Traveling to a new country is always tricky, but there are lots of logistics to figure out if you’re bringing small children along. Contributing writer and family travel expert Margot Black shares her experience of traveling through Japan with her son, and gives five tips on how to travel to Japan with a small child.
There’s no denying it: Japan is an exotic destination for any traveler, let alone a wide-eyed six-year-old. Yet my husband and I thought that our son would benefit from a long-haul vacation that promised to be a giddy blend of culture, adventure, and education.
The trick with taking a small child to a country so totally different from ours is to create an itinerary that takes into account their tiny people needs. It’s not as difficult as it sounds, but it does require some forward thinking.
Our once-in-a-lifetime vacation to the “Land of the Rising Sun” was split among three days in Tokyo, four days with Walk Japan along the Kiso Road, three days in Kyoto, a delightful day trip to Nara, and finally back to Tokyo, which included a pre-airport visit to Disney Tokyo.
On paper, it looked like a risky parenting maneuver, but it’s all about checks and balances, packing lots of snacks, his old stroller (that I retrieved from storage but which came in very handy), and the promise of a good time with Mickey Mouse at the end of it.
You will also need a huge sense of humor. This is a country where the heated toilets do everything short of singing the national anthem every time you flush!
We really didn’t expect our bathroom activities to be so exciting. If you told me every pee would set off giggles galore I would never have believed you. We experienced so many types of toilets that the three of us held a judging competition every time we used the restroom. I particularly loved the toilet in a Subway in Kyoto, that played bird songs to hide embarrassing lady noises. Even the McDonald’s in Tokyo offered a nice warm seat, and we loved the slippers that, as custom, you are required to wear while using many bathrooms. Our first hotel offered our son dolphin slippers which was a cute cultural kickoff.
My husband became so enamored of their toilet technology that he bought one for the house. I kid you not. “Does my cold American tushie not merit more?” he said, when he told me about his heated sit-on-and-spray purchase. We all still squeal with delight when we use it.
We flew into Tokyo airport and happily for our son, the plane showed his favorite Disney movies. He was in heaven and now thinks that air travel is the best thing on Earth. As soon as we got to Tokyo though, jet-lag kicked in and he conked out. That’s when I knew that, despite my husband’s initial objections, the stroller was going to come in very handy. He also conked out two afternoons in Kyoto, but having the stroller meant he could nap while we enjoyed the city.
Tokyo is modern and bustling, like a super-charged New York City but with a beautiful and unusual juxtaposition of old and new. There are more than 12 million people living there but we never felt hemmed in. Maybe that’s because we’re used to city life or because we were so distracted by the fact that everything was so different.
We stayed in a business hotel, which was more than fine and a good bet for tourists. At every hotel you book, make sure it has breakfast included. We explored and walked all day and night, and there was no way we had the strength to forage for breakfast. It’s Japan, not Chicago, so it takes a while to get your bearings, and the breakfast buffets were brilliant for our kid. Our favorite was at our last hotel in Nagoya, where they served ‘Rabbi-blessed’ bagels, cut into quarters and flown in from New York. Hilarious! But everywhere the buffets were big, offering both American and Japanese selections, which was great. After a week of fish and tofu, even I was happy to dive into a bowl of chocolate cocoa puffs.
We spent our first three days in Tokyo but for two of those days we were accompanied by a Walk Japan guide steering us around the city. We were so grateful. Although it’s fun to be intrepid, we were able to relax knowing that we wouldn’t get lost.
There are so many cultural highpoints but one that stands out was the Hagoitaichi Sensoji market, which was an explosion of color and people. There’s also a temple, but the arcade was packed and it was super fun seeing all the different products on sale, many of which were created for religious festivals. We also toured a Karate school (my kid is crazy about karate), which we wouldn’t have done without a guide.
We also briefly visited the Hanayashiki Amusement Park, billed as the oldest amusement park in Japan (“Open since 1853”), but it was super expensive, so we went on just a couple of rides and left quickly. After a few days, we realized that the parks were as much fun. In fact, we spent extra time in Nara instead of hustling onto Osaka because we fell in love with the deer in the park. We planned to have a picnic but the deer made it impossible with their heads in my backpack, so we wound up eating in the parking lot of a convenience store.
We spent a lot of time in the beautiful parks. They are kid-proof, after all. We’d packed an inflatable ball and had a fabulous time kicking it around. After that we’d feed the fish in the ponds (huge koi, biggest I’ve ever seen!)– all these things you can do at home but it makes for memorable family bonding time and is easy (something that’s a must when you’re travelling through a foreign land with a small child).
We also visited the Tokyo National Museum, which was stunning and a fantastic way to learn more about the country’s history. But the best thing in the world was the Tsukiji fish market. The place was crammed with vendors, buyers, and every fish imaginable. It was brilliant. We had to get up early to get there for trading, but it was well worth it.
We were visiting during cherry blossom season and it was unbelievably beautiful, but technology often won out over nature. Japanese vending machines are on steroids and our son loved them. Thanks to jet lag were were up at 4.30 am the first few days and at that time there’s not much to do except wait for breakfast, so we’d explore the vending machines. They sell everything from underpants to hot tea to fish-flavored noodles. We’d have “weird tasting parties” and buy strange looking jelly-beans, unable to tell exactly what we were buying. We allowed our son one vending machine treat each day and he was always excited (and it was a good bargaining tool).
The four days we booked to tour the Kiso Valley with Walk Japan were a supreme and joyous cultural highlight. We became immersed in a magical world which would have not been possible without an organized trip.
The Kiso Road is one of the most beautiful sections of the Nakasendo Way. The backdrop to some of our walks was the incredible Mount Ontake, one of Japan’s largest volcanoes. We stayed in family-run inns and enjoyed hot spring baths (very useful after a day walking) and fabulous authentic meals. At the first inn, we slept on traditional floor mats, which was phenomenal.
They also provided us with traditional Japanese gowns at dinner, which was pure joy for our son who loves dressing up, and a nice change from sweats.
We’d been reading Harry Potter books to our son, so he was naturally smitten with the Japanese brooms, which look Quidditch-ready. We took lots of photos of him ‘flying’ on his broomstick and, while we were surrounded by this verdant country that is rich with tradition and history, those happy photos will be cherished forever.
The walking was spectacular. We saw waterfalls that took our breath away, but it should be said that the Japanese idea of an easy walk is pretty damn intense. It was a real test of fitness–thank heavens I’d walked uphill every day for two years during our son’s school drop off–and when he got tired, we put him in the stroller. Definitely pack one of those if you’re with a child under eight. Nap time aside, he soaked up the culture. He can now say hello in Japanese and references the trip all the time.
We also enjoyed Kyoto, which we visited by train, using our pre-booked, pre-paid, and pre-issued (in America) Rail Japan passes. Kyoto is known as the “City of Ten Thousand Shrines” and we acclimated into this former imperial capital immediately, enjoying endless examples of Japan’s elegant spiritual and architectural past.
We visited Buddhist gardens, temples, museums, and kept our fingers crossed hoping to catch a glimpse of the occasional Geisha. We loved dining in the traffic-free Pontocho district just across from Gion, because we could allow our son to run freely through the narrow street without fear of cars.
Back in Tokyo, we surprised our son with a visit to Tokyo Disneyland. We live less than an hour from Anaheim, CA, so this wasn’t a unique experience, but I’d scoped a cheap hotel ten minutes from the park and, after our cultural immersion, it was the perfect ending to our stay.
We also visited DisneySea, which was okay but more suited to older kids. Neither parks held any surprises for our little Cali-based family unit, but after all that local food (we drowned in yummy noodles, wok-fried vegetables, and rice) we really enjoyed our burgers and fries slathered in ketchup.
It was an amazing trip to a faraway land that far exceeded our expectations. We weren’t prepared for the delight of all that toilet exploration but that, my friends, is the beauty of travel.
Five Tips for Traveling to Japan With a Small Child
1. Bring your own Wi-Fi. Since we’re Americans who both have jobs and need to be connected, my husband rented a Pocket Wi-Fi from pupuru.com. The price came just under $100 for the two weeks. My husband had it sent directly to our hotel, and it was great to have it waiting for us. It was an amazing help, especially during the remote walking parts. We always had a good connection, used Skype to stay in touch with family and work back home, and saved a bundle on roaming fees.
2. Buy a Japan Rail Pass in advance. In order to get the discount they must be purchased in America before you travel. The tickets are paper issued, so you need to leave enough time for them to arrive in the mail. We spent a week taking trains around Japan, so it was worthwhile. The downside is that you need to be very good at reading train schedules. Our tickets didn’t cover all the fast bullet trains and we couldn’t always work this out or understand why. We would just get on a train and hope for the best! Fortunately, our Walk Japan guide got us situated at the train station and explained the basics and over the course of a week, the passes saved us a bunch of money. The initial activation once in Japan required a little bit of time at the station and a lot of patience.
3. Japan is a country that requires you to be culture smart before you arrive, so do a little study before you go. Learn three words in Japanese–hello, thank you, and bathroom. We bought a tiny pocket guide called The Essential Guide to Customs and Culture in Japan by Paul Norbury, and my husband read it to my son before we traveled, which was very helpful. We understood why there were slippers for us in the bathroom. Take note, pack a lot of socks; they will be on display as you take off your shoes a lot and you’ll go through a lot of them. I went to Payless and bought tie dye socks which I entertained myself with, and my son loved his Spiderman and soccer designs. Pack raincoats too—we needed ours a couple of times.
4. Although I’m an intrepid traveler and can do a lot of things for myself, I was truly grateful that we booked our organized tours with guides. On one of the tours we were booked into adorable B&Bs that we would never have found on our own, and they became a highlight. We hired a guide from Walk Japan in Tokyo to tour a karate school, which again was something that wouldn’t have happened if we’d been left to our own devices.
5. My kid is too old for a stroller, but I bought one anyway because with jet lag and a lot of touring, by the time we got to Kyoto he was conked. I did it for me as much as for him. Were able to keep walking while he napped, which freed us from our hotel room. He hasn’t napped for two years, but it was necessary.
I learned more than ever on this trip to allow kids the time to be kids. You may be surrounded by ancient culture and traditions, but let them play with the dog you stumble upon, eat ice cream, pizza, and burgers, and play ball in the park. A happy kid means happy parents and happy travels!