You’re travelling to Japan? Great! With your kids? Awesome! Here are some tips and reflections on our experiences to help make your visit as smooth as possible.
Book ahead to get family rooms and confirm whether there will be a cot available if you are not traveling with your own. We tend to rely on Airbnb a lot simply because there tends to be more space available for the prices compared to hotels. With young kids though it helps to be picky and avoid some beautiful traditional places. No one wants to be constantly on alert against a stray foot going through a paper screen door!
Finding the essentials
Luckily baby goods are easy to find in Japan. Most large supermarkets will stock nappies, wipes and a selection of baby foods as do the larger chain drugstores. However, if your little ones are particular about foods or formula due to allergies or just because they are kids, it will save time to bring a stash from home and not need to try and read the labels on everything! As for where to find drugstores, in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, look out for Matsumoto Kiyoshi stores, with their bright yellow and blue colour theme, they are hard to miss. In Kanazawa, Gifu and Nagoya, Genky is a popular chain. Nappies are almost the only thing that convenience stores can not be relied upon for.
Having lived here for over a year now, I am happy to say that Japan is really, really quite considerate of parents when it comes to toilets and nappy changing. Wheelchair accessible toilets are widespread and almost always have a changing table. My favourite inclusion in the toilets, which I think should be worldwide, is the fold down baby seat where you can pop your little one while you yourself attend to business without worrying about what they are touching or having them try to open the door on you and escape. Some department stores even have a small kids toilet or urinal in the women’s toilets avoiding the conflict of Mr 5 wanting to go to the boys toilets when there is no one to take him, phew. In addition to all this, my husband reports that in about a quarter of the toilets he has used there have been changing tables and kids seats. There are some things to watch out for though. Firstly, there are often no bins for disposal of nappies, so make sure to carry a few plastic bags with you. Secondly, in the wheelchair accessible toilets there are big, bright red, attractive-to-toddlers emergency call buttons and they are usually located close to where you expect the flush button to be.
No one enjoys travelling if they end up ‘hangry’. Convenience stores are great places to pick up snacks or a enough for a picnic on a nice day. Besides the Japanese staples, onigiri and various meat and vegetable bentos you will also find the more familiar cheese sticks, yogurt, bananas, sandwiches and so on.
I recently questioned someone about whether it would be ok to take my kids to a particular restaurant and his response was that Japan is “not like where you are from. It is accepted that parents will have their kids with them at lots of places, even restaurants.” So by all means, go into that restaurant you’ve just walked past. However, there are some restaurants that really are not practical with little kids…
Stick your head in and see if the seating is suitable. Find out if smoking is allowed, which it still is in many places. And as with most places in the world, if your child is having a hard time or getting too rowdy, it’s polite to take them out and settle them down so as not to bother the other customers.
There are plenty of family restaurant chains such as Gusto, Saizeriya and Denny’s and many other restaurants have children’s meals available. Family restaurants usually have high chairs available but it’s certainly not something you can rely on at most places. We found eating out much better with a portable high chair, the type that clips onto a table.
Visiting conveyer belt sushi restaurants has been a highlight for our kids. Even though they still turn their noses up at the raw fish, they’ll happily tuck into the rolled omelette sushi and inari sushi at chains like Kura Sushi or Hama Sushi to name just a couple, you can also order edamame, chips, soup and seasonal fruit. It may not be a high class dining experience, but it is entertaining, cheap and will fill empty bellies quickly!
If your accommodation has self catering facilities, it’s easy enough and an interesting cultural experience to visit a local supermarket grab some ready to eat delights or the basic ingredients to cook up for yourself.
If you kids are not up to walking a full day under their own steam, a compact, easy to fold stroller and/or a baby carrier will work just fine. Many family attractions such as Disneyland have stroller rental services. Large shopping malls, supermarkets and drugstores have trolleys with kids seats available and they will even come in a variety of shapes with all sorts of buttons and bells. Heaven for a toddler and a parent who wants to shop rather than play ‘chasey’.
Anyone considering travel to Japan will know that the train system is brilliant and one of the best ways to get around both within cities and between cities. Trains in the cities are frequent and (almost) always on time. Bullet trains and limited express trains are clean, spacious and fast. Of course the other image people hold of trains in Japan is something like this….
Not the most family friendly situation! However, avoiding peak travel times particularly 7-9:30am weekdays will help you avoid the crush. On weekends and holidays in large cities trains will be busy no matter what.
If you’ve got a stroller or want to avoid the stairs, most trains stations in large cities have elevators and are signposted so you can find them! For getting on and off trains at busy stations it’s usually best to fold the stroller up for the trip out of consideration for everyone else trying to fit on. However, sometimes when you absolutely don’t want to, you know, wake a sleeping toddler, try heading for the carriage furthest from the entrance to the platform which might be less crowded!
For longer journeys, purchase reserved seats (for JR pass holders, there is no extra charge) which are sometimes only a couple of dollars more expensive if you want to be assured of a seat and even more so if you want to sit together. Keep in mind though, that children 5 and under who would usually travel free, need to pay the seat charge if they are going to occupy a seat of their own in a reserved carriage.
It goes without saying to pack as light as possible and one of the reasons for this is despite all the benefits of Japanese trains, there is not a lot of room to store luggage. Overhead shelves are narrow so bags may have to be stored in front of your legs. It is also much easier to get on and off trains such as the shinkansen which only stop for a minute or two at each station. Be on time and ready to board before the train pulls up!
Shinkansens especially are well equipped with toilets and most have a multipurpose room available for nursing although you may have to ask a conductor to open it for you. This might also be a good option if a dreaded tantrum happens mid journey! To find where it is on the train, just consult the train layout map either on the back of your tray table or in the section between carriages.
Letting off steam
Sometimes kids just need to let off steam, right? Perhaps because of the density of housing in Japan, a small, local park is never far away. While they are perhaps not what we would expect from home, there will usually be something to climb on, slide down or just space to stretch your legs and run around a bit. Have a quick look on google maps around the area you are staying and see what you find.
Money, money, money
Children who are not yet in Elementary School (that is to say are under 6 years old) get free entry to many places and reduced entry when they do have to pay. This includes travel on trains and buses, awesome. The exception is that if they are going to occupy their own seat in the reserved section of a train they will need to pay a child fare which is usually around half the adult fare. Children from 6-12 usually also pay reduced entry fees at cultural institutions.
Finally, Japan is beautiful and interesting with plenty of attractions to please parents and kids of all ages. Japanese people are generally very kind and helpful and accommodating of both tourists and families. With a little organisation and some flexibility in your plans you are going to have a great time.