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Japanese Women Made Me Feel Completely Insecure

Posted By in Japan, Travel Musings | 46 comments

Japanese Women Made Me Feel Completely Insecure

Our faces were side-by-side in the long line of bathroom mirrors. She gently brushed a single, smooth strand of hair back into her bun, while I worked my dry hands through my own hair, attempting to untangle my frizzy braid. She applied a fresh coat of lipgloss to her already pink lips, while I wiped the sweat from my forehead with a scrap of rough paper towel.

I had just finished climbing Mount Fuji, and traveled directly to Shinjuku Station in Tokyo to catch a bus back to Takayama. I hadn’t been within 10 feet of a shower, mirror, or a change of clothes in 2 days, so my appearance in that train station bathroom was a particularly low point.

Even still, that moment forced something to my attention that had been subtly gnawing at me ever since we had arrived in Japan: Japanese women, particularly in big cities like Tokyo, always look perfect. No matter when or where you see them, you can count on them to have flawless hair, glowing skin, and stylish outfits. The more I compared myself to these women, the more I became aware that over the last 2 years of traveling, I had slowly let myself transform into a slob.

Pre-Travel Style

pre-travel style

I wouldn’t say I was ever anyone’s most fashionable friend, but I did put a decent amount of thought into my outfits every day.  My closet was always swelling with clothes because I had the surplus money and space to be fickle. I would buy shirts and then wear them once or twice before tiring of them, or deciding that I had never liked them in the first place. I spent at least an hour in front of the mirror every morning. I bought expensive skin products, owned dozens of eye shadows, and wouldn’t dream of leaving the house without carefully blow-drying my hair with a round brush. I always accessorized with at least one piece of jewelry, and I would never let my 5 ft. 2-self be caught in anything shorter than 3-inch heels.

Origins of a Dirty Backpacker

backpacker travel style

During our work exchanges, I began to find myself doing things I could never have imagined before, like not washing my hair, skipping make-up, and wearing unembellished T-shirts.  I had no choice, really. I would have looked completely ridiculous putting on eyeliner at 6am before going out to feed the chickens, or wearing high heels while gardening knee-deep in weeds.

lack of travel style

At first, being freed from my morning routine felt liberating. I discovered that getting ready for the day didn’t have to be an hour long ritual. It felt good to wear comfortable clothes and shoes, and sleep in instead of waking up early to shower every morning.  For the first time in my life, I literally wore my clothes out. Colours faded, shirts and shoes developed irreparable holes. The only clothing I bought during our 8 months in Europe was a warm poncho, an item that I would have cringed at only a few months before.

When we moved to Thailand and started teaching, I tossed out some of my shabby volunteering clothes, and stocked up on the widely available cheap dresses and shirts. I picked up on the style of all the backpackers around me, choosing baggy, casual clothes made of materials that usually fell apart after one wash.

Finding a Balance

travel style: finding a balance between function and style

And so that was how I looked when I arrived in Japan: Air-dried hair, little make-up, flip-flops and loose-fitting clothing. But in Japan, the appearance that had once made me feel carefree, now made me feel frumpy. Being surrounded by people who put a lot of care into their appearances pressured me to examine my own, and I realized that I didn’t like the way I looked.  Comparing myself to other women might not have been the most emotionally healthy incentive, but in the end, I’m glad I found a reason to reclaim my style.

So now I’m revisiting the pleasure of taking my time when I get ready in the morning. I actually enjoy the process of putting on make-up, and straightening my hair. I’m relearning how to pay attention to the clothes that flatter my body type, instead of just grabbing anything that is cheap and will fit in my luggage. What I wear has always been part of my personality, and just because I love traveling, it doesn’t mean I need to let that part of myself fade away.

When I first started traveling, letting go of my appearance felt empowering, but it turns out that finding a balance between style and function feels even better.


How has traveling changed your style?


  1. Gillian October 9, 2013

    I love this! When we backpacked around the world I took on the wardrobe that I though backpackers should; travel pants (ouch!), baggy t-shirts, and hiking shoes or flip flops. On this trip I'm definitely trying harder to be myself and look more pulled together. I think that I, too, have struck a balance between the freedom of letting it go a bit and the want to look more attractive. And yes….Japan will do that to you, won't it?
    My recent post 5 Mexican Books You Must Read Before Heading South This Winter

    • waysofwanderers October 9, 2013

      I guess a lot of us go through a similar evolution, then :). It's definitely an interesting transition from a normal wardrobe to living out of a backpack.

  2. Virginia October 9, 2013

    I don´t think being a backpaker means that you have to look like a beggar. I recently met a russian girl that travelled with only a small backpack and everyday weared a cute dress to visit the city (I wandered how she managed to fit all in that little space!!).
    On the other hand I totally agree with Jessica about the japanese girls. You can find them "hiking" in their heels and mini-skirts and look totally effortless and perfect (not sweating or anything). I have to admit that after my last trip to Tokyo I decided to carry a small make up bag in my purse if I´m going to spend all day out. In this case I learned that travelling is not an excuse to look grubby after a long day of turism.

    • waysofwanderers October 9, 2013

      Very true! In a lot of other countries, I was used to the other tourists looking a little bedraggled too, so I just blended in. But in Japan, they manage to keep it together, so it has to be possible!

  3. cvail October 9, 2013

    I know what you mean! After having living in Japan then Korea, I've hiked, climbed mountains, walked the beach, you name it…alongside perfectly coiffed women. Them in heals and looking pretty and fresh. Me in sneakers and um…not so fresh! Love this post.
    My recent post Scott Kelby’s 6th Annual Worldwide Photowalk in Luxembourg City

    • waysofwanderers October 9, 2013

      Thanks! The fact that they number seem to sweat is the most frustrating thing. I can put on some make-up, but sweating in the summer is definitely something I can't control.

  4. OCDemon October 9, 2013

    I blame the travel gear industry for having no idea that they can make clothing that doesn't look silly. They CHOOSE to put all those silly zippers and fluorescent reflectors everywhere instead of just making things look normal. Oh well though. Maybe someday.

    • waysofwanderers October 9, 2013

      Agreed! You'd think the demand for non-ugly travel clothes is high enough that this would have changed by now.

  5. Wondernuts October 9, 2013

    I'm probably going to sound like a dick (and for that, I apologize), but traveling does not change my style. If anything, travel makes fashion much more fun! Now, I have only two pairs of pants and 5 shirts to choose from and make outfits, instead of my normal closet-full. And I purposely add a couple of accessories just so my outfit looks more cute. And I still wear makeup.

    • waysofwanderers October 9, 2013

      You don't sound dick-ish at all! If anything, it sounds like you've achieved the balance that many of us are striving for!

  6. paulhwanderlust October 9, 2013

    I totally understand! I'm a guy from NYC so fashion is built into me, but I love to travel and when you have limited clothes it's all about combining what you have to make many outfits so naturally all my clothes are now very plain but in various complementary colors. Now I'm living in Kyoto and lately I've been thinking whether or not I should go shopping!

    • waysofwanderers October 10, 2013

      Totally! I'm learning how to choose clothes that are versatile, and can be paired with a lot of other items in my wardrobe.

  7. Agness October 9, 2013

    First of all, I don't have this problem in China. All Chinese women look really bad, especially female housekeepers and factory workers. They hardly ever put some make-up on their faces and their hair is a mess. I would really feel uncomfortable and stupid being surrounded by all of these perfect Japanese women as I like wearing baggy clothes and having my hair tight. I don't really pay much attention to what I'm wearing and what I look like when I'm on the road. I usually wear comfortable clothes such as trainers, shorts and shirt.

    • waysofwanderers October 10, 2013

      It sounds similar to SE Asia – I felt like I blended in just fine there. Everyone dressed pretty casually, so I never felt self-conscious.

  8. travelpast50 October 9, 2013

    Style is all about the environment. Japanese women would look pretty silly in the South American mountains. Of course, I'm still wearing the exact same clothes as I wore when I lived in the South American mountains, so what the hell do I know?
    My recent post Buddhist Monk, Hiraizumi, Japan

    • waysofwanderers October 10, 2013

      Very true! I guess that's the tough part about packing for a multi-country trip – clothes that work in some countries, don't necessarily look right in others.

      • travelpast50 October 10, 2013

        Here's our itinerary from the current trip: Philadelphia, Mexico City, Yucatan, caving in Belize, jungle trekking in Guatemala, Toronto, London, rural England, Dublin, rural Ireland, Honolulu and other islands of Hawaii, Tokyo and the rest of Japan. I can assure you I was completely out of style wherever we were.
        My recent post Temple Ruins, Hiraizumi, Japan

  9. wildbuttercup October 9, 2013

    Aw, I think you look good in all those photos. I know what you mean though…when I'm travelling I tend to get more relaxed about what I'm wearing until I end up somewhere with people who have dressed up for something and then I suddenly realise I should put on some eyeliner or something. I'm working on being slightly more stylish while on the road, but sometimes I just can't be bothered!

    • waysofwanderers October 10, 2013

      It's definitely a slippery slope – it's kind of how I am with cleaning our apartment too: I let it gradually get messier and messier until I reach some kind of breaking point and clean everything. Then the cycle begins again.

  10. Colleen Brynn October 9, 2013

    Having fun with style is one way I keep travel interesting day to day, especially on longer trips. I like to buy accessories and easy to pack pieces while I travel to update my wardrobe and buy a cool souvenir at the same time. The one thing I always make sure I do though is take care of my skin. Since it is prone to break out, I have to make sure I wash it every day, and I've found wearing makeup (at least the minimum) helps regulate it, and there are minerals in my powder and that helps too. Plus always with the spf – not that that's style, but it helps protect my skin! A sunburn was never stylish…
    My recent post The Charm Of Kuzhir

    • waysofwanderers October 10, 2013

      I like that idea! Bring some basics and then pick up local accessories like scarves, jewelry, etc. as you go.

  11. TammyOnTheMove October 9, 2013

    Oh my, I so hear you. I have never been super fashionable or wore loads of make up, but like you I would always look half decent and never leave the house without mascara on. When I moved to Cambodia that changed though. Powder or foundation were useless, because I'd sweat it off within 2 minutes anyway, and after a while I even gave up mascara. It kind of feels liberating, but every now and then I enjoy wearing sexy color coordinated clothes and put on a bit of make-up. It makes me feel more womanly.
    My recent post Flashback Friday: The Galapagos islands in photos

    • waysofwanderers October 10, 2013

      Yep. I keep wanting to wear powder to mattify the shiny, sweatiness on my face but instead, the sweat tends to mix with the power and ends up weird and clumpy. I never had these issues in Canada!

  12. Steph (@20YH) October 10, 2013

    I've never been one for makeup really, so traveling hasn't changed that aspect of my life very much. I have definitely found, however, during my time in Asia that I've really come to appreciate clothing that is comfortable and "breathes" well above all else. It is funny though, that you talk about how South East Asia turned you into something of a slob, because one of the frustrations I encountered while shopping in Asia is that all the stores seemed to sell "fancy" clothes! I really struggled to find plain, versatile t-shirts that weren't covered in frills or sequins but still had some tailoring rather than being big old sacks. I miss stores like Target or even the Gap (it's considered a high-end brand here, it seems) where you could get stylish casual wear that is actually decent quality.

    I suspect that when we make it to Europe I am going to need to completely overhaul my wardrobe… but when I do, I'll probably stick to places like H&M where I can find functional basics that are easy to dress up or down with a necklace or a slightly nicer pair of shoes!
    My recent post The Secret to Happiness: Savor the Small Stuff

  13. Sarah October 10, 2013

    So true! I'm happy you addressed this 🙂 I'm planning to backpack through Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand in January/Feb, then head to Italy and Switzerland for March/April. Not sure how I'm going to pack for that trip, especially as I prefer to travel with hand-luggage only!!

    • waysofwanderers October 10, 2013

      If you figure it out how to do it successfully, you need to let me in on your strategy!

  14. Jessica Wray October 10, 2013

    Koreans are the same! In my case, I found they pushed me in the opposite direction! I became a slob there haha. It may have been because I wasn´t really enjoying my time, and the fact all everyone ever cared about was how they looked really annoyed me.

    Now that I´ve started this new job in Spain, I want to make a good impression and feel good too, so I´ve started to put in the effort of getting ready. Besides, 5 months in SE Asia transformed my style into that baggy backpacker one you spoke of. It needed to change!
    My recent post My Most Memorable Experiences from Backpacking Asia

    • Virginia October 10, 2013

      Wellcome to Madrid!!!, I hope you enjoy this beautiful city and surroundings 😀

    • waysofwanderers October 11, 2013

      I had that experience coming to Japan – it wasn't just the social pressure, I also just needed to look semi-decent for teaching. I don't think anyone would take me seriously in a Chang beer t-shirt.

  15. cubiclethrowdown October 10, 2013

    Japanese women made me feel the same way when I was backpacking through there!!
    My recent post My First Whale Shark!

    • waysofwanderers October 11, 2013

      I'm glad it's not just me! I'm SE Asia, the backpacker culture really dominated, and being a little messy was normal. The same culture definitely doesn't exist in Japan!

  16. ferretingoutthefun October 10, 2013

    Japanese women tend to take fashion a little too far. I couldn't believe it when I got to Mt Fuji and saw women climbing up in high-heeled sandals! One time on the metro, I watched this beautiful, fresh-faced Japanese girl meticulously apply an appalling amount of make-up and thought she looked much worse by the end. There has to be a happy medium of style plus comfort.
    My recent post A Brief Introduction to Yunnan Cuisine

    • waysofwanderers October 11, 2013

      Agreed – the style-comfort medium is definitely what I'm trying to find. I might be aiming to improve my style, but I'm definitely never going to be the kind of girl who wears high heels to climb Fuji!

  17. Beth October 11, 2013

    Living in Hong Kong I still kind of feel like this… although nowhere made me feel more inferior than when I lived in Japan! I agree, every woman in cities like Tokyo or Osaka always strive look perfect no matter their age or profession.

    I constantly was buying new clothes or skin products because I got pretty tired of my backpacker-chic look. It's hard to find a good balance, but I'm glad you!
    My recent post My New Favorite Travel Companion: Pacsafe’s Slingsafe 300 GII

  18. Jennifer October 13, 2013

    I like feeling fashionable, drying and straightening my hair, and wearing make-up. It might be silly, but it's just one of those things that makes me feel more confident when I feel like I'm looking my best. Nothing wrong with that!

    • waysofwanderers October 13, 2013

      Agreed! I used to think I was doing it for other people, but increasingly, I realize that it's just something I enjoy doing for myself.

  19. Amy October 25, 2013

    Interesting post; I often gaze around in amazement at how perfect all the women seem to look in Thailand too, they especially all seem to have that mane of glossy black hair. I've never really bothered much with make-up, hair or clothes so travelling suits me; I like not having many clothes to choose from and wearing flip flops everyday. I do find however that the heat and humidity wrecks my skin, I'm constantly suffering break-outs which is really annoying. Glad you are finding a balance that works for you.

    • waysofwanderers October 26, 2013

      Yeah, the heat is difficult. Japanese (and Thai for that matter) women never seen the sweat very much, whereas whatever effort I put into my appearance just falls apart when the weather is humid.

  20. Emily Lofgren November 11, 2013

    I love your honesty in this post, Jessica! It's so easy to get caught up in the whole "not caring" look while traveling, but when the locals look like supermodels we start to take a step back and think about what image we're putting out there. Traveling sometimes changes my style, but when I was in China (like Agness said in her comment!), I didn't worry too much. Many of the locals didn't worry too much about appearance.

    • waysofwanderers November 12, 2013

      Definitely. Although, now I don't even know if I'd go back to the dirty backpacker thing even if I was in a country where people don't worry about their appearance. Maybe it was just a phase I needed to go through to realize it was not for me.

  21. Runaway Brit March 15, 2014

    I really need some help with this as I have no idea when it comes to fashion, accessorising, or colour coordinating. When I lived in Vietnam I adopted the denim mini, black vest and flip-flops look, but then I moved to Sweden, where all the women are effortlessly stylish. I have been saving to go travelling, so didn't want to buy new clothes (especially at Stockholm prices), and wouldn't fit into most of the sizes here anyway.

    I constantly feel like a slob, and really need to address my image!

    • waysofwanderers March 15, 2014

      I know the feeling! I've also noticed some other travelers are able to pack only a few clothing items and still manage to look fashionable. I'm always envious of them because I am definitely not one of those women!

  22. maidamme May 12, 2014

    Funny i would come across the article today after yesterday encountering the same feeling around Japanese and Korean women here in NYC: flushing Queens. Yesterday, Mothers Day my family took my mom for Asian seafood and was surrounded by these women of all ages, that were flawless (pristine) looking; from Grandma to little 2 or 3 year old girl. They would look at me and I would look at them trying to figure out how could a lady look so done up even in casual clothes; and I was dressy casual. They all seem to have in common the look of perfection and it made me wonder why had I not thought of it more myself as a lady in her early 40's. I didn't feel insecure but did think more about how a women considers her appearances as a lady…
    What a coincidence to read this article today. I truly appreciate your candor in discussing a topic very few women would admittedly openly ponder…I thought I was trippin a bit…but now know this is what it appears they do; look perfect.

  23. Gratcie December 17, 2014

    4 monts traveling and my hair its soooo deaaaadd !!

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