Traveling To Japan With Small Children, Part 1: The Planning

Last month Nick, Violet and I traveled to Kyoto and Tokyo on vacation. We had a wonderful time in Japan site seeing, visiting old friends, trying new foods and experiencing Japanese culture, but not surprisingly, traveling with a toddler–and while pregnant–is not without its share of difficulties.

One of my favorite shots from the trip at Daitoku-ji in Kyoto.

One of my favorite shots from the trip at Daitoku-ji in Kyoto.


One of the most frequent questions I was asked before our trip was “Are you bringing Violet?” Many people cut back on travel when they have kids, and while we have scaled back our expectations and make fewer plans, so far the reward of travel far outweighs the difficulties for us. Of course, organizing an international trip with long flights plus different foods, language and customs requires some planning especially when you have children.

Before leaving for Japan we…

  • Arranged layovers in Hawaii on both ends and used that time to adjust to the time change by staying up late/going to sleep earlier and enjoying the outdoors. We also took an evening flight to Japan and a redeye back, which meant Violet slept nearly the whole time on both legs.
  • Checked on food safety due to the radiation to figure out what to avoid. There is a lot of worry regarding radiation in food from people outside of Japan, while there seems to be little worry within the country due to the strict food safety standards.
  • Memorized/wrote down simple phrases so we’d know how to ask for things like milk and diapers (or how to avoid foods you may be allergic to) and asked flight attendants and hotel staff for help on the correct pronunciation.
  • Explored kid-friendly places we could take Vi to, including restaurants and community playgrounds.
  • Made rough itineraries of things we wanted to do and see that left freedom for flexibility, key when traveling with small children.
  • Packed some comfort items for Vi, such as her blanket and a couple thin light books.
  • Downloaded kid-friendly apps and films for the airplane for Vi.
  • Downloaded the LearnJapanese app as well as city subway & road maps that work offline.
  • Opted to pack as light as possible, which meant hand washing clothing at the hotels.
  • Decided to stay in contemporary or hybrid hotels versus traditional Japanese ryokans so that we didn’t have to worry about noise, broken shoji screens, etc with a toddler.
  • Packed enough diapers for the first couple days and a tetra pack of milk as backup (Vi loves her miriku!)
  • Got our flu shots! There’s nothing worse than getting sick while traveling.

Overall I found that most things were much easier than expected. Signs in Japan are often in English and use universal graphics, which makes traveling through the airport and subway a breeze. Hotel staff in the cities speak at least enough English to map you to local convenience stores, pharmacies, restaurants and more. And Japanese people make a real effort to communicate with foreigners and seemed to genuinely appreciate the attempts at their language. In addition, a lot of guides on Japanese customs had me anxious about messing up and being that obnoxious American family, but we found Japanese people to be incredibly friendly and helpful and we witnessed Japanese children having crazy tantrums just like kids in the US do, so in the end I realized I was silly to worry. (Although I think it’s important to try and practice local etiquette while in any country, as a foreigner you’re not expected to know every rule.)

Outside the famed Kabuki Theatre, day 2 of carrying Violet.

Outside the famed Kabuki Theatre, day 2 of carrying Violet.


Jet lag wasn’t an issue since you basically lose a whole day and Violet was very well behaved overall and enjoyed the scenery, not to mention that she loves sushi, seaweed and sashimi so she was well fed. I was blown away by all the great design and Zen aesthetics, not to mention the gorgeous shops (granted, that was the hardest part…trying to shop with a 2.5 year old!). And Nick was completely absorbed by the delicious food and fantastic hospitality. Carrying one suitcase between the three of us and packing light was much easier than bringing a few smaller bags, and we found we could have packed even lighter, with one exception…

We opted to carry Violet in an Ergo versus bringing a stroller because we heard a stroller could be a hindrance in subways and on cobble stone, but Tokyo is crowded with rushing people and Kyoto has bike lanes on sidewalks, so slow walking and weaving toddlers are not so safe. Hence, we ended up carrying Violet everywhere and by day 5 I was limping in pain. So my advice to you is bring an umbrella stroller! 

Although I didn’t see very many children in the cities, every place we went to was very accommodating and kind, from restaurants supplying children’s dish ware and forks to people entertaining Violet with silly faces on the train. Many of the restaurants with counter seating carry highchairs, so don’t be afraid to peak inside and ask!

If we had the time we would have definitely visited one of the many Tokyo amusement parks, which I’m certain Violet would have loved. In the city center, however, we found it a bit challenging finding places for her to run around and be a kid indoors, but one solution was toy stores and toy sections at department stores. As many parents realize, kids need time to play and explore and they are much better mannered when they get this time, so I was pretty committed to finding places where Vi could relax and be “free”. The one day we didn’t manage a little “Violet time” was the one day over our twelve day trip that she, understandably, was very upset about being carried around all day in the cold rain and had a tantrum…her worst ever.

A helpful guide for me when planning where to go in Tokyo was Tokyo Urban Baby which also has some tips on where to nurse, find diapers and formula (pharmacies), milk (any local 7-11 style shop) food safety, and where to eat with babies.

Most of the toys at Komodo are made of wood!

Most of the toys at Komodo Mirai Kan are made of wood!


Kyoto was a bit easier in regards to finding kid-friendly hangouts. There are playgrounds scattered throughout the city which you can find information on here, including a great community indoor/outdoor playground near the Imperial Palace called Kodomo Mirai Kan which Violet loved, an aquarium, and plenty of temples where kids can meander at their own pace. Another good resource for activities and kid-friendly places to eat in Kyoto is Chubby Hubby.

I think the trickiest part of travel but also one of the most exciting and rewarding is the great unknown. When you don’t know where exactly you’ll end up in a day, or what a sign says, when you get a little lost and frustrated and then end up some place incredible and off the grid…these are all the fantastic bits that make it fun. You just need to carry a few more things with kids! You also need to adjust your expectations. There are many amazing things to see and do in Japan and going without kids would have been a very different trip (more booze, late nights and shopping, per say), but that doesn’t take away from the great experiences we had as a family and the joy we had watching Violet say “Kon-i-chi-wa”.

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