Japan was long on my list but somehow we never got the chance till this May to jump on a flight to Tokyo. As we traveled with our 18-month year old baby, this trip required a bit more preparation in terms of advance booking of accommodation and itinerary setting. I do plenty of research before almost every trip (to make sure I do get my pick of the nice hotels at affordable prices and book ahead any sights to avoid long queues) but for the trips with the baby, it moves to the next level – control freak level that is!
This trip will be split into at least two different posts as the information is very fresh in my mind and I will probably dwell on the details more than usual. Also, if you plan to take this trip with a toddler (like us), I guess the more info the better. Please note however, we did not choose the itinerary or accommodation to suit the baby but rather tried to ease the baby into our travel pace. Therefore, no all inclusive, baby clubs or private transfer for us.
Some information I wised I had before leaving:
- Your hotel in Tokyo and Kyoto might have trouble finding a baby cot/bed for your toddler. Some do offer baby cots for under 12 months old babies but do not recommend it for toddlers. Most Ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) will not have one available. We traveled with a Phil&Teds Travel Bed and I am very glad we did. We could set it up in no time and it took little space (you will appreciate this particularly in Tokyo). You can check it in or take it as hand luggage as it is very compact. We put the bed in a large Osprey backpack as we already had three pieces of hand luggage.
- You will find baby food in Japan (in big cities and drug stores rather than super markets) but in our experience the tastes are not so easy to get used to. Except or some simple veggie/fruit purees, our son was not too keen on the food and ended up eating a lot of plain rice and bread. Unless you book a flat and can cook your own food, get some baby food jars to last you for about 5-6 days. We had 6 jars with us and once finished, we wished we had more. Fruits purees are easier to find easier than veggies.
- Check your bullet train Pass not only for name but also that the duration is correct- If you plan to travel in Japan a bit, you will buy a Rail Pass Voucher for high speed trains. It can only be bought outside Japan, from authorized travel agents. Upon buying ours (children up to 6 years travel free), I checked that the names were spelled like in the passport but did not notice the duration. Upon arrival in Japan, when going to the train station to exchange the voucher for the actual train pass, I noticed the duration was 7 days instead of 14. It took more than an hour and several phone calls to solve this in Japan.
The itinerary we decided for alternated between the city and mountain villages. We flew into Narita, spent 4 nights in Tokyo, took the train to Takayama in the Japanese Alps and spent two nights. We then took the train to Kyoto and spent 5 nights there. From Kyoto we went for an Onsen (Japanese hot baths) experience at Kinosaki-onsen (3 nights). We then returned to Tokyo for another 4 nights and flew out. Looking back, the only change I would make is to limit the stay in Kinosaki-onsen to 2 nights and add one to Tokyo.
Once you arrive at Narita, transfers are pretty straight forward. We took a Limo Bus (there are several terminals with busses covering each Tokyo neighborhood) that dropped us in front of the hotel. You can count about 1h 30 min for the transfer.
Tokyo is huge and confusing even for the most seasoned traveler as it is built on the vertical as much as on the horizontal. We used to joke with Mr CTT that is the size of Berlin, New York and Paris put on top of each other. A map will do little to help, especially in the beginning. For example, even if something is located on the other side of the street, you might still spend 10-15 min to reach that point via a sky walk or an undergrownd passage.
We spent our first 4 days in Ginza – the business heart of Tokyo. We choose this neighbourhood as a base for its vicinity with the Fish Market which is a must visit and must eat (fresh fish makes for amazing ‘melt-in-your-mouth’ sushis). The Fish Market is set to move outside the city, in preparation for the 2020 Olympics so it should be high on your list. We stayed at the Park Hotel Shiodome (Shiodome after the Metro station under the hotel) that has great Ginza views from the bar. Once we figured out the right elevator, we could reach the metro station directly from our hotel lobby.
Ginza is well connected to the Central Station and from there you can reach almost every part of the city by the extended subway network. We travelled a lot by Subway which is well fitted with elevators for stroller access. However, Try to avoid rush hour in the evening. We were squezzed sardine style on the Tokaydo line, baby in the stroller, and it is an experince I would not be too keen in repeating.
We spend the first 2 days in Tokyo recovering from jet lag, visiting the Fish Market and the Hamarikyu Gardens (located close to each other). We also took a couple of hours to walk the Ginza shopping street and its paralell streets, full of neon lights (at night) and high end stores.
In the same area (walking distance from Shiodome metro station) you can visit the Zojo-Ji Temple and the Tokyo Tower. The temple has a an extensive pebbled park around it (Shiba Park) which might be a bit difficult to navigate if you are with a stroller. If your kid is older, it provides a nice opportunity to look at birds, statues and play with the pebbles.
The third day we ventured out into Asakusa neighborhood to visit the Tokyo Edo Musem. If you do one museum in Tokyo, let it be this one. Fun for all ages, it really puts things in perspective as regards the rich cultural heritage of Tokyo and Japan. From there, it is still a 30 min stroll to Senso-Ji, the largest and most photogenic temple in Tokyo. The main road leading up to the temple is full with good value souvenir shops. On a Sunday, you will most likely stumble upon a local festival or gathering involving music, people in costumes and plenty of action! Asakusa is the neighborhood that best embodies the traditional Japan. In the same neighborhood, you can walk to the Tokyo Sky Tree and the Asahi Brewery Headquarters. If the temperatures are high, rest and enjoy a local tap beer at the ground floor of the Asahi modern building. There is German-inspired Brauhaus hidden behind the golden glass even if this is not obvious from the street.
At the end of our Japan tour, we went back to Tokyo for 4 nights but choose to be based in Shibuya rather than return to Ginza. The distances are so big that it was better for us to change location in order to have easier access to to the Western neighbourhoods of Shibuya, Shinjuku and the more ‘human size’ area of Aoyama.
The next stop in our trip was Takayama, in the Japanese Alps. To reach it, we took a shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagoya and then changed trains for a local train to Takayama. Travel time of about 3h in total. In Nagoya, we picked up a Bento box with local pork cutlets for lunch that proved more tasty that the look from the box. All train stations (even local ones) have a latin alphabet translation of their name. This came in handy for local trains to more remote locations as the indications of the conductor were only given in Japanese.
Takayama has a beautifully preserved city center and is well known for its sake breweries and tasty Hida beef ( same breed as Kobe but not from the Kobe region). The tourist info point is located in front of the train station as they have maps in English. We easily found the way to our Ryokan.
The next day, we headed for the morning market, on the river banks. If you are after traditional pickled food veggies or other souvenirs, this is a great place to shop. We then headed to the old city center and went for a sake tasting. I was not a sake fan before but once I gave it a chance (actually about 12 chances, as there were as many varieties of sake produced by the brewery) it started to grow on me.
After criss-crossing the city center a couple of times, we stopped for a short performance of Karakuri wooden puppet theater. Here you can see the mechanical karakuri ningyō in action. The toddler was not too impressed but plenty of local children were very excited about what was going on on the stage. On the same premises there is small museum of traditional lion masks. We finished the sightseeing day with a trip to the temples on the hills above the city.
A great memory from Takayma, beyond of the great historical center, was our Ryokan: Asunaro. They were so welcoming and going the extra mile to make sure we have everything we need in the room for the baby (including a diaper bin). The kaiseki dinner prepared by them was delicious. They kept brining out all this great fish and beef… tasty and beautifully presented. It looked like a work of art!
To be continued …..