I posted on Instagram a few days ago asking if anyone was interested in a blog post on our time in Japan with our 4 girls and the overwhelming response was 'yes please!' We're no experts on Japan but travelling with kids definitely has it's challenges and if I can help anyone else out planning a trip to Japan then this post is a winner!
Travelling in Tokyo with little ones was like heading straight for the black run. But damn it was fun. And totally doable with some forward planning. So scroll on down below for my top tips to survive the chaos with kids plus lots of what we loved, where we stayed, what we ate and what we learnt!
I've decided to break down our trip into a few posts, each covering the different areas we went - first Tokyo, Shinjuku, Ginza then Tokyo Disney (deserving of an entire post in itself :) and finally on to Kyoto.
Tokyo city is a complete assault on the senses. Crowds; lights; music; food, food and more food; beautiful manicured gardens everywhere; shops jammed packed with colourful plastic trinkets; tiny alleyways lined with restaurants, bars and shops; huge noisy gaming and gambling rooms opening onto the street. But this is what we came for and damn it was a sight to behold. There's currently 36 million people living in the metropolitan area of Tokyo so you can imagine how crowded it is.
Tokyo is a bit of a contradiction with its modern skyscrapers and neon lights bumping up against centuries old forests and shrines. It's also hugely steeped in cultural traditions and etiquette like bowing and removing your shoes before entering a restaurant or room. I found the women dressed quite polished and conservative so I followed suit and didn't end up wearing any of my dresses that showed décolletage, instead sticking to shift dresses, denim skirts and easy t shirts with my Midas sandals or Lacoste runners.
We packed in our time in Tokyo (only 4 days in total) here's what we did and loved...
- My top tip is not to take the main roads when walking - turn off any main road and you will find yourself in the most charming laneways full of food and little shops. I could spend weeks just browsing the alleys.
- Make sure you visit Yoyogi Park which is situated in the middle of Shibuya. Take a walk though the grand old trees to see the Meiji Shrine. Depending on the time you visit, different flowers will be in season (the Japanese love their flowers!) and we were lucky to see the beautiful iris garden. Visit on a Saturday and you're very likely to see a traditional wedding procession at the main shrine.
- After Yoyogi Park we exited at Harajuku station and walked down the famed Takeshita Street. The kids loved the craziness (it's super busy on a weekend)! and all the kawaii trinkets they could buy. Save some room in your belly for delicious fried chicken street food and any of the special Harajuku treats like monster rainbow fairy floss on a stick from Totti Candy, Marion Crepes or colourful sweets.
- Make sure you visit one of the supermarkets in the city streets, they're not huge cavernous spaces like ours but many levels packed full of things you have no idea what they are. We let the kids choose a basket of lollies to try from the junk food level and ended up with some winners (and some things that tasted like dust). There's also levels dedicated to body and beauty products which I highly recommend seeing for the range of sheet masks alone. The Japanese seem to be big on sheet face masks and you'll find isles and isles of them here at great prices.
- A quick train ride will take you to Ginza where you can visit the huge fish markets. Well worth the trip but leave the pram behind if you can because the markets are bustling and very crowded. The kids felt a little overwhelmed here (particularly because it was a 35 degree day) but ice cream fixed that. The street food is great but the shops more pricey than you will find in other areas so head to the fish markets just to enjoy the atmosphere and food.
- Finally, what's a trip to Tokyo without visiting the famous Shibuya crossing? (the worlds busiest crossing) It's right outside the Shibuya Station exit or if you don't feel like braving the trains again we took a taxi from Shinjuku (about $20AUD).
I researched for months to find us the best places to stay with a family of 6. I ruled out Airbnb because I liked the safety net of having a hotel room with some creature comforts to retreat to each night. Plus, there are many homes where they don't allow small children due to steep staircases or interior balconies without railings.
I highly recommend cross checking Tripadvisor for reviews to find somewhere that has staff who speak English well. The language barrier is big in Tokyo and there is barely any English so be prepared to do a lot of miming and pointing. The Google Translate App is amazing, you can snap a photo of a sign or menu on your phone and it will translate to English for you. Often shop owners will also pull out their phones to type and translate on Google as well.
We stayed at The Hilton in Shinjuku which was conveniently placed within walking distance of the train station and had the largest rooms I would find - Japan is known for it's teeny tiny hotel rooms! We did need to book 2 rooms though so if you're a family of more than 2 children keep this in mind when planning the budget. The Hilton has the best proper little cots for babies and toddlers which was so much more convenient and comfortable than a portacot.
It's so easy to eat well in Tokyo and food is everywhere - you won't go hungry! Of course, travelling with kids can be hard because they need food constantly and can be fussy so here's a few things we learnt...
- If you can't do without your western style breakfast like me (fruit, cereal, yoghurt), you will be challenged to find something similar in Japan. If you do manage to find somewhere to eat, breakfast can be expensive and put a serious dent in the budget so I highly recommend purchasing some yogurt cups and bananas from a 7-Eleven (they are very common and found every few blocks) to keep in your hotel fridge for the kids to eat in the morning.
- 7-Elevens are everywhere and stock a huge range of ready to eat food and snacks. They're also well priced so stock up on snacks for the kids and water bottles for the day. We bought a 2 litre bottle each day for only 92 yen (around $1)
- Most of the restaurants are small and during dinner they're packed. If you're walking in as a family of 5 or 6, be prepared to be turned away. Some restaurants will also turn away families with small children. Regardless of this we always managed to find somewhere to eat relatively easily as there are options everywhere and the places we did go to were very accomodating of the kids, providing plastic bowls and cups and forks for them to use. Do ask for the non smoking area though because smoking in restaurants is still common in Japan!
- All the restaurants have a display of plastic food or a menu with pictures shown outside the door so it's really easy to see if they have something you would like to try. - Train stations are a veritable cornucopia of food with the bigger ones having 1-2 levels dedicated to restaurants. These are easier to get into and have more space for larger families.
- If you're looking for a takeaway drink to enjoy after the kids are tucked in bed, Lawsons convenience stores have the best range and are also commonly placed every few blocks. You can also buy alcohol from the street vending machines all over the place.
- We found good coffee was near impossible to find (it's quite bitter) and western tea impossible. If you do find somewhere that does good coffee stick to getting your daily fix there :)
- The Japanese do great pastry! If you're hankering for a really good croissant or danish, head to Boul'ange just outside the Shinjuku station. Their coffee was also the best we had in Tokyo.
- Dairy products aren't a huge part of the Japanese diet and as such milk is very hard to come across (especially when all the writing is in Japanese!) it took us 3 goes - the first time we discovered we'd bought yoghurt, the second time cream and finally found a small carton of milk in 7-Eleven.
- We budgeted around $200 - $300AUD a day to feed our family of 6. Expect to pay around 1,000 - 1,800 yen ($12-$20AUD) per person per meal. We found the ramen, udon noodle and fried or tempura options cheaper than yakitori and sushi. Street food is also super well priced although be mindful is it generally considered rude to walk and eat so find a spot to sit and eat if you grab a takeaway.
We pre-purchased Japan Rail tickets which last for 7 days and allow you to travel on any of the Japan Rail trains around the country. Pre book your seats at the station the day before if you plan on taking a trip longer than a 30 minutes to make sure you get seats. JP Rail covers most areas and they have a great app you can download which will map out your trip for you including changes of trains. We also used the subway (regular rail network) and you can purchase tickets for these trains at the station on a per trip basis.
Peak hour is busy to put it mildly. If you're travelling with small kids or a pram I would definitely avoid it if at all possible. But even in peak hour, the trains run on time to the minute and are constantly arriving so they're super reliable. The city stations are absolutely huge and often mean you have to walk for 10 minutes between platforms and travel down a ton of steps so if you have a lightweight stroller you can easily collapse I would take that! I didn't see any prams like the larger ones we have here in Australia because they are very impractical for the crowds and stairs. We bought the Silver Cross Zest for the trip and it was perfect.
We also caught a lot of taxis for short trips (a 3 km walk for kids is no fun for anyone!) and despite what everyone said, we found they were reasonably priced and easy to catch. Top tip: 3 kids equals 2 adults and babies under 2 don't count toward passengers so we fit into one taxi with myself and the 3 older girls across the back and baby on my lap. The drivers have little if any English so have your destination open on a Google map to show them where you are going.