Preparing for Travelling in Japan

Below are my tips on how to prepare culturally and logistically for the Worldschool Travel Tours to Japan in August and November.  And even if you never plan to travel to Japan there are lots of interesting cultural insights into Japan you can learn from their movies and just their words.
But there are lots of tips anyone can apply to their own trips to Japan and the packing tips can apply to travel almost anywhere. Summary of the packing tips: pack light, pack light, and be prepared!

I was thinking of canceling the August trip because there didn’t seem to be enough people, but people are slowly streaming in and I might have enough after all. You never know until you get the deposits but if I just get one or two more people I should be able to lead both an August and a November trip. So if you’ve been thinking about going now is the time to contact me!

E-mail me at:

You can read more about the trips in my February 2009 Stranger in a Strange Land Newsletter.

I’ve added a bunch of new photos from when I lived in Japan in 2004 on my website.


Let’s start with the fun stuff: movies! The first one I recommend is called Pom Poko (1994) from Studio Ghibli, directed by Isao Takahata. One Japanese friend described it as a “big, fat, juicy slice of Japan”. She was surprised I liked it, it was so Japanese! But I recommended this anime film to someone who doesn’t really like anime and after she watched it she said she couldn’t “believe how profound and just really cool” it was.

The movie is about “tanuki” which are the Japanese version of a racoon. The tanuki are threatened by modern development and try to fight against it using their funny, magical powers (the tanuki play an important mischievous and holy role in Japanese mythology). All sorts of themes are covered in a fantastic and also very modern setting.

I recommend anything by Studio Ghibli. Hayou Miyazaki is the most famous director and his My Neighbor Totoro, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and Princess Monanoke are classics. I really like The Cat Returns (2002) by Hiroyuki Morita.

My next recommendation is Lost in Translation (2003) directed by Sofia Coppola and starring Bill Murray and Scarlet Johansson. This recent Academy Award nominated film gives a great snap shot of modern Japan specifically from the perspective of some visiting foreigners. I recommend watching it if only so you can watch it again when you come back from the trip and see how many things you recognize now from being there in person!

I also recommend the Last Samurai (2003) starring Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe, specifically because it was very popular in Japan and I was told it’s the first movie about the samurai where the Japanese feel foreigners really got it right. You see a lot of traditional Japanese culture, a lot of beauty, some action and some funny bits too! I think it’s a bit of an idealized view of the past but you can learn a lot just seeing what the Japanese ideal looks like.

The most famous director from Japan is Akira Kurasawa. A lot of his films have influenced world cinema: apparently, the original Star Wars was modeled after his movie Hidden Fortress (1960). I recommend Seven Samurai (1954) and especially Akira Kurasawa’s Dreams (1990) (produced with help from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg) which offers brief fantastic short film vignettes with very traditional Japanese content and themes like love of nature, beauty, and truth.

(You can find all of these movies on, I’m sure some are even free to watch on, and your public library may have some.)

Historical documentary DVDs

Japan: Memoirs of a Secret Empire (2004) from PBS.

Samurai Japan: a Journey Back in Time (2000) from Kultur.

The PBS one is in three 50 minute long parts and I actually thought the first two dragged a little but then loved the third one where they covered a lot more and had a lot of “Aha! That’s where that comes from!” moments that seemed to explain some of the distinct traits Japanese culture still has today.

Despite the title and the fact that it’s just 50 minute long in total, the Samurai Japan one did a great job covering a very large scope from prehistory to almost modern times. It’s also very interesting to see how each documentary decides to cover the same time period and topic. History is always filtered through which facts we highlight and which we skip and you can see that in mostly small ways with these two documentaries.


Lonely Planet: Japan. Lonely Planet is probably the most popular guidebook among backpackers and hostel goers. Their most recent Japan book is from 2007: guidebooks are inevitably out of date. But I’ve always thought one of the best parts of Lonely Planet books is the historical and cultural information. Get a version from your library (even if it’s a few years old the history and cultural info will be the same) and browse through. It contains some beautiful photos too.

A Traveller’s History of Japan by Richard Thames (most recent edition from 2008 but it doesn’t seem very updated so any edition should do). This book does a great job quoting different sources from Japan and other countries, so you get different perspectives. It covers prehistory to the 21st century but it’s pretty thin and only cost $15 at Barnes and Noble: worth checking-out. Knowing just a little bit about the history of a culture makes a big difference when you travel.

Basic Phrases and words in Japanese

We’ll start with the most important sentences for any traveller: “My name is____.” and “Where’s the bathroom?”

My name is ____.: Watashi wa ____ desu.

Watashi = I
wa = (grammatical marker, basically showing “watashi” is the subject)
des(u) = is (the “u” is barely pronounced, it’s more like: “des”)

Where’s the bathroom?: O toire wa doko desu ka?

O = (this shows respect and honor for the noun that follows, in this case it’s meant to just make “toilet” sound nicer)
toire = toilet (pronounce it like “toy-ray” only the “R” is really a cross between English “R” and “L”)
wa = (grammatical marker, basically showing “toire” is the subject)
doko = where
des = is
ka = (marker showing this sentence is a question, like a spoken question mark)

Important and helpful words and terms (anything in parenthesis makes it sound politer but isn’t totally necessary):

arigatou (gozaimasu) – “Thank you” (again the “R” is a cross between our “R” and “L”)

(desu) ne? – “Isn’t it?” This is often added to the end of a sentence. It’s fun,every language has this sort of thing. In English we’d say: “Eh?”, “Right?”, “You know what I mean?” or “Huh?”

kudasai – “please” You can tack this on to the end of most requests, more often than we would in English.

onegaishimasu – “please” This word is stronger than “kudasai” and also a bit different: it literally means “I pray” and can be used by itself in order to really beg for something: “Onegaishimasu!”

-san – “Mr., Ms. Mrs., or Miss” This is added to the end of someone’s name. But it’s a sign of respect so don’t talk about yourself or someone in your family using “san” because it sounds conceited.

-sama – “Oh honorable, so and so…” Like “san” only more respectful. I once called myself “Eli sama” by accident and they didn’t say anything but it was a bit embarrassing.

gaijin – “foreigner” Non-Asian people will often hear this word while in Japan. You’ll sometimes even be referred to as “gaijin san”: “Mr. Foreigner”.

gambarimasu – often used in the imperative form, as “gamabatte” or “Gambatte kudasai!”, it literally means “be strong under the pressure”. One answers by saying “Gambarismasu!” or “Gambaru!” to be less formal. It’s often translated as “Good luck!” or “Do your best!”, and is usually used in the same contexts. But “be strong under the pressure” may give a better definition of the spirit of the word and a part of the Japanese spirit as a whole.

omatase (shimashita) – “Sorry for making you wait.” A nice convenient phrase that is used more often than the equivalent English phrase.

otsukarasama (deshita) – “That was a job well done.” or “Good job.” This phrase is used much more often than in English and it has none of the patronizing edge to it: people of equal status often say it to each other at the end of a work day.


First of all we are going to be packing light: each person will fit all of their things into two medium sized bags that will fit as carry-on luggage. Below is a detailed list of what to pack in order to do this. Second of all, I’m not a back packer and don’t think any of you need to be: that is, I have a bag that rolls, I don’t have to lug it around on my back, and I recommend you all get the same. Mine has a small backpack attached to it that I can use as a day pack. With some of them you can convert the whole thing into a back pack if you want, but we probably won’t need to on this trip: when we travel with our big bags we’ll be able to roll them or briefly carry them. I recommend Eagle Creek:


I anticipate we’ll spend about $1000 in three weeks on this trip. We’ll usually be eating pretty cheap and most of our transportation will be free with the Japan Rail Pass but things add up quickly in Japan. There are of course many things you could want to buy in Japan that would cost hundreds of dollars. That’s not factored into that predicted expense. But with buying food, paying for some transportation, museums, different activities (from hot springs to video games), and buying some nice things for yourself and others back home, $1000 is reasonable without being stingy or extravagant.

I highly recommend using an ATM card to withdraw local currency, yen, while we’re there. You get a better rate than exchanging cash and it’s easier than travellers checks. You may want to open an account at two different banks and get two cards (one Mastercard and one Visa ideally) so that you have another card incase one is lost or stolen. Theft isn’t very common in Japan, though it is possible, more likely you’ll just accidentally leave your card in the machine or something. I know two travellers this happened to and it’s a lot easier to deal with if you just have another card available.

Anyway, it’s good to leave some deposit slips at home for family or friends to help deposit extra cash in your account if need be during the trip. Compared to Western Union it’s easier, potentially much faster (it’s not always “Money in Minutes”), and definitely cheaper.

Look to see what the bank charges for international withdrawals (maybe specifically Japan but they probably have the same rate for everywhere outside the U.S. and maybe Canada). One of my banks charges $5/withdrawal, which still isn’t terrible, but some banks are worse. My other bank, a cooperative credit union, gives me five free withdrawals per month from anywhere in the world. Try asking at credit unions. The ATM and its bank will probably charge some money even if your bank doesn’t but again it still tends to be easier and cheaper than exchanging cash.

Travel Insurance

Everyone is required to have travel insurance on this trip that covers the entire trip. It’s very inexpensive and can be very helpful. I got a good recommendation for CSA ( but I’m sure most companies would be fine.


-socks (about seven pairs)
-underwear (about seven pairs)
-three short sleeve shirts
-two long sleeve shirts
-two pairs of pants
-warm jacket
-one pair of shoes (one versatile pair)

-tooth brush and toothpaste
-small bottle of shampoo
-small bottle of soap
-shaving supplies (I just have a razor and use my soap, but include shaving cream if you really want it)

-mp3 player
-book to read
-two copies of your passport
-dictionary (electronic and/or paper but for travelling I don’t recommend anything you can’t fit in your pocket)

If that’s all you pack you’ll have plenty of extra room if you want to pack an extra shirt or two, extra pair of shoes, extra pair of pants, a skirt, a dress, an extra book, etc. but not all of the above!

Include two copies of your passport in your luggage while travelling: put one in each of your bags. If your passport is lost or stolen having a copy can really speed up the process of getting a replacement. Also, in most places, other than the actual airport, you can use the copy and we’ll always leave the original safe in our hostel.

I highly recommend bringing an mp3 player and a book to read. It’s really nice to take a break from travel sometimes and sit back with a good book or some music.

I’d really encourage everyone to bring a journal. You’ll be seeing a lot of new things and it’ll be great to have a journal to help record and also process everything you’re taking in. You’ll never be forced to write in your journal but there will be lots of down time when we’re just hanging out and that will be a great time to sit and reflect with your journal. I’ve found the act of writing itself helpful AND being able to look back years later is amazing.

And of course you can read the newsletters I wrote while I was living in Japan on my site:

And more about my tours here: Worldschool Travel Tours.


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Filed under Japan, language learning, languages, preparing for travel, Worldschool Travels

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