Phoebe's top 10 tips for travelling with kids in Japan

Phoebe's top 10 tips for travelling with kids in Japan

We’re a fairly well-travelled family but, I have to admit, preparing for our trip to Japan earlier this year had me feeling slightly nervous. Not only had our family expanded (hello Poppy!) but this was the first trip we’d done with lots of moving parts and three kids in tow. Along with the many well-meaning comments from our friends and family like, "Wow you’re brave." and "We’d love to go but when the kids are older."...left me wondering if we’d bitten off more than we could chew. But like most things in life, we tend to throw ourselves in headfirst and figure it out as we go. And, I’m really glad we did!

First things first, let me start by saying I would thoroughly recommend travelling to Japan with kids. Our little kiddos – Poppy, Heidi and Jude are 1, 3 and 7 years old respectively – so international travel is always going to be challenging at times, but Japan ticked so many boxes on our holiday destination wish list:

Great food – tick

Safe and clean – tick

Good healthcare – tick

Family-friendly – tick

And further to that, it’s a place full of tradition and culture and there is quite literally something for everyone – from quirky themed cafes, urban cities with psychedelic neon signs, natural wonders and incredible food almost everywhere you turn – it quickly topped our travel bucket list.

So, if you’re also thinking about taking the plunge, here are my 10 tips for doing Japan with kids.

1) Seek out spacious accommodation with handy amenities.

Accommodation in Japan can be pretty compact with some ‘family’ rooms no bigger than 20 m2. This leaves virtually no room for bags and will often mean you need to be happy to share single beds with other family members. With younger kids especially, I’d consider looking for an apart-hotel (apartment-style hotel) that gives you that bit of extra room and hopefully guarantees the whole family a better sleep. We loved Mimaru Apartments they have many locations and are considerably bigger than what you’d typically find at an average Japanese hotel. We booked a 2 bedroom suite, which had a kitchenette, 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a lounge area and even our own washer and dryer (wow what a godsend!). After long days out and about we were happy to have the extra space and practical amenities available on our return.

2) To stroller or not to stroller?

Despite my best efforts to search for answers online, I was super confused about whether to bring a stroller with us or not. In the end, we opted to bring our lightweight travel stroller (the Babyzen Yoyo Stroller) and I’m really glad we did. While it’s true that elevators are sometimes hard to find, especially at train stations, we got some serious steps in and we all would have struggled without the stroller. We also packed our Portier Limitless Baby Carrier as prams are not always permitted into various attractions and it also meant we could carry Poppy easily and give Heidi a rest in the stroller when she needed it. If you plan to bring a stroller, make sure it’s compact and lightweight as there will be times you’ll need to get it downstairs or fold it up.

3) Rubbish bins are few and far between.

This may sound silly but take a rubbish bag with you whenever you head out. It is notoriously hard to find public rubbish bins around Japan and if your kids are anything like ours (continuous snack requests and messy hands), you’ll need one for wrappers and wipes very frequently!

4) Quick and tasty eats.

Convenience stores will become your new best friend. Sometimes you need to grab a quick and easy snack and with 7-Eleven and Lawson on almost every street corner, they are sooooo good and sooooo handy. In Australia, I'd usually steer clear of 7-Eleven sushi late in the day, but it’s a different story in Japan. The egg sandos, hotcakes and sushi are a must-try and there are plenty of other options to suit the whole family as well as other bits and pieces like toiletries, hand warmers and drinks. If you want a wider array of food to take away, head to the basement of almost any department store…You’ll find fresh sashimi packs, katsudon, fresh fruit and sweets galore.

5) Don't get lost in translations.

I’d been warned about the language barrier ahead of the trip but there were a few things I didn’t even consider. Appliances such as washing machines, TVs and microwaves are all in Japanese. Supermarkets and chemists etc. have little to no English signage and it’s also rare to find menus in English. On reflection, it sounds obvious but I hadn’t necessarily thought it all through. Enter Google Translate. Not only did it help with verbal communication but I also used it to understand the buttons on the washing machine, to buy nappies or to translate the train announcements when our train came to an emergency stop. The trip would have been A LOT more challenging without the help of Google.

6) Luggage forwarding services are a total lifesaver.

Travelling light AND travelling with 3 young kids do not necessarily go hand-in-hand! I’m also hopeless at cutting down on my toiletries and love a spot of shopping too. The idea of travelling by train around the country with 1 stroller, 3 small kids and 4 suitcases did NOT excite me. In fact, I’m not even sure how we would have done it. It was thanks to a chance conversation with a friend that I discovered there is a luggage forwarding service to transport your bags. Of course, there is! Plus, most ryokans (traditional Japanese inns), guesthouses and hotels will be happy to organise it all for you. We became frequent users of the service, which meant we could board the Shinkansen (bullet train) with a small carry-on and arrive at our next hotel to find the rest of our bags already in our room. Magic. And it’s surprisingly affordable too.

7) Our favourite family-friendly Tokyo neighbourhood.

Big cities like Tokyo are vast. So narrowing down which neighbourhood to stay in was an overwhelming decision in and of itself. Plus, being a young family, I wasn’t so sure staying in the heart of the action was necessarily the wisest decision for us. We ended up choosing the quieter and traditional downtown area of Asakusa, which became one of our favourite parts of the trip. It’s an easy place to base yourself with kids thanks to the friendly atmosphere, countless coffee shops that open early for brekkie (surprisingly hard to find!), several key attractions and easy links to other parts of Tokyo. We were really thankful for the reprieve Asakusa offered – it was charming, offered interesting traces of the Edo era, and the kids were at ease wandering the streets and temples there.

8) The culture of cuteness and budgeting.

If there’s one thing they’re particularly good at in Japan, it’s packaging all manner of things up to look super cute or 'kawaii', as they like to say. So understandably, your kids will go nuts. There’s everything from stickers, sushi-shaped erasers, toy capsules and cat stamps to Hello Kitty-shaped buns, toffee-covered strawberries on a stick and Pokemon biscuits. Before you know it, you will have dipped your hand in your pocket more times than you can count. So, we quickly changed our tact, setting the kids a small daily budget that they could either spend or accrue. This took the headache out of saying "No, we’re not getting that." every two seconds, but also put it back on them to really consider what they wanted to purchase and ensure they had the money for it #lifeskills.

9) Attractions worth booking well in advance.

There are plenty of things to see and do without booking weeks or months in advance, but there are a few things you’ll need to book ahead of time if they’re high on the travel bucket list. Themed cafes, popular attractions like Team Labs, Kidzania or the Ghibli Museum, and even many of the guesthouses and hotels need to be pre-booked quite a way out. Work out your must-sees and book these as soon as bookings open. Your future self will be so thankful. The rest you can make up as you go along.

10) Pace yourselves.

We carved out three weeks to explore Japan and hardly traversed the country. We did Tokyo, Kyoto, Myoko and back to Tokyo. Yet we still yearned for more time and felt rushed on many days. Just the city loop train alone takes around an hour! Add kids in the mix who need food, countless toilet stops and nappy changes, the odd tantrum or two and a few wrong turns on Google Maps, and the day is all but done. So choose fewer places, pace yourself and make sure you’ve got some days up your sleeve to just simply explore and immerse yourself in the magic of the place. We wish we’d done more of this and Japan 2.0 will look a little bit slower and a little more meandering.

So there you have it. My biggest takeaways, best advice and lessons from travelling around Japan for three weeks as a family of five. Hopefully, these tips give you some clarity and confidence around many of the big questions that come with the slightly daunting task of planning and navigating a family-friendly international trip.

Now, to round it all out with some sage advice: embrace the chaos, pack some patience and don't forget to enjoy the fun and spontaneity that comes with exploring a new country. Oh, and did I already mention snacks? Snacks are your best friend when you've got a trio of little explorers in tow.

I hope you have the most MAGICAL time on your Japanese adventure. Here's to safe travels, unforgettable experiences and making memories as a family that'll last a lifetime.

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