As much as I have loved traveling in Japan, the one thing I’ve struggled with (especially when shopping or eating out) is the amount of packaging that is involved in everything.
As clean and as neat as packaging makes everything, coming from a background where I have been taught to re-use, recycle or reduce consumption has made it pretty hard. One of the very first phrases I made sure to learn was “I don’t need a plastic bag”. Because in Japan, when you’re shopping, you sometimes get bags within bags.
This has been a huge culture shock for me and something that has definitely been difficult for me.
As travelers, we often contribute more to the environment that others. From the fuel used to power airplanes to the tiny plastic bottles of shampoo at hotels, the environmental impact from traveling can be awful.
While I don’t think this means we should give up travel, I like to reduce my environmental impact where I can!
This can be especially hard in a country like Japan, as there just seems to be so much packaging and plastic everywhere you look.
For my fellow travelers who want to learn how to reduce their environmental impact, I’ve put together a guide of what you can do to reduce wastage when visiting!
1. Learn how to say “I don’t need a plastic bag” (or simply just say it in English when they pull out the bag!)
If you love shopping, are purchasing souvenirs or simply buying lunch from the local convenience store, you’ll find that plastic bag usage is pretty heavy here. There have been times where the parts of my purchase are put in separate bags to other parts. For example, when purchasing fruit, this often is put in its own separate clear plastic bag before being plastic in your plastic shopping bag with your other purchases.
Similarly, when purchasing souvenirs, my skin care items were placed in their own bag before joining my other items in the main shopping bag.
These are just a couple of examples of where you can reduce your plastic bag usage. Make sure to remember to bring a re-usage bag when you go out!
2. Bring your own chopsticks when eating out
Disposable chopsticks in Japan are everywhere. While this means your chopsticks are clean when you eat, at the end of your trip there’s probably a huge pile of chopsticks somewhere!
Bring your own from home, or if you’re after a cool souvenir purchase some!
Visit your nearby Daiso store or a 100 yen store (where everything costs 100 yen, the equivalent of about $1 USD) to buy a pair of cool patterned chopsticks. Not only will they make a great souvenir for when you leave Japan, but you can also take them out with you! You can also purchase a cute box to store them in to keep them clean in between meals/ washes.
3. Bring your own refillable water bottle
This is a must generally when traveling, but is even more true in Japan. Tap water is clean here and is definitely drinkable. While it may be tempting to buy bottled water, the tap water is perfectly safe to drink in Japan. You can also save a heap of money by drinking tap water!
4. Bring your keep cup for coffee or hot drinks
If you need your caffeine fix before you start your day, make sure to bring your own re-usable flask or keep cup. While the zero waste movement isn’t as big in Japan as it is in other parts of the world, many coffee shops are happy to take your cups.
Some even offer a discount if you bring your own cup/flask (yay to discounts!)
5. Be careful when you’re shopping
I have definitely noticed in Japan that packaging is huge here. Often you’ll find if you buy a packet of cookies, once you take them home and open them, each individual cookie will be wrapped in its own plastic wrapper. While this is great if you’re planning on taking snacks out with you, it is at times unnecessary.
If you know this is something that’ll bother you, make sure you keep a lookout when shopping in the supermarket or convenience store. This is definitely not something that applies to all food/packaged goods but can be easily avoided!
6. If you need to buy souvenirs, opt for environmentally friendly options!
Cheap stores like Daiso or the 100 Yen stores have so many cheap, plastic souvenirs available. Try to avoid these, as often they’re not even made in Japan! Some cool souvenirs you can buy for yourself (or friends back home) include:
- Cute chopsticks + container to hold them in (I bought a set of these and still use them on camping trips!)
- Furoshiki wrap: this is a piece of cloth (often they come beautifully decorated) which is then used to wrap gifts or carry bottles of wine or gifts for friends. There are even specialty stores selling these items. I bought one for my mum, which she uses as a table cloth (much to the amusement of visitors!)
- Tea or matcha powder: these often come in tins which you can re-use and is a great souvenir to enjoy once you are home!
- Teacups, teapots and other homewares: we still use our ramen bowls purchased in Japan years after we purchased them. They are a great reminder of when we lived in Japan (and they’re so lightweight, we’ve taken them on camping trips too!)
- Shop at second-hand stores: while this isn’t for everyone if you don’t mind pre-owned items, Tokyo has so many second-hand stores available! Many of my clothes (which I still own and use) were purchased second-hand in Tokyo!
Psst: want to find second-hand stores in Tokyo? Check out my guide to the best second-hand stores in Tokyo here!
7. Avoid purchasing pre-packaged meals from convenience stores
This is definitely something I’ve struggled with, and you may struggle with too, especially if you’re traveling on a budget. I’ve taken a balanced approach and have definitely tried to not go too crazy when it comes to convenience store meals and balance out my meals with restaurant food.
Again, this is a personal choice and is really down to what you can afford – but if you are strictly zero waste, make sure to avoid the convenience stores where possible!
Some of the meals from our local convenience store (note: this photo was taken before I started to travel zero-waste!)
Some other things to note:
If you are an animal lover, some of the animal “themed” cafes may not be for you, especially when it comes to animals that do not normally socialize with humans e.g. owls or hedgehogs. I would also take care of and avoid situations where people are charging money for you to take photos with animals. While this is rare in Japan, and definitely not as common in comparison to other nearby countries such as China, Thailand or Indonesia, you may occasionally spot these in tourist areas.
I hope you found my guide to zero waste travel in Japan helpful!
I’d love to hear from you: are you traveling to Japan? Are you a zero waste traveler?
Leave me a comment and let me know!
Worried about the language barrier on your upcoming vacation to Japan?
Sign up to my newsletter and download my FREE phrase survival guide!
This guide is filled with ultimate need-to-know phrases and is guaranteed not to overwhelm.
As a subscriber, you'll also get get access to my FREE Japan Travel Resource Library. From packing checklists to survival phrase guides, we've got you covered!