Traveling with our two small children (Grace, 4 and Anna, 1) in Japan this summer was a mixed success. There are lots of sights and sounds, free food, transport and accommodations for kids under 6, and always friendly people to stop to say hello and “kawaii!”. Overall our Japan experience was fabulous but we do have some cautions for others as well.
Getting around in train stations is becoming easier than we found on past (pre-kids) trips, as the country does a better job of making accommodations for the disabled with ramps and elevators. Almost every station, even the smallest, has at least one elevator. Taking the Mia Moda Cielo Evolution Stroller was essential – we used it to let kids rest, pile on the bags and stuff little things in the basket. A few smaller stations however had only stairs and this is likely even more frequently the case in rural areas. Lugging a stroller and kids up and down long staircases is exhausting but those stations were infrequent enough that the stroller was definitely worth it. Anna, our 1-year old, spent a lot of time in the Ergo, joining just about every Japanese kid her age we saw. Even Grace at 4 enjoyed a few rides on daddy’s back in the Ergo when her little feet were especially tired of pounding the pavement.
Traveling in Japan in the summer is HOT, and it’s a humid kind of hot. Our primary reason to travel there in July was for a good friend’s wedding. If we had a choice as to time of year we would definitely avoid the summer and go in spring or fall. We were sticky sweaty most of the time, and needed showers twice a day. There is no central air conditioning in any apartment or home, and some of the individual room a/c machines are not up to the job. In addition, after the earthquake and nuclear plant shutdowns, all businesses are required to cut their energy consumption, so many stores and restaurants are weakly cooled, so you may find yourself sweating through your meal of udon or ramen. The trains on the other hand will rescue you with a blast of icy air. In the context of all the Japanese have had to face since the disasters hit, this sounds trite, but it might be part of your calculation in choosing when to visit with family.
The other aspect of Japanese culture that affects traveling with kids is space. We remember Japan having small rooms and tight quarters, but cramped living takes on a new dimension when you have a 4 year old and a 13 month old with you. Kids have amazing wells of energy and a need to let it out by jumping and bouncing and singing. When there’s no yard nearby, the park looks like a nice place to contract tetanus, and any other outdoor space is pushing 100 degrees, it makes for difficult indoor behavior issues. Some Japanese homes also have beautifully decorated tatami rooms with doors made of thin paper. (Note to parents: a four year old’s foot goes quite easily through said door, as we unfortunately discovered).
Not to say that traveling in Japan is impossible with kids, and the positives outweigh the downsides. We discovered delightful places for kids, like the Osaka aquarium with a massive tank full of sharks and hundreds of fish.
We also discovered Spa World, an indoor swimming – sliding – onsen – super-fun -waterpark.
We swam on the rooftop of Tokyo’s National Children’s Castle and let Grace run free in the huge indoor play structure, followed by participating in the drawing and music rooms. We found out that while Kyoto is known for its temples and shrines, it also has a decent zoo with a small amusement park. Kyoto also boasts an interesting Handicraft Center where Grace was able to design and paint her own fan.
And lest you think that Japanese food means a bunch of sushi that kids won’t eat… our kids discovered the wonders of Japanese noodles and many variations on rice.
And what kid wouldn’t be thrilled by zipping around at 175 miles an hour on the bullet train?
So, in addition to the wonderful experiences of reconnecting with old friends, we discovered many ways in which Japan is wonderful for kids, if you’re prepared for some unique speedbumps along the way. We plan to share details from some of these experiences over the next few posts.