I went on my first international trip with my son at 23-months to Tokyo, Japan. While there, I shared my experience on Instagram Stories and got so many DM’s from other parents… most that experienced similar situations like me or that were grateful I shared my candid experience because they also plan to go to Tokyo with their little one. Since I couldn’t find much information on the reality of traveling to Tokyo with a toddler, specifically the challenges I wanted to share my experience in hopes it might help other parents.

Like Google says, Tokyo is family-friendly but I personally found it very challenging traveling to Tokyo with my toddler son. I do think Tokyo is family-friendly, if your kids are older (like at least 5) or under 1. When they’re 5 they can likely keep up with you, don’t need naps, can walk up and down stairs, eat independently, and are more aware of their behavior and surroundings. If under 1, they’re likely not very mobile so can be carried in a baby carrier or stroller all day and be content. It was particularly challenging traveling with Luke at 2-years old because he’s very active, curious, can’t sit still for a long time, or eat independently yet, plus there were the occasional tantrums and Japan is a very quiet/respectful culture.

Reasons why Tokyo IS family-friendly:

  • Tokyo is very safe: I felt safe walking around with my toddler and exploring anywhere/everywhere at all hours of the day. I never got that “fight/flight” response I get when I’m in San Francisco sometimes and saw kids as young as 4 walking to school on their own in the mornings.
  • The bathrooms are top-notch: there’s public bathrooms everywhere and almost every toilet has a bidet. The private family-bathrooms are also huge and clean with everything you need, making changing diapers very comfortable.
  • Locals are friendly and polite: this isn’t specific to being kid-friendly but when we were in inconvenient situations because of our toddler, the locals and especially workers were very polite and accommodating.
  • Clean, smooth paved streets: this made walking with a stroller very comfortable.
  • Efficient transportation system: it’s easy to get around because of the advanced subway system. If you have an iPhone you can also load your Suica card via Wallet. Uber is also in Tokyo, and it’s not required to have your child in a car seat if in a taxi or Uber. You can have them sit on your lap and hold them.
  • Family-friendly attractions and theme parks: we didn’t go to any theme parks since Luke is still too young for it, but I have parent friends who went to TokyoDisney or DisneySea and loved it. We did go to TeamLab Planets and while us adults loved it, Luke seemed indifferent and scared since it was extremely dark in most rooms. I also heard great things about the Tokyo Toy Museum and think Luke would have loved it there, but we unfortunately didn’t get a chance to go.

Reasons why Tokyo IS NOT toddler-friendly:

  • So many stairs: the amount of walking and stairs… was painful. Most subway stations have elevators but sometimes they’re in inconvenient locations (like 2-blocks away) so it was more efficient carrying the stroller up and down the stairs. Since Tokyo is an extremely dense city, most restaurants and stores have stairs with no elevators. I was surprised when I went to the Disney store in Shibuya and they only had spiral stairs to go up each floor. We often had to park our stroller outside and carry Luke inside.
  • Many things don’t open until 10-11AM including coffee shops and restaurants: I found myself often hangry in the morning because it was difficult finding places to eat breakfast. We often ate convenience store food (like Family Mart or Lawson’s) or McDonalds for breakfast which wasn’t the healthiest.
  • Most restaurants are compact with only barstools, and tables where you can only sit besides each other: We didn’t make any restaurant reservations so always did walk-ins. I wish I researched more baby-friendly restaurants because eating out ended up being very challenging in Tokyo.
    • Since Luke is at that age where he is constantly moving, it was nearly impossible to have him sit in our lap. Luckily he can sit on his own so would sit in his own bar stool seat, but I was constantly paranoid about him accidentally falling backwards.
    • Since most tables are short (in depth) and designed to sit next to each other (not across), eating out as a group was very inconvenient. I also noticed most places we ate at, people ate alone, which made sense why most restaurants are designed for solo-eating.
    • Almost every restaurant we ate at did not have high-chairs because the restaurants were tiny… so tiny even our stroller couldn’t fit inside. The only place I recall having a high chair was McDonalds.
    • Something else I found surprising is taking food “to-go” is not permitted in Japan because of food sanitization and safety concerns.
  • Public playgrounds are rare (or hard to find): I assumed most parks would have playgrounds like the states, but to my surprise every park we went to in Tokyo did NOT have a playground. The only time we went to a playground was when we happened to walk by one which was usually connected to a school.
    • Shinjuku Gyoen Garden had a “kids area” on the map, but when we got there it was just a huge lawn area. There was no playground and it was mainly families on blankets having picnics. I also noticed a sign with a bunch of rules, like “only single person jump-roping allowed”. I was pretty disappointed since it was a far walk, but I think since this park is made for relaxing and appreciating nature maybe it’s not really meant for playtime?
  • Locals are so peaceful/quiet, it feels extra rude if your toddler throws a tantrum: all parents know toddler tantrums can happen anytime and you can’t control it. Whenever Luke threw a tantrum, we felt extra bad because of how quiet everyone else was. We ate at one restaurant and Luke dropped a chopstick and in seconds the waiter came back with another chopstick (because that’s how quiet it was, and how attentive the service is). Of course a few minutes later Luke dropped that chopstick too, which then we told the waiter to not bring anymore chopsticks because it would keep happening lol.

Tips for Traveling to Tokyo with a little one

Based on my experience, here are the takeaways gained from traveling to Tokyo with a toddler and what I would do differently. People also asked me, would I go back with a baby? My honest answer is no, I think it was a good one-time experience. I’m grateful I went because it was very memorable and most importantly Luke had fun experiencing all the new things (even though he won’t remember any of it). All the inconveniences were also inconvenient to us as parents, Luke could care less or likely didn’t notice. Every child is also different and if your kid is not as active I imagine it may be easier since they may be content sitting in a stroller all day, or sitting in your lap when eating.

  • Ask your hotel or Airbnb to book a ride for you from the airport with a car seat: I google’d and found SunTransfers to book a private minivan with a carseat from Tokyo Haneda Airport to my hotel (Mimaru Suites). This was a 25-minute drive that cost $185. For my ride back to the airport, I asked the hotel concierge to help book a private minivan with a carseat and it ended up being significantly cheaper, even though I was going to Narita Airport this time which is 1-hour away. Ask the locals to book your private ride to and from the airport (if you don’t want to take public transportation) because it will be way cheaper.
  • Use Google Maps and turn on accessibility mode: this will give you walking routes with elevators and ramps (no stairs). Just be warned that walking the accessibility route will increase your walking time.
  • Find food court malls to eat at: we didn’t really do this until the end after experiencing multiple inconvenient restaurant encounters. The food court malls in Japan are also amazing. There’s a great variety of food (which are all good), and they often have family tables, and even high-chairs, plus family-bathrooms.
  • Research baby-friendly things in advance, don’t just assume: In example, don’t just assume because Shinjuku Gyoen Garden has a “kids-area” there’ll be a playground. The funny part is I did research this but couldn’t any photos of the kids-area so assumed there’d be a playground there and I was wrong. I also wish I researched more family-friendly restaurants with family-style table and seats.
  • Stay in a hotel that offers continental breakfast: it’ll be open early, the variety of food will make eating with a little one easier, plus there will be an actual table and chairs (not bar stools) to sit on.
  • Or stay in an Airbnb with a kitchen and grocery shop the day you arrive: so you have options for breakfast (especially if you’re jet lagged and waking up at 4am like I was).
  • Stay in a location where there are multiple things walking distance: The area we stayed at (Nihonbashi) was more residential so we had to take the subway for every outing. While this wasn’t the worse because it was nice going back to a peaceful/less busy area, it would have been more convenient if we stayed somewhere with multiple things to walk to since navigating the subway with a stroller wasn’t easy.
  • Bring your kids favorite toy everywhere, or be ok with screen time to not disturb the peace: Whenever we were eating, or somewhere public with lots of quiet people (including the subway) taking out Luke’s favorite toy (which is currently a vehicle) was always a lifesaver, it’d usually keep him content and entertained for a little bit and if not there was always screen time.

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