Holidays with young kids in Japan

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.

Getting there

For many of us, reaching Japan means a long flight. Overnight flights probably work best, except for restless babies, as the kids will probably sleep. But that isn’t always an option. We usually bring a collection of new books – the thinner and lighter the better. In Australia we found that places like K-Mart and BigW often have some suitable options. Drawing materials are good, as are snacks. What works best of all tends to be a media player (eg a tablet) filled with the child’s favourite games, television shows and movies. I bought a cheap prepaid Android phone, accompanied by noise limiting headphones for this purpose. Aircraft inflight entertainment doesn’t seem to keep Alex’s attention very long.
One item we found has been incredibly useful is a small pillow (not a neck cushion), especially on low cost airlines where such items are often not available. We bought ours in a bedding shop somewhere in Japan.

Getting around

Much of Japan is accessible via the excellent railway system. Children below primary school age are usually free so long as they sit on their parents’ lap. You can purchase tickets on subways and commuter trains from the ticket machines. Most seem to have an English button and are pretty easy to use.
Torokko services are tourist trains and some of them are especially interesting for kids. Some trains are decorated with cartoons, such as the Ampanman trains that travel to and around Shikoku.
Taxis don’t have child seats so far as we can ascertain and are expensive. Buses and trams can be a little confusing until you figure them out. You usually enter via the back, pull a ticket out the slot, then pay the driver on the way out. Even easier is to get a stored value card: if entering via Tokyo then you can buy a Suica card at the airport. We found it very handy, but watch how much credit you have on it.

Strollers or …?

I think we’ve used almost every method possible to carry Alex around in Japan. We started off with a Baby Bjorn front carrier when he was four months old. This was my favourite, though the shoulders were sore by the end of it: do adjust the straps properly! Between one and a half and two years old we replaced this with a framed backpack carrier. I found this quite painful to wear for long periods, meant I couldn’t see him except via a mirror (though B enjoyed interacting with him) and it was quite a hazard when standing up in packed commuter trains. Plus it was very uncomfortable for him to sleep in.

We have also used a cheap, light umbrella stroller. You can get them from Toys’R’Us for about $20 in Australia. They aren’t great for pushing around and not always the most comfortable to sleep in, but a big stroller is just too inconvenient for Japan – there’s nowhere to put them in the trains or hotel rooms. Many paths in Japan are unsuitable for strollers and you can often find yourself having to carry them up and down stairs at railway stations. For this reason we usually just left it in the hotel. You can often hire a stroller in department stores and shopping centres
From age three and on the solution was to let Alex walk and piggyback him on my shoulders when he got tired. No additional luggage to carry, which is also important when flying as you lose that additional allowance after a certain age. It meant finding a place to sit down when he slept, but this was largely true of the other methods as well. 


We store kids’ stuff in our own bags rather than rely on him carrying his own. The smaller the luggage, the easier Japan is. It’s not designed for huge cases – especially peak hour trains and stations. Don’t forget that you can buy many things in Japan.

Toilets and nappy changing

One of the joys of travelling in Japan is the general availability of clean toilets. If in need of one then department stores are a good bet. Do be aware that the traditional Japanese toilet is of the squat variety and this is all that may be available on some smaller local trains. However, most Shinkansens and many modern express trains are equipped with western style toilets and even baby change facilities, though I have encountered some Kyushu Shinkansens without the latter.

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.


Many department stores have feeding rooms which also include facilities for warming milk and even weighing babies. Many Shinkansens have a multipurpose room which can also be used. Breastfeeding in public is not a common sight, so it’s probably polite to be discreet and cover up with a blanket or shawl if you need to feed. We never encountered any issues.

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.


So long as your child is toilet trained they should be able to use an onsen. We first took Alex at age two and a half and he’s loved them ever since. Baths are usually gender segregated, but younger kids can go with either parent. Even better is to stay at a ryokan with a private bath that the whole family can enjoy together. Hot spring towns will often have free hot footbaths, so it’s a good idea to carry a towel to dry your feet and change of clothes for the kids in case they slip in.
Highly recommended is Kinosaki Onsen. Alex had fun dressing up in a kids yukata and visiting the various baths. He also loved the playroom at the Morizuya ryokan.

Accommodation and sleeping

Business hotels are generally the cheapest and most convenient places to stay in Japan. The downside is that the rooms are usually designed to sleep only one or two people, though young children can stay free if they share their parent’s bed, which has been our solution. There is not always enough space to set up a standard portable cot either. Instead we used a very lightweight travel cot like this one.

Traditional Japanese rooms, as can be found in ryokans, where you sleep on the floor on futons are a great option if you are sharing beds, though be aware that shared bathrooms are a reality in many ryokans.
Don’t expect wash cloths and additional towels to be provided in business hotels, so consider bringing your own – useful for onsens and footbaths as well!


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.

Quirky Japan

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.