I’ve had some reader requests for tips on travelling to Tokyo with kids, based on my experiences with a 2.5yo and 4.5yo.
So here are my Top 10 tips for travelling to Tokyo with young children, when you’re still negotiating nappies, prams and naps.
1.Narita Airport Hotels
Tokyo’s major international airport is waaay out of metro Tokyo in another city called Narita. After a long haul flight (especially a daytime leg like our Qantas flight) I think it’s really too taxing to push young kids through baggage claim, customs then a 1+ hour train ride into the centre of Tokyo.
There are many airport hotels at Narita to choose from and a Japanese travel agent recommended the Narita Tobu Hotel as being best for families. They don’t have interconnecting rooms but we were able to request adjoining rooms. Our rooms were clean, included toiletries, a free cot and were surprisingly spacious.
I recommend purchasing the breakfast buffet with your accommodation. The airport hotels aren’t really close to anything but the airport and after a night’s sleep you will need sustenance to continue the journey into Tokyo.
2. Narita to Tokyo transport
The Narita Express train is the best way to travel into central Tokyo. The train station is easily marked within the terminal and trains are fast, clean, have wide aisles, toilets, wifi and storage areas for luggage. Trains leave every 30 minutes and take 60 minutes to reach Tokyo station. Shinjuku takes another 25 minutes.
To save money buy a N’EX Tokyo round trip ticket which costs 4000Y per adult and 2000Y for 6-11 years and is valid for 14 days for travel to/from Narita and the Tokyo metro stations (Tokyo, Shinigawa, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro). You can’t buy it from the automated ticket machines as you need to present your passport so you’ll need to line up at the ticket counter.
At the ticket counter also buy Suica prepaid tap and go cards for public transport within Tokyo and all around Japan. We started our cards with 2000Y credit (kids under 6 don’t need to pay). You can get a refund for the return of the card at the end of the trip, minus an admin fee.
3. Download Uber
Uber is an international taxi, private car and rideshare app which I use regularly in Australia. It’s easy, quick and convenient.
I love that I can track a car’s progress, the cars and drivers are vetted and rated and I get billed to my credit card so I don’t have to fuss about with the right money. Oftentimes it’s cheaper than a standard taxi.
We used Uber when it was pouring rain and when we were hauling luggage. For most of our holiday there were 5 of us so a Uber van was more economical than two taxis. Street traffic in Tokyo is surprisingly uncongested, even in peak hour.
Sign up to Uber with my referral code ‘cnoub’ to get $25 off your first ride.
Note that you will need to request Uber Black cars/vans, not UberX vehicles. Uber Black vehicles are registered taxis and limousines so they do not require children to sit in car seats, just like normal Tokyo taxis. Uber X vehicles are private citizen’s cars and as such they will require children to sit in car seats, same as if you were driving your own car.
4. Allow at least 30 minutes travel time to get anywhere
Tokyo is a huge city and the popular attractions are spread out everywhere. There’s no one area that’s particularly handy for most tourist attractions, wherever you stay you’ll need to travel.
We found we couldn’t get anywhere in under 30 minutes. Even the simplest journey required navigating multiple lines, platforms, rail companies, different subway/train exits and un-named streets and alleys. Just accept you’ll get lost.
5. Stay at/near Tokyo, Shinagawa, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro
Having said #4 it’s a good idea to stay at or near one of the major transport hubs – Tokyo, Shinagawa, Shibuya, Shinjuku or Ikebukuro. It’ll make your airport and other transfers easier.
We stayed near Shinjuku and Shinigawa and the former was more interesting and child-friendly. Next time I’d try Shibuya for something different.
6. Avoid peak hour
Peak hour is normally between 8-9am weekdays and Saturdays. Travel at that time on public transport at your peril! It’s all very orderly but the crush is unbelievable and not pleasant if you’ve got a pram or baby carrier.
We found that getting out of the house before 8am was the easiest way to get to our destination. If we were going to an attraction that wasn’t open till say 10am then we’d make sure there was a park or playground nearby to kill time.
Note about prams and the subway. Subway stations will normally have at least one elevator to get you from ground level to platform – but you may not be at the right entrance for such a facility. In such cases you will have to bounce or carry a pram down stairs so really it’s a two-person job. We also found sometimes taking the elevator was disorientating because we’d exit into unexpected locations. It was easier taking the pram on the escalator, though that’s not allowed in peak hour.
7. Book accommodation via Airbnb and Western hotel chains
In Japan ideally I’d only stay at ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) as they are a unique cultural experience.
However, they are not the most child-friendly option. They don’t tend to have facilities like high chairs or cots or interconnecting rooms, you sleep on tatami mats and futons, you may have to use a shared bath and the walls are paper thin. Staff may not necessarily speak English and food is often included and will be traditional Japanese cuisine (which may not suit children’s tastes).
Having said that we loved our stay at Yamanochaya ryokan in Hakone. You just need to be aware of the limitations of that type of accommodation and consider whether it’s suitable for your family.
Easier family-friendly accommodation options are Airbnb and Western hotel chains. Use my discount link to get $27 off your first booking (I also receive $27 credit) www.airbnb.com.au/c/jwatts3?s=8
Our Airbnb was a traditional Japanese house was located in a very quiet, residential neighbourhood. Everyone had their own room, they provided a free baby cot, free wifi, free pocket wifi, air con in every room – even drinks, washing powder, condiments and tea/coffee.
The former was a complete child-friendly fit-out with a bedroom and bathroom for children adjoining a bedroom, sitting area and second bathroom. Plus toys, books and secret mirrors!
The latter had adjoining but not interconnecting rooms but provided free cots and had a gorgeous Japanese garden to roam.
Western hotel chains benefit from having English-speaking staff, ready taxi transport, free wifi and generous breakfast buffets. I used those to my advantage by bringing a Nude Food Mover Rubbish Free Lunch Box to breakfast with me and then filling it with snacks and sandwiches for the kids.
8. Hire a pocket wifi
If you are using a smartphone save on international roaming and data fees by renting a pocket wifi for your time in Japan. I found it invaluable as we could search Google Maps on the go, check emails for ticket information and communicate with each other via iMessage or Whats App whenever we got separated or lost!
I went with CD Japan, the cheapest company I could find for 14 day hire with unlimited data usage for 7400 JPY.
Have the pocket wifi delivered to your first hotel so you can use it immediately and at the end of your trip just return it using the stamped self-addressed envelope provided. There is a post box inside the departure terminal at Narita, before security.
9. Book ahead for attractions
I am an organised, scheduled person but I hadn’t appreciated that events and activities in Japan practically all require pre-booking weeks or months ahead. Highly sought after attractions like the Ghibli Museum open bookings 3 months ahead and I couldn’t get my preferred time for KidZania as I had only considered booking 3 weeks ahead.
Lining up is a national pastime in Japan. We found it best to arrive 30 minutes before attractions opened so that we could get in line. We spent the waiting time taking turns to go to the toilet, applying sunscreen, eating snacks and chasing Baby 2.0 around.
10. Eating out may be a challenge
My previous trips to Japan had all been without kids and what to eat was never an issue. I found feeding my kids in Japan much more challenging. The kids ate a lot more white bread, muffins, cookies and fried food than I’d like but sometimes the fight to get them to try takoyaki, okonomiyaki, sushi or even taiyaki was too hard.
When researching child friendly places to take kids to eat in Tokyo, Japanese department store food halls are always mentioned. While I agree the dizzying choice of fresh and delicious food is sure to inspire hunger in the fussiest eater, what is not mentioned is that these food halls do not have in store seating.
Some department stores have rooftop gardens where you can take you food store delights. For instance, Isetan in Shinjuku is on the 8th floor of the main building (not to be confused with the men’s building) and one of central Tokyo’s rare green spaces. It’s a popular haunt for Japanese families, with plenty of places to leave prams, change facilities and a small drinks and snacks kiosk.
We ate supermarket sushi, at neighbourhood restaurants very early before other patrons (teppanyaki was a hit) and theme park/museum restaurants. Our two highlights were the sushi train restaurant Uobei Sushi and the Garden Cafe buffet at Goos Shinigawa.
A few other things to note:
- nappies are sold at pharmacies, not supermarkets. We bought exorbitantly-priced nappies from convenience stores because they were so hard to find;
- all department stores will have baby change facilities;
- many restaurants will have high chairs/booster seats if you ask, even if they don’t seem child-friendly on the outside;
- many attractions will not allow you to push prams around, instead you have to park your ‘baby car’ in a specific area and carry/walk your child; and
- there are storage lockers available at major train stations but do not rely on a large one being available that will fit your suitcase. We never found a locker when we needed it so had to wheel suitcases around.