Japan with children

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Moshi moshi, Japan calling

Japan is an exciting, safe and rewarding place to travel with children, but the big cities like Tokyo and Kyoto are not always super-friendly or convenient from the parents' point of view, especially if your children are still young. Here are some tips for making your visit a bit easier.

Understand[edit]

Japan has always been a hierarchical society where everything and everyone has its place, and traditionally, the place for young children to be is at home with their mother. It's still common to keep babies at home for several months after birth, and strollers are a comparatively rare sight on the streets of Japan's cities. If parents do take the kids out, they're expected to keep them in check: running around yelling in trains or restaurants is not acceptable and will earn you cold stares.

Get in[edit]

If you're flying to Japan with young children, it's worth paying a little extra for Japan's own airlines, Japan Airlines (JAL) [1] or All Nippon Airways (ANA), which are both extraordinarily kid-friendly. For example, in addition to the usual slew of services (bassinets, infant meals etc), JAL offers a child seat rental service [2]: just buy a seat for your child, and they'll install a plush deluxe child seat in it absolutely free, pre-adjusted to your child's size to boot. Both airlines offer a special family check-in counter at Tokyo's Narita Airport, let you gate-check strollers, and will usually let you cut in the security line as well. And regardless of which airline you fly, Narita has excellent kids' play areas, the one in Terminal 2 being particularly good.

Get around[edit]

In a nutshell, leave your giant stroller at home, as they can be a nightmare to deal with. City sidewalks are busy, temple and shrine paths are nearly invariably gravel, trains are crowded (impossibly so in rush hour), and while elevators are slowly being retrofitted everywhere, there are still many stations where you'll need to use the stairs or take *long* detours to use the one elevator available. You can check ahead of time with Rakuraku Odekake's English service [3], and if you unexpectedly get stuck, station staff or passersby are happy to help if you ask.

Instead, the Japanese prefer baby carriers, often for children as old as two, and lightweight collapsible umbrella strollers that fit through normal ticket gates and can be carried up or down a flight of stairs one-handed in a pinch. You may not even need to lug a stroller at all, since quite a few major attractions like Ueno Zoo and Tokyo Disneyland even rent out strollers for free or a nominal fee.

On trains and buses, children under 6 travel for free, although technically they're not supposed to sit in their own seat if adults are standing. (This rule is widely ignored.) Children under 12 are half price, and you can get a special children's version of JR's Suica smart card (こども用Suica kodomo-yō suika) that can be used pretty much anywhere and automatically deducts the children's fare at gates.

By local train[edit]

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's the Chiba Urban Monorail!

Young trainspotters will be in for a treat, as Japan is full of modes of transportation rarely seen outside theme parks elsewhere. In Tokyo, check out the elevated Yurikamome and Tokyo Monorail lines, make a trip out to Enoshima or Chiba to ride their wacky suspended monorails. or visit Saitama's massive Railway Museum (see below).

The one thing to beware of is rush hour, which peaks on weekdays between 8-9 AM on services towards the city center, and again (not quite so badly) after 5 PM in the other direction. It still takes a combination of bad luck and bad timing to end up squished into one of those infamous trains where people are literally pushed on board, and you can usually see them coming: if the station is a whirling maelstrom of humanity even before the turnstiles, you might want to come back in an hour.

By long-distance train[edit]

Shinkansen bullet trains are generally well-equipped for babies, with breastfeeding booths and change tables in newer models. The high-speed vibration can make some babies queasy, so feed them lightly or opt for newer models like the N700 on Tokyo-Osaka services if your kids are the type who get carsick easily.

You can only make seat reservations with a paid ticket, so if you have kids under 6, just use the unreserved cars. Finding seats will not be a problem unless it's absolute peak season (Golden Week etc).

If you happen to be traveling to the Izu Peninsula, be sure to try out the Super View Odoriko express train, which has a fabulous kids' play space.

By taxi[edit]

While children under 6 are required by law to use child seats, taxis are exempt and do not have child seats, full stop. Even digging out the back seat's middle seat belt can be a pain. If you are uncomfortable with this, the only (often poor) alternatives are to use public transport or to rent a car and drive it yourself.

See and Do[edit]

Theme parks[edit]

Anpanman statue at the Anpanman museum in Yokohama

Yes, there is a Tokyo Disney Resort in Japan, but since you've made it all the way here, why not check out Japan's homegrown cartoon heroes instead? Some of the more ubiquitous are:

  • Anpanman (アンパンマン), the "Red Bean Paste Bun Man" (yes, it's more catchy in Japanese), is a jolly bun-headed fellow who's always flying around to rescue a ridiculously huge cast of edible friends ranging from Uncle Jam to Cream Panda from the antics of the more-naughty-than-evil Baikinman (Bacteria Man). A huge favorite among the toddler/preschooler set, he's got his own "museums" (really more like themed indoor playgrounds with random Anpanman characters walking around) in Yokohama (near Tokyo), Nagoya, Kobe (near Osaka) and Sendai.
  • Doraemon (ドラえもん) is a blue cat-shaped robot with a magical pocket that contains anything and everything, plus an inexplicable fondness for dorayaki pancakes. Doraemon comic books are sometimes available in English at larger bookstores. His museum in Kawasaki is, oddly, geared more for adults.
  • Hello Kitty (ハローキティー) hardly needs an introduction, with her feline cuteness emblazoned onto a ludicrous range of merchandise. Harajuku remains the epicenter of pink epidemic, but if you're still left wanting more, her theme park Sanrio Puroland [4] is in Tama, western Tokyo.
  • The painstakingly animated whimsical movies from Studio Ghibli are quintessentially Japanese, with furry Totoro (トトロ) taking pride of place among the wide cast of characters. The Ghibli Museum in Kichijoji near Tokyo is a place of pilgrimage and tickets must be booked well in advance.

For all of these, it will pay off to familiarize yourself (and your children) with the characters and storylines before arrival. Most of Ghibli's movies are available in English, and there are plenty of dubbed and subtitled cartoons of the other characters on YouTube and other sites as well.

Museums[edit]

  • The Railway Museum in Saitama, outside Tokyo, is almost entirely geared for kids, with mini-trains to drive around ((school age kids on their own, any age with a parent), train simulators, train-themed outdoor playground, a room filled with model trains to play with, train-shaped boxed lunches, etc. As a bonus, you can even ride the Shinkansen to get there. Packed on weekends and holidays, but quiet on weekdays.

Game centers[edit]

Taito game center in Akihabara, Tokyo

Game centers (ゲームセンター geemu-sentaa) are basically the Japanese take on the video arcade. Smaller centers, such as the Taito chain [5], typically contain a wide variety of video games, including the dancing- or drumming-type rhythm games, timing or coordination games where you can win candy or stuffed animals, air hockey tables, purikura (see below) and other fun activities for children or teens. Large centers, such as the Round One chain [6], often have additional activities such as karaoke, bowling, mini-bikes, mini-basketball, and other more space-consuming activities.

Purikura[edit]

A typical purikura machine

Purikura (プリクラ, short for "print club" in English) is a Japanese-style photo booth where, once you have taken your photos, you can alter or decorate them on a digital screen with handwritten messages and wide variety of effects such as adding mustaches, accessories, sparkles, or backgrounds, before printing them out as stickers or photos or emailing them to yourself in digital form. This somewhat goofy form of entertainment is wildly popular with teenagers, who are known to decorate their cell phones and everything else with stickers and even keep books full of them, but they are quite popular and enjoyable for younger children and adults as well, and silly Japanese-style photos of you and your children can make great inexpensive souvenirs. Purikura booth centers can occasionally be found as stand-alone establishments, but are more common at shopping malls, game centers, and some of the larger manga shops or bookstores.

Playgrounds[edit]

There are plenty of parks in Japanese cities, but parents will want to look for "children's parks" (児童公園 jidōkōen), which have play equipment and a high tolerance for kids running around. Older ones tend to be rather grim affairs of concrete and rusting monkey bars, but there are plenty of newer ones as well; Google's Street View and (if you can read Japanese) Kouen.info [7] can come in handy for previewing what you'll get. You can also find playgrounds on the rooftops of many major department stores, including Keio on Shinjuku and Seibu in Ikebukuro.

Buy[edit]

A typical bright-yellow Matsumoto Kiyoshi drugstore

Finding baby products can be a hassle, as most inner-city Japanese groceries, supermarkets, convenience stores and corner drugstores do not stock diapers (オムツ omutsu) or formula (粉ミルクkona-miruku). Your best bet is to look for the large, multi-story drugstores nearly always found outside larger train stations, which always prominently display the character 薬 ("drug"). The Matsumoto Kiyoshi [8] chain is particularly ubiquitous and easily spotted thanks to its garish yellow signage. Do not expect to find Western brands: the local market leaders are Nepia Genki [9] for diapers and Meiji Hohoemi [10] for formula.

For most part, commercial Japanese baby food (ベビーフード bebii fuudo) still subscribes to the traditional belief that salt, spices and oil are all bad for babies, and is thus bland in the extreme and/or loaded up with sugar to make it palatable. If your baby already expects food to have some taste, you'll probably have better luck bringing or making your own, or sharing suitable adult foods like rice porridge (お粥 okayu, available in ready-to-eat packs).

Eat[edit]

A typical okosama lunch with tomato rice, hamburger steak, deep-fried shrimp and omelette

Most Japanese restaurants do not cater to babies, with highchairs being virtually unknown, and the average Tokyo hole-in-the-wall won't even have the space to park a stroller. The main exception is family restaurants (ファミレス famiresu) like Jonathan's [11], Royal Host [12] and Denny's [13], which can often be found near train stations and all of which offer a wide range of Japanese and Western food for both kids and adults at reasonable prices, with baby food on the menu, highchairs, etc.

Once your children reach an age where they can sit unrestrained and not make too much of a mess, things get a little easier. Larger restaurants and most all chain outlets will often have "child seats" (こども椅子 kodomo-isu), which are like a cross between a highchair and a booster seat, and kids' menus (お子様ランチ okosama lunch) featuring Japanese family favorites like fried rice wrapped in a thin omelette (オムライス omuraisu), hamburger steaks, deep-fried croquettes or mild Japanese curry, more often than not decorated with a cartoon character or arranged in a cute way. Among the Japanese fast food chains, Sukiya makes a point of being family-friendly, complete with Happy Meal-style "Suki Suki Sets" with a box of juice and a toy.

Larger Japanese restaurants may have private rooms (個室 koshitsu), often Japanese style (座敷 zashiki) with tatami mats and low tables. These are great with young kids, since they can romp around a bit without disturbing other guests, and they're usually free and available even to a single family, especially during early evening off peak hours. Just make sure to request a non-smoking room (禁煙 kin'en).

The fourth option is to do takeaway (持ち帰り mochikaeri), which is offered by a surprisingly wide range of restaurants, even at the high end of the gourmet spectrum: it's not uncommon for a Japanese salaryman to enjoy an expensive banquet on the company dime and bring back a sampling for the family. There are also plenty of shops dedicated to cheap and tasty bentō (弁当) take-away meals, although opening hours are often limited (in the inner city, often weekday morning to lunchtime only).

Last but not least, Japan's ubiquitous convenience stores are always handy in a pinch, offering onigiri rice balls, prepacked bentō meals, triangle sandwiches and other bakery goods, etc.

Sleep[edit]

Accommodation in Japan is usually charged per person, and once past the age of 12, children are considered adults when it comes to pricing. Younger children are often free as long as they sleep in the same bed, but if you ask for an extra bed, you'll be charged for it. Cribs for babies are usually free, although the age limit may be as low as 1.

Finding rooms that can sleep four or more, much less with four separate beds, can be a real challenge, and most large families end up having to book two rooms. Don't try to sneak in more people, as maximum occupancy rules are a part of the fire code and usually strictly enforced.

In traditional Japanese inns (ryokan), beds aren't a problem since you're all sleeping on the tatami matting anyway. However, since food is a big part of the ryokan experience, even small children will get charged extra for meals. Not all ryokan accept young children as guests—and of those that do, not many are genuinely child-friendly. It pays to do your research. On the upside, since meals are usually served in your room, they can be less stressful than eating out — just try not to spill the soy sauce all over the tatami!

Short-stay serviced apartments are rare in Japan (bookings of one month plus are usually required), and apartments with more than one bedroom even more so. A welcome exception is the Tokyu Stay [14] chain, which rents out for as little as two days, has "twin" apartments that fit three, and come with basic cooking facilities and laundry/dryer.

Cope[edit]

A typical "baby chair", pull it out to open

Public toilets in Japan are free and ubiquitous, and larger train stations and tourist attractions nearly always have a large toilet equipped with a change table. You may also encounter stalls equipped with a mysterious device called a "baby chair" (ベビーチェアー), basically a wall-mounted bracket with holes for legs, which is quite handy for briefly restraining inquisitive toddlers while you take care of your own business. The one thing Japanese toilets sometimes don't have, though, is toilet paper, so bring along a packet of tissues!

Breastfeeding in public is acceptable, but most Japanese women use discreet wraps that hide everything. Department stores will usually have a breastfeeding room (授乳室 junyūshitsu) or a "resting room" (休憩室 kyūkeishitsu) serving the same purpose, with larger ones (eg. Mitsukoshi in Ginza) often having an entire floor devoted to kids and parents.

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