How should you dress in Tokyo, and how should you pack to make your stay in Japan as easy as possible?
I have written about the seasons of Japan before (there are five), about how to cope with the Japanese winter, and how to use a laundromat in Japan (where they are called coin laundries). But let me collect some of the answers I have been giving when people ask on Facebook, hopefully you will find it helpful.
The best time to go to Japan
Tokyo has five pronounced seasons: Summer, fall, winter, spring, and the rainy season. Most people probably do not think about monsoon when it comes to Japan, but the weeks from end of May to the beginning of July may make you believe that you are in Thailand. Only it rains even more than in Thailand during the monsoon in parts of Japan. One hundred millimeters of rain - one meter - is not unusual. Per day. Do not worry, you will be perfectly safe - the Japanese are masters at handling this kind of situation. And even though Tokyo does not see that much rain, the weather is never fine during the rainy season.
Rain turns to summer
The rainy season suddenly turns into summer one day, and the sky clears as the temperatures start creeping up. And up. And up. Followed by the occasional typhoon, after which the temperatures creep up some more. Toward the end of August, Tokyo can be positively dangerous if you are not used to the heat. For a few days, Tokyo can be hotter than Bangkok.
And then it breaks off, although there can still be the occasional typhoon, all until October. But when September comes, the weather turns colder as the days start to be noticeably shorter. Normally, the sunrise in Japan happens around 7 AM, and the sun sets as early as 5 PM. But in summer, the sun rises about 5 AM, and does not set until 7 PM.
Shorter days and colder weather
As the days become shorter, the weather becomes colder. In October there can be a distinct nip in the air, and although the temperatures do not usually go below 5 degrees centigrade, the contrast against the 15 degrees not uncommon in daytime even in December feels like a distinct chill.
Despite this, the fall in Japan is both the most pleasant and arguably the most beautiful of the seasons of the year. The autumn colors are stronger and more varied than the cherry blossoms, but no less gorgeous.
Winter in most of Japan is brief, only a couple of months or less, and the Tokyo area does not see snow or degrees below zero every year. But the northern parts of Japan, especially at higher elevations on the western coast, can see incredible amounts of snow - the reason Japan has had two Olympic winter games.
The spring weather switch
And then winter suddenly turns to spring one day at the end of February or beginning of March. The first winds of spring switches the cold and dry air of Siberia for the warm and moist air of the South China Sea. A few weeks later the country is suddenly covered in a pink cloud, as the cherry blossoms break out all at once across the country. When the cherry trees drop their flowers and the leaves break out, the spring turns less spectacular. But the weather is nice and the temperatures pleasant. It is the best season to visit Japan, with the exception of the first week in May, a holiday week as it has three holidays in a row. Japanese people will fill up hotels and attractions as they take a brief but well-deserved break.
Dressing for the gods
Famously at the Grand Palace in Bangkok, behind the giftshop to the right, there is a shop where you can borrow skirts or trousers. You have to pay a 300 baht deposit, but you get it back.
Japan and Thailand are two of an handful of majority Buddhist countries, and they share a lot of the same attitudes. The reason you have to cover up in the Grand Palace is out of respect for the King, even though the Thai royal family has not lived there for ages. But even though they do not have trouser rental, covering up is something you have to do in the Japanese temples.
You will not be thrown out if you do not cover up in the temples in Japan, but you will be frowned upon. Japanese temples are different from Thai temples, they are not as big (with some exceptions), and they are more like small monasteries than megachurches. Usually, they are attached to a graveyard so make sure your kids behave as they would on a graveyard at home.
Spirits in the surroundings
Some of the biggest places of worship are not temples, but shrines. The most famous example is probably Yasukuni Jinja, but there are many others, both in Tokyo and beyond. The shrines are dedicated to the Japanese animistic shinto religion, where spirits are worshipped. They open their grounds to the local matsuri once a year - when the entire neighborhood comes out to party.
That does not mean the grounds of the shrines are any less hallowed but the form of worship is different. And then, there are churches, which there are surprisingly many (and a couple of mosques).
Something a bit confusing to visitors is that Japanese temples and shrines are not simply enclosed under a roof, they extend into their surroundings. The shrine is a single building but the surrounding park is no less part of the place of worship, since it is spirits in nature (including humans) which are being worshipped. It is the same with temples, but there the temple garden is part of the worship, since buddhism is about achieving clarity and unity with the universe.
Regardless of what place of worship you are visiting, regardless of whether you subscribe to the religion or not, you should behave decorously. Do not laugh or let your kids run around. And dress in clothes which do not expose too much skin. It is easier in Japan than Thailand, where the weather allows you to walk around in a bikini almost all year. In Japan, you could only do that in summer, because in August Japan is hotter than Bangkok. But it would not be very decorous. Dress is something covering your body appropriately. Tatoos do not matter in temples or shrines, they are a problem only in public baths (onsen or sento), and there you do not have any clothes anyway.
What should be be in your diaper bag (besides diapers?)
Always pack a change for yourself, and for your kid(s). Extra pants or panties if they are that age. Diapers of course, in the right size. Baby wipes. Plastic bags to throw away used diapers. A few towels, at least in summer.
Are shorts and T-shirt OK?
Shorts and T-shirts are OK in summer. Unless you like having a cold, you do not want to walk around in shorts and a T-shirt in winter - or even from October to May, since that would be rather uncomfortable.
You will be doing a lot of walking. Flipflops may not be the greatest idea. You need sturdy shoes that are easy on your feet, light, and does not make you sweat if you are going during summer. Some kind of springiness in the sole also makes your feet less tired.
Forget fashion, avoid blisters
This goes for you and it goes for your kids once they start walking. Forget fashionable, you want to come home without blisters, chafing, or corns. Socks are almost as important as the shoes, as any seasoned walker knows. But you will be doing city walking, so you do not want boots. Be nice to your feet when you get home and massage them with a soft cream, or better yet, go to one of the many massage places that dot Japanese cities. A foot massage will put you back approximately 7-800 yen, and after a full day of sightseeing it is worth it. Even after a half day.
If you are going in June, you will need to pack rubber boots. It rains other times of year too of course, so always watch the weather forecast. But there is no time of year which is guaranteed to be rain-free. Buying them in Japan is not a bad idea - the Japanese have made fashion accessories out of their rubber boots.
Count on washing up (and include it in the itinerary)
I have written before about how to use a laundromat in Japan - they are easy to find and easy to use, at least if you have used a laundromat before. It is relatively cheap, but if you are single you will not fill even a small machine more than once a week, unless it is summer in which case you will want to wash more often. The reason is simply that in the Tokyo summer heat and humidity, you will sweat a lot. If you have kids they will seeat a lot too, so you need to wash up often.
Sweating in winter
Unless you dress right, you can sweat a lot in winter too. If you are wearing a thick down coat indoors you will sweat a lot, and while you will probably be comfortable if you take it off, Japanese buildings, especially homes, are heated in a very spotty way. There may be spots that are almost as cold as outdoors, and places that are uncomfortably hot. And your kids will play until they are sweaty, even in winter. We recently found a playground in the Showa park in Tachikawa, which had a really good bouncy plaything. Big, like a trampoline, but not flat. They played and danced and jumped for two hours straight, and were dripping with sweat afterwards.
The benefit of underwear
Putting on a thick coat when you are dripping with sweat keeps you warm, but you will continue sweating for a while. Your coat will smell pretty badly after a while, and the sweat will be closed into the coat, not wicked away. Like it would be with a fleece coat. Wear Uniqlo heattech underwear, a sweater, a fleece jacket, and a windproof jacket. This makes it easy to manage how much heat you actually retain close to your body.
How many changes will your kids need (and you?)
It depends on the season and how long you plan to stay. And on the age of your kids. If they have accidents that require a change of clothes you will probably need at least two extra changes. In winter, you may not need new clothes every day (otherwise it is easy to calculate), but maybe three changes for a week. If you have small kids that are prone to milxplosions, you need several extra changes for yourself - at least one per day, maybe more.
In summer, you also need at least one change per day, because you will sweat a lot. Everybody does.
If you visit in January or February, Japan (except for Okinawa) can be really cold. The cold may not look so bad on the thermometer, but it is wet and the wind will make it feel much worse. Wind protection in the most important part of your clothing, but you also need some way of keeping warm - and to decrease the heating when you get indoors. Buildings - and trains - can be heated to an uncomfortable level, especially if you are wearing a heavy down coat. If you are wearing a light windproof coat that you can take off easily over a fleece jacket or wool sweater, with warm underwear like the Uniqlo Heattech wear that heats you up closest to the skin, then you will be well off whether you are outside or inside. Combine it with a muffler or mittens if you feel really cold.
Dressing in layers
The easiest way to dress in Japan, whether winter or summer, is dressing in layers. This applies to adults as well as kids, but your children, especially your toddlers, have built-in heat engines. Small children who sit in the stroller need to keep warm, as does teenagers. But while your kids are toddlers and early school age, they can play so much that they become sweaty even in subzero temperatures. You need to make sure they do not get cold once they stop, that is when they need to put on fleece jackets and a windproof jacket.
Why do people wear blankets in summer?
You sometimes see people, usually women, wrapped in blankets in the middle of summer. When it is 40 degrees outside you would not believe anyone needing a blanket. But the heat outside is exactly the reason that they need it. Unless they are breastfeeding, in case they may use the blanket to cover themselves and the child while feeding. Japanese women often breastfeed, but they take care not to disturb others - the number one rule for behavior in Japan.
The Japanese government has for several years run a very successful campaign called "cool biz" which is basically telling companies and their employees that it is OK to dress casually during the hot season.
The result has been considerable energy savings - because in Japan, the air conditioning runs continuously during July and August. But when the staff in the office is dressed casually, they will feel the cooling faster than if they wear suits. A pinstripe suit used to be daily wear for salarymen, as office workers are known in Japan. There are special summer suits without lining and made from lighter cloth, but they are still suits and if you wear one, you want the room to be pretty cold. That is why you see women wearing blankets, they are dressed in a lot thinner clothes than their male counterparts. And a blanket.
This was part of my regular advice about how to navigate Japan with toddlers and strollers. I have written about the ten best things to do in Tokyo with children in strollers, the seven best things to do a rainy day, how to get around Tokyo on the train (and how you should behave on the train). And five places you can take your kids to see the cherry blossoms during the Tokyo sakura season.
I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Bangkok to Tokyo, with a brief visit to Honolulu on the way. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning six - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.