If you’re flying to Japan from the US or Canada, the UK or Europe, there’s going to be a bit of time difference between your home destination and the time in Japan.
In fact, it can be as much as 17 hours ahead depending upon the time of year you travel and where you’re flying from. Add to this the disruption to sleep that can occur when you take a long flight and you’re got a recipe for jetlag that can seriously mess up the first few days of your trip. So how can you reduce its effects?
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What is Jetlag?
Jetlag occurs when your internal body clock that controls when you wake up and when you want to sleep, and the time zone you fly to have a mismatch.
Your body thinks it’s 6am and time to wake up but in reality it’s 3am (if you’ve come in from LA) and you need to stay asleep a bit longer if you’re not going to flake out over your dinner tonight.
Or vice versa!
If you fly in from London, for example, you could be trying to go to bed at 10pm to get a full day of sightseeing in the next day, but your body thinks it’s only mid afternoon.
Jetlag can lead to numerous symptoms. The most obvious one is disrupted sleep and energy, but jetlag can also lead to poor concentration, upset stomachs or constipation, mood changes – it even disrupts the make-up of the bugs in your gut!
Beating jetlag completely is hard if you have a very large time difference – but, you can speed up how long it takes you get to over it with a number of tips and tricks.
If You Want to Adjust Faster
The general rule is that it will take you one day to recover from each hour of your time change – so, if you’re flying from the UK to Japan, you’re looking at a time difference of between 7-9 hours ahead depending on the time of year. That means it’ll take about a week for you to adjust.
If you’re flying from west coast of the US, where the time difference can be a whopping 17 hours behind Japan, that might seem like you’ll never catch up, but in reality you’ll also only be seven hours behind the actual time in Japan (just on a different day), so, again, you’ll take about a week to adjust.
However, if you start some of the tricks below before you leave, or on the flight, you can speed things up by a few days.
Don’t do all of them or you’ll confuse your body even further. Just pick one of the tips that involve using light or food to shift your body clock internally – and maybe consider adding some Pycnogenol as well.
1. Start Before You Leave
As we said, it takes about a day to adjust to each one hour time shift, but if, however, you can start moving your bedtime back or forward one hour (depending whether you need to shift forward or back to get onto Japanese time) and get up an hour earlier/later for 2-3 days beforehand, you’ll already be partly adjusted by the time you arrive.
For this reason, unless you have an understanding boss, or work from home so no-one sees what time you’re getting out of bed, it can be better to fly on a Monday than a Saturday as you can spend the weekend adjusting further.
And it’s not just sleep you should adjust.
Also, try and move your meal times. While the main clock of our body is controlled by light and dark, scientists now believe there are secondary clocks that feed into that master clock – and one of these is controlled by food intake.
If you start to shift your food clock, the master clock also changes.
This also gives you an option if it’s completely impossible to shift your bedtime much closer to your destination time, at least start shifting your meals.
2. Try a Jetlag Diet
Used in trials on the military, the Argonne Jet Lag Diet is takes the idea of manipulating meal times to change the body clock a step further.
In this you alternate between days of ‘fasting’ and ‘feasting’ for four days before your trip.
On fast days you eat just 800 calories of healthy, low calorie meals. On Feast Days you eat high protein breakfasts and lunches – think meat, fish, eggs or dairy with salads or vegetables and then a high carb dinner – think pasta and veggies.
There’s a few other rules to do with the timing of caffeine that you’ll find explained here, but when the diet was used to troops being deployed overseas it was said to help them adjust faster.
3. Switch to Local Time on the Plane
As soon as you get on the plane, try and adjust your watch – and habits to local time.
Try and sleep if you should be asleep and stay awake if you should be awake.
Again, timing your meals will also help here… or…
If you find it hard to sleep on the plane, then you check out our guide to sleeping on a plane which has all the tips you need.
4. Skip the Airplane Meals
If shifting your meals for a few days or, following an organised diet doesn’t sound appealing, you might want to try this.
As we said, mealtimes are one of the things that sets your body clock, and one expert from Harvard University suggests that fasting for 12-16 hours puts it in kind of a reset mode.
If you can stay off food on the plane (keep drinking plenty of water) and get into local eating habits as soon as you land, consuming breakfast, lunch and dinner at normal times for Japan, you could adjust faster.
Obviously you shouldn’t try this if you have diabetes or any other kind of blood sugar imbalance or a history of eating problems.
5. Try ReTimer Glasses
If you’re a tech lover, you might want to give these light emitting glasses a try.
Created by Australian scientists, they emit green light that studies have shown can help readjust the circadian rhythm.
You wear them for an hour a day on the three days before you travel and the first three days of your trip and they claim they’ll help you adjust faster.
If you’re travelling east, then you wear them in the morning to help you fall asleep earlier in the evening.
If you’re going west, you wear them at night to try and help you stay away longer.
Or, if you want to see more about the science and how to use them, have a look at the Retimer website.
6. Pop a Pycnogenol
It’s been suggested by scientists that many jetlag symptoms are aggravated by changes to the fluid levels in your body that happen on the plane – and that a supplement called Pycnogenol, that’s made of pine bark, eliminates the gain in fluid that causes the problems.
Start taking it two days before you fly and the first three days of your trip.
For the same reason you want to stay well hydrated on the plane as that will prevent dehydration that can make you feel sluggish.
You can find it here. But like any other supplement, if you have any health concerns you should speak to your doctor before taking it – particularly if you have diabetes or any kind of cardiovascular concerns.
A Quick Note About Travelling to Japan with Supplements
The Japanese can be tricky about medications and supplements in your luggage.
Most vitamins and properly formulated supplements aren’t on the banned list, but it’s best to take them in their original packaging so if customs do investigate your luggage they can see clearly what you’ve got.
However, If you use CBD-containing products to help you relax, or certain stimulants to pep you up, they may not be allowed into Japan.
You must check the rules before packing anything that the country deems as a narcotic – and don’t think this just means prescription drugs, or anything illegal, this might be something you can buy over the counter at home.
If the above makes you nervous, that’s okay. Start taking the pycnogenol at home and have one on the plane – and then buy some in Japan.
This website shows you a picture of one Japanese brand so you know what to look for.
If you get stuck just show it to someone in the drugstore and they’ll help you find it (I’ve done that with pictures of all sorts of things like eye drops and toothpaste that I’ve wanted to try before now).
Once You Arrive
These tricks can help you adjust to your new time zone faster by using light, and other tricks, to pep you up when you need a boost, or encourage you to sleep if you need to drop off before you normally do.
1. Use Light at the Right Time
As we said, light also resets the body clock and you can use this to help you shift backwards or forwards faster.
If you arrive first thing in the morning and need to try and stay awake, get as much natural light as possible.
On this day sightsee outside or go visit a park or garden like Shinjuku Gyoen or shrine rather than heading to a museum or doing your souvenir shopping
This is obviously not a problem if you’re in Kyoto as they’re everywhere, in Tokyo, have a look at our guide to some of Tokyo’s best shrines for ideas.
And skip the sunglasses – they reduce the amount of light that hits your eyes.
Conversely, if you arrive later in the day and will need to go bed earlier stick to indoor activities.
It might be a good day to visit somewhere like Shibuya or Harajuku where you’ll be in and out of shops or, take in the new Team Lab venue or one of Tokyo’s museums, and wear your shades when you’re outside.
2. Try the Power of Smell
Aromatherapy oils can help you sleep when you don’t want to and pep you up when you need an energy shot.
When I travel, I swear by Aromatherapy Associates Deep Relax to send me to sleep and their Revive Morning blend to pep me up.
The rollerball style (linked to above) is perfect for travel as it’s lightweight and easy to pop in a small bag, but also, it means you can use it anywhere by just applying a little to your wrist (or I put mine under my nose if I’m trying to fall asleep) and inhaling it on the run.
You might also want to check out the Deep Relax Bath Oil as most Japanese hotel rooms, no matter how small, have a bath.
This is like knock out drops. I carry a tiny bottle of this if I’m flying from the UK to Japan or Southeast Asia – as I always wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep. If I run a bath and a add a few drops of this, I’ll drop back off again.
The big bottle it normally comes in isn’t great for travelling, but I have these mini ones which are perfect.
3. Be Careful with Screens
The blue light of screens is a stimulant that stops the production of the sleep hormone melatonin – if you’re trying to go to sleep earlier than you should, using a screen in the hours before bed is not going to help.
Get a paper book (like one of our easy read novels set in Japan) or a magazine to read before bed instead.
4. Reach for a Coffee
If once you arrive in Japan, your energy is starting to flag during the day (or you need a kickstart to get moving in the morning), you might feel the need for coffee – and the good news is, it’s literally on every corner in Japan.
Ready to Drink Coffee
You’ll find both hot, and cold coffee in the kombini (convenience stores) like 7-11, Family Mart or Lawson, or the many, many vending machines you’ll find on the streets.
It’s pretty easy to spot, as it’s usually written in English as well as Japanese, but just in case, the Japanese word for coffee is コーヒー – pronounced koohii
If you’re buying from a vending machine and want to ensure your coffee is hot, then push the brand with a red button, if you prefer an ‘iced’ type of coffee, then pick one with a blue button.
Remember, you shouldn’t eat or drink when walking in Japan so, it’s good manners to drink your coffee by the machine.
It’s also the best chance to find a bin to get rid of the bottle or can.
If you’d prefer to consume your coffee sitting down and aren’t super fussy about it’s provenance, look for coffee chains like Doutor, Tullys or Pronto.
You can rest your feet in these, or grab a coffee to go (remembering again, that technically you shouldn’t drink on the move)
If Starbucks is your happy place you will find these in Japan – and some of them are actually tourist attractions.
Intriguing Starbucks to Visit in Japan
If you’re in Shibuya, Tokyo, the Starbucks opposite the famous Shibuya Scramble is one of the best places to get an overhead view of the comings and goings of the world’s most famous road crossing – although the window seats are highly coveted.
The four storey Tokyo Roastery is one of the biggest Starbucks in the world and had queues when it first opened. It’s located in at 2-19-23 Aobadai in Meguro-
In Kyoto, Starbucks Coffee Kyoto Ninenzaka Yasaka Chaya is one of the many Starbucks around Japan designed to fit into local surroundings. It’s built into a traditional old house and has tatami mat seating. You’ll find it on Ninenzaka and it’s a good stop off if you’re heading to Kiyomizudera shrine.
There are others, but that’s a post for another day.
Finding Proper Beans
Coffee afficianados might want to check out something a bit more artisan – so, have a look at this list of Tokyo’s best coffee shops.
Or, ask your hotel where you’ll find the nearest kissaten.
These old-style coffee shops are few and far between now, but if you find one you’ll experience a more local style experience – potentially complete with some cool retro decor.
5. Or Try a Japanese Energy Drink
You’ll notice a stack of these sold in convenience stores and they all have slightly different ingredients and aims.
If you want to fight jetlag though, there are a couple you might want to try out…
Alinamin V. This comes in a small brown bottle with a bright red V on it. It contains three different B vitamins that help your body produce energy alongside a shot of caffeine.
Lipovitan: Lipovitan was one of the first ever energy drinks and is made by a reputable pharmaceutical company. There are four different products in the range each containing different ingredients and at different strengths. A couple you might want to consider are
Lipovitan D11. You’ll recognise this because of the number 11 on the label. It combines energising ginseng with taurine, the main ingredient in Red Bull – but at a higher dosage.
Lipovitan Fine: This has a more feminine style pink label with peach on (as it’s peach flavour). It also contains taurine, but at the same dose as Red Bull.
You can find out more about Lipovitan and see the product pictures here.
Note: Some energy drinks can cause side effects like heart palpitations, upset stomachs and the jitters, so, please be careful if you’re going to give these a try. Use at your own risk and don’t have more than one a day. They shouldn’t be used by children.
If All Else Fails
If you do end up in Japan and jetlag hits, there’s one last tactic to try…
Embrace Your Body Clock
You know that old saying, if you can’t beat them, join them – it kind of works with jetlag too.
If you’re waking up at 6am, use that time to get out and about and see sites without the crowds.
Admittedly, at first you’ll wonder what on earth you can do in Tokyo at that time of the morning, as, if you check out most guides to the city you’ll think that there’s nothing open until 10am or later – but, in fact, there’s actually a lot of cool sights you can explore in Tokyo early in the morning.
In fact, we actually discovered them just because we were a bit jetlagged and wanting to be out of our room super early.
You’ll find our guide on what to do in Tokyo in the morning here, but a few suggestions are…
Visit Toyosu fish market
See the shutter art in Shimokitazawa
Head to the super popular ramen joint Ichiran and dine without a queue
Explore Asakusa’s Senso-ji, or the other temples without the crowds
View some Sumo practise at one of the sumo stables in Ryogoku.
If jetlag is keeping you up later than normal then you might want to try some cool bars like those in Golden Gai, or live music venues.
Shimkitozawa is a good place to visit for this or have a look at Time Out Tokyo to check what’s happening at night on any day of the week.
So, there you have it, our guide to trying to reduce jetlag so it doesn’t interfere with the first days of your trip. But, did we miss anything? Do you have a jetlag tip that you swear by? Then let us know about all about in the comments.
Who Writes This Blog?
My name is Helen Foster and I’m a journalist and author. My travel articles have appeared in publications including The Australian, RAC Horizons, Jetstar Magazine, Sainsbury’s Magazine and more.
I’ve travelled to Japan seven times before, both solo and with my partner – and am just planning trip number eight