Toothpaste in Japan is good for whitening and cleaning, but some of it isn't very effective. The cheapest Japanese toothpaste does almost nothing at all. However, there is good toothpaste here. I really prefer US toothpaste, so I asked for it in a recent care package from America. But if you aren't attached to anything (and I will probably give it up when my current stock runs out), you can find Aquafresh and other Japanese brands with active, meaningful ingredients. Here's an article on types of toothpaste in Japan.
Deodorant should be the other major concern for foreigners. Stick deodorant can be tough to find. Some familiar western brands that work decently can be found. Costco, Loft, Tokyu Hands, and a large number of websites sell it. Again, if you are attached to a certain deodorant (I've found only one particular brand that truly works for me) you will want to bring it. Otherwise, do a little research. (Your favorite brand could be available here.) You can start with this webpage.
As far as clothing goes for guys, your size will determine your luck in finding clothes. When I arrived, I was a US size XL, with a 38" pant size. I have since lost weight, and am now down to around a US-Large, 35-36" pant size (real pant size, not the baggy jean size). Japanese guys are skinny and short. My dress shirt size is 3L here in Japan, and for a comfortable fit on regular shirts LL or 3L usually works. Pants are easily available up to 36". For those of you bigger than a Japanese size L or XL, you might need to do a little hunting. I found Cool Biz dress shirts in the mall up to size 3L. There's a Big-and-Tall section in the guy's clothing floor of my local Daiei department store which has up to 6L shirts and quite large pants. You just need to look around. For Americans 2X or larger, bring everything you'll need. If you have big feet (I've heard over size 10) you might want to bring plenty of shoes, too.
For women, I've heard that nothing can fit right if you're truly American or European. Bras fit smaller, jeans have no butts, and skirts are sometimes super-short. Casual shirts seem to be pretty large, though! Since I have no first-hand experience shopping for women's clothing (other than accompanying a couple friends to some stores) I can't offer too much advice.
That said, bringing lots of clothes (like I did, UGH) isn't the answer. I recently bought an almost entirely new wardrobe for the hot, humid summer right down to the underwear (also to go along with losing some weight) - Cool Biz has no equivalent in America. Here, it's easy to buy clothing that dries within an hour in the sun, while even Old Navy's basic T-shirts sold in the States take much, much longer. Depending on when you arrive and your monetary situation, it's best if you can buy your summer wardrobe (and majority of your clothes) here. Underwear can be found at Don Quixote (though basic casual clothing is fairly expensive). Dress clothing can be found on sale if you shop around, for as low as 1000 yen per shirt (the dress shirts I have were 3/4000 yen and seem to be pretty good quality). If you're US-Large or smaller and can afford it, bring the smallest amount of clothes you can live with and buy a new wardrobe. Three shirts, two pairs of pants, and a week's worth of t-shirts, boxers, and socks should cost you about 10,000 yen on the low end. Cool Biz underwear is good year-round, and Cool Biz dress pants will be fine year-round for indoor work.
What about medicine? That's a crazy story. A lot of medication easily available in the US is banned here. Other medicine is difficult to find or weaker. I brought my own large stash of Immodium, acetaminophen, and heartburn chewables. You might want to bring some medicine for colds and flus, or allergies, but those are the ones most likely to be banned due to the ingredients. Be careful and check with the embassy or another source, and then bring anything you feel you need to be comfortable. Nothing sucks more than going into a pharmacy with no language ability and needing to find some medicine with no English instructions or labels when you're really sick. Pharmacy attendants can be very helpful, and if you're in the Tokyo area or somewhere else with lots of foreigners, you will have decent luck finding an English-speaking pharmacist to recommend medicine for your symptoms.
Let me reiterate, be careful about things like medicine. And if you're dumb enough to try to bring in illegal drugs for substance abuse, and you get caught, then you're just that much dumber.
- Do NOT bring a cell phone. You could bring your US phone, but don't plan on using it. It's expensive. Tell your family you'll make contact by the weekend via Facebook or other social networks. Social networks are your friend - Skype, Facebook, or your other favorite (web-based) contact site should be your main means of contacting folks in America. Seriously, DON'T plan on using a phone you brought from outside Japan here, even if it works. Once you sign up for your alien registration card, you can get a cell phone fairly easily, especially if you're working full-time for a reputable company.
- Do NOT bring tons of clothes unless you're XL+. If you are XL+, bring enough outer clothing (dress/casual shirts, dress/casual pants) to keep you happy. You can wear the same pair of pants for a LONG time without needing much maintenance. And you can buy more (faster-drying, cooler) underwear here pretty cheaply, even for larger sizes.
- Do NOT bring heavyweight clothes that you plan to wear often. Most homes don't have dryers. It takes a full afternoon to dry most American clothing items I brought with me. Just buy your underclothes here.
- Do NOT bring housewares, office supplies, or anything else normal. You can get cheap, great-quality products for your bathroom (brushes/combs, nail clippers), kitchen (utensils, storage containers), and the rest of your home (more storage containers, nice hangers, shelves, office supplies like pens and notepads) for 100 yen each. In fact, if you're really smart and thrifty, you can buy a decent starter wardrobe and everything you would need in your apartment for about 20,000-30,000 yen.
You're leaving soon, so what do you bring? Here's your handy-dandy packing guide: what I would bring if I was leaving today.
- Just enough clothing. Even though I was told to bring up to four dress suits, I have only used one jacket so far, two pairs of pants, and for a while I was switching between only two dress shirts once the heat reached Tokyo but Cool Biz had yet to begin (Cool Biz dress shirts are short sleeve; the rest of the year I have to wear long-sleeve shirts). In fact, during training, I wore the same shirt, dress pants, and jacket for 10 days straight. Don't worry, I changed my undies and kept my clothing clean as needed. I wish I had brought far less clothing. If you're not XL or bigger, you can shop fairly easily in the major cities. Note: if you're on a program like JET, and you fly right into a tiny town with difficult access to a major city, you might want to bring a bit more clothing. You can buy winter jackets, long john underwear, and such when the season arrives (unless you're coming during the cold season, when you can wear it off the plane).
- Only bring toiletries and medicine you can't live without. Unless you desperately need a specific kind of shampoo or soap, just buy it here. (Bring enough to last you a couple weeks to a month or so.)
- Let me stress: if you need some specific brand or type of soap or shampoo (I.E. Cetaphil), bring plenty. One of my friends uses Cetaphil, and you can not easily buy it in Japan.
- Bring a digital camera that uses SD memory cards and rechargeable batteries. And bring an extra rechargeable battery or two. SD cards are the standard around the world, and most cameras use them already. You should plan on taking lots of pictures.
- If you want a laptop computer, bring it with you (carry-on, not checked luggage). Japanese keyboards take a lot of adjustment, and Japanese OS's are difficult to manage unless you're fluent in the written language. English operating system computers are available in Akihabara, at a decent markup. It's better just to carry one across the pond.
- Bring one or two guide books. I recommend Lonely Planet Japan, as it's pretty comprehensive for the whole nation. If you will be living near a major city, pick up a detailed guide book for that area as well for more ideas for day trips.
- If you have large feet, bring at least a couple pairs of casual shoes, and a couple pairs of dress shoes. I've worn through one pair of each already. You walk a LOT in Japan.
- You should have only one large suitcase, plus your carry-on with your electronics and such. You have some space, so toss in your comfort items. Most travelers can bring in two large suitcases, a carry-on, and a personal bag (like a laptop bag). Make use of the space available if you need it. Just remember: apartments in Japan are tiny, and you'll need to store all those clothes when you're not wearing them (UGH, again).
- Money. The easiest and possibly cheapest (depending on your bank) way to get yen is to use your ATM card at a 7-11 convenience store. Bring some cash to get you started, especially if you get a great rate at home. I started with about 50,000 yen in cash plus plenty available in my bank account. In the end, you should try to budget at least 20,000 a week for basic expenses, shopping for new household items, and a bit of fun.
As you pack your suitcase for Japan, ask yourself when you'll really use it. Also ask yourself if you can find it cheap once you arrive. Anything can be bought here using websites such as Amazon and Foreign Buyers Club, and a suitable substitute for nearly anything can be found with a bit of effort. As far as clothes are concerned (which take up most of your space and are the most important items you have in your possession in Japan), I'm happier with local products. They dry faster, look nice, and aren't too expensive.
Remember, your mileage may vary. It depends on your personal preferences and your access in Japan. But with patience, you will be much happier bringing a lighter suitcase and buying things that suit your needs as you discover them.
What do you think? Is there something you couldn't live without? Do you want to know if something is available here? Leave a comment!