Japan is a fantastic destination for a family with young kids. It’s safe, clean, easy to get around and full of interesting activities for all ages. Let me say first up that I am not an expert on travelling with kids. All I can do is to relate what we’ve learned from trips to our son, currently four and a half years old. That said, he’s already been to thirteen countries and five times to Japan, six if you count in the womb. Here are some things we learned along the way.
Strollers or …?
Toilets and nappy changing
Unfortunately, not all tourist sites, including many temples, have baby change facilities so you may have to find yourself a secluded patch of ground. A small change mat is a good idea.
Kids and baby goods
Finding nappies (diapers) can sometimes be difficult as a tourist. You generally can’t purchase them in upmarket department stores, smaller convenience stores or even pharmacies. Your best bet is a supermarket. These can often be found in plazas associated with the main train stations in regional cities, but this is not always the case. Also in the cheaper shopping centres targeting locals, such as Aeon (not the language school), Trial and Ito-Yokado. You may find these associated with some suburban stations in cities like Tokyo and Kyoto.
There is some truly cute kids goods available in Japan for all ages. However, you will find that the goods available in upmarket department stores like Takashimaya are very expensive. Again you can try local department stores or smaller shops. There are also dedicated stores for younger children like Akachan Honpo and Nishimatsuya and more familiar Western names such as Toys’R’Us and Gap Kids. Uniqlo also sell a good range of kids clothing, as do Muji.
The 100 Yen shops, where everything costs 105 Yen (including 5% sales tax, roughly about $1 at current rates), are fantastic places to purchase some cheap toys and stationery. Sure it’s not necessarily going to last long, but having something new to play with at the end of the day can make a huge difference.
Accommodation and sleeping
Food is such an individual thing that making recommendations is difficult. We were surprised when Alex took a liking to salmon sashimi at age one and a half. Now he only likes it cooked. If visiting a sushi restaurant it may be wise to check first if they serve something other than just raw seafood – even if it’s just egg (tamago) and cucumber rolls (kappamaki). Noodles are cheap are often popular, though messy. If you find yourself or the kids tiring of Japanese food then there are plentiful options other than the McDonalds of this world.
We found a lot of restaurants on department stores food levels sold western friendly kids meals, including a toy. Others may have a plastic bowl and kids cutlery available – they will usually offer it without your asking. That said, Alex taught himself to use chopsticks.
One thing we noticed was the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables served in restaurants. When we came across a supermarket or greengrocer we would often buy some fruit to take back to the hotel. Some of it is of very high quality – we have had great apples and strawberries. And yes, if you like you can pay $30 for a couple of peaches, but I believe they are meant as gifts and not for casual snacking.
You can also get meals from convenience stores, anything from hot dumplings and pasta to salads. They are okay.
One issue you may find is the traditional Japanese breakfast, which is quite different from the western version. You will usually find a bakery close to a train station and these serve up a delicious variety of products.
There should be no issues finding treats for kids. The problem will be stopping them from overindulging!
Water is generally fine for drinking from the tap and there are plenty of juices and soft drinks available. Milk can be purchased from convenience stores, though flavoured milks offerings are usually quite limited.
Travelling around Japan can be frustrating for the exuberant kid. You generally won’t see many kids running and dancing around the streets or trains (though there are exceptions) and shouting noisily. As Alex got older we found it important to include some kids time into our day. Japanese outdoor playgrounds exist but may not have the range of equipment found elsewhere and also tend to have gravel rather than grass or cushioning materials. We’ve found them associated with some park areas. Some shopping centres also have rooftop playgrounds – for example the Odakyu department store in Shinjuku. More fun can be had at indoor shopping centre playgrounds like those operated under the Yu Kids banner.
Amusement parks are another option. They range from the massive Tokyo Disneyland (good for four year olds and up) and Fuji Q park, which includes Thomas World for the young ones, to small suburban parks with slower rides that will still keep the little ones happy. Entrance fees are usually small, you pay for Y200 – Y300 for individual rides. These parks may be associated with zoos which are often rather old fashioned in design and not particularly animal friendly. Aquariums are another option.
If you have some time around Kansai International Airport consider visiting Seacle at Rinku Town. There is a Yu Kids playground, Nishimatsuya and other kids shops, a small amusement park and Ferris wheel and a big indoor play area for kids of age four and up which looks pretty impressive from the outside.
It’s amazing what kids will find interesting in Japan. Alex developed obsessions with level crossings, beeping pedestrian crossings, automatic toilets, vending machines and riding the chairlifts that aren’t just restricted to the snow. Others will enjoy listening to a shamisen, the bowing deer of Nara and Miyajima Island, the neon canyons of Shinjuku and Osaka or climbing up the ladders in an authentic Japanese castle. The possibilities in Japan are endless and you can get many more ideas from this blog.