This post may contain affiliate links, which means I’ll receive a commission if you purchase through my links, at no extra cost to you. Please read full disclosure for more information.
Flights booked? ?
Bags packed?……. ?
One of the most important things to do for any trip is to sort through what to bring and what to keep at home. A well packed bag provides you with essentials when you need them most, and offers an organized system of storage and familiarity in unknown situations. I’ve traveled with backpacks that were too heavy (my back paid dearly), suitcases too stuffed (no room for souvenirs + struggles with stairs), and bags filled too sparingly, I grudgingly bought things that were left behind.
Through my travel adventures near and far, I thought I had finally mastered my packing regimen… until I was faced with an entirely new situation: How do you pack to move abroad for a year?
Planning and Research
Once the overwhelming thought of packing my life into just a few bags had passed, I got to work and started as always- with research and a list.
I’d heard of some people who moved abroad with little more than a backpack (seriously amazing), but since I wasn’t planning to be extremely nomadic over the course of the year, I planned to bring the allowable four pieces of luggage: 1 personal item, 1 carry-on, and 2 larger checked suitcases.
My biggest challenge was finding the delicate balance between packing enough (so I wouldn’t break the bank purchasing items the second I arrived), while staying within the limitations of flying internationally + fulfilling my personal goal to not “over-pack”. As I pondered which items would make the cut, I continuously flipped between two trains of thought: “Oh, I can just buy this in Japan” and “I don’t want to spend money buying this again!”. The process was a real struggle.
Of the many things I contemplated throughout the process of choosing what to pack and in which luggage to pack it in- below is a summation of my notes:
*(fashion disclaimer- I’ve found that my fashion sense is much lower than that of my friends, so you can take my clothing and style opinions as you wish.)
- Weather– Japan has seasons while California doesn’t ?
- For winter, I chose to bring one nice wool coat for its great warmth, versatility as formal wear, and because it fell into the category of something I didn’t want to purchase again. Aware of its bulkier size, I planned to wear it on the plane instead of packing it. To further conquer the cold weather, I focused on including clothes that could be easily layered when needed- fleece lined leggings, synthetic long sleeve shirts, a light down vest, etc…
- Rain– Because it rains a lot where I planned to be, I had originally packed a collapsible umbrella. After further deliberation however, I rationalized that since they are extremely cheap and get lost easily, I would keep mine at home and buy a new one later.
- Spring and Summer– Since I was looking forward to embracing fashion abroad, I planned to purchase some new clothes in this category though I did bring a few light shirts, dresses, and shorts to be prepared for the change in seasons.
- Versatility– I included simple items that could be worn with a variety of different outfits. Sadly this meant leaving some of my more crazy patterned pieces at home. ?
Bags stuffed to the brim– This is what I did not want, as extra space would be needed for eventual souvenirs and purchases. Additionally, stuffed bags = heavy bags = difficult and painful to maneuver.
- Mobility– Everything I brought needed to be manageable by myself as several legs of travel would require unassisted public transportation, stair climbing, etc… With this in mind, I chose a backpack (handsfree), a duffel bag (also handsfree), and two rolling suitcases.
- Activities and Hobbies– I tried to envision the kind of activities I would be doing over the year to plan for any specialty items I would need. As a swimmer, it felt weird to travel without gear, so a practice suit, pair of googles, and swim cap all made their way into my luggage. Additionally, I made sure to have a set of leggings and a tank top for yoga and hiking excursions. As for my other hobbies, select photography and crafting items were also brought along.
- Future Travels- Since I plan to go on several weekend/ overnight trips, I figured a duffel bag would work well as my second carry-on since it also doubles as a great weekender bag.
I built out a mega packing list over the course of a few weeks, and slowly pared it down as I prioritized items. With a complete list, I could finally sleep soundly knowing I would be well prepared for my travels.
The four bags I brought are outlined below:
Backpack (built for camera gear)– As my personal carry-on item, this backpack held the majority of my essentials. (Worst case scenario, if my checked luggage got lost, with this backpack, I wouldn’t be completely screwed). The top portion of the bag housed all my important and “fun” items, while the bottom safely held my camera equipment. As a bonus, this bag made it really easy to remove the camera gear at airport security with its neat slide out storage compartment.
Gym / Duffel Bag– As my second carry-on, this held the rest of the essentials: chargers, travel snacks, extra yen, toiletries, etc… Being a duffel bag, it could easily be placed on top of one of my suitcases, held in one hand, or draped across a shoulder. Once packed with my items, it still had a decent amount of room left inside- just how I wanted.
Large suitcase– This bag held pretty much all of my clothing where a variety of packing cubes helped with organization and compression. A small makeup bag and jewelry organizer were also included. Coming in at 40 lbs, this suitcase was full, but not stuffed to the brim.
Smaller check in– This smaller suitcase was mostly empty except for the small assortment of shoes I allowed myself to bring, omiyage gifts for friends and host families, and several miscellaneous items. By US standards, this bag is carry-on size for most flights, so it would make a good piece of luggage on longer trips if needed.
And there we have it, my four packed bags ready for takeoff! *note: I’m writing this blog post almost two weeks into my travels and so far I’ve been well prepared!
Full Packing list
Given your hobbies, destination, duration, etc, your needs will be a bit different than mine, but I wanted to share my list of what I brought. Everything below fit into the aforementioned luggage (with extra space!) and has been serving me well in my travels so far.
- Passport & Visa – Make sure it’s valid longer than the length of your anticipated stay.
- Boarding Passes – I wasn’t able to get mine online, so these were acquired at the airport).
- Certificate of a Negative Covid-19 Test – If you want to know how important this is when traveling during the current pandemic, read my about my adventures here.
- Certificate of Eligibility – Something I needed to go along with my Student Visa, this was stapled inside my Passport and provided by my school.
- Certificate of Enrollment – Another document to go along with the Student Visa, provided by my school.
- Residence Track – Also needed for Student Visa, provided by my school.
- Folder – Or something along these lines to keep all your documents together. Believe me, you get even more papers at the airport.
- ATM Card – Hopefully one that doesn’t incur international transaction fees.
- Credit Card – Also travel friendly.
- Foreign Currency – I like to have a bit of cash on hand before I enter a new country in case I run into problems with my ATM card or find myself in an emergency. Doing this at your bank before traveling usually provides a better exchange rate.
- Universal Travel Adaptor / 2?3 Prong Adaptor – An adaptor is not essential for most electronics when you travel to Japan as long as your plugs are the 2 prong kind. For electronics that have an extra ground plug (some laptop chargers for example) you will need to buy a prong adapter.
- External Hard Drive (1TB) – Extra storage space is always good to have when it comes to photography and videography.
- Phone (unlocked) – This way you can install an international sim card and get data/ calling features.
- Kindle – Endless books at your fingertips! Love the size of this since it can easily slip into a pocket or backpack.
- Corded headphones – For flights and other electronics that aren’t bluetooth enabled.
- Wireless headphones – For comfort and ease.
- External Battery Pack – Always good to have a backup battery.
- Chargers and Cords for All Electronics – Make sure you triple check this!
- iPad + iPencil
- Computer Mouse – Makes movie and photo editing a lot easier.
- DSLR Camera – My phone can’t take all the shots my camera can + I like the “real camera” feel. So although it’s bulky and heavy, this DSLR continues to have a place in my heart (and backpack).
- Wide angle + Fixed Lenses – For versatility in shots. I brought a fixed 50mm, F1.8 lens and an 11-20mm F2.8 wide angle lens.
- Polaroid Instax Camera – Also bulky, but there’s just something about these instant photos that I can’t stop buying more film and making room for it in my bags.
- Instax Film – I happened to have some extra film laying around so I brought these. I will definitely need to buy more later.
- Waterproof Camera – Great for water adventures (snorkeling, kayaking, etc) where a phone or camera can’t be safely brought.
- Cellphone Gimbal – For smooth videos, hyperlapses, etc…
- SD Card – Just in case more memory is needed.
- Camera Remote – For handsfree captures and removing shake when using a camera.
- Lens Ball – Maybe didn’t need to bring this since it’s super heavy and I don’t use it a lot… but when I do use it I love the photos.
Writing and Painting
- Pocket Notebook A6 – For on-the-go notes.
- Daily Journal A5 – Capturing longer thoughts at home.
- Mechanical Pencil
- Black Pen
- Colored Pens – Brought some for journaling right away, but will get more later.
- Watercolor Travel Set – This is what I already had, but looking to upgrade when I hit the craft stores.
- Watercolor Journal
- Digital Thermometer – For taking and recording temperature during mandatory quarantine.
- Chapstick / Vaseline– I swear my lips are ALWAYS chapped, so it’s essential I have one of these close at hand.
- Microfiber Travel Towel – Great at drying quickly and takes up minimal space.
- Makeup Remover Towel– This was recommended to me by an eco-conscious friend. With just a bit of water this towel easily removes makeup. So magical and now more wasteful wipes!
- Nail Clippers
- Nail File
- Mini sewing kit
- Bobby pins / Hair Ties
- Hair Brush
- Travel Shampoo / Conditioner / Body Wash
- Feminine products
- Jewelry Organizer– Great for organizing select pieces and keeping them safe.
- Face masks
- Baseball hat
- Winter Coat – Bulky but didn’t want to buy another one. Warm and versatile.
- Knit Sweater
- Light Jacket
- Down Vest – Lightweight and keeps my core warm. Great for layering.
- Jean jacket – Probably my least necessary piece of clothing, however I wanted to bring something a little more fashionable…
- Windbreaker / Rain Jacket
- Swimsuit – 1 for workouts, 1 for the beach. Brought these so I have no excuse not to swim…
- Thermal Long Sleeves – Good for layering
- Other Long Sleeves
- Sweatpants – For those days I just want to feel cozy.
- Tank Tops – Some for workout, others in solid color for layering with other tops
- T shirt– Just brought one of these. (My softest/ favorite one for sleeping in)
- Leggings – For exercise and yoga if I I get the chance.
- Flip flops – Summer, beach, swimming…
- Running / Walking Shoes – Everyday life / light hikes.
- Low Boots – To compliment dressier occasions, or when I’m just feeling stylish.
- Sandals – For summer wear.
- Comfy shoes – My alpaca Toms are super comfy and take very little space so they slipped in too.
- Photos – A few favorite pics of friends and family 🙂
- Omiyage– It’s Japanese custom to bring gifts to those you visit in Japan. I brought an assortment of Hawaiian cookies, nuts, and See’s Candies from home to share.
- Coin purse – You use cash way more often in Japan and there are a lot of coins.
- Water Bottle – My favorite Gatorade squeeze bottle and a more durable Nalgene.
- Compactable Backpack – I love how small this packs, and it’s so convenient when I need a lightweight bag- i.e., hiking, shopping,..
- Goggles and Cap – So I have no excuse not to swim…
- Band Aids – Hopefully no accidents will require these, but better safe than sorry!