We’ve spent the last week exploring Nikko (amazing temples, but a few days totally rained out); Lake Ashi, near Hakone to see Mount Fuji (beautiful location, no views of Fuji due to foggy skies, and a few days of freelance work for me), and now we are in beautiful Kyoto. It’s a city that feels utterly modern at its heart, but as soon as you get to the outskirts, you reach vast networks of temples and shrines, with amazing trekking to join them. We’ve loved our time here so far, with our drive to be outside and walk finally fulfilled.
We’ve been in Japan for just over a month now, and after a fairly steep early learning curve, we’ve learnt a lot about being here with a small baby, and a few survival techniques to bear in mind. Overall, perception of what it’s like to be in a country like this, where the culture shock could potentially be severe, is far worse than the reality: a country that LOVES kids, and where with a little bit of imagination, it’s super easy to travel with young ones.
Otis is about 13 months old now, so these tips are written with a baby in mind who is in the process of / is fully weaned, and who is crawling or starting to walk, but lots of them would apply for pre, or post that stage too.
(1) Food is easier than you think – find your core essentials, and be open minded!
When people found out we were travelling round Asia with a baby, pretty much the first question that everyone asked us was ‘how do you think he’ll get on with the food?’ We weren’t too concerned, as we’re both big believers that babies are actually more flexible than you think when it comes to food, and it’s normally the parents who are convinced they’ll only eat bland stuff. However, there’s always a nagging doubt that you might have got it wrong!
Otis was almost fully weaned when we arrived, and had a good routine around food, with some staple meats and veg that he loved, as well as a preference for bread or breadsticks when he was teething. A lot of that wasn’t available. Supermarkets here are split between small corner ones, mostly Lawson or 7 Eleven; and bigger ones (not always available in the centre of smaller towns), with brands like Life being particularly good. If you have a Life near you, you can pretty much get any fruit and veg you desire, and a brilliant selection of fish and meat, so cooking for yourself is pretty simple once you’ve deciphered labels (Google translate can be helpful). Things like pasta are easy to get here too, although obviously noodles and rice are more commonplace.
If a local supermarket is your only option, then the selection of fruit and veg is much smaller (bananas will become a staple), but most do things like yakitori (meat kebabs), or we found the little rice triangles that you get here really good for on the go too (filled with chicken / salmon etc). Yakitori is brilliant for making into soups / stir fries, or just serving with some veg for dinner. Eggs can be bought anywhere, so are a really good staple when nothing else works.
In restaurants, most of them (assuming you’re not in a super high end one, which we tended to avoid for budget reasons as much as anything), are super welcoming to kids, and bring out a mini bowl with a kid’s spoon and fork for you, so you can decant some of your dinner for them.
When eating out, obviously it’s down to your babies own preference for different food, but if you remain open minded, I’m sure you’ll be rewarded for it. We always make sure we have a rice triangle or something else to keep Otis going until the food arrives and cools down a bit. He then tries most of what we have – he loves tempura, smaller sushi rolls, has really got into his soba noodles and soup, enjoys eating (and playing with) bento boxes, will eat most meats or fish, so just give things a go. A good tip when eating out is to have a kid’s pair of scissors with you for chopping up noodles into more manageable sizes.
Breakfast is a little more challenging, as it’s entirely different culturally to what we’d eat at home, so if you’re in a hotel / B&B / Hostel, and your little one is a fan of things like cereal, I’d think about buying a bag to have with you. Breakfast here is far more savoury, and it’s like having a small feast, with a mixture of miso soup, fermented beans (Natto), sometimes stir fry, you name it. Again, I’d be open minded here though. Otis would often have his cereal and yoghurt (plain yoghurt is easy to get everywhere here), but go on to try bits of whatever else was on offer. We like him to have one thing that’s consistent and reassuring each day though, and cereal does that nicely.
There are also bakeries everywhere here, a big surprise to me about Japanese cuisine generally is their love of patisserie. They have some great options with bread with vegetables or cheese in which are a good on the go option for eating.
The big lesson is – be open minded about what your little one will have! They may have had staples at home, but it’s unlikely that they’ve formed such an attachment to them that won’t survive…they’ll just find new favourites.
(2) Think about seating for eating out
Restaurants here have a mixture of counter seating, traditional tables, or lower tables with tatami mats (often in booths, or separate rooms). We’ve found it really good to have a seat with us for Otis (this mountain buggy one is great https://mountainbuggy.com/uk/Products/pod-highchair#.WYWqQhOGPR1) as the kid’s seats that are offered up here are often for kids a little older, with no strap to keep them in.
We’ve eaten at a few sushi conveyor belt places here (they are SO much better than the ones at home), and if they have a booth available, that works really well, as Otis gets the fun of seeing all the food go past, but little grabby hands can’t get hold of it all.
(3) If you’re breastfeeding, you may have to be more discreet than at home (depending on where home is!)
It’s not a common thing to see women breastfeeding in public here, in fact I haven’t seen it once since we’ve arrived, so they’re either super discreet, or they’re doing it elsewhere. If you’re still breastfeeding when you travel here, there are lots of rooms available for you to feed in, from shopping centres, to train stations, even at a zoo we visited. Japan is brilliant for the number of baby change facilities, small seats in toilets to put your toddler in when you are going to the toilet yourself, and generally thinking about the functional needs of a baby, so don’t worry about that part at all.
If you can successfully feed behind a cover or your sling, that would be fine here too I’m sure, but it’s definitely not a place where it would be the ‘done’ thing to just whip your boob out.
(4) Public transport is pretty baby friendly, particularly trains
Getting from A to B here is really easy with a wide array of transport options on offer. We’ve found that trains are the best option for the most part (some of the buses don’t have space for a buggy, you’d have to fold it up which is a pain if you’ve stashed stuff in the bottom.)
Trains and buses arrive on time. They’re all super clean, and spacious. I’d try and avoid rush hour in cities, but even when we had no option but to travel then, it really wasn’t that bad vs. London. Stations mostly have lifts, which makes life so much easier (particularly on the days where you both have your big rucksacks with you plus baby & buggy), but if they don’t you can get away with sneaking it up the escalator (you’re not strictly supposed to).
The bullet trains here are PHENOMENAL. They’re not cheap, but they travel at 200 miles an hour, and the inside is like being on a plane (with legroom!).
(5) Don’t bring a huge buggy with you, and make sure you bring a light comfortable sling
You really don’t see that many buggies here, and those that you do are all small models, none of the bugaboo tractors that are so common at home. We have a Babyzen Yoyo (https://www.babyzen.com/en/yoyo-plus/yoyo-plus-2) and we love it.
Slings are worn by nearly everyone, and it’s a lot easier to travel with them, particularly if you’re visiting temples, in which case leaving the buggy at home is a must (think 100’s and 100’s of steps). Having said that, we have loved having one with us, it’s great for days where you’re traipsing about, and it gives an option for Otis to sleep in during the day.
(6) Break up your journey even if it seems tempting to travel on the same transport
Normal thinking would be to try and stay on the same transport for as long as possible when trying to get somewhere. Less chance for delays, less hassle when you can just stay on the same train etc. With a young toddler, and transport that actually arrives on time, work out your quickest route and don’t stress about the changes. For us, it always seems to work better when you change up the environment. It gives Otis a chance to walk / crawl somewhere, and he seems to get less stir crazy.
(7) Think about any medicines you may need while away
You can’t get basics like children’s ibuprofen (at least ones suitable from 1 year old) or calpol here, and teething medicines like Anbesol or Nelson’s granules are also non-existent. If you have a teething baby, think about bringing a stock with you, or if travelling for longer, and you have obliging family / friends back home, get it sent out.
Likewise, we couldn’t find anything for nappy rash here. With a bit of online research, we tried egg whites, which work amazingly well – a good natural solution that can be done wherever you are!
(8) Get packages you need sent to you via a post office
The postal service in Japan is really good, so if you’re here for a while and need things you can’t get locally, you can get things sent c/o of the post office. You need to choose a specific one, write the name and c/o and then the phrase ‘kyoku dome’. You can then pick up the item with your ID. If you’re staying in an Air BNB and thinking you can get it sent there, I’d advise using the post office, I’d still use this service. Otherwise you need proof of address (which they ask for if you’re sending things home as well, it’s a pain).
(9) Bring a good initial supply of things you need for your baby
When you first arrive (depending where you fly into), things like buying nappies can be tricky. Places like 7 Eleven often do very small packs, but the majority are sold in large supermarkets (occasionally), and more often, large drug stores. They’re not as prevalent as in the UK, despite the adult category of nappies seeming to be everywhere! You might find yourself carrying out some random sign language gestures at first, so bring a good supply of nappies with you to help you out in the first few days.
Likewise, wipes aren’t always easy to find – look out for the drop of water and 99% symbol on ones that are akin to water wipes at home. Nappy sacks are pretty much non-existent, so we’ve found that a good alternative is sandwich bags to get you by.
(10) If travelling here in the summer, it is HOT. Think about appropriate clothing.
It is hot and humid here, so appropriate clothing for your baby and you is pretty key (particularly when carrying them in a sling). We’ve found that rompers for Otis are really good, less body contact and they wash really well. H&M do loads (and they are a common brand here in cities if you find that you need to top up sizes). Gap and Muji are both good too and can easily be found in bigger cities for kid’s clothes. Floaty dresses and playsuits work really well for you – think nice and breezy, and something that doesn’t rub with a sling on your shoulders.
Also, get yourself a fan for while you’re here – good for calming down hot and cross little ones. You tend to get promotional ones given to you everywhere (and they’re a welcome distraction for your baby too), or get yourself a proper one that will tuck into the side of your bag. Likewise, insect spray (a good non Deet version, easy to buy here) is good to have, particularly for when you’re hanging out in parks.
(11) Check out the family viability of your accommodation (ask questions before you arrive)
We have found that Air BNB gives us the most freedom as a family. Meals when you want them (hostels are often catered, and the food is amazing, but meal times are not convenient), no issues if your baby is waking up overnight, and less worry about someone else’s belongings being moved by your exploring little one.
Having said that, it pays to check out how baby friendly the property / flat is before you arrive. Plugs tend to be on the floor, and we’ve stayed places where wires for internet are strewn across the room despite the flat being marked as ‘family friendly’ on B&B.
Think about baby proofing solutions on the move – cling film and hair bands can work well to connect kitchen cupboards so your baby can’t open them for example. Check the cupboard doors well. Lots of places we’ve stayed keep large sharp knives on the inside of them!
Air Con is an absolute essential – we’ve stayed in a couple of places where the listing says the apartment has it and it’s conveniently ‘broken’ when you arrive (translate, less energy bills).
(12) Bathing solutions & the ritual of Onsen
Bathrooms are set up differently here, partly because of smaller property requiring a more space friendly solution, and partly because of the ritual of Onsen, the Japanese form of bathing.
For bathrooms in your own flat / property this normally means a small size bath, with a shower above and a wet room format. The baths are great for bathing kids, and the wet room makes family showers really easy (and can be a fun distraction in the heat).
Public onsen are lovely, but for a baby you’ll either need one that provides mixed baths, and has baths of a suitable temperature, or to check that babies are allowed.
(13) It doesn’t have to be an expensive family holiday – food is a good way to budget
Japan definitely isn’t a crazy cheap place to come, but it doesn’t have to cost the earth either. Accommodation is far cheaper if you book a week or two in advance (and culturally it’s not the ‘done’ thing to check in on the day); and food in particular is one place you can save.
Cooking for yourself is definitely a cheaper option for the most part – the supermarkets have a great meat and fish selection that is really cheap, and buying sushi from a supermarket is great quality, but far cheaper than a sit-down restaurant. Food markets are commonplace and much cheaper (and good fun); and the food courts in supermarkets are immense. If you visit after 5pm you can get some great bargains.
Aside from this, there are lots of simple soba stalls and other food stalls and low-key restaurants to try on a budget.
(14) Check online for indoor play centres (they’re not hellish, I promise!)
We’ve visited some great places for kids here as we’ve travelled. A beautiful toy museum in Kushiro, another in Tokyo, both filled with wooden toys, playhouses, and inflatable rooms for small people to toddle about in. In Kyoto, we found a good play centre by the Imperial Palace park that was absolutely free, yet was a little paradise for kids (again, lots of wooden toys). They’re a good way to get a break from the heat, and for your children to meet other little ones, and for you to meet other Japanese families, all of whom have been really friendly in our experience.
(15) The Japanese LOVE kids – be prepared for photos / comments of ‘cute’ (Kawaii) and people generally grabbing your child for a cuddle
It takes some getting used to, but your child is likely to be a bit of a superstar when here. Otis basically learnt to wave and generally be much more open minded about strangers through this experience, as people can’t help but be touchy feely about your child. Many, many strangers come up to us daily to take photos of him, give us free things for him, and generally give him a bit of attention. He wasn’t sure about all of this at first, but now he’s like the royal family coming into / leaving somewhere, and he waves in his sleep, it’s become so commonplace.
So, that’s our top tips. It’s a great place to come, so don’t be put off by perceptions of cultural disconnects and stressful circumstances. You’ll love it!