Japan – preparations

Travelling (with kids) in Japan

Konnichiwa – こんにちは

We love Japan! Lately, we have been getting quite a lot of questions about traveling in Japan, especially with children. How do you organize it? Can you make yourself understood? Is it necessary to travel by train? How easy is a self-drive?

It is quite easy to travel in Japan, and it is not complicated to do so with children, even when they are very little. Our first visit was in 2008, a backpacking trip, when it was just the two of us. In 2014 we visited Japan for over three weeks with our little ones, aged 1 and 4. We went back again in 2023, this time with two teenagers. And we are planning another long visit in the summer of 2024. Below we will share some tips and tricks for a trip to Japan. It is a very special country to travel to with kids, highly recommended. It is super organized and the people are very friendly and patient.

Accommodation

It is wise to book your accommodations in advance. We feel the Japanese generally do not like surprises, so you will make your trip a little more relaxing by booking in advance. You can book accommodations perfectly fine by using websites like booking, agoda, japanican and airbnb. We usually book a mix of western hotels, minshuku’s (a guest house in people’s homes or a type of inn) and ryokans (traditional Japanese hotels). In the minshuku’s and ryokans you usually sleep on the floor, and in the Western hotels on regular beds. In the minshuku and ryokans we recommended to book half board, this way you really get your money’s worth. The food in minshuku and ryokans generally is fantastic.

Many hotels offer free accommodation to children under the age of three (sometimes even under the age of five) if they do not use their own bed. In that case, it makes sense to bring a Deryan tent, for example. By doing so, you can keep the cost down quite a bit.

On average a night in a hotel will cost us about €100 per night for two adults plus two small children, €120 – €150 for two adults plus two teenagers. That’s not too bad. If you search carefully, you can find minshuku’s or ryokans where you pay about €75 pp per night including half board – that includes a full Japanese breakfast and dinner. That’s a really good deal. The only downside is that you generally will have to book these at least four to six months in advance. The cheapest options tend to sell out quickly.

Ryokan and onsen

We think staying in a ryokan – a traditional Japanese guesthouse – is a must when traveling through Japan. It’s highly recommended! We have dedicated a separate page to this.

In a ryokan you can use the onsen, a communal bath with water from a geyser. An onsen often has a separate section for men and women, but sometimes it is a mixed affair. An outdoor pool is called a rotenburu. Often a ryokan has several indoor and outdoor pools. Before you go into the onsen, you need to wash yourself extensively from your head to your feet, sitting on a stool next to the bath. This really is very important. Japanese think it is truly gross if you enter an onsen without rinsing yourself off first. You should also make sure that you rinse off all the soap carefully before entering the water. Completely clean you then enter the big hot tub. To properly scrub yourself off, you are given an onsen towel. This towel is not supposed to touch the onsen water, so many Japanese put the towel on their heads when sitting in the bath.

Children are welcome in the onsen. That is, if they know how to behave. It is definitely not a splash pool, and submerging is certainly not done. We took our 1-year-old daughter to the onsen, she wasn’t potty-trained yet at the time. We thought it was an exciting venture, but the Japanese themselves didn’t seem to mind.

You can also go to an onsen without booking a night in a ryokan. Just bring your own towels and onsen towel. There will be lockers available for your stuff. In most ryokans, the onsen is a public bath roughly between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., after that it is for hotel guests only again.

Transportation – public transportation

Public transportation in Japan is very well organized and tremendously punctual. Especially between major cities there are good connections by train or bus – including the super-fast shinkansen. Most train lines are owned by Japan Rail (JR). If you plan to travel a lot by train, it might be useful to buy a JR rail pass. If you make several trips in one week, it is often cost-effective. When you buy the JR rail pass online, you will be sent a voucher, which you can exchange at your starting station for a real JR rail pass. At the stations you can then make seat reservations at the JR service desk. In recent years the JR rail pass has become a lot more expensive, so it is a good idea to calculate in advance whether buying single tickets locally might not be cheaper after all.

For other forms of public transportation, in the cities and also outside the cities, there are local subways, local trains and buses. To use these, the best thing to do is to buy an IC card. These are rechargeable cards that allow easy payment on public transport and can be used to pay at many vending machines, stores and restaurants. You do this by charging the card and touching the card to a reader for about one second per trip. Each area has its own card, but you can usually use these cards in more than one area. For example, we bought an IC card in Kansai (for Kyoto and Osaka), and were able to use it in Tokyo as well. There are some rules around IC cards, which are listed here. You can buy the cards at machines at train stations. These machines will have an English menu.

Transportation – rental car

We are a big fan of self-drives. We almost always find this a better option than taking public transportation. Traveling by yourself with a rental car works very well in Japan, especially if you avoid the center of big cities like Osaka and Tokyo. Driving in Japan is perfectly fine. Nothing to worry about. Japanese generally drive like senior citizens and obey traffic rules very well. Signage is generally pretty clear and partly in roman lettering.

When you have small children, it is also a lot more relaxing to travel by rental car than by train. The train network may be great, but in the train stations there will be lots of long walks, stairs and escalators, and an elevator will not always be close by. When traveling with a baby carriage and lots of suitcases, this can pretty quickly become a major headache.

It’s pretty easy to rent a car online. These cars generally come with an English-language GPS (which you operate by phone numbers and zip codes). You dont really need the GPS though, google maps also works very well in Japan. Car rental prices aren’t too bad, either. Do bring your credit card and international driver’s license, or you won’t be able to pick up the car.

Toll roads

Japan has a lot of toll roads. These are mostly convenient and fast roads, but they are more boring in terms of landscape. 1 to 2 hours driving on a toll road generally costs about €10. The toll road system is very simple. Your rental car will have an electric toll system box (ETC box) or not, you need to check this with the car rental company. Our rental cars did not have one, and we have the impression that not many rental cars have such a box. Without an ETC box, when you enter the toll lane, you choose the lane with the green dot and green signs. You grab a ticket, and when you exit the toll lane again, you pay for the ticket (cash being the most convenient option). It is mostly an unmanned system. Very occasionally you will have entrance and exit ramps that you can only use if your car has an ETC box (blue signs). Pay attention to that, you cannot use these if your rental car does not have an ETC box.

It is possible to indicate on google maps that you want to avoid toll roads. Sometimes the toll road is only a little bit faster, but a lot more expensive. It is always wise to check this before you start your drive for the day.

Sim card

Having a data bundle during your trip is immensely useful. That way you can navigate on google maps. There are several ways to arrange a data bundle. An e-sim is the most convenient and the cheapest way. Your phone must be e-sim ready to use this option. Without e-sim, the cheapest way probably is a local sim card or an international data bundle from your own provider. We bought one for 2GB, it was enough for us to use google maps for 2 weeks and browse through several sites per day.

Money

Cash – especially outside the cities – is still king in many places in Japan, so it’s handy to make sure you always have enough cash with you. Paying by credit card is perfectly fine, but it is by no means possible in all restaurants and hotels. Also, local markets and small stores sometimes only cash is accepted.
Withdrawing money with your debit card can be done in many places, so there is no need to bring yen with you. The most convenient places to withdraw money are banks, 7-elevens and Family marts. There are many of those in Japan. We also hear that people pay with Revolut or Apple Pay, but we ourselves do not find that the most convenient method. It might be useful though if you don’t have a debit card.

The language

Don’t expect to get by with English in Japan. You’ll have to be patient and a bit creative. In the hotels you will sometimes find people at the front desk who can still speak English, but most people speak little or no English. However, with a few words of Japanese and the google translate-app you will come a long way. The motto is: be very patient, listen well, keep smiling and don’t get angry. Then, it will basically always work out fine.

Want to read more?

You can find info on staying in a ryokan here. A travel blog of our trip last trip can be found here.