Japan is one of the most family-friendly countries we have been to. It's all about the attitude to kids and their needs and inevitable melt downs thanks to the generous and understanding spirit of Japanese people. Which makes it a surprisingly great place to travel with kids.
We have three boys who are all accustomed to kicking a ball in the backyard, running, jumping and climbing in any spare moment they have. We knew ahead of time that the places in Japan we were going to visit, wouldn't necessarily have lots of room for them to do this in. We stayed in AirBnB apartments which were wonderful for their relative space (compared to hotel rooms) and convenience with full kitchens and bathrooms, however there was a lot of shushing as they trampled heavily on floors and rumbled with their brothers in heart-stopping ways considering the confined spaces we were in.
We knew our three year old in particular would struggle with physical restraint so we took his Mini Micro Deluxe scooter and a helmet with us. It proved to be a saving grace and easily portable in the bottom of his travel pram. It gave him just the outlet he needed and a comforting activity he was familiar with when our travels got overwhelming for our tiniest guy.
We have an adolescent, a tween and a toddler, so catering for each of their interests and needs was always going to be a massive challenge. I'll share with you what we learned along the way in the hope it might make for smoother times when you travel with kids in Japan.
Top tips for happy family holidays
✔ Do pack snacks in a day pack as kids run out of steam quickly and spectacularly. There is a 711 or Lawson convenience store around every corner that sell wonderful rice-based snacks that are delicious and sustaining.
✔ Do plan for rest time. It's not always possible to go back to the apartment or hotel room but my advice is to take a light stroller for those aged 5 and under, and for older kids, make sure to grab an icy drink and sit for a while.
✔ Do take a scooter - it'll make sightseeing much easier for little ones which will make it infinitely more enjoyable for you. It'll also give them a familiar way to let off steam when the going gets boring for them.
✔ Do anticipate the feeling that you're missing out on lots of things. You will miss out on things you wanted to see, however this is travel with kids and their needs trump your own.
✔ Do take advantage of meal times. These are valuable experiences in themselves even if you have fussy eaters. The winning dishes with our kids were sushi, ramen, soba noodles and tempura. In the end Mr 3 gave up eating altogether and would only eat hot chips so we went with it. He's still alive.
✔ Do visit Tokyo Disneyland. It was an unforgettable experience for all of us. Next time we'll also do Disney Sea which is next door. Allocate at least two days for these.
✔ Do forget about a traditional tea ceremony if you have a toddler.
✔ Do try to speak the language. It is not only polite, the kids pick it up quickly and relish using it. If you have older kids, get them each a phrasebook.
✘ Don't overestimate what you can do in a day. Schedule two things maximum and try to build in unhindered physical activity if your kids usually need that. Also be prepared to ditch one thing if the kids go offline early.
✘ Don't visit too many shrines and temples. Kids have a very limited tolerance for quiet places of reverence. In Kyoto we saw Nijo Castle and the silver pavillion in addition to one temple and that was more than enough for a 4 day stay. We pushed it too far visiting the 10,000 gates site and lived to regret it.
✘ Don't force your kids to eat things they don't like. They will just stop eating and the crushing blood sugar lows aren't worth it.
✘ Don't resist the amazing soft serve ice cream that is found all over Japan. We are massive matcha fans now because of it. Also sampled were pumpkin, black sesame and berry flavours.
✘ Don't feel like you have to do everything as a family. Once we realised that dividing and conquering was sometimes the best way, everyone was a lot more content. If you have two adults in your party, one can take the older kids to samurai lessons while the other takes the toddler for ice-cream.
Written by the lovely Suzi Catchpole after her epic family holiday to Japan