly, I realized that most of the outfits I wear in my real life are black, white, and blue, sometimes with a splash of color anyway, so I was just wearing what I usually wear, and I packed it all in a carry-on.
Days one and two of the trip I spent on an airplane and a long bus ride to the hotel. On a domestic flight I’d wear normal clothes, but on an international flight I typically wear leggings, a tunic top, a cardigan, a scarf and a jacket. I want to be comfortable and warm, but not look like I’m dressed for bed. I just want to FEEL like I’m dressed for bed. I’m very cold natured, so the layers really make a difference for me.
I would typically prefer to wear flats on a flight, but these are the biggest shoes I took, so they needed to be on my feet instead of in my bag. This is also the only scarf I have left after the purge, and it happens to match my jacket. I hoped to find a cobalt or navy one on our trip to go with this jacket instead. The only jewelry I wear when we travel is my plain wedding band, but this time I brought along my turquoise stud earrings. My scarf served as my necklace when I wanted one, or to keep me warm when needed (and it was needed!). These are all pieces I wore during the trip, but they were all comfortable enough to feel like pajamas. I actually used the leggings with my nightgown on colder nights.
Our first full day in Japan was in Nikko, and it is farther north and in the mountains. It’s not unusual to find snow on the ground there in late March. It was definitely the coldest day of our trip, with lows in the 30s, windy and light showers, so I layered. I had on a camisole, a long sleeve tee, a flannel button up, a cashmere sweater, a scarf, a trench, and later in the day I added a waterproof rain shell under the trench to keep out the humidity. That made a huge difference. I also wore it for the hood because it rained a little. I took a pair of running gloves, and that helped a lot. I packed a black fleece hat, but I forgot it in my suitcase that day. I confess I felt bulky and a lot like the Michelin man, but it was worth it to not pack a bulky winter coat in my carry on for just the one day. I have since purchased a packable down jacket that is perfect for travel. It comes in a tiny bag that can fit in my travel purse.
Day four of the trip was still fairly cold as we left the ryokan north of Nikko, traveled south and spent the evening in Nagoya, so I wore a black sweater, gingham button up and scarf along with my trench. I wore my sneakers again on this day to keep my feet warm, and because we weren’t going to be taking our shoes off anywhere. You also won’t see red lipstick on Japanese women, but I didn’t part with mine.
Day five the weather was iffy. It started out chilly. Later I knew that if the sun was out and the air still, it would be warm-ish. If the clouds moved in or the wind picked up, I would be cold. I layered again with a long-sleeve cobalt striped tee, black sweater, scarf and trench. This is the day we were supposed to hike from Magome to Tsumago, and I thought I might get warm then too. I ended up taking the sweater and trench off and putting them on again throughout the day, so I was glad I had these layers. I was very comfortable. See that colorful manicure? Also not a Japanese thing. Their manicures were all neutral: blush, nude, ballet slipper pink colors.
Day six we were in Himeji, and it was one of the nicest days we had, but still it was chilly in the morning and later in the evening. I wore a long-sleeve tee and cardigan. I ended up taking off my trench during the warmest parts of the day, but was glad I had it otherwise. I wore flats this day because it was warm enough, and we were going to be taking our shoes on and off to enter the various buildings at Himeji Castle. Do the Japanese wear destroyed jeans? Well, not really. I mean, there is the young crowd that does (think high school and college age), but once you are old enough to be a working professional, you really don’t see that. I knew this before we went, but wore them anyway because I love them, and they are very much part of my style. There needs to be a balance between being respectful and appropriate with your clothing choices and still staying true to yourself when you travel.
Day seven we were in Kyoto, and even though it’s much farther south than Nikko, it was very rainy and cold that day, so I wore my navy gingham button up and cobalt cashmere sweater. Even though we had to take our shoes on and off a lot, I wore my sneakers again because I hate having cold, wet feet, and it was worth the pain of unlacing and lacing them up as we came and went from the various temples and shrines. I also wore my North Face rain shell again. That’s my samurai pose above.
Day eight we were in Osaka and Nara. The sun played peekaboo and the wind picked up in Nara, but I was fine in a cobalt striped long sleeve tee, black skinnies, trench and flats. I ended up buying a scarf in Nara because I liked it, and I wore it the rest of the day for additional warmth as a storm blew in.
This is the scarf I bought.
Day nine we spent the morning in Osaka before catching a train back to Tokyo and spending some time out that evening as well. I wore the navy gingham button up, black skinnies, trench coat, flats, and in the evening I added the scarf. I saw men and women alike wearing navy or black gingham shirts just like this everywhere we went. Everyday. Everywhere. It was definitely part of the Japanese spring uniform that year. I’ve had this one from J. Crew for 3 years now and still love it.
Day ten in Tokyo was ok weather. I wore this striped button up and my trench along with my sneakers because we weren’t going to be taking off shoes anywhere.
Our last full day in Japan was cold and rainy. I wore the black tunic, scarf, sneakers, and trench. Honestly, it was colder than the forecast had suggested, and I was cold that day. My husband jokes that I treat weather.com like God’s personal weather blog. If it says it on there, it will be. The internet does not lie. I wish I’d added a sweater, and I was really glad I had my gloves.
Days 12 and thirteen were travel days. My flight didn’t leave until 5 p.m., so I was in this outfit at least 36 hours. I wore the soft, cozy flannel pop-over, cardigan, scarf (not pictured), trench, jeans and flats. Jeans? For 36 hours? These are Express jeans, and they are the most flattering, most comfortable jeans on the planet, and I’ve tried just about every designer brand out there. I’ve purged them all, and now the only pants I own are Express. They have great stretch, but hold their shape, lift and separate your bum cheeks, and are comfortable enough for a day in Tokyo, a 2-hour bus ride and 14-hour plane ride. I even wear them when we drive cross-country with 15-hour days.
Had I worn a neutral colored trench I would have blended much, much more, but we have to have fun in life, and we have to be who we are. That turquoise trench makes me happy. I’m glad I wore it. I was even complimented on it more than once.
I also packed a pair of yoga sticky socks to wear in the shrines, temples, and castles where we had to take off our shoes. The floors are slick, cold, and everyone else is walking around. Socks just seem more sanitary, and sticky socks gave me needed traction, especially on wooden stairs.
What Would I pack Differently?
I refine my packing skills with each trip, and this time even though my wardrobe was 100% type 4, I really missed the edginess of my regular wardrobe, which most often shows up in my shoes and accessories. On subsequent trips have added a few more accessories to bring that out for me. Edgy shoes aren’t comfortable shoes, so I stick with what makes my feet happy, but I have started bringing a few necklaces and earrings that give me what I need. It’s still nothing that would draw a lot of attention or make someone want to rob me for it, but it makes me feel more…me.
This is more for the post about packing for 2 weeks in a carryon, but I have decided to never, ever leave my flat iron behind ever again. The humidity in Japan left me with a tragic Clark Kent wave in my hair the whole time. It was ghastly. What was I thinking? I have since purchased a mini flat iron that is perfect for travel (and for my pixie cut), and at $30, if the power adaptors are not enough to protect it and it fries, I’m not out that much money. Even if I only used it for those 2 weeks, it would come out to $2 a day, and not looking like Superman’s alter ego is worth every penny. My haircut is my every day edgy accessory, and during this trip my hair didn’t look edgy, it looked tired mommy. I hated it. That may have been the part I really missed.
Have you been to Japan in the spring? Were you happy with what you packed?