Many parents probably would never consider taking their children to Tokyo. The size of the city can be off putting to most parents, but trust me, it is an incredible place to take children especially if you adapt a little your schedules to suit them.
Jerome first travelled with us to Tokyo and Japan when he was 10 months and then pretty much once every year after that. He has grown to love the city and country as much as we do and wants to go back every time we return from a trip to Japan.
Tokyo is not only one of the safest cities to travel to with children, there is also so much to see and do with them, you will never be short of things to explore and see with children of any age.
The city is vibrant and exotic but requires no jabs, no malaria tablets, is clean and very safe so can make an ideal destination if you want to be a little more travel adventurous, whether with a baby or an older child.
In this post my aim is to give parents an idea of what to expect and some of the key facts that most guide books do not mention.
I remember the first time we went, we had trouble finding baby food, I even went all the way to Hiroo to the International Supermarket, National Azabu, because we were not able to find it in any of the other supermarkets or convenience stores. These days it is much easier to find, in fact most supermarkets and drug stores, like Ippondo, stock baby food and a quick google translate can help you find it. The food can be more expensive than in Europe or the US as Japanese parents tend to cook and mash up their own baby food at home, like Okayu (rice porridge), and therefore do not buy baby food in quantities like we do. You might also be surprised at the difference in flavours, but Jerome ate most of them anyway!
Milk and Breastfeeding:
Japanese woman do not tend to breastfeed in public. Department stores, stations and some public sites have special baby feeding rooms where they retreat for privacy. I do think though that if you are discreet and cover yourself with a scarf or the like and do not sit too much on display, eg. In the corner of a restaurant, park bench, no one would get offended.
Milk formula can also be purchased at drugstores and larger supermarkets, but they might not carry the same brand your baby is used to, so consider bringing what you need if your baby is fussy about the variety.
Drinks for Babies and Children:
As a baby, Jerome also loved to drink the mixed fruit and vegetable juices by Kagome, which were a great add on for small snacks and obtainable in all the convenience stores and many vending machines.
Note that on most corners you will find a vending machine for drinks for old and young alike. This might come in handy if the little ones are thirsty and there is no convenience store close by. Always try to keep some 100 Yen coins ready for the vending machines as they may not always have change. In Tokyo the rail pass cards Suica/Pasmo can also be used to pay.
Food for Older Children:
Sushi and sashimi can be a bit of an unwanted dish for children, but do try cucumber (kappa maki) or salmon/tuna (sake/tekka maki) rolls, these are a great way to introduce them to sushi.
There is plenty of food which has similarities with western cuisines, katsu (breaded fried chicken or pork) are a good dish, as are udon (one of Jerome’s favourites) and ramen noodles. Rice is offered with most dishes and can be topped up with some vegetables and miso soup.
Convenience stores, which are found all over Japan, and on every corner in Tokyo offer a basic selection of fast food that kids might like. If everything else fails you always have the option to go to one of the American fast food chains.
Supermarkets offer a wide range of fresh fruit and vegetables – many also have wide selections of take away picnic/lunch food ranging from grilled meats to rice dishes.
Japanese food has so much on offer for older children that you should not have trouble feeding them during your stay. Also children will love to see the plastic food in the windows of many restaurants and maybe you can tempt them to try something new and different this way.
When eating out whether in cafes or restaurants it is a good idea to take something for children to be occupied, whether the classic drawing / colouring, books, cards or other simple games.
Nappies and other baby essentials:
I would advise you to take enough of a supply of nappies etc. with you to last at least two or three days. Nappies and other baby essentials, like wipes, can be found at drugstores all around Tokyo and Japan, so after that you should have no trouble finding what you need although brands may differ.
Should you take a pushchair or baby carrier?
We used to bring our pushchair to Tokyo, as we would spend a minimum of 3 weeks there at a time. If you are planning to be out for most of the day your child can easily sleep in the pushchair when it is tired. Most major metro stations are accessible by lift or escalators; some smaller ones only have stairs. A baby sling/carrier or back pack carrier is always useful to have and can come in handy at the airport if you have to check in your pushchair, or if you plan to visit any temples, castles or other sights that might have a lot of steps.
I would not bring a car seat in case you are planning to hire a car, you can rent one for a small fee.
There are plenty of public toilets in Tokyo. They are in general very clean and well cared for, and therefore you will not need to worry if your child or you need some in a hurry. You can find them in stations, parks, department stores and many buildings that have public access, especially those with a café or restaurant. Most convenience stores also have a shared toilet.
Baby changing facilities:
If you need baby changing facilities you should head to one of the department stores, where you can find the best public baby changing facilities in Tokyo. Here you will be able to find changing rooms, toilets, nursing rooms and sometimes vending machines for baby food, baby formula machines for hot and cold water and microwaves! Better than anywhere else we have ever seen.
It might be useful to bring a travel-changing mat alongside your changing bag just in case you are not near any good changing facilities.
Entry to sights and travel tickets with children:
In many places and on most transport young children and school students will get free or reduced entry/tickets. The discount system is based on age aligned to the Japanese school system, mostly those under 12 years (when their senior schools start) will not pay or have reduced price tickets and those under 6 are free.
A few notes on etiquette and manners:
We have always found Japanese people very friendly, but we do recommend you familiarise yourself and your children that are old enough to understand, with all the basic local customs and etiquette. For example it is critical to understand that the Japanese always will take off shoes when entering someone’s home, many traditional hotel rooms, older and temple buildings, or any restaurant or room that has tatami mats, so watch for piles of shoes or shoe racks and take off yours when you see them.
If you are planning to visit any traditional hotels or Ryokans do check out the etiquette of bathrooms. They are segregated although it is fine for younger girls and boys to go with either parent. Warn your children that the baths can be very hot and make sure they do not spend too long in them and overheat. Always wash in the nearby showers before entering a shared bath – and never ever use soap or shampoo in there either.
Finally, encourage your children to learn to bow when they greet a local – you will gain lots of positive vibes and comments!
Where to stay:
Tokyo offers a wide range of accommodation. If you travel with children it might be easiest to rent an apartment on Airbnb. It can also be good to stay at a ryokan or hotel with Japanese style rooms, where you can easily book a traditional room for the entire family….. and experience sleeping all together on futons on the floor, which is fun and different to what they are normally used to. They also get a chance to wear a kimono and try a hot sento (bath) – see above for the etiquette. Most western style hotels will offer additional cots or beds for children but these can sometimes be quite expensive and most Tokyo hotel rooms are rather small.
Many hotels and Ryokans offer babysitting in case you require it, but do not be afraid to take children to dinner with you too – just make sure they have something to keep them occupied at the table and check the menu options beforehand if you can.
We have stayed in the past at these places and I can recommend them all to you:
Park Hotel Tokyo Shiodome
Royal Park Hotel Shiodome
Cerulean Tower Tokyu Hotel in Shibuya