The best way to travel light and easy in Japan is to use their super-efficient overnight luggage shipping services (takkyubin). You’ll never have to carry anything more than a light knapsack!
Yamato “Kuroneko” express delivery service: Rodrigo Reyes Marin / Shutterstock.com
First: What Not to Do!
Every time we go on the shinkansen (bullet train) or Narita Express (N’EX) train, we are amazed by the sheer amount of luggage that tourists bring to Japan. Check out this group of tourists waiting to board the shinkansen in Kyoto:
Too much luggage on the shinkansen - image © Chris Rowthorn
Here’s another group of people trying to get their luggage onto the N’EX:
Too much luggage on the N’EX - image © Chris Rowthorn
And here’s what it looks like when the folks get onto the train. Doesn’t that look like fun? And when the luggage racks are full, you’re going to have to put those big bags where your feet should go, so you’re going to have to assume some sort of yogic posture to fit into your seat.
Too much luggage in the N’EX aisle - image © Chris Rowthorn
In addition to the sheer hassle of lugging too much baggage around Japan, the main problem with carrying your big suitcases around the country is the complete lack of space for luggage on most Japanese trains. Here’s a picture of the overhead luggage rack on the shinkansen. There’s just enough room for a small pack that would fit into the overhead bin on an airplane.
Shinkansen luggage rack - image © Chris Rowthorn
There’s also enough room for three or four suitcases behind the last row of seats in each shinkansen car. But these fill up fast.
Shinkansen behind seat storage - image © Chris Rowthorn
You must be thinking: There’s got to be a better way! And, guess what? There is a MUCH better way.
Using Japan’s Luggage Shipping Services
If you look closely at the Japanese traveling on trains, you’ll notice that few of them have big bags. Most have briefcases, knapsacks or handbags. So, where are their big bags? Here’s the secret: They ship their big bags to their destination by one of Japan’s excellent overnight shipping services. These are called takkyubin (宅急便) in Japanese. The most famous of these is Yamato Kyubin, but there are several others and they’re all about the same. Here’s one of Yamato’s trucks:
Yamoto Kyubin delivery truck: NP27 / Shutterstock.com
Japan’s express delivery services are one of the wonders of the modern world: They’re incredibly fast, efficient, reliable, and unbelievably cheap. And they don’t break anything. In short, they’re the exact opposite of so-called “express” delivery services anywhere else in the world. In most cases, they can get your bags to your next destination overnight, but some far-flung destinations like Hokkaido or Okinawa might take two days.
After a long flight to Japan, do you really want to lug your big suitcase onto a train or bus to get to your hotel? Of course not! So here’s what you do: Look for the takkyubin counters, which will usually be within 100 meters of the entrance into the arrivals hall from the customs hall. Here are the takkyubin counters at Tokyo’s Narita Airport:
Takkyubin counters in Narita arrivals hall - image © Chris Rowthorn
Here are the takkyubin counters in Kansai International Airport (KIX):
Takkyubin counters in KIX - image © Chris Rowthorn
The folks at the counters usually speak some English. Just tell them the name of your hotel and they’ll handle the paperwork and take your payment. In most cases, your bag will arrive at your hotel the following day. So, you’ll need a day bag to hold essentials like travel documents, meds, toiletries, your phone and a change of clothes. See later in this article for some ideas of how to pack your main bag and your day bag so that you can make best use of this service. After you’ve given them your main suitcase, you can waltz onto your train or bus into the city light as a feather. Recently I flew into Narita and used takkyubin to send my bag to my hotel in Kyoto (I spent one night in a Tokyo hotel to take care of some errands). Here’s what I looked like getting on the shinkansen to Kyoto:
On the shinkansen platform - image © Chris Rowthorn
And here’s my bag waiting for me in my hotel room in Kyoto. I didn’t even have to lug it up to my room. Most hotels will bring your bag to your room before you even check in. What could be more convenient than that?
Suitcase in room - image © Chris Rowthorn
Hotel to Hotel Takkyubin
Of course, takkyubin is also great for shipping your luggage from one hotel to the next. This allows you to travel free and easy from one destination to the next. If you get your bag to the front desk of your hotel by around noon, they can usually get it to your next hotel the following day. Thus, again, you’ll need a day bag to carry essentials to tide you over until your main bag arrives. Hotels in Japan are very used to this. They’ll handle all the formalities and fill out the paperwork for you.
Suitcases being unloaded at a Japanese hotel: Nattasak Buranasri / Shutterstock.com
Convenience Store Takkyubin
You don’t have to stay at a hotel to use this service: you can also send your luggage by takkyubin from all convenience stores in Japan. You can also receive your bags at a convenience store in Japan. The staff at the counter can help with the paperwork. Just try to go when they aren’t so busy, as otherwise, you’re going to create a really long line.
Yamoto truck outside a convenience store: Ned Snowman / Shutterstock.com
How Much Does it Cost to Use Takkyubin?
Takkyubin fees are based on weight, distance to destination, and size of the bag. As a ballpark figure, it costs around Y2,000 (a bit less than US$20) to send one regular suitcase from Tokyo to Kyoto. Here’s the receipt for sending my bag from Narita to my hotel in Kyoto:
Takkyubin receipt - image © Chris Rowthorn
How to Pack to Make the Best Use of Takkyubin
In order to make the best use of takkyubin, you need one main suitcase/bag for your heavier and bulkier items, like clothes etc. And, you need one small day bag (knapsack, shoulder bag etc) to carry your travel documents, toiletries, a change or undergarments or clothes, your phone and chargers. Here’s the setup that I use when traveling to Japan:
Bag combo - image © Chris Rowthorn
Here’s what I keep in my day bag (this is for a warm-weather trip):
- travel documents (passport etc)
- toiletries and meds
- pair of socks
- pair of underwear
- black long-sleeved top
- folder with some maps etc
Day bag and contents - image © Chris Rowthorn
Note that the bag I used for my day bag is a Kingsons anti-theft bag. It’s an awesome bag and it has an incredibly handy smartphone holder on the front shoulder strap that makes it very easy to grab your phone at any time. It’s a mystery how they can sell these great bags for such a cheap price: they only US$39.99 on Amazon.com. I highly recommend this bag – not just for travel, but for every day use.
Kingsons anti-theft bag
Here’s what I keep in my main, bigger bag. Note that even this isn’t too big because I travel light (and this is for a warm season trip).
- light jacket
- a change of pants
- a few pairs of socks
- a few pairs of underwear
- two long-sleeved black tops
- two short-sleeved shirts
- one pair shorts
Main bag and contents - image © Chris Rowthorn
The bag is a “rollie” bag that can convert into a backpack. It was made by the Australian outdoor company Kathmandu. I bought it in Melbourne back in my Lonely Planet days. It’s the best travel pack I ever owned. Unfortunately, they no longer make this model. I wish I had bought three of them!
Other Useful Information
Tokyo Vacation Checklist
- For all the essentials in a brief overview, see my First Time In Tokyo guide
- Check Tokyo accommodation availability and pricing 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 Tokyo
- You can buy a Japan SIM card online for collection on arrival at Tokyo Narita or Haneda airports. Or rent an unlimited data pocket wifi router
- See my comprehensive Packing List For Japan
- Compare airline flight prices and timings for the best Japan flight deals.
- If you're visiting more than one city, save a ton of money with a Japan Rail Pass – here's why it's worth it
- A prepaid Suica card makes travelling around Tokyo much easier - here's how
- Get essential travel insurance for Tokyo – World Nomads is well-regarded (and here's why)