Konnichiwa! We have been Travelling Japan with our 2 kids over the past 2 weeks and boy has it been an awesome adventure. There is nowhere else like it – Japan is modern yet full of culture – the gorgeous people, beautiful temples, bright neon lights, sparkling clean streets AND glorious food all combine to make it the perfect destination for a family adventure.
I don’t use the word adventure lightly either, as Japan travel is not about kickin’ back by the pool and relaxing with a cocktail while the kids rock out in ‘kids club’. If you are anything like us, your travel days here will be a mix of exploring, sightseeing and cultural experiences (oh and Sushi!). You’ll probably walk more steps each day than you have ever before (hello health kick), all while enriching your mind and soul, expanding your knowledge, and wrapping yourself up in an unforgettable cultural blanket.
With great infrastructure, the public transport system is by far the most efficient and cost effective way to get around. It may seem daunting having to navigate your way around a non English speaking country with a few kids in tow – we felt the same way at first, but once you get your head in the game – figuring it all out is ‘easy-peasy-Japaneasy’!
Here’s the low-down of travelling Japan with kids – There’s loads of info here so you may want to flag this post to reference it again during your travel planning.
1. Research and Plan
Itinerary all the way
I would definitely recommend having an itinerary. Japan is a destination with so much to see and do you will want to have a fair idea of how you will be spending your days. During our time here we visited Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo with 4 or 5 days in each city and we definitely felt we could have had more time in each destination. Having said that, when travelling with kids we always stress the importance of not jamming too much into each day, scheduling in some down time is a must. Sometimes that means missing out on visiting a few places for the sake of keeping the whole tribe happy.
Our main source of research for this trip was through the Japan Travel Planning Facebook group. It’s a wonderful community of people sharing their travel tips, destination itineraries and answering questions. The search function alone will help you decide what you want to see and do in each location and if you have any questions this is the place to ask.
Once we had in mind what we wanted to see and experience, we then had the help of a travel itinerary company called Journy. After completing an online questionnaire about our travel preferences and basic travel plans we were introduced to Sarah, our Japan travel specialist who took care of the rest.
Sarah provided great food recommendations as well as experiences that we would have never known about – like dressing up in Japanese Kimonos and trying Shunsai Imari – a traditional Kyoto breakfast.
Each day was laid out clearly for us with details on how to travel to each location via the trains or taxi, as well as all our special restaurant reservations and our activity bookings like our ramen noodle cooking class and Team Lab Boarderless. Sarah also took care of arranging our pocket wifi and airport transfers.
The whole process saved us long hours of research and planning, and more importantly provided us with peace of mind and confidence that we were getting the most out of our travel days. So, all we had to do was enjoy the adventure, and share the experience with the kids.
You can view our full Japan itinerary here.
2. Accommodation location is key
When it comes to where you stay, in our experience it’s all about location, location, location. As you will most likely be using the trains to get around you will want to stay close to a train station, 10 minutes walking distance is probably the max you want with kids. We also found when booking hotels for a family of 4, the age of the kids may determine how many beds they provide. As Ziggy is 4 years old, they expected him to sleep in with us so one hotel only had 3 beds, so just make sure you get a quad room or make a note when booking of how many beds you need. Or, if you want to save a few pennies squish-up all together and enjoy the cuddles in bed.
Note: After researching accommodation options and feedback from other family travellers we also found staying in hotels was a better option than using Airbnbs.
3. Pack light
As always, travelling light is best – but that’s easier said than done right?! Well in Japan it really is worth keeping it simple and keeping your bags to a minimum. As you will be travelling on public transport, you don’t want to be lugging several large cases though the subway as well as wrangling the kids. We managed to travel with 2 large suitcases and a backpack each for us adults. When travelling on the bullet train there was enough room to have our cases in front of us at our seats. There is also lots of overhead shelves if you have smaller bags or hiking packs.
No big prams for bubs
If you are travelling with a baby I would recommend a travel pram/stroller that is light and folds up easy to carry up stairs etc. as some places are not very pram friendly. If you can wear bubs in a carrier that would help too. The stations all have elevators but often have long queues so if you are juggling the kids, a pram and your suitcases it can be done.
In terms of clothes, keep it simple. The weather for us in October was hot and muggy so even though it was Autumn we wore summer clothes. You definitely want to bring comfortable shoes!!! Can’t stress that enough – you don’t want to be rockin’ fancy heels or new pair of blister prone kicks. Keep it simple and comfy.
4. Food glorious food
Worried about your fussy eater? Don’t worry, they won’t starve!! Japan is full of amazing food options from sushi to noodles, cooked eel and even fried sparrow on a stick! But for your little ones there are loads of ‘normal’ western options available too. A lot of cafes sell toasted sandwiches and there are burger places everywhere.
You will find that the restaurants in Japan often specialise in the one food style. So a sushi restaurant will only sell sushi and a Ramen noodles house will only offer noodle dishes etc.
The corner store
You will find a convenience store on almost every corner, these are mainly 7 Eleven or Family Mart. Our go-to snack for the kids were these little Onigiri sushi triangles (pictured). We bought the tuna and mayonnaise filled ones which the kids loved and they were super cheap. There’s also egg sandwiches and lots of bento style snack boxes. You can also stock up on some pre-cut veggie sticks, baked goods like bread/muffins and yoghurts for the kids. We always travel with a few snacks from home too like muesli bars, travel nut mix etc.
Some 7 Elevens also have an eat in section so if needed you could feed the kids there before you go on to have your dinner at a restaurant. We usually found something on the menu at dinner for our mini blondies that they would eat and if they were still hungry on the way home we’d pick up an Onigiri for them.
We highly recommend that you give all the wonderful food a try (well maybe not the sparrow on a stick, but you know what I mean). The food market in Kyoto and the fish market in Tokyo were a huge favourite for us. You can buy all kinds of amazing food from the vendors or simply walk through taking in all the amazing colours and smells. Keep your eye out for the mini octopus with quail eggs in the head too! It’s another interesting sight for the eyes but perhaps not the stomach!
Note: It’s much easier to have cash rather than your credit cards to pay at the markets.
5. Cash Up
Japan is very much a cash society. Most of the time we took money out of the ATMs (located in the 7 Elevens) to pay for our daily purchases. We also had a little trouble paying with a card so we just found dealing with cash was easier too (note: before you travel, make sure you tell your bank you will be travelling overseas).
Shop around for money exchange
The AU to YEN exchange rate was pretty crappy for us so I’d recommend keeping your eye on the exchange rate and shopping around in the lead up to your trip to get the best rate you can. Whatever you do, try to avoid exchanging your money at the airport as their rates are ALWAYS high.
Quick pocket reference
As a quick go-to reference I found this little screen saver image online and added the conversion amounts for my phone (pictured below). It showed me at a glance the Australian $$ for each of their notes and coins. This was a great quick reference guide to compare prices to things back home. I also added in some Japanese sayings as a quick guide too. Feel free to screen shot this for yourself.
Pre purchase activity tickets online
For other purchases like fun parks and tourist attractions a great option is to pre-purchase the tickets. Klook is great for this and they often have cheaper entry rates too. You can do this for Universal Studios Japan, TeamLab Borderless and also things like your JR Rail pass. Once you make your purchase it simply generates an eTicket and you often get to skip the queue which is another bonus.
6. Train travel
The trains in Japan are amazing. There are train lines upon subways upon more subways – it blew our mind! And, they are squeaky clean, seem to always run on time and everyone is super polite with no pushing or shoving!
To get around we simply put where we wanted to go into Google Maps on our phone. Once you select ‘travel by train’ it will show you what to do. The details provided is all you will need. It will say what station and platform you leave from, how many stops to your destination and details like the name of the train line (these all usually have their own colour too). To purchase a ticket – press the ENGLISH button on the machine, search the station you need by name and add in how many people you need a ticket for. There are family/child buttons too.
Note: On our last day of travel we were told by station staff that Ziggy our 4 year old was free.. so we didn’t have to purchase a ticket for him! (oops! we wish we knew that earlier). You may want to confirm what age you have to start paying for children ( I think it may be 5yrs).
A lot of people purchase JR (Japanese Rail) passes for their trip but these are super pricey. Our Journy specialist advised us that we would be better off just purchasing our tickets as we went as we wouldn’t be travelling enough to justify buying the JR passes.
We caught one Bullet train from Kyoto to Tokyo and for this we lined up at the ticket booth to purchase. We also bought a few bento box/sushi snacks for the 2hr trip, as well as packed the iPads and some activities for the kids.
Top Tip: Before we travelled each day we would search the train/travel route via google maps and take screen shots of these on our phones to use as a reference just in case we had no reception underground in the subway or our portable wifi ran out of battery. We would also have the name and address of our hotel on a screen shot or take a business card from our hotel reception so we could always find our way home via taxi if need be.
7. Wifi and a Mobile Phone is a MUST
Gone are the days you would travel with a paper map! If it isn’t already your new best friend – your mobile phone is going to be while in Japan. You will need this all day long to navigate your way around Japan. You will want to make sure your phone has a good battery life, and if not, purchase a portable power bank, or travel with your charging cord to top-up your battery in a cafe or charging station (yes, they have them!).
Portable Wifi (aka pocket wifi)
We recommend using portable wifi while travelling in Japan. It’s a pretty easy service where you rent a portable router (half the size of your phone) which allows you to connect up to 5 devices to it. All you need to do is fill out an online application and it will be ready for collection at the airport when you arrive, or delivered to your accommodation ready for you at check in (this is what we did).
Once you have the wifi router, you simply switch it on and connect your phone with the password provided. You can then return it just before you leave Japan by posting it with the prepaid envelope provided, or you can drop it off at the airport as most suppliers have a drop box there for you. We used a company called Global Wifi and also saw Ninja Wifi around a lot too, but I’m sure there are loads more you could research. We’ve also seen them available on Klook here.
Note: We found the battery life of our wifi was not the greatest so we made sure we had screens shots of the important information we needed to navigate around each day. We also turned the router off when we were out and about and knew we wouldn’t be needing it. Again, maybe purchase a portable power bank to charge devices while you’re out and about.
Another great thing about having your phone at your finger tips is having the Google Translate App on your phone to help you along… or sometimes, just provide you with a good chuckle when it translates for you. It can come in handy for reading menus, signs and sometimes asking for directions. It’s also fun to use in the supermarket when the food and drink packaging gives you no indication of what’s inside! ( For a bit of a giggle visit our Instagram Story Highlights for some fun “What’s in the can in Japan” episodes that we filmed during our travels – we had no idea what was in these colourful no-English beverages but we tasted them anyway! )
Hope this all helps in your Japan adventure planning. Japan is a wonderful country to explore with kids and we will definitely be back. If you have more tips to add please pop them in the comments below to help everyone else. If you want to see the amazing places we visited, where we stayed (with some great discount codes) and loads of travel inspiration – read part 2 of our Japan blog – How to see Japan in 12 days with kids
Some other helpful blogs about travelling Japan with kids:
- Tokyo Chapter – This is a great blog with loads of tips and ideas for travelling in Japan with younger kids
- House of White – 9 Things You Need To Know Before Going To Japan With Kids
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