You might think of Japan as one of those places that you should have visited before the kids came along. But you might also be surprised to learn that Japan is extremely kid-friendly. My two oldest children were born in Japan and we’ve traveled back as a family every other year since returning to the United States. I love that restaurants and hotels are generally very accommodating for families with children. Public transportation is clean and efficient with plenty of access to elevators for strollers.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Japan while the cherry trees are in bloom, you may get the feeling there’s magic in the air.
And then there are the main attractions like the glimmering Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji), majestic Mount Fuji, tranquil Kiyomizu-dera temple, bustling Shibuya crossing and historic castles that make for one impressive show and tell.
Japan is a fascinating country, but it may seem a bit intimidating for those traveling with kids. Here are some of my most commonly asked questions and tips for getting the most out of a family adventure in Japan.
Parent tip: If someone in your family has food allergies, you may want to carry an allergy card translated into Japanese.
What will my picky kid eat in Japan?
Don’t worry if your kids think raw fish is yucky, there’s much more to Japanese cuisine than sushi and sashimi. If your child likes noodles, you’re in luck. Soba, udon and ramen restaurants are not hard to find. And who doesn’t love pancakes for dinner? At many okonomiyaki restaurants, you can cook savory pancakes right at the table. Plus, if things get really bad, there’s always McDonald’s!
Parent tip: If someone in your family has food allergies, you may want to carry an allergy card translated into Japanese which you can buy here.
What’s the best way to get around in Japan?
Japan has lot’s of clean, efficient transportation options, depending on where you are. The Tokyo and Osaka subway systems are modern and clean (Google Maps is great for schedules and fares). However, if you’re traveling during rush hour with or without kids, you’ll be in for an unpleasant surprise — the crowds can be quite overwhelming or even a scary experience for a toddler who’s had a long day of sightseeing. Plan your excursions with that in mind. Also, if you’re pregnant and want to sit, you’ll likely have to ask someone to give you a seat.
The Shinkansen (bullet train) is a fun and fast way to get from Tokyo to Kyoto.
Taxis are expensive, but if you have limited time in Kyoto, I recommend using them. Train routes in the city are limited and public buses are often slow. In Tokyo, consider taking a bus tour. I took a bus tour when visiting relatives and brought along my 6-month-old daughter. Being driven from one tourist spot to another was a welcomed switch from the trains for the day.
Finally, the Shinkansen (bullet train) is a fun and fast way to get from Tokyo to Kyoto, but pricey. Look for deals that include tickets and hotel.
When is the best time to travel to Japan?
Spring is my favorite time of year to visit! If you’re lucky enough to be in Japan while the cherry trees are in bloom, you may get the feeling there’s magic in the air. For great hanami (cherry blossom viewing), Maruyama Park is conveniently located in downtown Kyoto and vendors sell all sorts of treats kids will love. To get away from the crowds, try Arashiyama. If you’re in Tokyo, Nakameguro is a hip, mellow, café-filled neighborhood where you can view gorgeous cherry blossoms along the Meguro River.
I always pack a little surprise package for each of my kids to open on the plane like coloring supplies, games and snacks.
How can I get an authentic Japanese experience?
Try staying at a Ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, where you can sleep on futons rolled out on tatami mats. Ryokans can be hard to find using sites like Expedia, but Jalan is a booking site popular with Japanese travelers (and now you can book in English!).
Relaxing at an onsen resort is another way to unwind Japanese-style after several hectic days of sightseeing. Onsen bathers scrub head to toe in a communal shower and wear absolutely nothing before entering the baths. Even the hand towel you may be clinging to for modesty will have to be left out of the water. While some onsen will provide towels and toiletries, others, especially sento (public baths) don’t. For many Japanese, a trip to the onsen is a family event, so children of all ages are welcome. And, yes, men and women’s baths are separate.
How will I survive the long flight to Japan with kids?
For those of us embarking outside Asia, there’s no sugar-coating the long journey. Over the past 9 years, I’ve learned a few ways to make the trip a little less challenging. First, I always try to book direct flights whenever possible. My toddler tends to be at his worst when planes are taking off and landing, so the fewer flights the better. I always pack a little surprise package for each of my kids to open on the plane like coloring supplies, games and snacks. My husband and I also book our seats in two different rows so that one of us can attempt to sleep out of sight from our youngest child while the other entertains him. Read lots of tips on flying with kids to help get you started.
Vanessa Tsumura lives in Wisconsin with her husband and three children. She blogs about crafting and DIY projects at www.bluetandclover.com.