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Small in Japan: tips on traveling with a toddler from Osaka to Tokyo

When our daughter was born last year, it was clear to my husband and I that our way of life would be changed forever. As would our way of travel. No longer fleet-footed and fancy-free, our one-time fearless forays into the unknown now had to be well-planned, flawlessly coordinated excursions into certainty. What better opportunity to test our new method, we thought, than a jaunt to Japan in the spring on a trip organized in collaboration with my parents (whose 40th wedding anniversary served as the raison d’être for our journey)? Our daughter was 14 months old and entering a very intrepid stage of her toddlerhood, a fact that upped the planning stakes; we laughed, we cried, we vomited, and all our follies eventually landed us with the following snippets of wisdom that I’d like to pass on to future, far-eastern travellers.

Vanessa Able Japan child

Rent a car

Most visitors to Japan get around by buying a pass for the Shikansen, the high-speed train network that’s a very efficient way to get around unless a) you have a baby-sized amount of luggage or b) you want to explore the countryside. A road tripper by DNA, I’ve always been a fan of the car and its flexibilities, and I imagined it would be a lot more practical than schlepping around train stations trying to decipher Japanese characters with my family and all our associated accouterments in tow. We rented an ark-sized Toyota Noah from the airport in Osaka, where we got to choose from an impressive line-up of baby seats, and we finally left the car, three weeks later in Tokyo. Our main concern was parking in the cities, which turned out to be easy – though pricey – due to the proliferation of private parking lots on every block. Another cost we massively underestimated was the price of the highway tolls, which were so numerous as to elicit gasps and curses from us all as we scrambled to rummage around our wallets every time the GPS warned us of an oncoming toll. On one four-hour journey from Nara to Kanazawa, we spent close to $100 on tolls, to give you some idea. But for me, the trade-off was worth it: door-to-door service between every hotel, toilet and nappy-changing stops on the way, and the chance to see something of Japan beyond the urban sprawl.

Vanessa Able child and father

Food heaven is 7-11

Until I went to Japan, I always thought of 7-11 as a walk-in vending machine to be called upon only in times of great intoxication or in the absence of all other options. But 7-11 in Japan (as well as other chains like Lawson’s and Family Mart) is a convenience store with bells on – not only is it one of the only places you can get money from an ATM with a foreign card, it’s also an excellent source of all sorts of baby-related treats, from yoghurt and fruit to boiled eggs and rice snacks, as well as things I probably shouldn’t publicly admit to having fed my toddler like hot dogs and some very salty-sweet white bread rolls. She loved them all, and she especially loved the miniature baskets small enough for her little hands to haul around and make her own selections of shopping goods like dried shrimps, canned coffee and facemasks. It was all fun and games until a pot of yoghurt bespattered the floor right by the cash desk and a disgruntled employee arrived with a mop to politely clean up my bad parenting.

Vanessa Able window shot

Brace for bugs

It’s true that Japan is an exceptionally clean country, but kids do have a way of tracking down even the most elusive germs, so you need to be prepared. We were nestled in on the tatami floor of a ryokan in the hills just south of Nara one night when I heard the labored retches of my little one bringing up her dinner all over the sheets of her cot. Then all over our bed. Then even a bit on the tatami floor. She had caught a virus, and though the vomiting only continued for 24 hours, she refused all food for the following week (even 7-11 hotdogs) and became listless and skinny. Luckily, we had friends in Kyoto who took us to a kids’ clinic and translated the exchange between myself and the doctor, but if you don’t have such a resource to hand, I recommend this page on that provides more solid information on finding Anglophone medical care in Japan.

Vanessa Able group shot

Embrace the Airbnb

When choosing where to stay, be sure to book well in advance and bear in mind that hotels in Japan come in three categories: ryokans that are the old-style Japanese guesthouses, budget hotels, and expensive hotels where one night will cost you the equivalent of a month’s rent back home. If you can afford the latter, god bless your fortune and enjoy every extra inch of space that is thin on the ground in the budget options. Despite the wide-angled photos flaunted on, many of the rooms we encountered, especially in the big cities, were barely large enough to fit a suitcase, let alone a baby with a cot. The ryokans tend to be more spacious, with rooms valued by the number of tatami mats that make up their area, and the futons on the floor are a very practical way of sleeping with a toddler. However, the walls here are often literally paper-thin, inducing cardiac arrest each time your child goes within arm’s length of one with a pokey object, and – if your little one is vocally expressive – regaling other guests with night-time screams and early-morning squeals. (The owner of one ryokan in Nara actually asked me to take my daughter outside until 8am for the sanity of fellow guests. We went straight to 7-11). The best answer I found to the price/space/noise riddle was to rent an apartment. In the big cities, they’re easy to find, they’re bigger than hotels and, if you are several people, the price per head works out much better. Besides, the prospect of a kitchen with a fridge and dishwashing facilities alone should be enough to clinch the deal.

Vanessa Able playground shot

Divine the fun spots

Whereas pre-baby travel used to be all about food and cool cultural experiences, post-baby travel has become all about food and finding cool places to play. The good news is that Japan has no lack of neighbourhood play parks, and a lot of the sightseeing can be fun for little ones too: our daughter LOVED the deer park in Nara, the bamboo forest in Arashiyama, the Kanazawa contemporary art museum (especially the swimming pool sculpture), the Roppongi Hills Observation Deck in Tokyo and any Japanese garden in any given spot. All outings were marked by frequent photo ops with locals who repeatedly declared her to be kawaii, the Japanese term for ‘cute’, ostensibly one of the most overworked words in the language, and lots of hugs with local kids who were curious to find a blondie in their midst.

Vanessa Able pool

Watch where you eat

Back to food: one of my favourite bits about Japan is the food there and the range of dining options from sushi bars to sizzling okonomiyaki and yakiniku joints. But how to negotiate these composed, beautifully choreographed meals that involve the delicate layout of fish and rice or a sizzling hotplate/open flame just inches from the edge of the table in the company of a spirited fourteen-month-old? I discovered three solutions: firstly, the take-away. Lots of places we came across – especially sushi bars – were more than happy to prepare food for us to go, which we could take home and eat in the comfort, noise and chaos of our apartment. The second option was babysitting: I struck up an excellent rapport with our Airbnb host in Kyoto who had a team of babysitters ready to farm out to her guests, and so we hired an Indonesian PhD student to come over and look after our sleeping daughter while we indulged in a kaiseki dinner. The third and most genius idea was arranged by our friends in Tokyo who have a toddler of their own: reserving a private room in a restaurant. I imagine this is only an option in larger establishments, but it comes highly recommended. It meant we had a room to ourselves, were waited on by the staff as though we were part of the restaurant, but the kids could run around at will, and there was nothing to break in the room and no strangers’ handbags to rifle through or open kitchen doors to run into. Japanese dining bliss.

Vanessa Able outdoor play

Vanessa Able is a travel writer and author of the book Never Mind the Bullocks: One Girl’s 10,000km Adventure around India in the World’s Cheapest Car.