Last Updated on June 27, 2022 by Nellie Huang
Japan is a great family travel destination, with its neon streetscapes and kid-friendly amenities. This is my detailed guide to traveling Japan with kids.
There’s nowhere else like Japan. It is ultra modern yet traditional, and highly urbanized yet filled with nature. The multi-faceted country is truly unique in every sense of the word.
We’ve recently returned from a two-week trip to Japan with our 3.5-year-old daughter. This was our second trip to Japan, but a first for Kaleya. It turns out Kaleya is just as crazy about Japan as we are.
Japan is a great destination for kids. The country is home to psychedelic neon cities, bizarre themed cafes, and ancient towns. The great infrastructure in the country means it’s easy to get around and explore without worrying for your kids’ safety. For those planning to travel Japan with kids, I’m sharing details of our trip to help you plan your Japan family trip.
Japan with Kids
In general, traveling Japan with kids is easy and fun thanks to the great infrastructure and kid-friendly amenities. The whole country is organized, clean and efficient.
Ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) are great places to stay with kids. The tatami rooms have plenty of space for kids to run around. You get to all sleep on futons laid out on the floor, which is a fun experience for kids (though a back-breaking one for adults). Many ryokans have their own onsens (hot springs), which are super fun for both kids and adults alike.
Tokyo is an exception though: Many izakayas (bars) tend to be tiny and not suitable for kids. Most subway stations don’t have elevators, and the Tokyo subway is possibly the deepest underground subway I’ve ever seen. That said, almost everywhere else in Japan is easy and superb for travel with kids.
How to Get Travel Insurance for Kids
It’s important to have travel insurance for travel during the pandemic. Safety Wing is the most popular travel insurance company for COVID19-coverage. They cover kids for free as long as you’ve got a plan with them. I use their Nomad Insurance plan, which covers COVID-19 as any other illness as long as it was not contracted before the coverage start date. Refer to my travel insurance guide for more details.
When to Travel Japan with Kids
Spring (March-May) and autumn (September-October) are the most popular months to travel Japan due to the mild weather and moderate humidity.
Some spots can get overcrowded, especially during the cherry blossom season. Each year, the sakura season varies (usually around April), so make sure you check the predicted dates before you book your flights.
We traveled to Japan in late September and still found many places quite crowded, particularly Kyoto. During our trip, we experienced mostly warm days of 21-25 deg C, with some rainy days. In the mountainous areas like Takayama and Nagano prefectures, temperatures ranged around 10-15 deg C, but a light jacket was enough.
Winter (December-February) is pretty cold with temperatures dipping to freezing point. But Japan has lots of great ski stations and it’s a good time to see snow monkeys in Nagano.
How Long to Travel Japan with Kids?
Japan is a big country and there’s just SO much to see and do, whether your family prefers nature, cities, culture or food. We only had five days on our first trip to Japan and it definitely left us wanting more.
Two weeks in Japan are perfect; though you would probably want to have even more time to see and experience it. In two weeks, we managed to see the best of Japan, but I’ll admit I packed in too much into the itinerary.
If you want to explore Japan off the beaten path, then you would need at least three or four weeks. Tokyo is a must-see; check out my detailed Tokyo itinerary.
Here’s a summary of our Japan itinerary:
- 3 Days in Tokyo — to experience all the wacky fun experiences
- 2 Days in Hakone — with a stay at a hot spring resort and water park
- 2 Days in Okuhida — to experience nature in the Japanese Alps
- 1 Day in Kanazawa — to eat the freshest seafood
- 3 Days in Kyoto — with day trip to Nara to see the deers
- 1 Day in Shibu Onsen — to see snow monkeys in Jigokudani
- 1 Night in Narita — to catch our flight home
How to Get Around Japan with Kids
We chose to rent a car in Japan as we wanted to explore Japan off the beaten path and see more natural sights. It was also a lot more convenient when traveling with our 3.5-year-old daughter who still needs the stroller from time to time.
While the Japanese public transport system has an impressive coverage across the country, there are still some places that are only accessible by car or foot. The quaint villages and mountainous areas that we went, such as Okuhida in the Japanese Alps, happened to be my favorite parts of Japan. I recommend driving the Golden Northward route if you’re looking for a scenic route that brings you off the well-trodden path.
It was surprisingly easy to drive in Japan. Most road signs are in both Japanese and English. We could find our way easily using Google Maps since we had a mobile WiFi dongle. Car rentalin Japan is quite affordable. We booked from Discover Car rental and paid US$565 for our two-week rental of a compact Japanese car and a child seat.
Read all about driving in Japan!
By Intercity Train
Japan is well known for bullet trains (shinkansen) that are ridiculously fast and efficient. I personally think taking a shinkansen is a must-try experience when in Japan! We did it on our first trip to Japan and were blown away.
It’s actually faster to travel around Japan by bullet trains than by car. For example, it takes four hours to get from Tokyo to Kyoto by train, but it takes seven hours by car.
If you’re traveling Japan for more than a week, I suggest getting a JR Pass to get unlimited travel on JR transportation (including bullet trains, local trains, buses, monorails and ferries).
A 7-day JR Pass costs around US$265 while a 14-day pass costs US$420. Getting a JR Pass will definitely save you money, as individual trains are super expensive. Kids under 6 travel for free.
You can compare individual train prices with the cost of the JR Pass using the handy Japan Rail Pass Calculator.
Get your JR Pass here!
By Public Transport
If you’re taking public transport, I’d recommend getting the Pasmo / Suico pass. It’s a prepaid smart card that allows you to use most public transport (metro, trains, buses, monorail) in Japan.
The card also functions as an electronic wallet. You can buy things on trains, in vending machines, convenience stores and restaurants that accept the card. Suica and Pasmo cards can be purchased through ticket machines at any JR stations.
Language in Japan
English isn’t commonly spoken in Japan. On our first trip to Japan almost 10 years ago, it was quite challenging to travel Japan without any knowledge of Japanese as all signs on the street and public spots were shown only in Japanese.
This time round, we found it much easier as most signs are now in English as well. Japan has definitely become more travel-friendly in the past decade.
Also, free WiFi is easily available in many public places in Japan and you can use Google Translator to translate signs etc. It’s also affordable and convenient to rent pocket WiFi router. We rented our router from GetYourGuide for US$71 that provided us unlimited WiFi for two weeks.
What to Eat in Japan with Kids
Many people have the misconception that Japanese food is all about raw seafood and sushi. That can’t be far from the truth. The megadiverse cuisine consists of a huge array of food types: from different kinds of noodles to rice bowls, grilled meat to bubbling stews.
EVERY meal we had in Japan was great — even ramen from vending machines tasted amazing. You really can’t get bad food in Japan. My 3.5-year-old daughter, who’s usually a fussy eater, absolutely loved the food in Japan. Her favorites were edamame (steamed peas) and onigiri (triangular rice balls) as well as udon noodles.
Check out my detailed Japanese food guide, including 40 best Japanese dishes to try.
Where to Eat in Japan with Kids
You can find food everywhere in Japan and they’re surprisingly affordable. A meal in a standard sushi restaurant costs around 800-1500 yen per person, not including drinks. Every restaurant/diner provides free iced water or tea with your meal.
There are also entire restaurants devoted to food that looks like characters such as Hello Kitty or Rilakkuma. Other themed restaurants like Kawaii Monster Cafe and Maid Cafe are also great fun for kids.
If you’re on a budget, seek out the vending machines. You can easily get a ramen or katsu rice bowl for around 500-800 yen. Even convenience stores like 7-11, Family Mart, and Lawson’s have cheap and delicious yakitori (meat skewers), onigiri (triangular rice buns) and bento sets.
If your kids aren’t adventurous eaters, there are plenty of fast-food restaurants, western cafes and bakeries in Japan. The convenience stores also stock sandwiches and other food that are familiar to them.
Here are some of the places we ate at and really enjoyed:
Sushi Dai, Tokyo — Located outside the famous Tsukiji Market, this is indisputably one of the best places to enjoy sushi in Tokyo. You’ll get an affordable taste of the freshest and finest seafood for only a fraction of the price of upmarket sushi restaurants. But it’s a tiny place and might not be suitable for those with strollers/babies. Reserve your table here!
Kisoji, Tokyo — Our Japanese friend brought us to this shabu-shabu (hotpot) restaurant and we had some of the best wagyu beef I’ve had. You can book a tatami room and cook the shabu-shabu or sukiyaki yourself. Book a table here.
Sengoku Buyuden, Tokyo — This samurai-themed restaurant is quite an interesting place to celebrate a special occasion. Alberto booked a seven-course dinner here for my birthday and the food was really good. Book your table here.
Sakura Tei, Tokyo — We absolutely loved this restaurant chain that lets you make you own okonomiyaki and monjayaki (pan-fried pancake batter). It’s cheap and casual, and filled with character. Reserve a table here.
Tenka Chaya, Kawaguchiko — While driving around the Mount Fuji area, we chanced upon this gorgeous roadside teahouse and had an amazing meal there. All of its tables are on tatami floor and the menu is traditional hot broth pot.
Kaseidon Ichiba, Kanazawa — Inside the Omichi market, you’ll find the best spots to try fresh sashimi that the city is famous for. This place serves awesome salmon roe, oysters, scallops and outstanding sushi. Read reviews here!
Sakaguchi-Ya, Takayama — Housed in a Samachi traditional building, this restaurant serves the famous Hida beef in the form of handrolled sushi or beef rice bowl. A little pricey but well worth for the quality food and atmosphere! Book a table here.
Hokkyokusei, Kyoto — Right next to Yasaka Shrine is this cute ‘Western’ cafe that specialises in omurice (Japanese omelette rice), which is one of our favorite Japanese dishes. Kid-friendly and good service. See reviews here.
Where to Stay in Japan with Kids
Hotels in Japan get booked up quite fast, especially during the peak period (March to May). I strongly suggest booking early and confirming your hotel stay a few days before arriving in Japan.
Another thing to note is that many hotels don’t seem to respond to emails promptly – even top rated hotels. So you can often wait a day or two for a response to a simple question regarding your accommodations.
One of the experiences I think every visitor must try in Japan is staying in a traditional ryokan. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn that usually has tatami flooring, futons as beds, and an onsen (hotspring).
Staying in ryokans gives you the chance to experience how the Japanese traditionally used to live. Plus, they tend to be spacious, which makes it great for families who want to share one room.
Every ryokan provides yukata (simple Japanese robe) for you to wear to the onsen or as pyjamas. In hot spring towns like Shibu Onsen, you can even wear the yukata out to town. Read about our stay at the best ryokan in Hakone.
What You Should Know About Ryokans
However, there are some things you need to know about staying in a ryokan. Firstly, ryokans tend to be the same price or even pricier than modern three-star hotels in Japan. We paid an average of around $80-120 per night for a room.
Secondly, you sleep on thin mattresses or futons that are laid out on the tatami floor. We found it quite hard to sleep at first and had backaches after our second night. (I know we sound so spoiled!).
One of the ryokans we stayed at had such bad soundproofing walls that we were kept up all night because of noisy neighbors. It felt like we were staying at a hostel despite the high price we paid.
So take my advice, book just 1-3 nights at a ryokan (instead of 7 nights like we did!).
Recently there was a government crackdown on the use of residential accommodation as Airbnb in Japan. As a result, all hosts must be issued with a permit to offer Airbnb services. This has seen many travellers left without accommodation when their Airbnb was cancelled.
There are several modern hotel chains in Japan that are affordable and have quality facilities. APA Hotels and UNIZO have branches all over Japan and great locations. However, most of these have tiny rooms where you’ll barely have space to walk.
I suggest paying more and booking twin rooms or family rooms if you want to be a bit more comfortable. The APA Hotel we stayed in Tokyo even had an onsen and a rooftop outdoor pool
We wanted to try the capsule hotels, but they turned out to be more expensive than budget hotel rooms (as we would have to pay $30 per capsule and get three capsules). Plus the capsules are divided between men and women, so Alberto would have to be separated from us.
Our Hotel Recommendations in Japan
Here are the places that we stayed at and can recommend to family travelers:
APA Hotel Tokyo Nishishinjuku, Tokyo — A modern three-star hotel centrally located in Shinjuku and steps from a subway station. Good quality facilities, including an onsen (hot spring) and rooftop swimming pool. The small double room is tiny; opt for a twin or family room instead. Check latest rates here.
Hakone Kowakien Tenyu, Hakone — Opened in April 2017, this spectacular five-star hot spring resort is a worthwhile destination on its own. Read my detailed review of the hotel here! All of its rooms have tatami flooring, open-air stone bath and mountain views. The hotel also has an attached hot spring themed park that’s perfect for kids. Check the latest rates here.
Fujino Kirameki Fujigotemba, Gotemba — Possibly the most family friendly hotel we stayed at in Japan, this glamping site has beautifully furnished cabins transformed from cargo containers and huge play areas for families to hang out. Best of all, it has a gorgeous setting high up above Gotemba, with Mount Fuji in the backdrop and a thick cypress tree forests surrounding it. Book here!
Konji Ryokan, Gifu prefecture — Located in the Okuhida hot spring villages, this traditional ryokan is located in the Japanese Alps and close to hiking trails. Sadly it rained the whole time we were there and the nearby Shin-Hotaka Ropeway was closed. Still a gorgeous area to visit. It’s a 1-hour drive to Takayama from here. Book here!
Kaneki Hotel, Shibu Onsen — This ryokan in the village of Shibu Onsen is clean, cute and affordable. It has a nice and brand new private onsen which you can use for your own (which we really appreciate as most other hotels don’t have that). You’ll also get a key to enter the nine onsens that the village is famous for. It’s the nearest village to the Jigokudani Snow Monkeys Park. Check the latest rates here.
Our stay at Hakone Kowakien Tenyu was incredible!
Best Things to Do in Japan with Kids
There’s no shortage of things to do in Japan with kids. You can choose from themed cafes, unique museums, cultural experiences and excursions, but these are best booked in advance before your trip to avoid disappointment.
There are also lots of free things to do, for instance most temples in Japan are free to visit. Here are some of our favorite things to do in Japan with kids:
This over-the-top entertainment show is great fun, and kids under three go for free. Take note that it can be very loud and bright for young kids, though they provide noise-cancelling headphones.
Our daughter really enjoyed the crazy show. Note that it’s more of a show than restaurant. You do need to book your tickets in advance (they’re cheaper online as well) as they can sell out.
Visit the new MORI Digital Museum in Tokyo
Definitely make some time in your Tokyo itinerary to visit this museum! The newly opened museum is hugely popular thanks to social media, so book your tickets way in advance. In a huge three-dimensional 10,000 square meter space, artworks created by computers move in and out of the rooms freely, creating magical formations.
Personally, the MORI Digital Museum is a MUST-see in my opinion and particularly interesting for kids. There are several areas designated to babies and young kids and lots of interactive artworks for adults. but be prepared to wait in line even if you have tickets (we only waited for 30 minutes to enter). Read reviews and tips here!
Eat at the Kawaii Monster Cafe
Bright, whimsical and bizarre, the Kawaii Monster Cafe is a themed cafe is definitely designed for kids. Besides its psychedelic interiors, the food here also comes in rainbow colors.
There’s an entry fee of 500 yen (US$4.40) and you have to order at least 1 food and 1 drink per person. We ended up spending around $40 here for the 3 of us, twice of what we usually spend. In my opinion, it’s way overpriced and only suitable for young kids. Book your table here!
Try rainbow foods in Harajuku
Harajuku is Tokyo’s wacky playground for those who love alternative stuff. There are lots of cartoon comic stores, cutesy boutiques and big-chain lifestyle shops here. Best of all, it’s home to Tokyo’s most innovative foodie experiences.
We highly recommend trying the rainbow-colored cotton candy at Totti Cotton Factory, and rainbow grilled cheese sandwich at the nearby Le Shinier. Kids (and adults) go crazy over these things!
Go to a hot spring themed park
Yunessen hot spring park in Hakone is not just any typical water park: here you can dip in pools with wine, sake, coffee and tea. It’s a lot of fun for both kids and adults alike. All the pools are fed with natural hot spring water, so they stay warm even in winter.
Tickets are quite cheap and you can easily spend a whole day here. Entry tickets cost 2900 yen (US$3.30) per adult and 1600 yen (US$1.80) per child. Reserve your ticket here.
Wander around the Omicho Market in Kanazawa
Kanazawa is best known for its fresh seafood and out-of-this-world sashimi. The Omicho Market is an excellent spot to bring the family and get a good introduction to Kanazawa’s seafood. You’ll see huge Japanese crabs here as well as larger-than-life oysters, shrimps and sea urchin.
If your kids are adventurous eaters, see if they want to taste some! It costs around 600 yen ($5) to try an oyster or two big shrimps. There are also some interesting things to try like blue beer and gold-leaf icecream!
What an experience it was to try on the Japanese national costume! We got to see the complicated process of putting it on and then experienced wearing it all over Kyoto. Even Kaleya loved putting on the kimono.
To capture the special moment, we even booked a photography session with Flytographer. The results turned out great and we now have gorgeous family shots.
If you’re interested in booking a photography session, use this link and the code “NELLIEHUANG” to get US$25 credits. You can also combine your kimono rental with a tea ceremony to have a full cultural experience.
Explore the Arashimaya bamboo groves in Kyoto
In the outskirts of Kyoto, you can find beautiful bamboo forests as well as large gardens and hiking trails in and around the Katsuragawa River. The Path of Bamboos is packed with tourists these days, but it’s still a beautiful area to visit especially for families.
You can even hire a rickshaw to bring you around parts of the bamboo groves that are exclusive to rickshaw riders. More info here.
Feed deers in Nara
Nara park is home to hundreds of freely roaming deer. Considered in Shinto to be messengers of the gods, Nara’s nearly 1200 deer have become a symbol of the city.
Deer crackers are for sale around the park, and some deer have learned to bow to visitors to ask to be fed. The park is big and dotted with temples, shrines and lots of greenery.
See the snow monkeys in Jigokudani
The Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park is best visited in winter when the Japanese macaques are often seen dipping in the hot springs. However, the monkeys are fed by park staff, so they do hang out in the park year round.
Even if the monkeys don’t interest you, the area is worth visiting for a chance to hike and experience Japan’s nature. Read more about it here.
The nearest town, Shibu Onsen, is a cute hot spring village that I highly recommend visiting. If you stay at one of their associated ryokans, you’ll get a key to enter all of the 9 onsens in the village for free. These are not scenic onsens, but are rather public baths that villagers use for their daily baths.
Cost of Traveling Japan with Kids
Let’s face it, Japan IS expensive (especially if you want to do all kinds of activities) but there are ways to travel the country on a budget.
The cheapest way to travel Japan with kids is to use local transport and book budget hotels. Transport was the biggest cost for us and we spent around US$1050 on our car rental, toll fees, parking and gas.
You might spend less if you opt for the JR Pass — remember kids under 6 travel for free and kids aged 6 to 11 enjoy half price on the JR transportation.
As for accommodation, expect to pay at least US$65 per night for a tiny 3-star hotel room and around $100 for a traditional ryokan room. Accommodation in small towns (e.g. Shibu Onsen and Kanazawa) tend to be cheaper. Hostels and capsule hotels are around the same price for families as you’ll be paying around $20-35 per person.
Activities can add up too if you’re planning to book experiences like the Robot Restaurant and sushi-making classes.
Here is a breakdown of our expenses in USD (not including airfare):
WiFi rental: $100
- Robot Restaurant: $64 x 2
- Harajuku Owl Cafe: $5 x 2
- MORI Digital Art Museum entrance: $28.25 x 2
- Kimono rental: $100
- Kawaii Monster Cafe: $40
- Yunessun hot spring themed park: $10
Packing for a Trip to Japan with Kids
The biggest tip I have for those traveling Japan with kids is to pack as light as possible. Japan is very urbanized and you’ll probably be doing lots of walking, using public transport and moving between places. Packing lightly will make getting around easier, especially with kids.
Most cities in Japan are busy and crowded. The subway is often packed and commuters are in a rush. It can be a challenge walking around with a toddler who can’t keep up with the pace. Decide if a stroller is useful as it can be a pain getting strollers in and out of the subway and along busy walkways.
Since it was September and the weather was still warm, I packed mostly t-shirts, thin pants, dresses, and leggings. I also had a cardigan and a thin leather jacket for the chilly days. For Kaleya, it was the same — mostly long-sleeved tshirts, a few dresses and skinny jeans.
Be sure to pack comfortable walking shoes as you’ll be walking quite a lot. As it gets quite rainy in autumn, we only packed waterproof jackets for us and a raincoat and rain boots for Kaleya.
Final Tips for Traveling Japan with Kids
The first thing you’ll notice when arriving in Japan is that the Japanese are incredibly polite and respectful. They don’t expect foreigners to follow their etiquette, but they do appreciate it when you make some effort and blend in.
Here are some important things for families to keep in mind:
- The Japanese bow a lot to show their gratitude. You don’t need to do the same if you’re uncomfortable with that. Make sure to learn some basic Japanese words and express some courtesy. “Thank you” is one word you’ll hear a lot: “Arigatō gozaimash ta”. “Hello” is “Kon’nichiwa” and “Excuse me” is “Sumimasen”.
- Japanese toilets are the coolest — both kids and adults are sure to be amused by them! There are plenty of buttons on the side of the toilet, each with a different function (heating, drying, washing etc). However, some places still have the squat toilet (hole in the ground), so get your kids prepared for that.
- Kids would love the fact that it is customary to slurp noodles loudly in Japan to show that you’re enjoying it. My daughter completely embraced it and had slurping competitions with us!
- Keep in mind that placing chopsticks upright in your food, crossing them or passing food with them are what people do at funerals. Just place your chopsticks on the side of your plate when you are not using them.
- Breastfeeding is generally not done in public, though you can find a quiet corner and use a shawl to cover. Many department stores have nursing rooms as well as spacious baby-changing facilities where you can breastfeed in private if you prefer.
- Remember to bring any medication that your child takes regularly (or may need), as Japanese pharmacies don’t sell foreign medications.
- Always remove shoes when entering a private home, temple or traditional ryokan. Some restaurants with tatami mat seating also require you to remove your shoes and use their slippers. Note that they have different slippers for bathroom use, so make sure not to confuse them.
- Japan runs mostly on credit cards, but some places don’t take international cards. It’s best to have some Japanese yen at hand at all times. Many ATMs don’t take international cards either — the best places to withdraw cash are the 7-11 stores.
- There is no tipping in Japan, though of course you’re free to give some spare cash if you want to show your appreciation for their good service.
- No eating, drinking or talking on the cell phone in the train or subway. The Japanese are very considerate to other people, so please try to do the same.
- Always stand on the right side of the escalators.
- It’s extremely rude to blow your nose in public. Try to do that in the toilet.
- Don’t be surprised to see many people walking around with hygienic masks. People who have a cold or illness often wear these to prevent spreading their germs.
Phew! That’s it from me for now. Thanks for reading all the way to the end.
On an ending note, I’d like to remind you not to plan too much when traveling Japan with kids. Because there’s SO much to do, many people end up trying to pack too many places into their itinerary. We made the same mistake and definitely wished we weren’t so ambitious in seeing so many places.
Keep in mind that you’re there to have fun and explore, so slow down and enjoy the beautiful country with your family in a relaxing pace! I hope this guide has been useful. Feel free to leave me any questions or comments you may have below.