We recently returned from a whirlwind self-guided tour of Japan, and let me tell you guys – it. was. amazing.
Most people’s eyes bugged out when we mentioned we’d be bringing our 11-month-old kid along with us. 19 hours of flight time?! A 15-hour time difference?! But – WHAT WILL HE EAT? How will you EVEN SURVIVE?
Welp, I’m here to tell the story, so clearly we made it back in one piece. I’d venture to say that Japan is among the most baby-friendly places we’ve traveled to. We had a great time, and I’m here to convince you why you should ignore the naysayers and book a family vacay to the land of sushi, sumo, and Sanrio.
1. Japanese department stores have designated play areas for kids. Often there are playgrounds on the rooftops of urban stores. (Even some trains have kids’ play areas aboard!) We loved the play area in Tokyo’s Muji Shibuya, which featured a babysitting service (!!) and beautiful wooden toys. Baby K made a beeline for the wooden egg “ball pit.”
2. Nursing rooms ( (junyūshitsu) and changing rooms are everywhere you look – stores, trains, museums, and everywhere in between. The designated “family” bathrooms also have “baby chairs” where you can hang your squirrelly baby or toddler while you do your business.
3. Japanese cuisine is suitable for the whole family. News flash: even sushi-averse travelers (la la la I can’t hear you) will find something delightful to eat in Japan. We feasted on ramen, soba noodles, curry, Kobe beef, and enough steamed rice to feed an army, and Baby K got in on the action. (He is now an accomplished noodle slurper and tofu enthusiast.) Most Japanese food isn’t spicy, which is often a concern for parents of babies on solids. I dare you to go to a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant and not have fun.
Tofu-induced food coma in Koya-san
4. Baby-wearing is all the rage. I sometimes feel like an endangered species when I pop Baby K into our Lillebaby carrier for an outing in Houston. In Japan, everywhere we turned we spotted another family with an Ergobaby in tow. If I could do it again, I’d leave our umbrella stroller at home altogether. (Navigating underground subway stations, gravel paths through Japanese gardens, crowded train cars, and tiny restaurants with a stroller can be a challenge.)
5. Japanese gardens are the ultimate playground. Just about every temple and shrine is surrounded by a Japanese garden. They vary in size and detail but even in large cities provide a wide expanse of outdoor place space. Throughout our trip, Baby K crawled around Japanese gardens to his heart’s content. Add in the incredible autumn foliage and you’re all set to snap the picture-perfect Christmas card photo. (Bonus: admission to shrines and gardens often includes tea service. Play for baby, caffeine for mama.)
6. Restaurants welcome babies. I was blown away when we requested a highchair at a restaurant in Tokyo and the waitress brought over a $250 Stokke Tripp Trapp. (Photographic evidence below.) Baby K lounged away in plush high-end high chairs on several other occasions as well. Never did I miss the token American restaurant high chairs which position your child a foot below the table. Restaurant service was unbeatable, too – everywhere we went, Baby K was met with smiles, sippy cups, tiny baby spoons, little plates of steamed veggies… I’m pretty sure he’ll turn up his nose the next time we eat out in Houston.
7. Japan is home to Hello Kitty, Pokemon, and countless other cartoon characters you probably haven’t heard of. Baby K was napping contentedly during our self-guided tour of Harajuku, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t delighted by the cartoon characters throughout Japan. In Kobe, we stumbled across a Christmas concert at a children’s museum that is dedicated to Anpanman. (To the uninitiated, Anpanman is a popular anime series about a superhero with a bean-jam filled pastry for a head. A rough translation to English would be “toast-head.”) Even the safety warning signs are filled with cutesy cartoon characters.
8. Two words: animal cafes. Sadly, we missed our chance to experience a rabbit cafe. But if you find yourself in Japan, for a small fee, you can pet bunnies – or cats – or owls or even penguins – to your heart’s content. All while sipping on a latte. This whole concept puts our local petting zoo to shame.
9. Babies and young kids are free! I can’t think of a single train or bus ride, museum or shrine, where we had to pay admission for Baby K. He essentially tagged along for free. With planning and preparations, you and your partner can continue to embark on fulfilling travel adventures avec bebe just as you did before as DINKs.
10. Japan offers a great cultural experience for kids. Baby K was enchanted by the bustling crowds at rush hour, the incense burning and gongs ringing at the ancient shrines we visited, the sushi samples at Tsukiji fish market and the views out of the windows of the shinkansen (bullet trains). It feels as if we’ve barely scratched the surface, and I’m itching to return – perhaps we’ll head to the 2020 Olympics!
In upcoming posts I’ll recap our trip and share some advice for traveling internationally with a kid. Where’s your dream destination for traveling as a family?