Traveling with your children across Japan: Tips for traveling to Japan with a small child
Hi friends! Recently, our family completed a trip across Japan. We traveled from Tokyo to Kyoto to Osaka and finally back to Tokyo before we headed home. It was an amazing trip for all of us. Growing up as otakus, Jake and I have established Tokyo as our Disney World. Phil also can’t wait to go back! This was technically his second trip to Japan. He’s visited before, back in 2013 when he was just a bean in my belly.
Parents, prepare for a long flight
Flying nonstop from NYC to Tokyo (Narita Airport) will take around 14 hours, and note that you will most likely lose a day, since Japan is 13 hours ahead of NY. Flying from Seattle only took us nine hours on a non-stop flight. Japan is 16 hours ahead of Seattle. When you fly back from Japan, however, you’ll gain back your day. We left Japan on a Tuesday at 6PM and returned to Seattle around 11AM on Tuesday! We recommend flying with ANA or Japan Airlines because you’ll get to immerse yourself in Japanese culture before you even set foot in Japan. ANA and Japan Airlines provide delicious Japanese meals, drinks, snacks, and beers. Announcements are made in both Japanese and English.
Ah and you’ll feel like buying everything on your trip. Don’t load up on snacks to bring back home until you’re at the airport. The airport has all kinds of snacks. They up-charge just a little bit, but it will save you some headache. After you check in your bags (and you should bring a large luggage with you to bring back goodies and souvenirs) buy additional souvenirs and snacks at the airport, and carry it on with you on your flight :)
Don’t make it a short trip
If you’re just staying in Tokyo, then four to five days would suffice. If you’re traveling across Japan, stay for at least a week. Your flights are so long, you might as well make the most out of your trip.
Get ready to walk, walk, walk
According to our Apple watches, we were walking at least 25,000 steps a day. Of course, you can always flag down cabs and taxis, or use predominately the subway systems, but you will still have to walk. The subway stations in Japan are large and filled with shops and stores to explore. And you will be surprised how much you will see and find just walking through the streets of Tokyo, Kyoto, or Osaka. Wear comfy shoes. I wore my Allbirds tree toppers throughout our Japan trip. My feet were comfy, but they did get stinky!
Phil is five years old and he walked everywhere with us. For children who get tired easily or still use strollers, we recommend you bringing your child’s stroller with you when you travel to Japan. Japan is super family-friendly. There are some streets that can be quite narrow, and so if you can, bring your lighter stroller.
Get a Japan Rail Pass
If you intend to use the Narita Express to travel into Tokyo, and then back to the airport on your return trip, and also use the Shinkansen to travel to other prefectures in Japan, then you should invest in a Japan Rail Pass. With the Japan Rail Pass, you can also ride the JR trains for free. You can get a 7-day, 14-day, or 21-day pass. Now they aren’t cheap, but if you are traveling a lot throughout Japan during your trip, the Japan Rail Pass is worth it. We were able to pass by Mount Fuji on our way back to Tokyo, and snap pictures of it from our train.
And just a quick note, kids under six ride free in Japanese subways! (Unless they are under two, however, you do have to pay for your child’s Shinkansen and Narita Express tickets.) Kids under six also get to go to many zoos, museums, and other attractions for free, such as botanical gardens.
Carry yen with you, and also a major credit card or two
If you travel to Dotonbori in Osaka, Nishiki Market in Kyoto, or Tsukiji Market in Tokyo, it’s good for you to carry yen. Some small businesses, market stalls, and food stands may not be able to charge your credit cards. Even major chains such as 7/11 had trouble reading our chip cards. Also, if you’re riding the subways a lot, you will save time when you’re buying tickets with yen. Some of the subway ticket vending machines had trouble reading our credit cards as well. Yen may be confusing at first because something that costs 300 yen costs about 2.30 USD.
Buy drinks from vending machines
Seriously, feel and taste Japan through their vending machines. You can find them inside subway stations, in almost any alleyway of busy cities in Japan, and along shopping strips. You can’t miss these! You can buy hot or cold drinks, water, soft drinks, teas, coffees, and even soups. Some will even sell boba tea! Your children will love buying drinks from these machines, so don’t miss this simple little experience.
Enter a Lawsons, 7/11, or Family Mart Convenience Store
I think we went into a convenience store almost once a day when we were in Japan. You’ll be able to find the best snacks (such as fruit sandwiches) and even souvenir items in these convenience stores. If you need an umbrella, want a midnight snack, need some face masks or hand creams, look no further. Stop into one of these 24/7 stores and be amazed. Stock up on water for your hotel, and Jagabee Calbee potato sticks. (The clam flavored ones are as delicious as they are odd.)
Visit a shrine (or two)
Whether it’s your first time going to Japan, or your fifth, I bet you’ll stop by a shinto shrine (or two) to get a few charms and get blessings from the spirits of the shrines. They really feel magical, and are so peaceful. (Save for the heavy tourist areas such as Fushimi Inari in Kyoto or Meiji Jingu in Tokyo.) We feel it’s so important to expose Phil to different cultures, so that he grows up appreciating them.
We love the food in Japan. You’d be surprised how different their Starbucks and McDonalds. They serve a huge slab of fatty bacon in their burgers at McDonalds. The toys are different too, so you’ll see a lot more of Rillakuma, Sanrio, and Doraemon.
If you’re in Kyoto, you must try a kaiseki meal, or two. In Tokyo, of course you need to have Japanese curry, ramen, and sushi. Restaurants have great kid’s meal options, and many restaurants will give out toys with the meals.
If you’re jet lagged and wake up extra early (like we did) and find yourself hungry, don’t worry! You can hit a Denny’s for breakfast, and their breakfast options are great. (Mango parfaits for breakfast, heck yes!) Or visit a Yoshinoya as they’re open 24/7, and have a huge selection of inexpensive and good eats.
Visit any Takashimaya
One of the best department store chains in Japan is Takashimaya. You can’t skip Takashimaya! You’ll usually find a food court at the lowest level, and fancy and fun stores throughout the building.
Visit a Pokemon Center
If your child or children love Pokemon, definitely take them to a Pokemon Center. There’s also a Pokemon Cafe in Tokyo. You might want to make a reservation to get a chance to eat yummy Pokemon-themed foods, buy special Pokemon products, and get a chance to take pictures and shake the hands of a huge Pokemon. Imagine character meets at Disney.
Spend yen on UFO catchers and capsule machines!
If you have extra yen, try your hand at UFO catchers and buy a toy or two from capsule machines. You can rarely find these toys in the US, and they’re totally worth it. Just look at this beautiful Disney Little Mermaid toy I got from a capsule machine, for 500 yen (around 4 dollars).
Why we love Japan so much
You don’t have to tip at restaurants.
People are polite and orderly.
The food tastes great!
The cities are technologically-advanced.
You get wet wipes or warm towels to wipe your hands before every meal.
There are surprises at every corner, especially in Tokyo.
You won’t feel too stressed out while traveling through Japan with children. Just avoid rush-hour traffic in the subways, and avoid very crowded tourist-trap areas.
You can curate amazing gifts and goodies for your friends and loved ones, or yourself!
It is completely doable to bring small children with you to Japan. Japan is very family-friendly. Public restroom stalls (inside malls and popular places at least) have seats where you can slot your baby in. Baby sits there, snug and secure while you do your business. You may be surprised by how small their hotel rooms are, so plan accordingly. Most hotels rooms in Tokyo are a little over 100 square feet.
Don’t worry about a language barrier. The signs are in Japanese and English, and many people inside of Tokyo know enough English to communicate with you. Your mobile phone carrier should also provide you with international data to surf the web, or access Google Maps when you’re lost.
Shinjuku in Tokyo has free city-wide wifi. It’s spotty in a lot of areas, but it’s something.
Let me know if you have any questions, or would like to share your tips! Happy traveling, friends!