Baby T is no stranger to overseas travels, having made the trip to Denmark and back when he was 7 weeks old and again when he was 20 months old. Wanting to take advantage of the infant 10% flight fare, Mrs. T and I decided to book a trip to Japan before he turns two. Luckily for us we found an amazing airfare deal.
Japan is a very interesting place to visit. I've been to this beautiful country more than a handful of times but it was Mrs. T and Baby T's first time. Quite frankly I didn't know what to expect traveling with a toddler in Japan. Since Baby T is a charmer and has long wavy blond hair, I figured he would gather a lot of attention in Japan. And I was right. Everywhere we went Baby T was making friends and getting attention left, right, and center. The Japanese ladies simply adored him, wanting to touch him and taking pictures of him.
The funniest thing for me was probably seeing people's reaction whenever I was walking with Baby T or pushing the stroller with him in Japan. Because Baby T has blond hair and Caucasian facial features while I have short black hair and Asian facial features, this usually resulted in very puzzled and odd looks from the Japanese.
Overall our 2 week trip with Baby T was great! We did find out that traveling with a toddler in Japan can be both a lot of fun and exhausting at the same time. Baby T loved every second of the trip and even learned a few Japanese words here and there. It's pretty amazing how quickly he was able pick up Japanese words (i.e. sumo, okonomiyaki, shabushabu, shushi).
I knew traveling with a toddler would require a slightly different pace than when traveling by myself. So we limited ourselves to only doing two or three attractions each day. That was definitely a good idea. Japan has an amazing public transportation system. We used public transportation mostly and walked whenever we could. It's amazing how extensive the rail and subway systems are in Tokyo alone. As an engineer I always wonder how much careful planning it took to build the rail and subway systems in Tokyo.
Traveling in Japan with a toddler will be exhausting. We loved traveling with Baby T in Japan but perhaps we were slightly too ambitious. Since Baby T was only 22 months when we were in Japan, he was still a bit too young to follow instructions or to be reasoned with. Temper tantrums were an issue from time to time, especially when he was over tired or over excited. It certainly didn't help when he lost both his pacifiers one day in the train station and we didn't have any backup. He screamed and cried for close to an hour on the entire train ride and we weren't able to calm him down at all. People on the train must have thought that we were terrible parents. Given the option, I would recommend to either travel with a small baby before he/she can walk, or travel with an older kid like 4 years old and up. Option 1 does mean you get to take advantage of the 10% infant air fare, while option 2 means more expensive air fare.
Tips on Traveling with a Toddler in Japan
Now if you're a brave soul and decides to travel with a toddler (or two if you're really really brave), here are a few tips I would like to share.
- Travel as light as possible. Last thing you want is to be hauling large heavy suitcases and a heavy diaper bag and stroller. We only had one medium suitcase for the three of us. (I was somewhat disappointed that we weren't able to pack everything in a carry-on suitcase). It's totally OK to pack only a few days worth of clothes and hand wash them during the trip. Furthermore, Japan is a very convenient country, it's very easy to buy diapers, wipes, and other baby related items in pharmacies or supermarkets. It seemed that some fellow travelers had issue purchasing these items in Japan but we had no such issue.
- For the flights, book seats that allow you to use a bassinet. Sitting with a toddler can get tiring. We got lucky that we managed to have an empty seat next to us on both legs of the trip.
- If you are strong enough and can carry your toddler, a baby carrier is a great idea. Since Baby T is over 13 kg, we opted for a light weight umbrella stroller instead and that worked quite well.
- If you're traveling with a stroller, be ready to carry the stroller. Although some train stations have elevators, we did have to carry the stroller with Baby T sitting in it a number of times. Subway stations generally do not have an elevator to get to the platforms. Most temples are not stroller friendly either. With this in mind, don't bring a gold plated stroller or you'll be swearing at yourself every time you have to carry the stroller up and down the stairs. If you do not want to carry the stroller up and down stairs in train and subway stations, learn to use the escalator with the stroller (note: this can be dangerous and is technically not allowed, but sometimes your only option).
- Smoking in restaurants are quite common. Secondhand smoking doesn't seem to be a concern for the Japanese. This can make mealtimes complicated if you don't want to expose your little one and yourself to secondhand smoke. Generally restaurants in department stores do not allow smoking and they have pictures or plastic models outside so you can easily figure out the menu. When in doubt, ask. Another way to avoid smoking crowds is to go to a restaurant early so you're the only one there.
- Avoid trains and subway during rush hours in Tokyo, especially if you're traveling with a stroller.
- Multi-purpose washrooms are very easy to spot and found in major Japanese cities like Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Hiroshima (where we went, I'm sure they are available all over Japan). These rooms are HUGE so it's very easy to do a diaper change and dispose the dirty diaper in the garbage bin.
- If you're traveling by yourself and need to go to the bathroom, typically there are washroom stalls with a baby seat that you can put your baby/toddler in, so you can relief yourself. I don't know why we don't have these baby seats here in North American bathrooms. They're awesome.
- Limiting number of attractions you see each day is a great idea. Having said that, we were perhaps slightly too ambitious when it comes to number of cities we chose to visit. We visited Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Fukuoka, meaning we spent quite a bit of time on the Shinkansen (bullet train) and other public transportation. The train ride from Hiroshima back to Tokyo was 5 hours. Although we broke the trip into two portions, riding on the train with an energetic toddler for more than an hour can be challenging. Limit number of train rides and amount of time you spend on public transportation. Toddlers generally don't like to sit in the stroller for a long period of time. It's also a good idea to take nap time into consideration when doing longer train rides.
- The major streets in Ginza and Akihabara (Tokyo) are closed for cars on Saturdays and Sundays (other Tokyo district too?). This makes a great opportunity for the little ones to run around and burn off some energy.
- Parks and temples are great places to let the little ones loose and run around. As you can tell by now, it's a good idea to burn off your toddler's energy as much as possible so they can nap and sleep well.
We are quite happy to report that Baby T slept very well during the trip. But that shouldn't come as a surprise as he has been sleeping through the night (i.e. 10+ hours) for over 6 months now. Now we're back in Vancouver, the last few nights have been rough for the little guy. He has been waking up a lot during the night. He had similar experience for a few night when we came back from our month long trip in Denmark earlier this summer, so we believe he'll sleep just fine once the jetlag is gone.
We don't have any more trips planned before Baby T turning two, so we won't be able to take advantage of the 10% air fare. We haven't quite decided where we'll go next, perhaps Hawaii? Perhaps the Canadian Rockies? We'll have to wait and see.