Friends told us two lies before we traveled to Japan. The first, that the Japanese would embrace our yell-talking space-invading children with open arms. The second, that we had no business taking our toddler and three-year-old for even low-end sushi let alone to the country of Japan. The truth lies somewhere in between, sleeping on a boulder under a cherry blossom tree just outside of Tokyo.
It took some effort to get there: an hour in shoulder-to-shoulder public transportation, a marital spat about directions, two desperate stops for juice boxes and then bathrooms. Somehow we made it. Our son awoke, slid down from his improvised rock bed, and looked up to see the towering and serene Great Buddha of Kamakura. “Wow!” he said. He had yet to notice the Buddha, but rather followed the cherry blossoms blowing gently in the wind. Our son remained in this magical state of awe for the more than two weeks we spent visiting just a few of the marvels of Japan.
We broke our sixteen-day itinerary into three parts: greater Tokyo, Hokkaido, and finally, back to Tokyo for a visit to Disneyland (in a sense a country and culture all its own). We suspected Tokyo, the planet’s most populated city, would be our greatest challenge with kids. Tokyo’s size is matched only by its diverse offerings. We needed to pace ourselves and honed our itinerary to fit our tried and true formula: do one big cultural thing a day and complement it with outdoor time and plenty of street food. Napping would be our children’s moveable feast, encouraged but not limited to cozy corners in coffee shops where we could plan and simultaneously caffeinate.
During our five days in Tokyo we covered a lot of ground on foot and on public transportation (this meant we roasted all our Weekly FitBit challengers). Within Tokyo, we visited LEGOLAND, Skytree, Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, and the Ueno Zoo. At LEGOLAND Discovery Center Tokyo there were, as you might have guessed, a lot of LEGOs, adults screaming into megaphones, and indoor mechanical rides. Like all indoor play spaces you could consider the experience either a parent’s saving grace (the kids can be crazy and stay safe!) or your worst sensory nightmare. Having arrived on a red-eye flight roughly ten hours before our hotel check in, LEGOLAND was decidedly our saving grace, although our eyes twitched for a while after the spasmodic 4D medieval battle show.
Tokyo Skytree offered a 360-degree panorama of the immensity, density, and beauty of the mega-city. I will never forget looking out on the metropolis and thinking how tiny all those skyscrapers appeared from atop the world’s tallest tower. It was not unlike the experience the day before standing over the vast cities constructed entirely of LEGOs, except I felt insignificant above the very real city below me (in both cases, for the record, my daughter gurgled from her Bjorn carrier on my chest).
Although somewhat dated, the Ueno Zoo etched itself beautifully upon my memories of Tokyo. We met “RiRi,” the zoo’s panda, which my son had to have in stuffed animal form. Our cuddly “RiRi” became a permanent fixture traveling alongside my son the rest of our trip. The moment we left the zoo, it promptly started to rain. Prepared, we all put on our slickers and dashed through the Tokyo streets together. It is one of my happiest among many family travel memories, all of us drenched and huddled beneath a shop awning waiting for the rain to subside so we could find our way to the train again to get to our “hotel home.”
If you asked my son about his time in Tokyo, he would likely recall very different episodes from the same trip. He loves to observe nature and people, particularly oddities of the two. Walking along the ocean in Odaiba he marveled at the posh Japanese shoppers pushing tiny dogs in strollers. He briefly noticed the historic guesthouse overlooking a pond at the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden but delighted in the dozens of Koi bobbing to the surface of a nearby pond in search of food. A little Japanese boy his age reached his arm out to the Koi, while his doting grandfather offered his few words of English to greet and welcome us.
You miss many experiences when you travel with kids. We do not take in much art, nightlife ends shortly after early dinners, and fine dining is defined by how little our children disrupt the meal, but being a parent opens entirely new cultural doors to unique points of connection. Our children slow our pace; they help us see all we would miss with noses tucked in top ten lists and TripAdvisor reviews. Like that time when Trevor, the clunky robot concierge in our hotel stretched out his arms to our son offering a hug and the only song he knew in English, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
Some powerful travel moments imprinted on our collective memory, like traversing the Shibuya Crossing, the world’s busiest intersection, one night. The experience of weaving through the controlled mass of thousands of pedestrians jostling for position felt like a brief but profound pop culture pilgrimage. My husband held my son on his shoulders so he could take photos of the sea of people below, including: Japanese businesspeople, students, babies and dogs peeking out of baby carriers, tourists, and a crew filming a boy band donning cartoonishly large bow ties and pastel suits.
Tokyo was loud. Just a casual stroll overloaded our senses for many lifetimes (like, LEGOLAND on jetlag times ten and that’s saying a lot). Beyond the neon lights and colorful fashion and Hello Kitty roadblocks, vans rolled past with people yelling something political through loud speakers, motorcycles roared, shopkeepers calling and calling and calling “Irasshaimase!” Although many Japanese customs and traditions prize silence, our Tokyo experience was anything but quiet…except for the trains.
The trains, packed wall-to-wall with hundreds of people, were remarkably quiet. You could hear the old lady in the next car fumbling for something in her purse. The Japanese also seemed to have a defined sense of personal space, a bubble rarely permeated no matter how crammed the space, that exceeded even its American counterpart. Tokyo was loud, but profoundly quiet in the most unexpected ways, as if offering a reprieve from the inescapable reality of people stacked on top of people.
I would like to say my children recognized these cultural differences and acted accordingly, but that was not the case. Often theirs was the only voice heard on a packed Tokyo train during an extra busy morning commute. When my son accidentally brushed shoulders with a young businessman, the man let out an audible sigh and hugged his briefcase tightly to his chest, but that was the extent of the negative reaction to our children. Tokyo is a cosmopolitan city, after all, and the Japanese are accustomed to visitors.
My husband and I have lived in a lot of cultures that were described as “family friendly,” but I have never heard Japan described that way. Yet, it’s remarkably well suited to family travel with young kids. While somewhat challenging to navigate, and yes there is a ton of walking involved (which explains the foot massage machine in our hotel room), there are parent facilities available everywhere for diapering and nursing. Our hotel room offered a miniature hygiene kit specifically for our children. Honestly, just travel to Japan for those! So cute! While American moms might pride themselves on their ability to button their jeans one-handed with a baby on their hip (or maybe this is just me?), bathroom stalls in Japan include a little safety seat to place a toddler while the parent uses the toilet.
Beyond all the bells and whistles, tiny toothbrushes, and sensible bathroom facilities, we reveled in the warmth of the Japanese with our children. Young people wanted to take pictures with our toddlers, older folks played peek-a-boo with them on the train, one rowdy teenager even offered a skateboard trick to delight my restless son. In the cultural serenity of Japan, so different from the United States, it felt surprising, disarming even, to feel completely out of place and yet so simultaneously welcome.
While travel is only partly about the traveler’s experiences, more importantly, we observed many unforgettable details about this fastidious island nation. I treasure my memories of the special pride the Japanese took in their work, from wrapping a package of stationary to making a cappuccino look like a work of art. And herein lies the beauty of traveling to Japan with kids, that level of excellence and sophistication is within reach for everyone, even parents. It can be found in so many places, from nameless street food stalls and the smallest of shops to the high-end sushi spots and the glitziest urban shopping centers. And when you show your children a culture that, among many other things, takes that level of pride in everyday acts, you give even the mundane special meaning. And that is a lesson from which we can all benefit.