After two weeks in Japan, I thought I would share some tips for parents planning a stay in either Tokyo or Kyoto with young children.
First, let me reassure you : this is totally doable. It is not always easy, but with a little preparation before your trip and each morning once in destination, you can ensure a smooth and enjoyable stay despite this relative child unfriendly environment.
Our children are aged 6 and 2. They have different needs and interests, but both enjoyed exploring the two cities.
Packing and Travelling
You must travel light, as there is little to no room for luggage in trains, subway or JR trains. Having said that, we’ve always managed to find some room for a small buggy (MacLaren Quest – folded when necessary), and two duffle bags (90 litres each).
We also felt like the only Europeans in Japan, as high season does not start for another week. Things may get even trickier when thousands of people gather to witness the cherry trees blossom. In any case, you can’t hide from labelled a tourist and as long as you don’t mind the occasional stare, you’ll be fine. But don’t count too much on external help. Even taxi drivers tend to stay comfortably seated in their car, letting you load and unload the trunk on your own.
Most of the train stations in Tokyo have escalators and/or elevators. In Kyoto, we used taxis a lot. They are really easy to find, relatively inexpensive (more or less 600 Y for a 10 minutes ride for 4 people), and it helped keep everyone’s energy levels high. Not doing so and you run the risk of the children being tired before you reach your destination and start your visits of the day.
We also brought along a baby carrier (ergo baby type – fits in a backpack) which was really helpful on many occasions, especially in Kyoto where the streets are narrow and the temples have never ending flights of steps. In many temples, you will be asked to leave the buggy at the entrance, so I would say the carrier is your best bet for this type of visit.
In Tokyo, we made a mistake and rented two rooms in a hotel located in the Shiodome business area. The location was really convenient for transportation, but barely suitable for children. I would recommend you double check the surface of the room prior to making any booking and get in touch directly with the hotel to ensure you get communicating rooms. Ours were not, and 22 sq.meters for 4 gets every cranky in no time.
We rented a traditional house in Kyoto. It was great to feel at home and to have access to a full kitchen. Traditional houses are exactly what you want to experiment when you come to Japan, but sliding doors, low tables and paper thin walls can sometimes be a challenge with a 2 years old. Apart from these minors inconveniences, we all enjoyed our little place in the Gion area and the children loved their room with moving walls as well as their futon bed.
Things to do
Temples are ideal visits for children. They have bright colours, nice gardens, strange amusing statues (dragons, foxes, tigers etc) and there are a lot of rituals they can experiment by themselves which makes the visit more interactive and helps them better discover what traditional Japan is all about.
It is however sometimes challenging to help them understand what is ok and what is not ok to do in such sacred places that sometimes, to them, come across as elaborated playgrounds. Our son loved purifying fountains and burning incense, but didn’t quite grasp the religious dimension and kept asking for more incense sticks, sometimes a bit too noisily.
I must also admit our little one did some running around in cemeteries, without much consideration for those resting in peace.
Same for all the “offrande” shops you find everywhere around the temples, most notably in Kyoto. You’d better set a limit or you’ll end up buying more souvenirs than you can carry.
Our daughter had a passion for throwing pebbles in each and every pond of those perfectly well kept gardens. It was sometimes exhausting to run after her and the occasional tantrum not always easy to manage in places devoted to worship. For some reason we can’t yet explain, it appears the Japanese child does not know the tantrum… But apart from a few moments of great solitude, both our children very much liked visiting the temples and we had a great time learning about ancient Japan.When we previously travelled as a couple, we often found ourselves running from one site to another, trying to see and do as much as possible. Museums were our primary targets. Not any more. This time, we limited ourselves to one: the Edo museum. At the beginning of our stay, this visit served as an introduction to our future walks and explorations in modern Tokyo. The museum was interesting enough for our 6 year old to enjoy, mostly because it is full of models and scenes of the past (and for those wondering, yes, our 2 year old slept through the visit).
Wow… that was a shock. For those who don’t know me, I don’t eat fish or seafood and I suffer from a slight food paranoia, both for myself and my children. Needless to say this has been an adventure. Our son is very curious and enjoyed discovering new flavours as he bravely tasted most of the local delicacies. But in the end, he was not found of Japanese gastronomy and it soon became a challenge to keep him from starving. His gargantuan appetite made this feat even more sizeable.
In Tokyo, we decided we would eat as much as we could during breakfast. The hotel offered a buffet, with continental, american and japanese breakfasts. I took a thermos box and filled it with pasta every morning, in case we were not able to find the children something they would like at lunch time.
For lunch, we ate in japanese restaurants or take away. But if the tastes were not what they expected (which was often the case), I knew they could fill up on pasta so we could keep them up and running in the afternoon.
For dinner, we opted for italian style restaurants or room service. We deeply missed variety and green vegetables, but survived.
In Kyoto, we used the kitchen to prepare our own dinners and breakfasts. Mini-supermarkets allowed us to buy a mix of local and european style foods, vegetables, dairy and fruit – which was quite a relief after 8 days of rice and noodles.
For our toddler, baby milk has been an issue as soon as we arrived. I only had baby formula (growing-up milk) for a day or two when we landed in Tokyo. It had been very easy to find formula in Hong-Kong so I thought it would be as easy in Tokyo. I was wrong. I still don’t know what Japanese mothers feed their toddlers, but there is no baby food or formula in supermarkets, apart from a small and weird range for very young babies in highly specialised stores. Fruit purees are not common either. Instead, they have a type of jelly in a pouch. Tasteful but with strange consistency. Our daughter tried it a couple of times, but did not find it that appealing in the end.
As we could not find any milk, I tried to give our toddler some fresh cow milk. She never took it. And as she had nothing else she was used to, the only thing she ate for the first two days was pasta, pasta and …pasta. We had to go across Tokyo to finally get some milk, diapers and wipes. I found them in what they call a western style department store, this one was called “peacock store”. The baby nappies were found next to the nappies for old people (!). The wipes are tiny (same size as a face wipe in Europe or North America). And the milk comes in solid portions. Great for travel, but not so great when you don’t warm up the bottle as it takes them a while to dissolve in water. Also, keep in mind that all the instructions are written in Japanese and finding an english speaking japanese is almost as hard as finding the baby formula. In the end, our daughter enjoyed her japanese milk as much as she did the French and English milk.
If were to do it again, I would travel with the food she is used to and save us all time.
Change / toilets
Changing tables are widely available in Tokyo. I haven’t seen any in Kyoto.
In Tokyo, plan on carrying your dirty nappies and snack left overs with you as oddly, bins are not that easy to find.
Tickets for trains / visits / museums
Children pay no entry fees or pay half price. It depends on their age. You will be asked if your child is going to primary school rather than asking for the child’s age.
We found a few playgrounds whilst we were exploring Tokyo and many were quite dusty. Gardens are a serious matter in this country, and it can sometimes be frustrating for children as they only have acces to the gravelled paths and not to the lawn, ponds or trees. We found a great park near Shiodome and the children were free to run everywhere with few restrictions. You have to pay a small fee to enter, but it is a very nice garden to spend several hours. I would recommend you bring a picnic.
Kyoto is full of gardens, but swings and slides are not easy to find. We ended up walking in Maruyama Park and along the river where they could see ducks and enjoy nice views of the mountains.
Both our children are blond and our daughter has big bright blue eyes. The Japanese were quite fond of her and would stop and take pictures of her quite regularly. Women were usually staring at her with big smiles, saying ” Kawaiiiii”. Luckily, our daughter is very sociable and she was not too worried about being the center of all this attention. But often, it felt weird. And it did not seem fair to our son, who did not complain, but whom was abviously not getting what was so special about his sister.In conclusion, I would say that I am glad we did it. We learned a lot and the children enjoyed their time in Japan, despite the physical challenges they took on by walking long distances, under or over ground. But I would probably have a very different experience and opinion about Japan if I were to go back without the kids. So, if this is one of several trips to Japan, taking the children with you is a good idea. But if this is a once in a lifetime trip, maybe you should wait until they are a little older.