• Shona McCarthy

To Giant Suitcase Or Not To Giant Suitcase? There Is No Question

As I was pulling my massive suitcase into the lift at my accommodation in Arashiyama, an European girl got in with me. She marvelled at the size of my suitcase and said, “That’s a very big case to be travelling Japan with.”

“I’m staying for a whole month, so I need it.” I replied.

The girl answered, “Yes but I’m staying six months and all I have is a little backpack.”

And she sort of smiled at me with detectable condescension.

I thought, “Good for you, Miss Switzerland, if you don’t mind spending millions of dollars on laundromats or smelling like a middle-aged truck driver.” I’ve always found it annoying when I meet people who can travel with little and then they are shocked by the amount of laundry I produce, or the amount of luggage I need. I usually dressed in heavy layers to keep warm enough. It’s just my way. And it usually means taking massive suitcases with me wherever I go.

(As you can see, trains in Japan are very clean and quiet. Advertising will usually hang from the ceiling. I took this photo in Tokyo, I believe.)

But looking back over my most recent trip to Japan, I think Miss Europe had the right idea. I had brought two large suitcases reasoning that I could put one inside the other if I needed, and that I would likely fill both with used kimono to take them home. But the reality was that moving such large suitcases in Japan proved to be incredibly stressful, to the point that I ended up posting home most of what I bought or even brought, and nearly fell ill multiple times from the stress of moving so much weight over such large distances by foot.

Within Japan, there is even a distinct kind of shame that surrounds being the bringer of a large suitcase. PSAs will instruct train passengers to make room for people with babies or small kids but will instruct people with large suitcases to “not bother” the other passengers. On the occasions where someone did stop to help me move my suitcase/s, I was extremely grateful, since I could tell they had gone against the grain to be kind to me. (On that note, I want to say thanks to the multiple Tokyo guys who stopped and helped me carry my suitcase up multiple flights of stairs, sometimes even when they were travelling in the opposite direction. You guys deserve a medal and I wish I could take you out for a burger each.)

Not only that, but on the way to Arashiyama, I learned that it simply isn’t worth it to take such a large suitcase through a bus. The exit to get out of the bus is too narrow for most large suitcases. Busses in Japan often get crowded at the best of times. So you feel like even more of a selfish jerk for being there with it. I may have dragged my suitcase over someone's feet as I exited. And don’t think, “Okay, I’ll just take the train everywhere.” Japan’s trains are great, but they aren’t that great. I spent a day going in a massive loop around Kyoto to make a trip I could have done in about 15 minutes on the bus.

In many ways, when you pack, you are making certain decisions about how you will really spend your trip. If you pack ten days’ worth of clothes, you’ll only need to do your laundry once every ten days. But it means carrying ten days’ worth of clothing everywhere you go. If you only pack two days’ worth of clothing, you’ll need to do your laundry every two days, which means you carry less, but you end up spending most of your trip at a laundromat. Or scrubbing your clothes in a sink, hanging them from some twine you brought from home and praying they air dry in your room while you’re out.

I think I come to this subject with an exceptional amount of metaphorical baggage. Someone in my family is OCD and almost constantly occupies the washing machine with her distinct way of doing the laundry, meaning it always must be done her way or not at all. Her way means that every load of laundry takes at least two days to wash. Since she breaks every drier given to her and refuses to hang clothing outside, the clothes all dry (and I’m using the term very loosely) on racks that clutter up most of the house. They typically take at least five days to be wearable. And that’s if you're lucky. Much of the time, clothes can’t dry properly in this situation and so they smell worse coming back to you than they did when you dropped them in the laundry. So, you need to put them through again. And that’s if it doesn’t get stuck in her complicated system of sorting. If it does, it might be two years before you ever see an individual item of clothing again.

To deal with this, I’ve had to stock up on all forms and seasons of clothing to a ridiculous extent. Which means that when I’ve typically packed, I’ve packed in the assumption that washing and drying my clothes will be a painful, time consuming, dubious process with no guarantee of results. My travels in Taiwan and China did little to change my opinion. The laundry service in many Chinese hotels can be remarkably expensive. In Taiwan, laundromats are usually manned and you sometimes have to fork over about $45 for one load.

(A picture of a Japanese Washing Machine. Designs can vary wildly. Some are coin operated, others not. Photo taken by me. 2019.)

But in Japan, all of this is very different. A single load, depending on size, might only cost you 500JPY at most, depending on a few factors that I will explain. More importantly, about 99.9% of all Japanese laundries come with a dryer, which means you can get your clothes back in a matter of minutes rather than days!

The first two places I stayed had their own, fairly rudimentary, coin laundries. There was a washer and a dryer. In Japan, washing one load of clothes will almost always cost 100JPY and they will usually provide the detergent for free, either as a powder in a box, a pod of liquid, or something built into the machinery. If they don’t, I find that a good dollop of body wash can serve as a fair stand-in. I’ve learned the hard way that buying a box of detergent simply isn’t worth it. Once you open it, it’s too hard to transport without the risk of spills, and it weighs a ton.

Using a dryer in Japan is a slightly more complex process, since you can feed the same load through some dryers many times and still find some damp spots. Others will dry your load of clothing fully in one or two tries. But all will ask you for about 100JPY for ten minutes.

There are things you can do to make your clothing dry more quickly. If you’re attempting to wash and dry a towel, don’t put it in the dryer with your clothes. Take it out and hang it in your room and use another towel till it dries. You almost certainly won’t need it right away. If you leave it in the drier, it makes everything take much longer, and you'll spend a lot more money and time trying to get it all done.

One of the places I stayed, Merry Gate Osaka, allowed tenants to wash their clothes for free, but charged 100 JPY for a detergent pod. To dry my clothes, I took them to a nearby laundromat, which usually only took about 200-300 JPY to dry one load. I didn't hang my clothing in my room because it contained only a very small amount of hanging space.

Thin clothing will always dry faster than thick, it goes without saying. So, you may want to pack your clothes with this in mind. There are other reasons why packing thin or light clothing for Japan, regardless of season, is a good idea. But I will explain that in another post.

A trick I found that helps clothing to go further during colder months is to dress in thin layers. Have an outer layer you only wash when it gets noticeably dirty or smelly. Have an inner layer that you can re-wear inside-out after you’ve worn it once. Pack twice as many sets of underwear and socks as anything else, since you can’t (or shouldn’t) re-wear these. This can almost halve the amount of clothing you need to pack for a trip, and you can still look (and smell) like a decent human being. Don’t take perfume or aerosol deodorants. These aren’t permitted on the plane.

In fact, I suggest not bringing toiletries into Japan at all, unless you know you’ll be staying at Airbnbs the whole time. Virtually all hotels will provide these items for free. There are so many convenience stores, pharmacies, supermarkets and 100 Yen Stores everywhere if you need anything. So, I recommend looking at what your hotel provides and then just going out to buy what you need.

The thing I found about myself during this trip was that since I only stayed in some places for around four days, and since I hated the idea of travelling with dirty laundry inside my suitcase, I couldn’t really resist doing my laundry once every four days for the most part. And it was often enough to give me a sense of what the local landscape was like and let me take a much-needed pause from activity, but infrequent enough that I didn’t feel my trip was being tyrannised or disrupted by the concept, which was one of my fears. So, the next time I travel, I will likely bring only two sets of inner clothing, and four sets of underwear, and just bring an ample laundry budget. Don’t be thinking, “Oh, if I pack more, I can save money by doing laundry less!” More than once I took a taxi for the simple fact that I knew I couldn’t handle dragging my suitcase for the distance needed. I could have saved that money had I just been more conservative when I packed.

If you’re thinking, “Maybe I’ll be too cold at night. I should take a spare blanket.” Don’t. Even the most cheapy, nasty accommodations in Japan will usually have heating. And if that isn’t enough for you, they will usually offer you spare bedding. And if that still isn’t enough, you can sleep in your clothes, also saving you from needing to bring sleepwear. So relax, you’ll be fine.

Regardless of season, you’ll want to bring at least one good, thick jacket. This is because even in the summer, Japanese hotels and department stores will often turn their air-conditioning up far too high, just as much as they will turn the heating up much too high in the colder months. To save more space, you can put the jacket inside a vacuum pack, many of which can be rolled by hand and then sealed. A large ziplock bag can function as a vacuum pack if you open the end a little, roll it up and then seal it closed.

You’ll want to either make up your mind to buy no souvenirs, or to set a budget for posting souvenirs home once you buy them. This might sound sad or boring to have to consider. But what I found is that most landmarks in Japan will incidentally hand you small items for free which can work as souvenirs in of themselves. Restaurants will give you individually wrapped wet-wipes that will sometimes have the logo on them. Landmarks will give you fact sheets. Some better-known places will give you free stickers. Naturally, many accommodations will give you free toothbrushes you can take home. So, you do have options. Also, some Japanese stores or landmarks will have souvenir stamps. They will usually be a small table with a large stamp and ink pad which you can use to stamp an item of your choosing for free. So, with some creativity, you may be able to have a lot of fun souvenirs on the cheap.

On that note, I have attempted to buy socks and/or underwear in various Asian countries, with different results. But that’s for a different post.

I’ve also learned that Japan now has many recycle shops where you can sometimes buy heavily discounted used clothing. So, even if you pack the wrong clothes, there is a solution. I’ll talk about that more in another article.

All in all, if you are deciding whether or not to take a large suitcase into Japan, my recommendation is “DON’T!” But there are times when taking large suitcases into Japan is unavoidable. For these situations, I did create a little guide on how to get your suitcase down large flights of stairs on my Kimono Instagram. Please CLICK HERE to check it out.

Also, please like and follow that Instagram account for daily kimono related posts.

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