We are still recovering from jet lag, but safely home from our journey to Japan. We had a wonderful time and will post highlights soon!
In the meantime, here are some notable things that are different in Japan from western countries that are particularly relevant to travel with little kids.
There are a lot of:
Vending machines. Selling everything from hot coffee to soda to ice cream to toys to full meals. This is often useful (quick drink or snack anyone?), although our toddler quickly learned to recognize the ice cream machines and requested that we stop at them often.
- Trains. Travel by train or subway is challenging with small children since there is a lot of rushing through crowded, busy, stations and there isn’t always a lot of room to sit or play on the train. For infants, a baby carrier is 100% the way to go. For toddlers (Joey was 2.5 years) it is trickier. We used a light front to back double stroller (Kinderwagon Dual Hop), which was about the biggest stroller one could manage on public transit in Japan. In retrospect I’d recommend a light single (you will have to push through crowds and lift it over the step/gap when boarding and disembarking) or another baby carrier. This was one of our biggest challenges.
- Huge, amazing, playgrounds. Even in the shopping mall on the roof. For a country with relatively few children (the current average birth rate is 1.2), Japan has extraordinary playgrounds. We made a point to stop every time we saw one, and often had it nearly to ourselves. No waiting for the zip line or complaints when the grown-ups joined in the fun!
- Rules. The Japanese have solved the problem of high population density with several rules (walk on the path to the left, queue for the train, etc). Everyone was very polite to us despite our often lack of understanding.
- Outdoor public baths (when you get out of Tokyo). Onsen require some guts and cultural awareness to get onboard with the naked communal bathing, but they are actually amazing for toddlers. Joey loved playing in the wash room where showers/water could be put anywhere, and in the cooler parts of the naturally heated outdoor pools. One place we stayed had a private bath, which allowed our whole family to enjoy an outdoor pool together. Toys were provided for the children and the temperature was perfect for both of them (about 96 F).
There are not many:
- Public rubbish bins. No one litters (see above re: rules). The intention is that you take your trash home with you. This is a great idea, but potentially hard to comply with given the number of pre-packaged items (especially from vending machines!) Thankfully we carry around plastic grocery bags with the kids anyway so it wasn’t too challenging to collect rubbish and store it in the stroller basket.
- Dirty things. I am a germ-a-phobe about public transit, but everything was remarkable clean from the sidewalks to the trains to the stores.
- Changing tables in mens or ladies restrooms. Japan’s solution is much better in my opinion – there is a third choice at any public restroom area called a ‘multipurpose’ or handicap restroom. The room is open to men and women and includes a changing table as well as handicap access and a regular toilet. Some also have a little plastic seat on a stand to contain your kid while you pee (best for children 6-18 months. Blake was too small and Joey was really too big).
- Spacious restaurants. Most dine-in establishments are tiny, seating less than 30 people at a time or standing room only. This is sub-optimal for the kids as well. We searched for cafes with outdoor seating, and places selling take out (check out the department stores in Tokyo) near parks.
- Places to sit. In part because most living spaces and restaurants are small, there is a distinct lack of sofas, cushy recliners, gliders, etc both in homes and public spaces. This isn’t a big problem unless you have an infant the needs to be fed frequently. In that case, work on your core strength ahead of time and be prepared to get creative.
- Loud people. In fact, people walking down the street during business hours are so quiet that I almost felt rude talking. Joey attracted a great deal of (positive) attention between enthusiastically pointing out various items and being dressed in bright clothing. Again, the reception from the Japanese was very positive, but our family definitely stood out!
Japan has nearly all of the same features as the US, but the details are different. Some preparation will definitely help, especially for train and subway travel! I can’t say enough about the benefit of our baby carriers for this trip.