For many parents of young children, the words “overseas holiday” can induce cold sweats and a need to sit down with a glass of red. Long flights or delays, disturbed sleep, language barriers, tantrums – all can add undue stress to what should be a fulfilling experience. For these reasons and many more, Japan is an ideal family holiday destination, close enough to reach in less than a day, and with enough attractions to satisfy any child, big or small.
There are websites and travel guides covering every corner of Japan. Start with the all-encompassing japan-guide.com plus each region’s dedicated website. Even in winter, many attractions will be swarming with people that can make it difficult to navigate with children, so reviews by other travellers are handy.
Flights to the main Japanese centres from most major Australian airports take between nine and 11 hours. Our kids watched movies on the flight to Tokyo and slept soundly on the overnight flight back from Osaka, making both journeys tolerable. Airports such as Haneda and Narita in Tokyo and Kansai in Osaka are like mini-cities, satisfying any need before or after your flights.
For those on a budget, Airbnb is a great way to get exactly what you want, particularly if you’re looking to self-cater. Space is hard to come by, though, so unless you pay a premium you can often expect small apartments with cramped kitchens and bunk beds. For others, there are hotels for most budgets, either Western-style or ryokan (traditional inns), in every city and town, most with good facilities for children.
Few locations in Japan cannot be accessed by train. The Japan Rail (JR) network is expansive. If you’re planning many day trips, moving between cities by train, or wanting to use the shinkansen (bullet trains), the most economical option is a JR Pass, which must be purchased before you arrive in Japan.
Children under six travel free on most public transport, although you’ll often pay dearly if you want to reserve seats. While hiring a car may be handy, finding a convenient parking spot is usually difficult, particularly for little or no cost.
Travelling on subways with a stroller can be tricky, as many stations don’t have lifts or they’re not near where you need them. Some subway systems, however, have diagrams on platforms or in the trains indicating the location of stairs and lifts. Once you reach the concourse, detailed maps will direct you towards the nearest exit to your destination.
Food and drink
It’s no exaggeration that in most cities (and even small towns) there are vending machines about every 20 metres, most selling sweet or caffeinated beverages, and some offering ice creams or even two-minute noodles for hungry children.
If you’re after something a little more filling, convenience stores such as 7-Eleven and Family Mart are everywhere, with pre-cooked meals, fruit and vegetables (of varying quality), bread, snacks, and even beer and wine. Larger supermarkets can be difficult to find (although many are in main train stations), so do some homework if you don’t like the idea of racing around Fukuoka at midnight trying to buy nappies.
The Japanese seem obsessed with everything French, so you’ll find boulangeries in most cities, serving a variety of goods for breakfast or lunch. It’s also common for restaurants to have English menus and plastic replicas of meals in their front windows, so fussy kids can see exactly what they’re getting.
Many Japanese bathrooms are high-tech, with seat warmers and built-in bidets as standard. Nappy-change facilities are often in disabled toilets, or in dedicated rooms in the entrances to female toilets, with train stations or department stores being the most likely place to find them.
Most signs (street, subway, train etc) include English translations, making it easy to navigate. In supermarkets, however, you’ll rarely find English in many of the aisles (particularly meat, fruit and vegetable), so self-catering can be a bit of a gamble. Knowing even just a few words of Japanese will get you far, and the Japanese love hearing foreign children speaking their language (or trying to).
Story: Brendan Black
Published in RoyalAuto Nov 2016
TOP CHILD-FRIENDLY ATTRACTIONS
Thomas (the Tank Engine) Land, Fujiyoshida
Miraikan Museum, the Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo
Osaka Aquarium, Iwatayama Monkey Park and bamboo walk, Kyoto
Deer park and Todaiji Temple, Nara
Mount Sakurajima volcano and dinosaur park, Kagoshima
TOP PARENT-FRIENDLY ATTRACTIONS
Imperial Palace, Tokyo
Yamazaki whisky distillery, and Kinkaku-ji Temple, Kyoto
A-bomb Dome and Peace Memorial Museum, Hiroshima
Miyajima floating shrine, Hiroshima
Sake tasting, Saijo
Asahi brewery, Fukuoka
Battleship Island (Hashima), Nagasaki
The Hells hot springs, Beppu
If you plan to drive in Japan you will need an International Driving Permit, which gives local authorities and agencies such as police and car hire companies an official translation of your driver licence. In Victoria the permit is only available from RACV. Go to racv.com.au/travel and follow the Driving Overseas link for full details.