Nick and I planned our Japan trip to encompass three days in Tokyo and four in Kyoto. Three days is not much time in Tokyo, especially when accounting for jet lag and a slow moving kid and pregnant lady, so we focused on some of the key places we wanted to check out and decided to play the days by ear depending on our energy levels.
HOTEL & FOOD
Exploring Tokyo with kids means altering your expectations a bit as its not the most friendly city for small children, but it can be very budget-friendly and fun nonetheless. Where you decide to stay, eat and visit is largely dependent not only on your budget, but also on your child’s temperament and what makes you as parent(s) and them feel comfortable. In deciding where to stay, eat and sleep, consider the personality of your child; if you know they will not sleep on a futon or eat soba for breakfast, staying at a ryoken is probably not a good idea. At the same time, I think it’s important to teach kids to be adaptable, so my rule of thumb is typically to keep something familiar on hand in case your kid doesn’t take to new experiences well, but to still introduce them to new things within reason.
With that said, we decided to stay at a traditional western hotel in Tokyo in order to ensure good sleep and some typical comforts. We got an awesome deal via Jetsetter for the Conrad, which is undoubtedly more posh business chic than family-friendly. The hotel is located next to Shinbashi and Shiodome stations with underground walkways to both, which makes it quite accessible to other parts of the city. The rooms are well-appointed and incredibly comfortable (and seemingly sound proof) while the access to Shiodome means restaurants and shops are close by. The most helpful of these was a convenient store right near the base of the hotel which carries food and drinks for kids, like milk, fruit and simple sandwiches, as well as goodies for adults, like well-priced whiskey and chips. (Yes, the rooms have mini-fridges.) When we arrived it was a weekday and we were surrounded by business types, but by the weekend we saw other families with young children staying at the hotel. That said, I would not recommend this hotel for families with screamers or runners as it’s quite quiet and upscale.
The Conrad is across the street from the lovely Hama-Rikyu Gardens, which has multiple pathways for kids to explore as well as a cute teahouse near its center. Our first morning in Japan we took Vi here to run around and sort of ease her into her new surroundings after a long day of traveling. I would imagine it’s even more beautiful in the spring!
(The Conrad also has easy shuttle access to Tokyo Disney.)
One of my favorites parts of our stay was the buffet breakfast in a gorgeous well-lit room with views of the city. The menu includes a wide array of Eastern and Western foods; Violet loved having smoked trout and croissants while I enjoyed trying a little bit of everything. We always had stickers, coloring tools and the backup apps for her just in case she got stir crazy and that allowed us to have a leisurely morning brunch, right in step with vacation, even with a two-year-old!
In general, we found that there are cafés and convenient stores all over Japan where you can find coffee, tea, pastries, yogurt, western-style sandwiches and other easy brunch foods, so even if you stay somewhere without breakfast, affordable and easy options are not hard to find. (Like .60 cent mini croissants!)
For lunch and dinner, there are plenty of options and you can always have your concierge make reservations for you. Since we were taking a more spontaneous approach to traveling while in Tokyo, we opted to just roam around neighborhoods and stop at various restaurants that looked interesting. There was one spot where we sat down only to get back up and leave ten minutes later when we realized none of the food was edible for a pregnant lady or Violet, but overall the spontaneity was fun. Although, coming from a family of six kids, I can say that trying to find a place for everyone to eat when you have a large family is definitely a lot more complex and necessitates some more planning!
One of the afternoons we had lunch in a traditional restaurant hidden in a shopping center (as they all tend to be) with tatami mats and a private room. We ordered set lunches that came with an assortment of fermented vegetables, fish, miso, rice, sashimi and tea which we shared with Violet (about $20 per person). I recommend doing this at least once as a means of experiencing traditional Japanese cuisine and dining.
For specific restaurant recommendations, check out the NY Times, TripAdvisor, travel publications and fellow blogs. There is a lot out there and it is quite easy to have a $10 dinner in Tokyo!
With so much to see and so little time, we opted to have our local friend choose the sites with one exception, we wanted to check out the Tsukiji Fish Market. I soon learned that to many locals this is akin to traveling the world to go to a farmer’s market, but she was game to show us nonetheless. While the early morning tuna auction is what the market’s most famous for, it’s also a sprawling fish market for locals with a neighboring vegetable market and restaurants. What impressed us most about the market was the vast array of fish. Violet was delighted in seeing all the different “fishies”, calling out octopi and starfish and such, and we enjoyed sampling some of the products from the vendors.
We were lucky enough to be toured around by my college roommate’s friend, a ninja in regular clothing (seriously), who took us through some back alleys of the market while keeping an eye on our safety. It was one of the most interesting and exciting parts of our trip!
Before going I read a lot of different information about whether or not the market is safe for kids with most people (as in Americans) saying they’re not allowed or shouldn’t go. I confirmed with my friend that it was okay to bring Violet but she did warn me that if Violet wasn’t cooperative we’d have to stick to the outer markets and that I couldn’t bring a stroller.
After going I can confirm the following: The main inner market is, in fact, a decidedly dangerous place to visit due to the fast moving carts that won’t stop for nothin’! If you have a kid you can’t carry or can’t trust to hold your hand and follow close next to you, stay in the outer markets or do not go. But, if are used to navigating busy cities like New York with a child and aren’t phased by all kinds of transportation whizzing by, it’s not such a big deal. Look both ways before crossing the alleys of the market, make sure to let people who are busy working pass, stay alert and you’ll be fine. If this sounds intimidating, there are still the outer markets to check out which have restaurants, shops and a vegetable market.
Another site we visited with friends is the Sensō-ji temple in Asakusa. It was nearing the New Year, which is the holiest time of year, so the district was crowded and hard to walk through, but we managed to check out some of the little shops along the path to the temple and found a place for Violet to run around bit. The temple itself is the oldest in Tokyo and one of the holiest in Japan, and therefore a famous place to visit for Japanese tourists as well as international ones.
One of the funniest things that happened to us while in Japan was outside Sensō-ji. We had a few Asian tourists in Oahu and Japan ask us if they could take pictures with or of Violet for being, as they said, “kawaii” or cute, but we never expected the spectacle that happened at Asakusa where a crowd gathered to take photos of Violet as she hammed it up for cameras. I thought it was maybe the blonde hair, but even my local friend thought it was all quite strange.
There is a plethora of cool shopping in Tokyo, but I must admit that we did very little of it because, apparently, shopping is incredibly boring to Violet and that was the one activity she had little patience for, and because we didn’t want to make it a priority. However we did do our fair share of window shopping and if I could go back, I would love to explore more of the Muji flagship store in Yurakucho and the incredible design shops inside the new Kitte mall (a great respite from the rain).
If you have any specific questions about visiting Japan or Tokyo, comment and I’d be happy to reply. I’ll be writing a post on Kyoto next! In the mean time, here are some more tips.
• I highly recommend having someone local tour you around for a day or two, specifically in you want to visit Tsukiji Fish Market. In main tourist areas there are information booths where you can find free tour guides. You pay for their transportation and food in exchange for a free guide (and they get to practice their English).
• Reputable hotels can arrange sitters so you can go to fancy restaurants and check out the bar scene or see a show. Keep in mind that rates are rather steep.
• Unlike your pre-child days, you’ll probably find that you cannot fit that much into a day, whether from exhaustion or moving at a slower pace or making frequent stops, so it’s best to limit your activities early on so that there is no disappointment or pressure.
• Fly into Haneda instead of Narita. You can take a short $60 taxi into the city versus lugging tired kids and luggage on the train or taking a $200+ taxi.
• When paying for your subway tickets, pay the exact fare as the tickets will not be returned to you after leaving the station. If you make this mistake (as we once did), there are attendants on hand to issue refunds.
• There are some great free apps for offline tokyo subway and street maps as well as conversational Japanese. Japanese people are very kind when you try to speak their language.
• There is no tipping in Japan, in fact it’s considered rude to tip, so whether you’re at a hotel, restaurant or in a taxi, leave just what is asked and nothing more.