The right kind of luggage allows you to take advantage of Japan’s unique travel system: ultra-fast shinkansen (bullet trains) that lack much luggage space, and incredibly efficient (and cheap) overnight luggage delivery services. Here are all the details.
The ideal two-piece luggage system for Japan – image © Chris Rowthorn
- There’s not much room for luggage on the shinkansen.
- Japan has excellent, cheap and reliable overnight luggage shipping services.
- You can ship your luggage from the airport to your hotel, or from hotel to hotel (city to city).
- You need a two-piece luggage system to take advantage of this.
- The system consists of a day bag and a wheelie suitcase or backpack.
Whatever You Do, Travel Light!
People with too much luggage getting on the shinkansen – image © Chris Rowthorn
Unless you intend to do an activity that requires very specific gear, such as rock climbing, skiing or diving, you don’t need to bring much stuff to Japan. Three or four days of clothes is plenty, as long as you plan to stay in hotels with laundry facilities. Of course, you don’t want to dress like a slob, but smart casual wear is fine for even nicer restaurants. And outside of northern Honshu and Hokkaido, it doesn’t get that cold in winter (think of Washington DC or Paris in winter). And, of course, if you forget something, you can always buy it in Japan (Uniclo is a great source of cheap but nice clothing, including outerwear). So you don’t need a big suitcase!
Shinkansen Have Very Limited Luggage Space
You’ll probably do most of your long-distance travel in Japan on the shinkansen (bullet trains). They’re fast, comfortable and nearly always on time. However, they have very limited space for luggage. There’s a rack above the seats that can fit – at most – the kind of bag that would fit in an overhead compartment on a plane. Here’s a picture:
Shinkansen luggage rack – image © Chris Rowthorn
There’s a bit more space behind the last row of seats in every car, but you have to buy a special ticket to use this space in all the reserved cars. You don’t need such a ticket in the unreserved cars, but that space goes quickly in those cars. Here’s a picture:
Space behind last row of seats on a shinkansen – image © Chris Rowthorn
Japan’s Awesome Overnight Luggage Delivery Services
Yamato Kyubin truck, Japan’s largest luggage delivery service: NP27 / Shutterstock.com
Japan has a network of luggage delivery systems that is one of the wonders of the world. They’ll ship your luggage around the main islands of Japan, usually overnight, and for around US$20 for a standard suitcase. Many people use the system to ship their bags from their arrival airport to their first hotel in Japan. Then, they use the service to ship their bags from hotel to hotel. Best of all, the service is utterly reliable: we’ve never heard of them damaging or losing a bag, or even being late! Hotel front desks will usually handle all the paperwork, but you can ship things yourself from convenience stores (or pick it up at a convenience store). For more on this, see Luggage Shipping: The Smart Way to Travel in Japan.
You Need a Two-Piece Luggage System in Japan
In order to take advantage of Japan’s shinkansen and luggage delivery system, you need a two-piece luggage system.
My two-piece luggage system for Japan – image © Chris Rowthorn
First, you need a small-ish bag to carry with you when you travel city to city on the shinkansen. You’ll use this to carry things you need during the day and things you cannot afford to lose. This might include travel documents, chargers, medicine, your phone, your computer (if you’re bringing one), and perhaps some outerwear. Since you’ll probably also use this bag when you’re out sightseeing, it should be comfortable and light. Here’s a picture of me with my day bag waiting to board the shinkansen in Tokyo. Believe me: It feels great to get on the shinkansen with nothing but a light day bag!
Me and my bag on the shinkansen platform in Tokyo – image © Chris Rowthorn
The bag I use in Japan is a Kingsons Laptop Backpack. I first saw one of these bags when I was on the Kumano Kodo trek. A fellow trekker was using it as his backpack on the trek and he loved it. It’s the perfect pack for Japan: it looks good enough to bring to a business meeting but it can also double as a knapsack for a hike in the hills. I often use it for overnight trips to Tokyo from my base in Kyoto. Amazingly, they only cost US$50 on Amazon.
Kingsons laptop bag
Next, you need a small suitcase or wheelie bag. You’ll use this bag to carry the bulk of your things. The ideal size is 40 to 60 litres of capacity. It should just about fit into the overhead bin of a plane. I like the convenience of a bag that has straps that can be tucked away when not in use. This allows me to put the bag on my back for longer walks to train stations and hotels, but it’s not essential. Here are some things to look out for:
- Straps that go all the way around the bag: Straps that are only attached by an inch or so of stitching to the body of the bag will simply tear off the bag.
- Rubber wheels with strong mountings: These will handle a variety of surfaces without breaking. Little plastic wheels and mountings will fail within a year of use.
- Simple design with minimal bells and whistles: Extra pockets, zippers, covers and compartments all add weight to your bag. You can always use stuff sacks or cubes in the main compartment to organize your stuff.
Kyoto Vacation Checklist
- For all the essentials in a brief overview, see my First Time In Kyoto guide
- Check Kyoto accommodation availability on Booking.com – usually you can reserve a room with no upfront payment. Pay when you check out. Free cancellations too
- Need tips on where to stay? See my one page guide Where To Stay In Kyoto
- See my comprehensive Packing List For Japan
- Buy a data-only SIM card online for collection when you arrive at Kansai International Airport (for Osaka and Kyoto) or Tokyo's Narita Airport. Or rent an unlimited data pocket wifi router
- Compare Japan flight prices and timings to find the best deals
- If you're visiting more than one city, you might save money with Japan Rail Pass – see if it's worth it for you
- A prepaid Suica card makes travelling around Kyoto easy – here's how
- World Nomads offers simple and flexible travel insurance. Buy at home or while traveling and claim online from anywhere in the world