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Japan…oh Japan! What a wonderful trip!!!
When Liam and Santiago were 17 months old we decided that it was time for their first long haul flight to visit a new Continent.
Well, in truth we actually decided a few months before that, and in all honesty I wanted to go to Japan but it wasn’t at the top of my list, what made it jump up the list was the millions of considerations I made regarding travelling with the boys at 17 months.
I wanted to go to a safe place which was clean, and where the infrastructure was working well. I am Italian and when we go back to Rome and are around all day, I always get frustrated with the lack of services and support, for example finding a restaurant with a changing table in the toilet is almost impossible, or moving with public transport is a challenge.
Mark was a bit concerned with a big trip and all the possible difficulties, so I wanted a place where with a little bit of pre-planning we could have a great and smooth experience…and we did it!!
And here I want to share my 10 best tips and advice to make a trip to Japan stress free even with small kids!
Japan is an enchanting country but it could be a difficult trip with kids, that’s why I want to tell you in some detail about our experience so you can plan a fabulous trip too. You will find separate posts for the detailed itinerary of 6 days in Tokyo, 6 days between Nagano (snow monkey park)- Kanazawa – Miyajima- Hiroshima and the last 4 days in Kyoto
Some tips are more general but still super important:
1-FLIGHT –Book a direct flight.
London-Tokyo is already a long 12 hours, you don’t want to make it even longer. Before we had the boys I would not have minded to have 1 or even 2 stopovers if this meant saving some money, but now I will try to avoid this until Liam and Santiago are older.
I decided to invest some Avios to book a direct British airways flight…in economy class! I know that everyone fully into the Avios reward program will consider this a waste (because the best way to use your Avios on long haul is in Business Class), but I had 2 good reasons to do it.
First: British Airways is one of the few airlines that offer an alternative to the classic cot-bassinet. BA offer a reclining seat with harness that is positioned in the same place as the cot on the bulkhead wall.
Maybe this it isn’t relevant for everybody but the boys at 17 months were already almost 13kg, most airlines have weight/age limit on the use of the basinet and they would have been over most of them.
For us the reclining seat was perfect, they fitted perfectly and they also had a nice nap in there.
Second: A direct flight with BA or Japan Airlines was around £950 each (if you book much in advance could be around £800). China Airlines usually has great offers for less than half that price but with a stopover making the journey at least 18 hours long.
I decided to spend 40,000 Avios plus £370 each to get the direct flight. Considering that Japan wasn’t going to be a cheap trip I thought this was great way to save some money.
If you want more info about how to get the most out of your Avios, look at this website. It is an amazing place to learn all the tricks of Avios and other redemption points systems.
HOT TIP: BA lets families choose seats in advance for free, so you can book the bulkhead seat where you will have space for the bassinet or reclining seat
We were really lucky: we had 2 out of the three seats booked in front of the bulkhead wall and the third seat was free in both, outbound and inbound flight.
The extra seat gave us much more freedom and the boys had a lot of space to move about.
HOT TIP: if you have the option, choose to arrive at Haneda airport as the connection is easy and it costs less than £4.50, while arriving at Narita it will cost you more than £20 per person.
2. -USE THE LUGGAGE CARRIER SERVICE.
Travelling with small kids means that even with minimising your luggage, you will still have a lot of stuff, and moving around with pram, kids, and lots of luggage can be really tiring.
In Japan there is an amazing service called Takuhaibin, that allows you to send your luggage from Airport to Hotel or from Hotel to Hotel in different Cities. My advice? Take advantage of it! We used it on 2 occasions: from Tokyo to Kanazawa, and from Kanazawa to Kyoto.
Between Tokyo and Kanazawa we decided to stop 1 night at the Snow Monkey Park Resort, and as there were a few connections to make we didn’t want to carry all our luggage for only one night. By using Takuhaibin we took only the stuff we needed for the overnight, then packed and sent the 2 big suitcases directly to the next Hotel.
From Kanazawa we decided to go to Hiroshima and stay in Miyajima Island, again, with a few trains and boats to catch, so we decided to travel with our hands free and sent the luggage direct to Kyoto. It isn’t a cheap option but it really helped us. On the Japan guide website you will find good info
HOT TIP: all the hotels will fill out the form for you, so don’t worry about it, if you prefer to stay in an apartment it could be more complicated and it is maybe better if you ask the apartment owner to help if possible. Delivery usually takes only one day but check in advance because it takes longer to remote destinations.
If you fly from London Heathrow you can also take advantage of the luggage transfer from/to Heathrow Airport.
3.- BUY YOUR JAPAN RAIL PASS BEFORE YOU LEAVE YOUR COUNTRY.
Of course first of all you need to decide if you need one. The Japan rail pass is a voucher that you will need to exchange for your real rail pass once in Japan. The JR Pass can only be bought outside Japan and then must be exchanged when you arrive in the country.
It would deserve a review by itself but in the Japan-guide (again) you can find a clear explanation. As a really simple rule, if you are planning to travel more than Tokyo-Kyoto by rail, you would probably benefit from the JR Pass savings.
When you arrive you can exchange your voucher at the Airport and I recommend you book your train seats as some trains can be full (we had to change slightly one of our trips because the train I wanted to take was full).
The trains are really clean and the seats are really spacious, so travelling with kids on the train is quite good because they have a lot of space to move around. We always have had a free seat available for the boys, however they are considered to be on your lap.
4.-PLAN, PLAN, PLAN…all in advance as much as possible.
This should probably be the first piece of advice.
I know that not everybody considers the planning part of a trip to be as exciting as I do, but if there is one place where I’m really glad I spent a lot of time pre planning everything it is Japan.
The reality is that you will be in a really different country, where the language barrier is an issue, and in most of the cases directional signs are written only in Japanese.
Any plan can be changed and adapted, but in most cases you will be able to reuse most of the info you put together. To give you an example: I usually create a spreadsheet with details of everything we will do each day and I add all the info I can find about each topic. If we need public transport I will write down the platform, how many stops, if there is a change involved, and if possible I checked if there is a lift and where it is in the station. I then send the Excel spreadsheet to my email, and save it in the Numbers app on my iPhone so I can check it easily and update it with expenses, below is an example.
Many people will disagree with my approach, if you prefer to be more spontaneous that’s great, I prefer to have all the info and maybe decide to not use it rather than not having them.
Train stations in Japan are little cities, and it is really easy to get lost so the more references you have then the easier it will be to navigate them. I’m not joking here, to walk from one end of Tokyo station to the other would easily take you 20 minutes with all the luggage and the kids, if you don’t know where to go then it could take double. In Shinjuku for example even if I had my detail down on my spreadsheet we still managed to get lost, not find the lift and lost half an hour!!!
Looking in advance at all the connections between the daily activities or sites I want to visit allows me to allocate enough time (plus kids emergency time) to move from one site to the other, and to visit places that are close together in one day and don’t require re-crossing the city and losing time.
HOT TIP: HyperDia is the best website/app to check all train/tube connections
5.- RESERCH WHERE AND WHAT TO EAT:
Probably you already know that eating in Japan doesn’t involve only sushi or sashimi, or if you didn’t then you will discover it soon.
Restaurants in Japan offer a great variety of cuisine that changes slightly from city to city, and most restaurants specialise in cooking a particular type of food. Yes exactly, one restaurant will only cook different types of ramen, another one different types of tempura, or yakitori or sushi or tonkatsu….so it is a good idea to make some research and identify what you like more and what you definitely want to try.
Of course when you are eating out with kids it isn’t a bad idea to check if the restaurant is child friendly, unfortunately it isn’t as common as in UK or Italy to eat out with kids, so also restaurants that accept kids do not always have high chairs for example.
If you are foodies and, like us, always try to fit a nice Michelin star restaurant in your trip then you will be really disappointed in Japan, as unfortunately almost all Michelin star restaurants only accept kids 12 and older…not much we can do about it
6.-BRING SOME ESSENTIALS LIKE FOOD, NAPPIES, AND FORMULA.
Of course everything is available in Japan, but it would take you a day or two to orientate yourself and find what you need.
Nappies especially in touristic areas are rare as gold, forget to find a supermarket that sells nappies around Shinjuku for example, so I thought it was better to bring 6-7 days’ supply than be anxious and run around desperately. …and anyway the nappies space has been refilled along the trip with various souvenirs (be careful to double check the nappies you buy are for kids!
Especially in the Cities, we found Adult nappies much more easily than Kids nappies, super unusual for us but apparently it is connected to Japans ageing population due to their long life expectancy as well as a low birth rate!). Formula it isn’t difficult to find (we didn’t use it because L&S were drinking normal milk) but it could be a challenge to read instructions or anything written on the box. Same for food pouches, in case your child is eating them. I’ve also read people saying that they taste different and many toddler don’t like them.
If your child drinks normal milk, look for the carton that has a little dent on the top (we were told that that is the normal fresh whole milk). Liam and Santiago were not really adventurous and ate mostly avocados, bananas, fruits, bread, yogurt and chicken nuggets from 7/11.
Unbelievable how (also if they never tried the chicken nuggets before), they immediately tasted them, while they sometimes refused fish that they normally eat.
7.-BOOK WI-FI POCKET:
Japan doesn’t have many free Wi-Fi hotspots and the possibility to not be able to see Teletubbies in any needed moment wasn’t an option to be considered for us!!! Ok maybe that it isn’t the main reason you may want it but it is really useful. For example: streets don’t have names in Japan so to be able to access google maps will save you a lot of time, or the possibilities to check Hyperdia for train connections whilst on the go…
I rented through japan-wireless.com and only spent £53 for 17 days (I found a little discount online). The wi-fi pocket was delivered to the hotel and we found it there the day we arrived.
It was complete with cable to recharge it and a supplementary bank battery which we never had to use on the go. The envelope to send it back was also included and the last night I packed it and left it to the hotel concierge to post. After few days I received the confirmation email that they received the package and everything was fine.
8.-SHOPPING SHOPPING SHOPPING:
there is so much to buy in Japan! Again make your research and if you want something specific save a picture on your phone, it will make it much easier to explain!
For example I wanted a lot of beauty products, the skincare products are so good in Japan that I really wanted to come back with many things to try.
N.B. don’t forget to plan shopping around nap time…at least if your toddlers are as active as L&S, they are proper little men and they already hate shopping!
9.-EVALUATE WELL WHERE YOU WANT TO STAY:
hotels in Japan have really small rooms, many people suggest to use apartment/Airbnb with kids. I decided that I preferred to stay in an hotel to have always someone available in case we needed, and because I knew the boys would have cried the first few nights for the jet leg and some apartment blocks are not happy with noisy kids.
Most of the hotels don’t charge extra for children under 2 or 6 if they’re using an existing bed, so we decided to take advantage of this and we brought our amazing japan-wireless.com superlight travel cots with us. (Liam and Santiago are not used to sleep together with us)
In Tokyo especially we had a really small room and even finding space for the travel cots was a challenge, but at the end we were only sleeping there! More info about the other hotel in this post.
10.-FIGHT JET LEG WITH HOMEOPATHIC SOLUTIONS:
a couple of weeks before leaving for Japan I went to the homeopathic pharmacy in Marylebone and asked the always competent people working there if there was something available and they give me 3 different things: drops, pills and powder to use from the day of the flight for 3-4 days. Well I think they really helped, the boys woke up the first few nights and we saw a bit of middle of the night Teletubbies but in general it wasn’t so bad…would it have been worse without? I don’t know of course, but next time I will get them again anyway!
10.1.-EXCHANGE SOME MONEY
Before to leave the UK we exchanged £700 in Yen because many places in Japan don’t accept cards. This amount was almost perfect for us, only once towards the end of the trip we have had to withdraw an extra £50 Yen equivalent. It seems difficult to believe but Japan is really technologically advanced in many aspects, but at the same time some daily tasks are still done in an old fashion way (Mark was really surprised and a little disappointed with the technology, whilst I was saying even the lampposts speak to you in Japan…what more do you want?! I was worried that a floor surface would have told me that I was overweight!!!!)
BONUS TIP N.1: Another thing to do before you arrive in Japan is to contact the volunteer guides. In Japan there is an amazing initiative where people offer to guide you in their city for free! you cant believe it? I know it seems strange but it is as good as it sounds.
There are several association and many times, and often the people that doing it are students or pensioners that want to learn more about other cultures and practice their English or other language, on the web you can find a lot of info. The only things they ask from you is to pay for their transport and sometimes for their lunch in case you’re on a full day tour. they will not accept money but they will be happy if you bring a little present from your country.
BONUS TIP N.2: No reason to stress about nappy change. Changing facilities are usually really clean and in some cases hosted in toilets bigger than some UK bedrooms. In all the shopping centres and big department stores it is usually really easy to identify them, these toilets are usually separate from female/male toilet and can be used by mum or dad
These are my best tips to try to have a smooth and amazing trip to Japan, did I forget any? Please add any good advice in the comments