'I just took my 3 kids to Japan. Here's what I wish I knew before we left.'

My husband and I just returned from two weeks in Japan with our three children aged nine, six and almost two years old. Though we travelled a lot when we were in our 20s, this was the first time we'd been overseas since having kids. 

Needless to say, we didn't know what to expect, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous about a lot of stress, tantrums and sleepless nights. 

What we experienced however, couldn't have been further from that. In fact, it was actually the best two weeks of our lives.

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Like any big trip overseas with kids it required a great deal of research and planning, which was made a lot easier by joining Japan travel Facebook groups. Which is my first tip to anyone travelling to Japan - find a group so that you can ask real people about their experiences! 

I am also a celiac which was really tricky as gluten is in pretty much everything in Japan. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I literally would not have been able to eat if it wasn't for the helpful celiac Japan travel group that I found.


Beyond the Facebook groups, there were lots of things throughout the trip that I think everyone (especially parents) should know about before they go.


As someone who has travelled quite a bit, I've seen my fair share of disgusting toilets, so this was a concern of mine, especially travelling with fussy children who need a toilet break every 10 minutes. 

Thankfully, toilets were not something we had to worry about as they were EVERYWHERE and impeccably clean. I'm talking train station bathrooms with light-up mirrors and seat warmers, even the public toilets in parks were cleaner than the ones you find in Westfield. 

They also have one of the coolest things I've ever seen; a built-in toddler seat attached to the wall so that you can go to the toilet in peace, or without a two-year-old trying to wipe your bum as mine does. 


A random one but this is something we learned pretty quickly - there are no bins anywhere! And if there are, they are impossible to find. For this reason, I recommend taking a plastic bag out with you to collect your rubbish throughout the day.


We had a JR Rail Pass which I highly recommend to people who intend to see a lot of sights in different cities. We stayed in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka and were able to use that JR Pass everywhere, it even covers the Bullet Train. 

There were only a few places in Kyoto and Osaka that were difficult to get to on the JR lines, so we had to use the metro which was cheap and easy to navigate, anyway. The train stations are hard to navigate at first but like everything once you work them out, they are quite easy. The staff throughout the stations are also incredibly helpful, whether you find someone who works for JR Rail or not, they will point you in the right direction. 


Another tip for the trains, if you are taking a pram (which we will get to) there are special train carriages with extra room so look out for the kids and pram signs on the floor in front of each carriage.

Me with the kids on a train in Tokyo. Image: Supplied.



If you have a toddler and are wondering if you should take a pram my answer would be yes! Once we decided we were going to take a pram, I did a great deal of research into what the best option would be. There are great strollers available that are specifically designed to travel like The Karion Travel Stroller which retails for $399 and the Pixi Travel Stroller which is $449.99. 

However, in the end I decided to go with the Compact Stroller from Kmart for $179 and I could not have been happier with my choice. It folded up so small; it was lightweight and easy to steer. 

If I'm being honest, my son only went in it a few times in the two weeks, but it was great for carrying drink bottles, raincoats, and backpacks and for the very few times he fell asleep.

Be prepared to carry your pram up and down a lot of stairs! Image: Supplied.


If you are taking a pram and intend to use the trains, be prepared to carry it up and down A LOT of stairs. In most stations there are elevators available however, they are often hard to find and very far away from where you are trying to go. We got very good at pushing it up and down escalators as well. 


Combini in Japan are like convenience stores but a million times better!

They have the most delicious selection of really good, fresh food. 

I don't know about you, but I would not take my chances on 7 Eleven sushi at 11pm on a Thursday night here in Australia. However, the sushi (and everything) in the 7 Elevens and other chains such as Lawson and Family Mart is cheap, fresh and honestly better than most of the sushi I've had anywhere else in the world.

If you have allergies, I highly recommend doing a lot of research and utilising Google Translate for every label. Some things that you would assume don't have things alleged in them like at home, often do and the best way to decipher that is by translating the label with your phone. I have a number of allergies and by doing this I managed to avoid getting sick the whole time. 


There are also restaurants like Kura Sushi that have English allergen menus which is a great safe option.


I was incredibly happy with all the attractions we visited in Japan. In Kyoto we visited the Nishiki Markets, the Kyoto tower, the Bamboo Forest, and the Arashiyama Monkey Park Iwatayama. If you are visiting the monkey park, be prepared to walk up a 160m elevation. It is worth it though if your kids like monkeys and the view is incredible. 

In Osaka, we visited the Osaka Castle and explored all the surrounding attractions; it was amazing! If you plan on visiting, I would recommend buying tickets in advance as we waited in line for about 45 minutes.

In front of the Osaka Castle. Image: Supplied.


We also visited Dotonbori, it was electric! 

The neon lights, billboards and crazy restaurant mascots are a real feast for the eyes and the restaurant options are endless. If Dotonbori is on your list, I recommend visiting at night as it is nowhere near as vibrant during the day and getting there at least an hour before you plan to eat as the lines are huge and people begin queuing at 5pm. 

We ate at Kura Sushi because the restaurant we wanted to go to had a two-hour wait after a recent review from a Michelin Chef. We still waited an hour for our table but it was totally worth it.

Oscar and Magnolia at Dontonburi Bridge. Image: Supplied.


Tokyo was definitely the highlight for us. We were there for four days but will definitely extend that when we go back; we went to the Imperial Palace, Shibuya, Harajuku Takeshita Street, Shinjuku, and TeamLab. 

If you are travelling to Harajuku Takeshita Street with kids, you absolutely have to check out Totti Candy Factory where they have fairy floss bigger than your head!

Everywhere we went in Tokyo was amazing but my number one recommendation is TeamLab Planets. TeamLab is an immersive art experience, and I don't want to give anything away but it includes some of the most beautiful art installations you've ever seen as well as really fun interactive water experiences.


Image: Supplied.

And that's all I'll say because my family had no idea what to expect and they were blown away. We loved it so much that the second we left we booked the TeamLab Botanical Garden experience in Osaka which was a lot different but also stunning.

Disneyland and Universal Studios.

I've been saving Disneyland because it was unequivocally the best day of my life. I cannot foresee a day that will be better than that. 


Without talking it up too much, it's truly magical. I am not even a huge Disney fan, and neither are my kids but we just loved every part of it. As we visited in the off-season, in the summer, just as everyone had gone back to school the park wasn't too busy. We got to go on every ride, some even twice. 

We were also very pleasantly surprised by how affordable it all was; the food was much cheaper than you'd find at the theme-parks on the Gold Coast and the souvenirs were very reasonable. The kids were able to buy way more than they expected with their pocket money. We stayed from open to close and caught the train there and back which was really easy as it leaves from Tokyo station and drops you at the park entrance. 

My biggest tip would be to get there an hour early as the queue to get in was super long although it did move really fast. 

Definitely the Happiest Place on Earth. Image: Supplied.


On the second to last day of our trip, we visited Universal Studios in Osaka. It was a lot of fun, but very different to Disneyland. I would say it is more of an actual theme park experience, however the Harry Potter section and Nintendo world are absolutely surreal. They are both so realistic that you feel like you have entered the movie/game.

If you are a Harry Potter or Super Mario fan, then you cannot miss it. Unlike Disneyland, Universal is very expensive, from the tickets to the souvenirs to the food. The lines for everything are incredibly long - again we went in off-season and some of the ride lines were up to two hours long. 

We had purchased fast passes for four rides and times entry for Nintendo World (which you have to buy to enter) so thankfully we were able to skip some queues. We still had an amazing day, but it was very busy and we all got a bit tired and hangry after all the lines. I would recommend selecting the restaurant you want to eat at for lunch and dinner if needed and go as early as possible to get a ticket. I didn't know that a lot of the restaurants required tickets and we had to wait for two hours for a table at Kinopio's Cafe in Super Nintendo World.


My second biggest tip would be to make sure it's not 'Fright Night'. This was a big mistake that we made. At 6pm we were sitting outside of a diner having dinner when we heard actual chainsaws and the sound of grown adults screaming! It turns out the entire months of September and October are dedicated to Halloween. The poor kids were terrified, even I, someone who is obsessed with horror films, was genuinely scared of the zombies that were walking around. We took refuge in the Sesame Street and Harry Potter sections for the rest of the night.

My biggest tip for both parks is to hit the kids' sections first. At both Disney and Universal we made a B-Line for the kids' area and there were no lines at all. We got to go on every ride while everyone else was lining up for the big attractions. 

Do less and be prepared to change your plans.

I must admit we had a pretty full itinerary, often planning to visit two or more attractions in one day. After five days of walking 15kms each day and travelling on countless trains in 30 degrees heat our kids were wrecked. 

We decided from there to alter some of our plans, allowing for long breaks in air-conditioned Starbucks, a few less trains and more taxis late at night. 

We also spent one or two afternoons watching Bluey in the hotel room before dinner. This did mean we missed a few attractions, but it meant the kids had more energy to do the things that were really important. 


Be early, and be efficient, or be prepared to miss out!

Japan is the most efficient country I have ever visited.

I was so surprised with how smoothly everything ran from the trains to the rides at the theme parks. For the most part, everyone followed lines and rules and it was lovely. 

This efficiency, however, does mean that things run on time so if you are late, you will miss out. There's no running for a train there, they will leave at the exact time they say they will. For this reason, as well as learning how to navigate the system, we arrived at every train station at least 15 minutes early, even earlier for the Shinkansen train (bullet train) as you often have to book with an agent if the ticket machine says there are no available seats, which happened to us every time. There is so much to see at the stations through so time spent waiting is not wasted.

Baggage Configuration.

Now this might seem like I'm going into a bit too much detail, but this was something I went back and forth with so much in the lead up to the trip and I was really happy with the way it worked out.

We took two big suitcases and two small carry-on suitcases for the older kids (the baby shared mine) which we checked in. We also all carried a backpack each which we ended up pushing in the pram. There are two reasons this worked really well and why I feel the need to share. 

Firstly, while most of our travel was by trains, we caught taxis when we were carrying our luggage from the train station to the hotel to check in and vice versa. Taxis are quite expensive and there is one type of car that is very common and has a bubble boot, this type of taxi just fit all of our luggage and the pram which meant we didn't have to pay for two, which saved us a lot of money.


The second reason is because, getting on and off the trains happens very quickly, you literally only have seconds to get on and off, this and the fact that you have to navigate a lot of escalators means you are going to want to make this whole process as easy as humanly possible for yourself and your little ones. We are very fortunate to have two super independent kids who felt comfortable wheeling their luggage around stations filled with millions of people, timing the escalators, and jumping the gaps between the platforms and the trains but it was still a little challenging at times. The carriages are also crowded and there is not a lot of space for people let alone bags so the less you have the better. 

All in all, it was an incredible trip and I can't wait to go back one day and do it all again. 

Although we were so impressed with everything from the hotels to the service and the overall kindness we were shown, what we loved the most was how safe we felt. Japan's very low crime rate is evident. At no point did we second guess walking home late at night or jumping on a crowded train carriage. 

I think the best example is at the theme parks. The pram parking for the rides is at least 10 metres from each ride and everyone happily leaves their pram there, bag and all without a second thought. We felt so comfortable that in Universal we left our pram in the designated parking for two hours.


The trip of a lifetime! Image: Supplied.

Alex Whittington is a writer, producer and one of the hosts of the Bread and Better podcast. She has been published in Mamamia, PopMatters, Collider, Out & About With Kids, and more. She lives in Brisbane, Australia with her husband and three kids.

Feature Image: Supplied.

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