Okinawa is an amazing destination (our kids still talk about the beach near the villa we rented on Sesoko Island), and the northern, rural part is a lot more fun than the urbanized and industrialzed south. Even if there are quite a few amazing beaches in southern Okinawa too.
But if you are going to Okinawa (or coming back) there are several things which your kids will ask to do, and several that they will want to do if they knew about them. Apart from going to the beach, that is. Not that you could not do that every day, for most of the day. Okinawa is part of Japan, so many of the questions people have about going there are the same. But nevertheless, Okinawa is a bit different.
Despite the balmy weather (pretty much like Hawaii, except when there is a typhoon), there will be rainy day. Okinawa does not have the same seasons as the rest of Japan. There are plenty of things you can do then, but I will come back to those.
But while weather is nice, there are plenty of things you can do apart from going to the beach. Actually, your kids are likely to ask you to spend time on the beach all the time. But just in case they happen to ask for something else, here are a few things they may want to do.
1. Churumi Aquarium
It is somewhat surprising to find a world class aquarium and aquatic museum in northern Okinawa, but this would be the pride of any big city, if it was not located in the northern Okinawan countryside. It is huge, with several rooms and departments showing off the Okinawan sea life. Which is exciting in and off itself, since the islands are isolated enough to create some interesting marine plant and wildlife.
But the thing that steals the attention is the huge tank in the center of the exhibition. It is one of the biggest saltwater tanks in Asia and it is full of the marine life of Okinawa (although your kids will probably be more fascinated by the divers cleaning it). There is a small café by the main tank but you have to be very early to get a table, or wait for several hours (which is not worth it).
While the aquarium is great if it rains, the huge park surrounding it offers a completely different experience for your kids - even if most of the attractions, like the dolphin show and the turtle breeding tanks, are connected to it. The dolphin show is amazing but try to get seats at least 30 minutes before the show starts. In particular if you want good seats.
2. Ocean Expo Park
The Ocean Expo park has several other parts than those which are related to the aquarium, however. There are several traditional Okinawan buildings, but without a guide explaining them it is a bit hard to relate to what you see - entire families, and their animals, used to live in what is smaller than a modern campervan. The Okinawan government had a rule that nobody was allowed to have houses bigger than a certain measure, and it was strictly enforced until the Japanese Meji government formalized their annexation of the islands, ending three hundred years of Satsuma clan rule.
Fun though that is the really interesting thing are two other museums: The Oceanic Culture Museum and planetarium, and the Tropical Dream Center.
The Oceanic Culture Museum in the Motobu Ocean Expo Park is heavily focused on Polynesia and the travels of the Polynesians. As interesting as those are the Polynesians probably never made it to Okinawa, although their predecessors may have. But the museum is fascinating and well executed, with some artifacts behind glass but most of the focus on interactivity and discovery.
The park is full of flowers and plants which are lavishly distributed throughout the park, often bound up in shapes like monkeys, frogs, and footballs. Your kids will love posing in front of them. But the third attraction is not the flowers and plants themselves, it is a greenhouse. Or rather, three greenhouses. You may wonder why anyone would want that in subtropical Okinawa, which surely is hot enough during the season. But not humid enough to grow the more than 2000 orchids you can find here. Another reason to take the little shuttlebus that runs throughout the park is the restaurant at the Tropical Dream Center, as the greenhouses and associated buildings (like a viewing tower) are called. It is much better than the buffet restaurant at the acquarium, not that it is especially bad. But it is a buffet. Your kids will love the sausages and fried chicken, but do make an attempt at making them try at least the “nikujaga” the stew with potatoes and meat.
3. Nakajin Castle Ruins
Okinawa was once divided in several warring states, but they were gradually unified under the king in Naha, the capital of the province today. Then, the Japanese invided and conquered the islands.
Some of the most pitched battles took place near the main castle of the northern kingdom (since the Japanese came from the north, and had already conquered the islands bridging Okinawa and Japan).
Today, the castle is completely destroyed, only the ruins remain. Although they are impressive enough, it is hard to imagine how impressive it must have been when there was a Japanese-style fortress tower, although probably colored red, rising at the center. There is a visitors center which sells drinks and food. The restaurants are extremely crowded but the food is surprisingly reasonable for tourist restaurants. Do not put any spices in the food, Okinawan cooking uses much more spices than mainland Japanese, and not wasabi but the regular chili peppers. The aspic with chilli peppers make a great addition to the noodle dishes - for grownups.
Another interesting feature, which may only be available seasonally, is the kiosk just before the ticket gate. Although to call it a gate may be stretching it. Anyway, keep the fingers of your kids away from the huge shallow pan with a brownish liquid in it. It id going to be hot. But buy a bottle of freshly pressed sugar cane juice (even better if they will press it in front of your kds). And then explain to them that this is how you make sugar, and thanks to all the hard work that goes into it and that the sugar cane only grows in tropical climates, sugar used to be fantastically expensive (not quite worth its weight in gold but sometimes in silver). It was the sugar production that made the Japanese conquer Okinawa, and that kept the Hawaiian kingdom going until the Americans took the islands in a coup.
Let your kids run free among the castle ruins, but make sure that they do not slip or fall. The stones in the paths can be loose here and there. And watch out especially that they do not fall down one of the magical wellsprings that dot the ruins. The Okinawans still worship them.
4. Water Buffalo Ride
Okinawa is in the tropics, and the climate is not just mediterrenean like that of Tokyo and most of mainland Japan, it is actually tropical all year round. This means water buffalo thrive, and just like in countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand they are the favorite beast of burden. They are much stronger than cows, and they have much less problems wading in the mud of the rice fields.
In most of the Okinawa archipelago, this means they were once the only dray animals people had access to (except themselves). Horses were rare and expensive. But water buffalo could pull heavy loads, so they were hitched to carts.
As the roads developed and became nicer, some of those carts were used to transport not just goods, but people. Today, the water buffalo rides are probably more associated with the Yaeyama islands to the south, where you can ride the water buffalo cart between Irimote and Yubu island (the only way to get there). But there is also a water buffalo cart ride in northern Okinawa, in the village of Bise just to the north of the Ocean Expo park. The streets of the village are lined with fukugi trees, which makes them feel cool even when the temperature is hot. And the villagers offer rides in their water buffalo carts along the streets.
5. Neo Park
This park is a zoo where you can come close to the animals who roam free throughout the park. But there is also a petting zoo which kids will love, and the only railroad in Okinawa, a remainder of the railroad which once went from Nago to Naha. Today, the original locomotive is used to pull visitors around the park. Most of the animals are birds, and you can feed them (although not from the train). Be careful of your fingers, they may look appetizing.
No Rainforest Without Rain
The main Okinawa island is a very long island - it takes several hours to go from the northern to the southern tip, even if you use the freeway. It is narrow but not so narrow that there is not a lot of nature in the middle. You have rainforests and montaneous vistas, although there are no real mountains.
But there are several more islands than the main Okinawa island. Not all of them are archipelagos in their own right, like the Yaeyama islands to the south. The main island includes Ishigaki, the amazingly beautiful island that feels like a Japanese Hawaii. All of the Okinawan islands are on the same latitude as Hawaii, but as they are closer to the South China Sea, they are susceptible to typhoons. But they blow over quickly. On the other hand, it rains quite a bit in Okinawa. This is a tropical island, after all, and you can not have a rainforest without rain, after all.
In summary, northern Okinawa is a great place to go for a vacation with your kids. We always think of going back to the villa on Sesoko island, with its amazing beaches and the fantastic Villa Kohola. But there are several more amazing beaches, including the breathtaking Emerald Beach next to the Churumi Aquarium in Ocean Expo Park.
this year, Disneyland in Tokyo and Tokyo Disney Sea will be extra crowded on June 16. Why? It is an ordinary summer saturday, although in the rainy season. So why will the Disney parks be extra crowded on that day?
Extra Crowded Weekend
Tokyo Disney Resort (the two parks plus the shopping center and the hotels) is located in Chiba, not in Tokyo. Anyone would be challenged to tell this and most people in Tokyo or Chiba will not be able to say where the border between the prefectures are.
But as I have written about before, you need to be early to get the most out of your Disney visit, and if you live nearby you have a better chance to be early than people who live farther away. That is one reason why it makes so much sense to stay in the hotels near the park (which we do even though we live in Tokyo and can get to Maihama, the station serving Tokyo Disney, in an hour).
But we will not go there on June 16. The park will be crowded as it is a weekend, and with the extra people taking advantage of the Chiba Prefecture Citizens Day, it is likely to be one of those days where the tickets run out. Even though it will probably be raining.
The day will see a lot of prefectural facilities open for free to the public. The prefecture itself runs a lot of facilities like parks and sports facilities, including the Makihari Messe a few stations from Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea. It will be crowded but you do not hsve to go. There are plenty of other things to do in Tokyo. Even if it is raining.
By the way, you may wonder what this local holiday is. Japanese prefectures have some degree of independence. They can decide for themselves how some of the tax money they recieve can be spent. And they can declare local holidays, but not too many. Since the prefectural govenors are elected in direct elections, they tend to spend on popular projects. Or white elephants, like the Ibaraki airport.
Japan has five pronounced seasons, as I have written about before. Each of those seasons have their own pronounced activities and products which follow the weather. Experiencing Japan with your kids in spring is not at all the same as in fall. The weather is different, the light is different, even the food is different. In the agricultural society that Japan was until the middle of the 19th century, starvation or something very near it was often a reality. Meat (except pork) was not only forbidden for religious reasons, it was also very expensive. Poor people got their proteins from beans or fish.
Winter, as it tends to be in agricultural societies, was lean and hard. There were no vegetables (this was before cold transport) and no fresh fish. There may have been eggs but hens always lay less in winter.
When the first vegetables, normally udo, broke the ground it was almost a cause for celebration. But as society became more complex, the direct connection between people and land was lost.
Two Ways To Notice The Seasons
Today, there are two ways that you notice the seasons: The air conditioning in the office switches on, and the goods in the supermarket grocery department changes: The produce shipped from Chile, Australia, and America is replaced by local products.
The change in the content of the grocery shelves is the most drastic, and you can use it as an excellent way of teaching your kids how both nature and the distribution system works. And you do not even have to stay on a farm.
While processed foods, including eggs, meat, and tomatoes, do not change particularly with the seasons, there are foods that do. I already mentioned vegetables and fruit.
There is another type of produce which is seasonal, and even though it is seafood, does not require you to go out in a fishing boat. Plus, if it is a warm day, you can have a great day on the beach.
Tokyo used to be halfway surrounded by mudflats. As late as the 18th century you could sail a ship all the way up to what today is Tokyo Station. The mudflats were, when in season, the source of protein for most of the poor people of Tokyo. The mussels and other shellfish that are harvested from the mudflats are a delicacy today, going into the sushi restaurants and fancy eateries of Tokyo.
Four Kilos Per Person
Today, the mud flats on the Tokyo side are almost completely gone, thanks to Tokyo Harbor and Haneda Airport. But if you ride the train past Tokyo Disneyland (which is also built on reclaimed mudflats), you come to Chiba prefecture, where the beaches are still in their original shape.
On the mudflats there is a fence blocking off the part where the tide churns the mud, promoting new growth. It is not accessible until the management opens the fence, when anyone with a ticket (that you have to buy in advance) can pick and take home four kilograms of mussels per person. But the mudflats do not open until the tide has withdrawn so much that you can walk on the mud, which happens about 2 PM during the season. The flats are only open for about three hours, so you do not have much time to gather those four kilos.
Better Than Store Bought
When the fence opens, whole teams of professionals come in windbreakers and knee-high rubber boots. Even if you rent a rake and a bucket, it will still not cost you more than a thousand yen. Since the price in the store is about five to six times that, it is a bargain.
If you have a place with cooking facilities, you can harvest and cook your own mussels - in central Tokyo! Just remember that the mussels need to lie in clear slightly salted water for 24 hours so they can get rid of the sand in their bodies. Mussels eat by sucking in water and then filtering out bacteria and small plankton which they eat. In the Tokyo mud flats, this means they suck in plenty of sand. Even if your kids only pick the mussel shells (as ours did), you have to wash off the sand. Do it outside the bathtub, even an empty mussel shell can accumulate astonishing amounts of sand.
After 24 hours in a dark place (under a newspaper or in a cupboard) you can cook the mussels. Just make sure to throw away the mussels which have not opened even a fraction , they are already dead. Japanese miso soup with fresh mussels you have picked yourself tastes much better than anything you can buy in the store.
Keeping Out The Wind
Gathering mussels is not the only seasonal activity you can do in Tokyo, but it is the best during spring. In fall, you can pick grapes, and earlier in fall cherries, peaches and kiwi fruits.
During the mussels season, the ramen and udon shops flow over with noodles In mussel soup, with different kinds and amount of mussels. The taste is a welcome change in the regular diet of miso, soy, dashi and tonkotsu soup that you will regularly get with your ramen or udon.
If you want to spend a day at the beach in Tokyo, bathing in the sea is hardly much of an option, unless you are below school age. The water is cold and it is windy, even if the air and the water (in the tidal pools) can be surprisingly warm. But most people bring a tent to keep out the worst heat of the sun and the wind.
No Insect Issue Yet
If you want to spend a day at the beach in Tokyo, bathing in the sea is hardly much of an option, unless you are below school age. The water is cold and it is windy, even if the air and the water (in the tidal pools) can be surprisingly warm. But most people bring a tent to keep out the worst heat of the sun and the wind.
During mussel harvest season insects are not yet an issue. But if you spend a day on the beach in Tokyo after the rainy season ends in July, sand flies and mosquitoes are likely to be a pain. Even if you do not let them sting.
This post is part of my ongoing series helping parents make the most of Japan with their kids. I collected links to other useful articles on a separate page (link coming soon), but meanwhile, fill in the form below to get fresh updates.
As I wrote about in my post on the Japanese travel year, next week is Golden Week, when people in Japan travel over the holidays. The switch in the economy has meant people work more and travel less, but we are still not seeing inflation for real - even if it is happening. Japan is still cheap for international visitors, if you avoid the luxuries.
Perhaps surprisingly given the Tokyo weather, where it is dangerous to go out during typhoons and where it can rain for days on end during the rainy season (and other seasons too), there are few indoor playgrounds. Perhaps the high property rates makes it uneconomical to dedicate large indoor areas to play.
Whatever the explanation, there are only a few indoor play areas in central Tokyo. There are several more in the near suburbs, mostly run by Börnelund, a company that started out selling pedagogical toys, but found that giving children the opportunity to play is more profitable than giving them things to play with.
In addition to these play areas, some department stores offer play areas. The Keio department store in Shinjuku has a small play area where kids can tumble around on the 9 floor.
No Babysitting Service
The indoor playgrounds are different from the IKEA Småland, which is more like daycare for an hour. The IKEA stores have them in Japan too, but they are even less centrally located than the Börnelund centers. One parent has to stay with the kids, but if you want to go shopping, you have to count on your kids playing for more than an hour. Even if you go to Odaiba, where the shopping is in the same building as the playground.
That play area is free, but other play centers cost money to use. Most charge per hour, the prices vary. So does the equipment. Usually they have a ball pool, inflated jumping castle, and lots of regular toys. Like everything in Japan, you will be amazed at how the Japanese designers can squeeze in so much in such a small space. Many of the indoor playgrounds are hardly bigger than an average apartment.
Most of the playgrounds charge about 1000 yen per hour, both for kids and adults. There are often day passes available, which makes it easy to pop out for a little while and get lunch or some snacks. Although many play centers offer seating areas for adults, they typically do not have restaurants.
Tokyo Dome Asobono
This is the biggest of the indoor play areas in Tokyo, located in the Tokyo Dome entertainment complex, also home to an amusement park, the Japan Baseball Hall of Fame, and the Yomiuri Gigants baseball team.
You will not notice in Asobono, which has several themed play areas, the biggest ball pool in Tokyo, and toys for kids from age zero up. Parents are expected to enjoy it with their kids, but it is not hard to guess the kids will enjoy it more.
A tip is to get a one-day pass is 1650 yen, which is a great deal since you can leave to get snacks and lunch.
Bornelund play centers are located in the Tokyo suburbs. If you happen to be staying near one, this is a great way to let your kids play with others. Check out the repective store websites. Information is unfortunately only available in Japanese.
Legoland Discovery Center
The only Legoland park in Japan so far is in Nagoya, halfway between Tokyo and Osaka. But Tokyo has a Legoland Discovery Center in Odaiba, which is like a Legoland indoors. With Lego model cities, rides, a 4D cinema and a Lego factory where kids can make their own Lego bricks. The feeling is less the models of the original Legoland and more the stop-motion adventure of the Lego movie.
Tokyo Toy Museum
The Tokyo Toy Museum is more about teaching visitors the value of pedagogical play with natural materials than displaying vintage toy collections. The foundation that runs it have several other stores around Tokyo, but it is only at the Tokyo Toy Museum that you get to play with all the toys.
Aneby Trim Park
To be fit in Norwegian is to be trim, in the same sense as you trim the sails of a sailboat. It is about physical fitness as well as mental, although the latter is expected to happen as a consequence of the former. That is the inspiration behind Aneby Trim Park (although Aneby is in Sweden, so the vibe is more generally Scandinavian).
Playground 4 Kids
Squeezed into a game center, you will be amazed at how much the creators of Playground 4 Kids have been able to fit into a small area and still give kids room to play with it. The centerpiece is a jumping castle in the shape of a locomotive that kids will love.
Getting There In The Rain
Depending on where you are staying, you may be able to get to the indoor playground without seeing a drop of rain. If you go to the Odaiba play centers (Aneby Trim Park and Legoland Dicovery Center), it is possible to stay under one roof all the way from your hotel (at least some of the Shinjuku hotels).
There are lots of great beaches in North America and I was happy to contribute Waikiki to this collaboration post. We had a wonderful time there and would go back in an instant if our kids did not need their own seats now.
The beach is really wonderful despite being located in the middle of a city. What was once sugar cane fields have turned to a condo city. Which means there are plenty of great places for families to stay.
I read a thread in one of the Facebook groups where I am a member about worrying during travel. You can worry about lots of things in addition to the things you normally worry about with your kids, like them falling sick or falling down a cliff or falling prey to a predator. Or falling meteorites.
When you travel, the dangers are very different than you are used to from home. Where I come from, the two things you have to worry about is bears attacking in spring and running out of gas for your snowmobile in the middle of the forest. Neither is a problem in Tokyo.
Things are so different when you travel. There are exotic animals with stings and teeth, exotic flowers with thorns and poisonous berries, exotic people who will lure you with exotic dances into exotic bars and spike your drinks and take your money. Well, the last one may be less of a concern if you have three kids in tow.
Continous Travel Worries
They bring their own concerns, though. You continously have to worry about the kids falling off a cliff, or the bed. You have to worry about all the stinging insects and especially the diseases they may carry. They do not have to be lethal to put you off travel for a long time - dengue fever is one of the most unpleasant diseases you can have. You have to worry that your child does not run out into the road, or the pram trundles down the stairs, or that they put their fingers in an electric socket, eat a dangerous chemical, or run into a sharp corner and hurt themselves. And you have to worry about traffic.
Same Worries At Home
Luckily, most of the things you need to worry about when you travel are the same as those you worry about at home. And the remedies are the same. Childproofing an AirBnB is not very different from childproofing your home, although you want to be careful with the glue on the corner and edge protectors. You do not want it to remove paint or veneer, which may happen. Our furniture at home is a testimony to this, exposing spots and tearmarks that someone without triplets may think looks terrible (we are past caring). That means you can not use your regular childproofing gear. We used masking tape and wadded up newspapers before our kids got large enough to understand that a sharp corner hurts if you run into it. As you probably have guessed, it happened pretty fast.
Do The Descriptions Match?
That the place you have rented is not childproof and that your kids will break something so you have to pay is a big worry when you rent an apartment or condo. It is less of a worry in a hotel, as I have written about before, but we do not fit in a hotel. Unless we book several rooms, and then the money worry becomes too big.
The descriptions of the places leave a lot to desire. We had a lovely place in Hawaii but when our kids took the doors off the bookshelf and started chewing the books, I started to worry. For sure, the furniture was pretty crappy to begin with, so even if we had broken it I do not think we would have had to pay much. But it is still a worry. And the description, even the photos, showed nothing of the kind. So maybe I should have worried more about the mismatch between the description and the actual place.
Traffic Worries On Sidewalks
In most places, your children hurting themselves on the furniture is something to worry about indoors, but as soon as you go out, traffic is a worry. In southeast Asia, people drive like madmen, and adults have to watch out that they do not get run over by a motorcycle messenger running full steam in the different direction. In Japan, the streets are so narrow that you have to duck into a doorway so that you do not get squeezed by a passing car. In Seden, cars skid and swirl on the icy roads so you have to dive into the ditch not to get run over. The list goes on. There is no way a toddler can fathom what is going on.
Eating Bugs, Dirt, And Parasites
Most people maybe do not worry that their kids will eat the furnishings, but if there are bugs and dirt you should worry about your kids eating them, at least until they are a certain age. While children actually improve their immune system by ingesting various bacteria and other bugs, they can also get parasites and worms that you do not want in their bodies. So while they are the age when anything goes into their mouths, you should worry about them eating dirt. As they grow a little bit older you can stop worrying about that and go back to worrying about biting bugs. Ticks are really bad, and in Southeast Asia you have centipedes that can be up to 30 centimeters long, if not longer. Luckily, you do not see them all that often. Not as often as mosquitoes, which you will find everywhere in Thailand, and often indoors. We had big problems with that in Thailand - one day my wife took our daughter to the hospital, since she was covered in purple splotches. It was after that we started with double mosquito nets.
Unknown Window Screens
Window screens are almost completely unknown in Thailand, although mosquito nets (around your bed) is very common. In winter the temperature is low enough to sleep with your windows open, although in summer you want to keep the air conditioner going to keep the temperature comfortable even at night, although it dries out the air of the room which is not good for your kids either, especially if they are too small to drink water on their own. Drying out the membranes of the nose and throat means it becomes easier to catch infections. And you do not want that either.
Changing The Smell Of Your Kids
Luckily the mosquitoes are easy to keep away.
We actually used to have two mosquito nets around our kids beds, in layers. As mentioned before, mosquitoes can spread some really nasty diseases. But that only keeps them away when they are in their beds. Of course, infants spend most of their time there anyway.
Many insects track their prey by their chemical emissions, especially body odor. You can not get rid of it by washing, they smell your body. Including the carbon dioxide on your breath. I actually saw a report that the body odor of children infected with malaria changes so they become even more attractive and easier to find for the mosquitoes carrying the malaria parasite.
Hiding Body Odor
So the best way of keeping mosquitoes away is to make sure they do not get your scent. And your body odor is actually easy to hide. There are chemicals like DEET and several organic versions using different herbs and plants which confuse the insects. You can not mask the plume of carbon dioxide from your mouth, but you can make your body smell differently. Spray your children before they go out. It makes sense to use a combined sun screen and insect repellent, especially in the tropics, because then you do not have to worry about sunburn on top of insect bite worries.
Hiding From The Sun
That is not even mentioning sunburn and sunstroke. Sunburn may be more painful to deal with (unless you like comforting crying toddlers), but sunstroke is a lot more dangerous. That is why you want your kids to drink plenty of water, and why you want them to wear a hat (even if they do not like it).
This is only the beginning of the list. I have not even mentioned worrying about money or missing the plane. But like all worries, there is a cure: To prepare.
For sure, you prepare very differently for an encounter with mosquitoes than for an encounter with a motorcycle messenger barreling down the sidewalk. You prepare differently for encounters with sharp corners than you prepare for countering sunburn. But the important thing is that you can prepare. And you should.
This was part of my ongoing series about traveling with toddlers. Did you like it? Why not sign up to my mailing list so I can tell you whenever there is a new installment? Just fill in the form below!
In Japan, most people do not have cars, despite this physically small country being home to the headquarters of a lot of the global car industry (and arguably the leaders in technology as well). And most people do not need a car.
If you are making a long trip, say going from Tokyo to Kyoto, Osaka or Sendai, or anywhere in the same radius, there is no discussion: taking the Shinkansen train is by far the most economical and fastest way of getting around in Japan. As a matter of fact, there is no alternative. There are no flights from Tokyo to Nagoya any more.
Beyond those cities, however, the train time-wise breaks even with flying. It takes about the same time to fly from Tokyo to Osaka as it does to take the Shinkansen if you include the transit time to and from the airport.
When You Want To Rent A Car
The other alternative is renting a car, but until your children turn 6, they travel free on the train. And until they are 12 the tickets are half price. So renting a car for long distance travel does not actually pay, unless your children are over 12 or you are going somewhere that does not have easy train access - yes, those places exist. Probably the most famous is Kusatsu Onsen. And if you want to bring luggage, skiing equipment or surfboards will be a hassle to take on the train and expensive to send ahead.
Going to Hokkaido or Kyushu, the southernmost and northernmost of the main Japanese islands, airlines are time-competitive with the Shinkansen - and more. If you are going to the outlying islands in Okinawa, to Minami Oshima or the Ogasawara islands (formally a part of Tokyo city), there are no trains. And taking the ferry takes a day. At least.
Okinawa Is Car Country
But when you are in Okinawa, you need a car to get around. There are long-distance buses, but then you have the problem of getting to your final destination. And that is true for many other places in Japan as well. Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto are criss-crossed with subways and trains, but you only have to go to Ibaraki prefecture, 45 minutes north of Tokyo, to find yourself as lost without a car as if you were in Dallas, Atlanta, or Los Angeles. While there is public transport, it is scarce and takes detours. Even in Tokyo prefecture there are places where the bus only comes twice a day.
When You Need Car Seats
So you need a car, if that is where you are staying. But if you do, you also have a lot more freedom to move around. Just remember that until the age of six, your kids have to be in child seats or booster seats, and they all need seatbelts. If you are a family of six, a seven-seater is a perfect fit (because you also need somewhere to put your luggage).
Makes No Sense Before Age Six
Renting a car does not make sense if you have children under six for long trips. Until the age of six, which is when children in Japan start school, they travel for free on trains. If you want them to have a seat of their own, the seat reservation is half price. Unless you take the fastest Shinkansen trains. I wrote about the convenience of taking the train in Japan before, as well as taking the train in Tokyo. But I am not sure I mentioned that the kids pay half price between six and 12.
Cheaper Without Children
So how does the train tickets compare to renting a car? Let us say you want to take a three hour train ride, which usually will cost in the area of 3000 yen per person one way (depending on distance). So you pay 18000 yen for a family of three grownups and three kids under six (you have to go back as well). The cost of renting a car is about 5000 yen per day, but of course it depends on size and model. And you have to pay for gasoline and parking, if it is not included in the rent for the place where you are staying.
Not Economical In Urban Areas
In the metropolitan areas, the pricing means even for short distances, car travel is not economical. For short distances, you rarely pay more than 500 yen on the train, and there are trains almost everywhere you want to go. If you are staying within walking distance from the station, you have to make 10 trips (20 if you need a car as big as we do) around central Tokyo. Not counting gasoline and parking, both of which can be pretty expensive, especially in the dense metropolitan areas.
Again, if you are going to stay in a part of the country where distances are more of a factor than central Tokyo or Osaka, you will probably find a parking spot available at your house or apartment. Even in those comparatively sparsely populated parts of the country, short-term public parking is comparatively expensive. Rent a spot for a year and it is much more reasonable. The reason is that you are not allowed to buy a car before you can show that you have a spot to park it in.
No International Drivers License
Apart from the credit card you need to pay for your car rental, you need one more thing. And it is not just your drivers license. For people from most countries, you need an international drivers permit, often known as an international drivers license - although there is no such thing.
What you get is an International Driving Permit (IDP) according to the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic. This is a paper booklet with your photo in it which you have to show together with your national drivers license when you rent the car, and to the police officer if they should ask you. If you do not get the IDP from the police or drivers license office at home, you will get it from the automobile federation or similar.
That is the only formal documentation you will need to drive in Japan. There is no extra training to help you drive on the left, or to handle some of the Japanese-specific traffic rules.
Two Car Seat Exceptions
One of those rules concern car seats. Children up until the age of six must be in a child seat, which can be a booster seat if they are big enough. The law is flexible about the age where you go from a forward-facing seat to a booster seat. All passengers must wear seatbelts regardless of age and how big they are, with two exceptions: If the child is ill, so she has to lie down; or if you are breastfeeding or changing diapers. It is not clear how new diapers would stop a child from being catapulted forward if the car comes to a sudden stop (like runs into something). It is safer to find a rest stop.
You will not get fined if you are caught with a child without child seat, but you will get a point struck from your license, which may not affect you as much as an international visitor as it would a Japanese driver.
Renting Spotless Seats
Rent the seats from the car rental company. They are guaranteed to be spotlessly clean - no Japanese rental car company would consider providing seats which were dirty or had wears or tears. As is the car, by the way.
Do not bring your own car seats unless you want your children to sit in them on the plane. You will not be able to use them in trains, buses, or even taxis. Japanese taxis are exempt from the otherwise stringent requirement to have children sit in car seats. The reason, supposedly, is that the drivers are so well trained that they have no accidents.
Local Traffic Signs
Japan is a signatory to the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic, but it is not a member of a number of other international conventions on road traffic. The traffic signs are completely local, and the stop sign is an inverted red triangle with a white border and the word 止まれ (tomare) which means stop in Japanese. It makes sense to know some of them, even if most of them will be evident from the context. You will not need any assistance to figure out that two crossed yellow bars with black chevrons on them mean “railway crossing”, but you will need to know that all crossing cars have to stop before the crossing and that the driver is supposed to look and listen (opening the window if you have to). This is strictly enforced.
Unharmonious Speed Limits
Another thing that may surprise you when you drive in Japan is the speed limits. And that people do not follow them, if the traffic moves more smoothly at some other speed.
Japanese cities are densely built and there is not much space for cars, so the speed limits inside cities are often 30 kilometers per hour, or even 20. But evrn bigger roads have a speed limit of 50, and the maximum speed - even on the excellent freeways - is 80 km per hour.
Except when it would be unharmonious to drive that slow. This is Japan, where a nice surface and smooth operation has higher priority than formal rules. So when cars start lining up behind you, you had better speed up. Nothing makes a Japanese driver as angry as being stuck behind a road hog, even if you are sticking strictly to the speed limit. If you pick up enough of a train the police may even wave you to the side. As a foreigner you will find it extremely difficult to know what speed you should really drive at.
Avoiding Older Drivers
Apart from that, you have to be careful about seniors wandering out into the road in unpredictable places. They are a much bigger danger than kids running out into the road. Senior drivers, who feature a mark like a flower on their cars, tend to have bad eyesight and hearing, and overestimate their reaction speed and driving skills. They are involved in a disparate number of accidents, sometimes really stupid ones like mistaking the accelerator for the brakes and ramming convenience stores. If you see a car with a tag like the that, avoid it.
No Foreign Driver Sticker
The senior driver tag is not the only one you will see on cars, by the way. While there is no sticker saying “the driver is a foreigner” that would be really helpful in defusing the road rage you may cause by sticking strictly to the rules, there is a tag that you can put on your car which lowers the expectation threshold of Japanese drivers and make them more forgiving of your bad driving. That is the “new driver” tag which you have to put on the car until you have had your license for a year. It looks like an arrow pointing down, the left half yellow, the right green.
Absolute Beginners Brand
In Japan, this mark (the 初心者 or shoushinsha mark) is used to show that something is intended for beginners, often appearing on websites or in brochures where they give the basic explanation of a concept, or a super-easy explanation of how to fill out a form. It can be used in any situation where you are a beginner - not just on cars - as a shorthand for where to go. A pair of magnetic marks will cost about 500 yen. You can order from Amazon, or if you like, fill in the form below and I can send you a pair.
This post is part of my ongoing series helping parents make the most of Japan with their kids. I collected links to other useful articles on a separate page (link coming soon), but meanwhile, fill in the form below to get fresh updates.
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Family rooms are common in Japan and Korea, where multi-generation travel is the norm. When you have grown up co-sleeping with your parents, you think nothing of co-sleeping with your grandparents as well. And if the bed is a futon mattress on the floor, then the boundaries of your bed are harder to draw than if it is raised 30 cm above the floor.
Since children stay for free until they are six in most cases, the hotels do not make anything off their stay. On the contrary, they are a cost since they will eat breakfast and require changes of bed linen and room cleaning. When you book a family room, you have to pay for the kids as well - it is baked into the price of the adult stay.
If you are a group of more than three - for instance, a family of five with a grandma in tow - you are probably better off if you stay in an AirBnB than a modern hotel. You can find very nice places for a fraction of what you would pay for comparable hotels. And you do not have to trade off much, you might even gain from it. Our kids still talk about Villa Kohola that we rented in Okinawa, surrounded by a wonderful garden and within walking distance to the beach. But there were no hotels near there. Well, a small pension up the hill.
We had a wonderful trip to Okinawa, by the way, and it made a great impression on our kids, providing them with some really good learning experiences.
But we had to rent a villa to house all of us. If you are a big group, the price comes down quickly. But the supply is limited. You have to be very early to find a great place that is not booked already.
Finding a great place is much harder than finding a place. Especially if there are more than two of you, the number of people most hotels are built for. Reviews on AirBnB are as accurate as reviews on Amazon, but occasionally you hit a dud. And you can hardly return the room you rented to AirBnB and pick a new one, like you would return a book you did not like to Amazon and pick a new one.
Getting the place you are going to stay right is crucial, both to the enjoyment of your trip and the economics of it.
But if you have to book three rooms in a hotel that has 300 rooms you are booking one per cent of their rooms. If you are booking three rooms in a hotel with only thirty rooms it is ten percent.
More Than One Room Required
As a family of six (when we bring grandma), we often run into problems how to stay when we travel. Not all hotels are as well-equipped as the Hilton Tokyo Bay, one of the Disney partner hotels close to Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea. They have family rooms which sleep up to five - adults. And kids under six are free (as long as they use the existing beds). The breakfast was great for kids too, even if the pool could have been bigger (and as warm as that of Sheraton next door). But they have a great convenience store downstairs.
But not every place is like that, and most hotels have much smaller rooms. Business hotels hardly have space for an adult to turn around, and capsule hotels are not even possible to consider. This means you are either constrained to two rooms or very upscale hotels (or ryokan, which is not a bad idea). Or AirBnB. Case in point: When we stayed in the Royal Park Hotel The Haneda at Haneda Airport, we had to have two rooms. Only if you have three four-year-olds you can imagine the soundscape of the bickering and argumentation for who should sleep with their parents and who would sleep with grandma, because with two rooms they can not run back and forth between the beds until they settle down (or we tell them it is enough), as they would if we were sleeping in a family room.
No Discount For Bulk Purchases
When you fill up the hotel that way you should expect a discount. But booking an AirBnB is much cheaper than booking three hotel rooms. Cheaper than one hotel room, in many cases. And booking the right place to stay is crucial for your positive memory of the trip. Even if it is just a stopover. We typically use Booking.com rather than AirBnB, by the way. The biggest advantage is not the selection - professional hosts tend to be on both AirBnB and Booking.com. But Booking.com offers something else that is very useful: Free cancellations. If you have not decided when or where you are going, you can book a great place and then cancel if your plans change, without any extra cost. The free cancellation periods vary though, so you have to be careful that you cancel before the offer expires.
But if you are going to stay, it is surprising that the booking sites - or the hosts - do not treat you better. For sure, their business is to run an automated system, not to be hospitable to people they have never met, but to give you a membership and points that you can only use at their site is a bit lame. When you frequently book for a large family, having some way of skewing the selection towards child-friendly rooms would be nice. Even though they will probably not get paid for it, since children under six are usually free in Japan, as long as they do not need beds (or cribs) of their own.
The Hotel Will Forget Your Name
f I go into a store and buy ten pairs of trousers, they will probably throw in some socks and underpants as well, because I am now a very good customer, and they probably want me to come back. Preferrably before I have worn out all the pants.
But once I check out of a hotel room I might as well have taken the next flight off the surface of the Earth. I greeting messages from the place we stayed in Seoul, which is great because we would definitely consider staying there for our next trip. It is great because I keep forgetting where it was (in Seoul, but I get the location wrong for some reason).
But other hotels seem hardly to care less. Maybe they thought our kids were too noisy. But we clearly did not make it into the VIP category. Or maybe they are so big that they do not care. I can sort of relate how the Hilton Tokyo Bay, one of the Disney partner hotels and one we often use, do not feel it is meaningful to come back to all customers. Although if they knew my kids, they would know that dropping me an email a couple of months before their birthday would guarantee them a booking. Frozenland is not open yet but when it opens my kids are likely to be first in line.
Being too few for a group booking does not really help. The closest I have got to someone offering group discounts to ordinary people is Hotelplanner, but a family of six is does not seem to be big enough for them to bother (they have not came back to my requests).
So perhaps as a traveling family you need to be more proactive, and bring more families to a location. Perhaps renting an entire hotel would help, although the conference I arranged would never have filled a hotel. It is no more difficult to book a vacation for a group than for an individual if you do it online. The hard part is getting the group together.
Do It Like Thomas Cook
If you are inviting people you do not know you to share your trip you are not doing anything different from what Thomas Cook did in 1841 (although that many people would be overkill - you would need a pretty mig hotel). But if you could get a nice discount it would be nice to share with more people.
Maybe you do not get access to the same discounts that a travel agent would, but hotels are quick to give discounts if you book everything they have. This would be feasible with a small hotel or pension, and the good thing about the idea is that there are plenty of those in Japan.
So I have a proposition: Join us and let us rent a hotel. There are plenty of nice hotels in the Japanese ski resorts, many of them with hot spring baths. Although not all of them will be able to promise four meter deep powder snow, and not every year.
Want To Come Travel With Us?
Let me know if you and your family would be interested to go see the snow monkeys in Nagano and go skiing with your kids. The skiing season in Iapan is short but we have lots of snow. February 2019 looks like good timing. Our kids will be five and a half by then. Let me know by May 2018 if you would be interested. Email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Japan is an amazing place with cultural sights, food experiences, and hundreds of things you can not do in other parts of the world. And there is a hidden secret: most of them are easy to experience with children - toddlers as well as infants.
Japan is an amazing country for eating out, too. Many of the foods are seasonal, as Japan has five pronounced seasons. Yes, you read that right. Between spring and summer, Japan has the rainy season, which is very similar to the monsoon in southeast Asia. Which means it rains every day, and often throughout the day. And frequently so heavily houses, bridges and roads are washed away by the floods.
But the main changes in the menu come when spring comes. In old times, this was when fresh vegetables and herbs were big enough to harvest. Today, many of the seasonal vegetables can be grown in vinyl hothouses. The seasons become much longer - strawberries are available in Japan from December to May. But good though they are, chances are that your kids have already had them.
So let me tell you what my kids ask to have again, even though they eat Japanese food almost every day. Or perhaps because of it.
Summer is coming to Japan (soon) and in summer, one of the coolest things you can eat is kaki-gori (カキ氷) This unfortunately more and more often turns out to be crushed ice, but the ice should actually be shaved, preferrably with a razor-sharp cutter blade - an old samurai sword, if you have one. The softness of ice shaved that way is like snow melting on your tounge.
Japanese shaved ice is different from Taiwanese shaved ice, where the ice itself is flavored. Japanese shaved ice is not flavored in itself, the flavor comes from the syrup you add on top. When the ice melts, it becomes like a soft drink, which is why it is often sold with a straw that has a spoon at the end. You eat the ice with the spoon from the top, and drink it from the straw at the bottom.
Unlike Hawaiian shaved ice that often comes in rainbow flavor, the Japanese shaved ice comes in one flavor. Be careful not to add too much flavor, it will become oversweet and unedible.
2. Kyouhou grapes
Japanese grapes taste much better than the imported varieties, and the Kyohou (巨峰) grapes are big, sweet, and literally bursting with flavor. You will be able to find them in most grocery stores and fruit stores during the season. They may be pricey but they are worth it.
If you are visiting Japan in late August to early October, go picking grapes in Yamanashi. This region, on the other side of mt Fuji from Tokyo, is known for its grapes. And wines. And other fruits. It is one of the few aress which is not too wet for growing grapes (although there are vineyards in many other places in Japan).
3. Azari Udon
The chewy white wheat noodles are usually sold in a soup stock made from dried bonito flakes and soy sauce (and lots of secret ingredients). But in early spring, when mussel fishermen start going out on the mudflats of Tokyo Bay and collect the Japanese shellfish, udon with mussels come on the menu. Today, most of the mussels are cultivated, but spring is when the are in season, and only for a few weeks.
4. Konbu and Okaka onigiri
Onigiri (あにぎり) are the triangular rice balls wrapped in a crisp green sheet. They come in a lot of different flavors, many of which are great for kids. But others are not so good. You want to avoid giving your kids raw tuna or raw egg, and you do not want to give them anything spicy (like mentaiko, the spicy fish roe; or pickled wasabi, the fiery mustardy root which spices up most sushi).
With so many choices and possibillities, you want to avoid those which will not work. And there is one option which will work with most kids: Konbu (or こんぶ in Japanese).
Konbu is a kind of seaweed (known outside Japan as kelp), but boiled and pickled in soy sauce. So it adds umami to the rice, as well as a bit of saltiness. It is both healthy and tasty, and a great snack for when your kids are extra hungry and want somerhing quick.
Like the konbu onigiri, this is a triangular ball of rice wrapped in a sheet of nori. Just like the konbu onigiri, the taste is heavy on the umami, thanks to the soy sauce marinade and the thing it marinates: fish flakes (the combination is called okaka, おかか).
Those tiny flakes of dried bonito (katsuoh, かつお) are the flavoring that makes kids go crazy for okaka onigiri (or hate it). It is like a caramel, but instead of the sweetness there is umami. Small children have a sense of taste which makes them appreciate concentrated tastes much more than grownups.
Sakuramochi (桜餅) is a piece of mochi, the rice cake created by pounding glutinous rice with a wooden hammer. You may have come across mochi at home, typically square and dried.
Fresh mochi is different. And this mochi is pink, usually because it is flavored with cherries. It will be wrapped in a pickled cherry leaf (you can eat it or you may want to skip it). It is wrapped around a wad of bean jam (which sounds weird but is no stranger than marzipan if you think about it). Just be careful if you give it to your children - small children can choke on mochi, so cut it up before you give it to them.
But for toddlers, who know how to bite and chew, it is not dangerous. Except if they overeat. But sometimrs sakuramochi is so cute it is hard to eat. It normally comes with a salted cherry flower on top. The salty-sourish-sweet dessert is hard to let go of.
6. Ichigo Daifuku
Japanese strawberries are not just eaten in shortcakes or with cream. They are also served inside a bun made from mochi, the pounded rice cake, with an, the bean jam. Before you start thinking too deeply about this combination, try one. The different flavors complement each other fabulously. Just be careful with small children and mochi. They can choke on the mochi if they bite off too big chunks and do not chew properly.
7. Inari Zushi
Sushi is not just pieces of raw fish on cushions of rice. There are many types of sushi which are made with vegetables. You may already have come across kappa-maki, the rolls of rice around a cucumber staff wrapped in nori, the crispy seaweed.
But this is not the only type of vegetable sushi you will come across. There is a kind of brown packets of rice wrapped in a brown sheet which tastes a little sweet and chewy. It is actually marinated fried tofu. Those are called inari-zushi (because inari, the fox goddes of prosperity, loves fried tofu; the z is because there is a wovel ahead of it). Our kids love them.
8. Soy-Dipped Rice Crackers
Japanese rice crackers, senbei, are made from rice flour and grilled rather than oven baked. And then flavored, often by dipping them in soy sauce. The soy sauce sticks to the cracker and gets into the cracks, drying out in the flame and flavoring the cracker.
Fried chicken was not invented in Kentucky. It was most likely not invented in Japan either, but the Japanese have perfected it. The karaage, fried chicken, is rolled in flour and spiced and fried. Sounds simple, but is extra tasty - crispy and crackly on the outside, juicy on the inside. There is a type of chicken bred to be tasty, the Nagoya Cochin chicken, and if you find a place that sells it, line up. It is so good you will not just lick your fingers but your whole hands.
10. Shiitake Mushrooms
The Japanese kitchen is famous for its varieties of fish and shellfish, but the vegetables in Japan are equally varied and fresh. And among the vegetables, the different kinds of mushrooms are the least known outside Japan. Every supermarket has a variety of mushrooms which do not taste like champignons at all. They have various uses in Japanese cooking, often in the ubiquitous miso soup. They used to only be available only in certain seasons, but the mushrooms you find in the supermarket nowadays are cultivated under laboratory conditions.
Except for the shiitake, which only grows on logs of a type of Japanese oak. They are cultivated in all seasons and often indoors for ease of harvest, and the logs are infected with the mycelium (the actual mushroom - the part that people eat is the spore carrier, more like a fruit compared to a tree). The best ones come from logs left out in a forest, but for everyday consumption the hothouse grown ones are good enough. Just to clarify, these are not the dried mushrooms you can sometimes find in import stores (they are usually made in China). These are fresh mushrooms, and just slicing them up with a few green vegetables and frying them lightly in butter is likely to make your kids ask for more. Of the vegetables as well.
Was this interesting? This post is part of the ongoing chronicles of the Watertree family in Japan. You can find links to other posts on the country web page (coming soon!)
I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Bangkok to Tokyo, with a brief visit to Honolulu on the way. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning four and a half - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on email@example.com, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.