The best of Japan in one week…
Our family has strong ties to Japan. My father was raised there and my parents spent the early years of their marriage in Yokohama, so the girls and I are all Japanese citizens. It’s no surprise that we were super keen to spend a couple of weeks exploring Tokyo and the Kansai region during our year-long adventure. Despite the crowds (our visit fell smack in the middle of cherry blossom season), we had a fantastic experience.
From the bustle of Osaka to the beautiful historic countryside surrounding Kyoto, Japan is a truly magical place. And, as it turns out, it’s a fun and convenient country to travel around with toddlers as well! This one-week suggested itinerary is based on the slightly over-ambitious schedule we crammed into two weeks. I have filtered out the less exciting stuff (nothing in Japan is ‘boring’!) and kept in only our top picks. Happy travels!
We purchased the Japan Rail Green Pass, which gives you access to the first-class carriage on almost any Japan Rail (JR) train, boat or bus (excluding the fastest bullet train, or shinkansen) for 7, 14, or 21 days. The pass is only available to foreign passport holders. There’s no charge for kids under 6 and as long as it’s not rush hour you can almost always find a spare seat for them on the Shinkansen.
- We purchased our green pass online in advance but many travel agents in Hong Kong provide this service. Usually, passes are redeemed at the airport where you’ll be given a laminated card ticket which you flash at the station turnstiles or show the driver.
- The Tokyo train system is notoriously complex and, as there are multiple operators around the country, I strongly recommend purchasing a Suica on arrival which can be used on the Tokyo subway (not operated by Japan Rail) and at convenience stores and other retail outlets too. You can also download the official Tokyo subway app to map out your travels!
- We brought our stroller EVERYWHERE. Most stations have elevators and/or escalators but there were a few that we had to carry the stroller up and down the stairs. Temples are generally not stroller-friendly but we always managed to find a safe place to stash it while we explored. The walking and getting on/off so many trains made it well worth the hassle.
- Even Japanese people get confused with the train system, so don’t be afraid to ask! With the Olympics and Rugby World Cup around the corner, there is a concerted effort to have even more English-speaking staff at every station and tourist destination.
- If possible, avoid rush hour at all costs, unless you want a first-hand experience of those crazy YouTube videos when commuters are jammed into the cars like sardines (very drunk sardines between 9pm and midnight!).
- Trains are, without a doubt, the way to get around in Japan but there may be the odd occasion where you want to jump in a car. Cabs are easy to spot and hail, but make sure to have the address in Japanese handy as they may not speak English. Uber is available in Japan but it is not as popular as Japan Taxi, which you can download here.
General Toddler Tips
- You can purchase ready-made baby food, diapers and wipes in drug store chains around town such as Matsumoto Kiyoshi (aka MatsuKiyo). We were surprised to find that baby food was not available in most supermarkets.
- There are big multi-purpose washrooms available in many public places making diaper changing a cinch. Most department stores also have baby changing & nursing facilities (including filtered hot water for preparing bottles).
- There are many “family restaurants” (Denny’s, Royal Host, etc) and Japanese-style fast food restaurants which are great for a cheap and cheerful meal with the kids. They serve everything from breakfast pancakes to Oyako-Don rice bowls – in record time.
- Convenience stores are also handy when you’re on the move. They stock a wide range of food and snacks available for the kids. Japanese rice triangles (onigiri) are our go-to when the girls get hungry!
- Restaurants in Department Stores are also very family-friendly and they usually have food displayed on the outside so you can browse before going in. Kids meal sets are usually available and might comprise of hamburger, curry or Tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet) with juice and pudding (and a toy if you are lucky!)
- You’ll notice there aren’t many public trash cans around Japan (particularly in stations) so it’s beneficial carrying a few small bin bags on you when you’re out and about with the kids.
Suggested One Week Itinerary:
You can play around with the itinerary to suit your preference. Japanese history buffs might want longer in Kyoto, while avid shoppers might opt for an extra day in Osaka. We found basing ourselves in Kyoto and Osaka also made for easy day trips in the surrounding areas.
Day 1 – 2: Tokyo
Day 3 – 5: Kyoto (Arashiyama & Fushimi Inari Taisha)
Day 6 – 7: Osaka (includes day-trip to Hiroshima & Miyajima)
There is no shortage of things to do in Tokyo. Whether you’re visiting Mickey at Tokyo Disneyland, shopping and people watching in Ginza, strolling Takeshita-Dori in Harajuku or visiting the anime mecca of Akihabara, there really is something for everybody in this amazing city.
While we usually prefer Airbnb’s (better value, more space and kitchen) the bonus of staying at a hotel is that the concierge can help with bookings and general queries. Not to mention the relief of coming home after 12 hours on the go to find a tided room and meticulously made beds!
Where to Stay:
Mandarin Oriental Tokyo
Located in the heart of the city, the hotel is a short distance away from attractions such as the Imperial Palace and directly connected to the Mitsukoshimae subway station as well as JR Shin-Nihonbashi station. You’ll find all the family amenities you would expect from the Mandarin – cribs, high chairs, babysitting services, etc – and the concierge can solve just about any issue you might have with making reservations or planning days out. Little foodies will have a blast exploring the underground food hall of the Mitsukoshi department store which is a great place to grab gifts for your Hong Kong foodie friends!
Address: 2-1-1 Nihonbashi Muromachi, Chuo, Tokyo, 103-8328
東京都 中央区 日本橋室町2-1-1 東京, 103-8328
Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo
Its location, service and spacious rooms make the Four Seasons a popular extravagant choice for families. Located 5 minutes away from Tokyo Station and the shopping mecca of Ginza, the hotel boasts some of the friendliest staff in town who are always on hand to help and provide recommendations, make bookings and give directions. For those opting to visit Tokyo Disneyland, the seamless switch from Tokyo Station to Tokyo Disney Resort Line couldn’t be easier
Address: Chiyoda-ku Pacific Century Place Marunouchi 1-11-1 Marunouchi Tokyo, 100-6277
東京都 千代田区 丸の内１丁目11-1, パシフィックセンチュリー, プレイス丸の内
Where to Tour:
We were fortunate enough to visit the National Gardens during Cherry Blossom season (late March to early April). Unfortunately, that meant it was the height of tourist season as well! Despite the crowds, the serene and spacious gardens covering 144 acres and located in the heart of the bustling metropolis was one of our favourite places of the whole trip.
It’s hard not to feel relaxed as you wander round this beautiful environment, even with two toddlers in tow! The girls had a blast running and crawling around the lawns and there are countless spots to unfurl the “leisure mat” (a simple tarp – available at most convenience stores) and have an impromptu picnic. Don’t miss the lovely conservatory! There is an entrance fee of ¥200 for adults.
Address: 11 Naito-machi, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 160-0014
Where to Play:
Tokyo Toy Museum
Housed in a converted elementary school, this hands-on experiential museum is filled with (mostly) wooden toys from down the ages. They kids will have hours of entertainment wandering the different rooms and playing with over 10,000 retro toys from around the world. There is also a dedicated baby room for kids 0-2 years old, nursing & changing facilities as well as a small outdoor playground. Tickets are priced at ¥800 for adults and ¥500 for kids 3 and above. Suitable for all ages.
Address: Yotsuya Hiroba, 4-20 Yotsuya, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo,160-0004
東京都新宿区四谷4-20 東京おもちゃ美術館内 160-0004
Where to Eat:
For families with little kids, this is a fantastic restaurant to have a stress-free meal! Emphasising healthy, seasonal food, the relaxing environment features soft padded cushions and wide couches, perfect for babies to lie down or crawl around. You can also bring your own baby food, and make use of their baby changing and nursing facilities.
Address: 1-34-17 Ebisu-Nishi, Za House Bldg 2F, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-0021
東京都渋谷区 恵比寿西１丁目３４−１７ Za House ビル2F 150-0021
Hop on the Shinkansen from Tokyo and 3 hours later you’ll arrive in the “City of Ten Thousand Shrines”. Kyoto was by far our favourite stop of the Japan tour. We were taken by the ancient imperial capital and its stunning and serene historic districts. For an authentic Japanese experience, stay at a Ryokan (Japanese guest house) – they serve delicious kaiseiki cuisine in your room and there is usually an “onsen” hot spring as well.
Where to Stay:
A beautiful foreigner-friendly ryokan serving excellent food in the heart of Gion, the kids will have a great time with the futon-style bedding and a onsen bath house experience! A bit on the pricey side, but the location can’t be beat with the station a short 10 minute away.
Address: 505 Gion-machi minami-gawa, Higashiyama-ku
Alternatively, there are tons of great options on Airbnb. You can rent a townhouse in a historic district to get a local experience but be mindful that there are typically steep stairs in these townhouses which can be unsafe for little ones.
Where to Tour:
Get a Kimono!
For an adorable family dress up opportunity (Christmas card material), rent a Kimono to walk around the town and temples! We rented ours from Yumeyakata, but there are many rental businesses around Kyoto, check out this post for more options. Looking for a photographer to capture the moments? Check out Wandersnap for locals to take your family portraits.
Take a walk through the famous bamboo forests, and visit the stunning Tenryuji Temple. A short walk away from the temple was an incredible tofu restaurant, Sagano Yudouhu (嵯峨野豆腐), recommended by a local friend. The tranquil garden that housed the restaurant provided a beautiful backdrop and they have a fully kitted out nursing and changing room, including diapers, wipes and a hot water machine! They only serve 1 set menu and everything was delicious. Even my husband, who’s not a fan of tofu loved everything. Take a stroll after lunch along the riverside and grab coffee at % Arabica Arashiyama to fuel up.
Fushimi Inari Taisha
Although not very baby friendly, seeing the thousands of vermilion torii (Shinto shrine gates) was one of the most memorable sights of the trip. There are many, many, many steps! We ended up stashing the stroller by the bushes on the side of the stairs and using the carrier to walk up through the famed red gates. The little ones will have fun checking out the vendors and eating street food along the way!
From Kyoto, hop onto the Shinkansen to Osaka, a quick 14-minute ride away. Whether you’re visiting for Universal Studios, Dotonburi Arcade or the city’s famed shopping districts, Osaka’s vibrance makes for a fun filled few days. If you don’t fancy returning to Tokyo on the Shinkansen you can also fly directly back to Hong Kong from Osaka.
Where to Stay:
Osaka Marriott Miyako Hotel
This hotel is housed in the tallest building in Japan and offers breathtaking views of Osaka in comfy, spacious rooms. Conveniently located with direct access to the Tennoji Station, you’ll find everything you would expect from a Marriott. The excellent concierge team are sure to make your stay with kids as comfortable and easy as possible. The hotel is in the same building as Kintetsu Department store, so there are tons of shopping and dining options, including a great supermarket located minutes away.
Address: 1-1-43 Abenosuji, Abeno-ku, Osaka 545-0052, Osaka Prefecture
Where to Play:
One of the top attractions for kids in Osaka is Kids Plaza. And it lived up to its reputation. The plaza is filled with interactive games and exhibitions, as well as a multi-story indoor playground with massive slides. The educational museum has a science corner and role play activities which can keep the kiddos occupied for hours! There is also a huge playground in the park besides the building which a great place for some late afternoon outdoor play before dinner. There is no restaurant inside the plaza, but you can bring your own food in or go across the street to Freshness Burger for a quick bite.
Address: 2-1-7 Ogimachi, Kita-ku, Osaka 530-0025
Where to Eat:
Located in the heart of Minami District, this is a sensory experience for the whole family. The kids will be fascinated by all the lights and sights, as well as the delicious treats available as you stroll through the arcade. Osaka is known as a foodie’s paradise and the famed street food includes our girls three favourites: takoyaki – battered octopus fritters and okonomiyaki – savoury pancakes filled with just about anything, and yakisoba – fried noodles! As a popular tourist destination, most of the restaurants here will have English-menus and high chairs available.
Day trips from Osaka:
Hiroshima and Miyajima
Although Hiroshima is steeped in a tragic past and our little ones were too young to understand its significance, the memorial park and museum were both deeply impactful experiences for us.
After visiting the memorial grounds in the morning, we crossed the bridge near the iconic atomic dome for lunch and then hopped on the ferry to Miyajima island, famed for its deer, temple and giant “floating” torii in the ocean. We visited at low tide so we didn’t get the full floating effect, but the flip side was that we could walk down on the sand all the way out the gate which gave us an up-close-and-personal experience of the truly massive gate. There are many snack-addicted deers roaming around the island so watch your pockets and bags!
Hiroshima is around 2 hours from Osaka on the shinkansen, and Miyajima is approx 45 min from the Peace Memorial Park by ferry. On the way back you can use your JR pass to take the ferry from Miyajima’s main terminal followed by a JR train back to the main station. Warning: doing both Hiroshima AND Miyajima in one day is no joke. You need to leave Osaka as early as possible to ensure enough time to do everything and don’t expect to be back until after dinner (we ate ours on the Shinkansen after picking up some bento boxes at the station).
When to Visit Japan
Although each of Japan’s seasons are beautiful in its own ways, the best times to visit Japan are between March and May for the beautiful cherry blossom season and September to November in the Fall for the vibrant autumn foliage when the climate is mild with little rainfall.
Keep in mind it can get extremely crowded during the cherry blossom season and beware of Golden Week crowds (a week long Japanese holiday comprised of Showa Day, Constitution Memorial Day, Greenery Day and Children’s Day).
Key Dates to keep in Mind:
- January 1 – New Year’s Day (Ganjitsu)
- The second Monday in January – Adult’s Day (Seijin-no hi)
- February 11 – National Founding Day (Kenkoku Kinen-no hi)
- March 20 or 21 – Vernal Equinox (Shunbun-no hi)
- April 29 – Showa Day (Showa-no hi)
- May 3 – Constitution Memorial Day (Kenpou Kinenbi)
- May 4 – Greenery Day (Midori-no hi)
- May 5 – Children’s Day (Kodomo-no hi)
- The third Monday in July – Marine Day or Ocean Day (Umi-no hi)
- August 11 – Mountain Day (Yama-no hi)
- The third Monday in September – Respect-for-the-Aged Day (Keirou-no hi)
- September 23 or 24 – Autumnal Equinox (Shuubun-no hi)
- The second Monday in October – Health/Sports Day (Taiiku-no hi)
- November 3 – Culture Day (Bunka-no hi)
- November 23 – Labor Thanksgiving Day (Kinrou Kansha-no hi)
- December 23 – Emperor’s Birthday (Tennou Tanjoubi)
How to Get There
There are multiple daily direct flights to Tokyo via Cathay, HK Airlines, JAL, Dragonair, ANA and Hong Kong Express – the journey will take you approximately 4 hours.
- おはようございます ohayou gozaimasu – Good morning!
- こんにちは konnichiwa – Hello / Good afternoon!
- 久しぶり hisashiburi – It’s been a while.
- じゃあまた jaa mata – See you!
- お元気で o genki de – Take care.
- お名前は何ですか？ o namae wa nan desu ka – What’s your name?
- …です …desu – I’m…
- 好きです suki desu – I like it.
- いいですよ ii desu yo – It’s good.
- ダメです dame desu – It’s no good.
- 日本語で話しましょう nihongo de hanashimashou – Let’s talk in Japanese.
- もう一度言ってください mou ichidou itte kudasai – Please say it again.
- お腹が空いています onaka ga suite imasu – I’m hungry.
- まだ食べていません mada tabete imasen – I haven’t eaten yet.
- メニュー、お願いします menyuu, onegaishimasu – Please bring me a menu.
- メニュー、お願いできますか？menyuu, onegai dekimasu ka – May I have the menu?
- それは何ですか？ sore wa nan desu ka – What’s that?
- これを食べてみたいです kore o tabete mitai desu – I’d like to try this.
- …をください …o kudasai – I’d like…
- …がありますか？…ga arimasu ka – Do you have…?
- …付きですか？ …tsuki desu ka – Does it come with…?
- …が食べられません …ga taberaremasen – I can’t eat…
- …アレルギーがあります …arerugii ga arimasu – I’m allergic to…
- おいしいです oishii desu – It’s delicious!
- まずいですmazui desu – It’s terrible.
- お腹が一杯です onaka ga ippai desu – I’m full.
- お勘定/お会計、お願いします okanjou/okaikei, onegaishimasu – Check, please.
- いただきます itadakimasu – Let’s dig in!
- ごちそうさまでした gochisousama deshita – Thanks for the meal.
- いらっしゃいませ irasshaimase – Welcome.
- これは何ですか？kore wa nan desu ka – What is this?
- これは何というものですか？kore wa nan to iu mono desu ka – What’s this called?
- これはいくらですか？kore wa ikura desu ka – How much is this?
- …がありますか？ …ga arimasu ka – Do you have…?
- ちょっと (高い) です chotto (takai) desu – It’s a bit (expensive).
- 他の色がありますか？ hoka no iro ga arimasu ka – Do you have another color?
- それを頂きます sore o itadakimasu – I’ll take it.
- クレジットカードは使えますか？ kurejitto kaado wa tsukaemasu ka – Can I use my credit card?
- 包んでいただけますか？tsutsunde itadakemasu ka – Can I have it gift wrapped?
Last but not least, enjoy your travels and make the most of everything Japan has to offer!