if your kids are allergic to seafood, you are out of luck. At least if you were planning to go to a really cool restaurant. But if you have kids who like seafood, and can afford going there, Kani Doraku is a great place to go to.
I have written before about finding food for small eaters and about family restaurant menus, so let me be clear: This is not a family restaurant. But it is very family-friendly. At least around lunchtime (they open at 11:30). We went there a Sunday which turned out to be a perfect choice, although you have to be early for lunch since it gets crowded fast.
Mechanical Crabs Outside
The restaurant is known for its brand, a huge mechanical crab sitting on the outside of the building. It is the same type that they serve you, flown in directly from the northernmost island of Hokkaido, where the water is a lot cleaner (and colder) than around the main Japanese islands.
To get to the original shop, honten (本店) in Shinjuku from JR Shinjuku Station is surprisingly easy. If you go out through the central east exit, cross the plaza to Lumine Est, and go out through the East Plaza exit, you go to the right to the elevator and take it to the fourth floor. If you are coming on the street level, this is the same building as the Zara stores.
More Than Eating Crab
"Kani Doraku is about much more than eating crab, despite the name. The first part, "かに" pronounced kani, means crab. Any kind of crab. The second part of the name is composed of two characters, 道楽, where the first means road and the second pleasure, amusement, or having fun together. The road to having fun together eating crab, it is hard to think of a better name for a restaurant. And it also is true - while the crab is certainly a centerpiece of what Kani Doraku has to offer, the ambience is no less a piece of the experience. The ladies of the staff wear kimono (the men three-piece suites). And even at lunch, there is live music (at least on Sundays).
The live music when we visited was played on a koto, a traditional Japanese (originally Chinese) string instrument. You may have heard it as background music without thinking about it, the traditional tunes are slow meditative pieces with a tone here, a tone there. It is more like the Gymnopedies of Erik Satie than what you may be used to hear on the radio, and many people find it irritating rather than meditative.
But if there are children in the audience, the koto player will take out another book of sheet music, and suddenly be playing the theme songs from the Studio Ghibli classic anime. It is allright for your children to sing along as long as they do not disturb other patrons.
Everything For The Experience
Kani Doraku is actually a chain with stores all around Japan, not just in Tokyo, and while Japanese people generally are suspicious about big chains since small mom-and-pop stores put more effort (if not love) into the preparation of the food, there is no mistaking the dedication of the staff when it comes to the level of quality they are working towards. A Japanese restaurant experience is about the ambience, the staff working to make the customers feel good, and the food. Food really comes third, because visiting a restaurant in Japan is about the experience, much more than ingesting nourishment.
This is why the Kani Doraku stores look like a small Japanese town, and the experience is geared to making customers hark back to a bygone era. If this was a show restaurant you could easily imagine ninjas running on the roofs throwing shuriken or shooting invisible arrows, but this place is about the food.
There's Crab In Everything!
The food is great but if you are allergic to seafood, stay away. Kani Doraku is a speciality restaurant, and that speciality is crab. Longditudinally and laterally. Crab salad, crab gratin (highly recommended for toddlers, but it is burning hot when it comes to the table, so be careful), crab croquettes (succulent but the same warning as for gratins).
The piece de resistance of Kani Doraku is the crab dishes. They can be a little hard to stomach for toddlers, and adults as well. Crab butter, the goo from inside shell, looks very unappetizing but tastes fantastic. Even ordinary crab dishes, except the "kanimeshi", rice with crab meat, can be hard to eat for children. They need the help of an adult to get the crab meat out. That is where you use the third chopstick, the one with the hook at the end.
Facts & Where To Find It
Kani Doraku is a chain with restaurants all around Japan. There is country map with restaurant listing. Look for "Greater Tokyo / Kanto area". There is a page for the "Tokyo Honten", the main store of the Tokyo area. The phone number is 03-3352-0096.
They are open 11:30 to 23:30, with the last order at 22:30. They are closed on New Years Eve, like most other Japanese businesses.
There is a separate smoking area, but most of the seats are smoke free. Try to get a seat in the main hall, it looks like traditional Japanese sits where you kneal, but there is actually a hole under the table where you can put your legs.
We walk a lot in the neigborhood with our kids, which is easy since this is an area with many parks and fairly few cars. The local government has made a superior effort to create a green walkable corridor along the Myoshijigawa river.
The Tetsugakudou Kouen was recently featured in Bebevoyage as a hidden gem worth visiting. It is certainly worth it. But there are so many other parks in Tokyo that you do not have to go out of your way to find hidden gems, although this is the only
park built as a philosophy lesson.
Part of this green corridor is one of the oldest public parks in Tokyo. The Tetsugakudou Kouen (哲学堂公園) is located in the northwest corner of the Nakano sub-city, and it was created already at the end of the 19th century. Most of the staturs - many of them hidden thoughout the park - are there since the creation of the park. Ask your children to tell stories about them.
If you are bringing a stroller, be aware that the gravelled paths are really bad for stroller wheels. And if you want to change the diapers, there are changing tables in the toilets, but there are no toilets at the southeast entrance. You have to cross the main road to the next door Nishi-Ochiai Kouen, which is a level below the baseball field and tennis courts. If you have toddlers, that is where you want to go, since that is where the playground is.
Tetsugakudou Koen is not unique in Tokyo. Many other gardens have hidden agendas. This was one of the premises of Japanese garden design for many hundreds of years: what the garden is showing you is not just what you see, it is also what you learn about yourself by walking there.
If your kids are just starting to eat their own meals, you want to be very careful what you put on their palates. That is especially true for spicy food. Our kids do not like spicy foods, despite having spent the first few months of their lives in Thailand. Well, I expect one explanation is that they were not eating solid food at the time.
But the tastebuds - and sense of smell - in small kids is much more sensitive to strong tastes than those of older people. It is not just a matter of age numbing your senses, small children are physiologically more sensitive to sweet taste.
Sensivity to sweet taste would sound like a reason our kids do not like Thai food. But it is the spiciness that turns them off. Thai food can be so spicy that your tounge wants to run away and hide. It is the explanation for the white powder in the Thai cruet stands - it is sugar intended to keep the spicyness at bay. And at the same time, the spicyness of Thai cooking tickles your tastebuds in a specific way. Or maybe I shoild say massages - Thai massage. Of the joint-breking kind.
Chilli Peppers Close By
Living within a comfortable overnight daytrip from several of the worlds spiciest kitchens makes you apprehensive of the power of red peppers. And green, in the case of Thai spices. The spiciness of Thailand will curl your tounge, the Korean spicy cooking make your mind weak with a red pepper-induced fever. Schezuan cooking will make you feel like you were a Mongolian conqueror.
Same Pepper, Different Taste
All that from spices that are not native to this part of the world and were not available here six hundred years ago. The red chilli pepper (and the green) all came from America in the years after Columbus. They were introduced to the (not yet closed) countries of Korea, Japan, and China by Spanish traders who brought the seeds to curious customers. Together with the sweet potato, the tomato, and all the other results of the Columbian migration.
The amazing thing is that the same spices can be used to create so different tastes. A Szechuan mabodofu is something completely different from a Korean sundubu jjigae. And yet the ingredients are largely the same. The variety of dishes that contain chilies in their various forms is nothing short of amazing. And if anything, their popularity increases as more people get to know these amazing spicy cuisines.
Chilli Pepper Addiction
The reason people love them (and that spicy cooking is actually addictive) is the same that our kids avoid them: pain. Yes, pain. The reason you love gai pad prik gaeng is that it hurts your stomach. And that it feels so good when it stops.
This is no joke. You may have heard of endorphines. Your body releases them when pain stops, like when you finish a workout. They are more addictive than heroin.
This is why people who like spicy food will crave it more and more. It becomes a downer when you stop.
Acquired Spicy Taste
You will not have your kids eating spicy food unless you make an effort to make them eat spicy foods, you hardly have to worry. Even children in Thailand and Korea, where food is hardly considered tasty if it is not spicy, do not eat the food their parents eat. They have to be weaned to the spiciness, and their parents will start with small morsels of diluted spicy food, and gradually increase the dose. By age five, their diet would bring tears to the eyes of a man grown up on a diet of sausages and potatoes.
If you go to one of the home countries of spicy food, be it Korea, Thailand, Mexico or China, you probably neither have the time nor the inclination to train your children to like spicy food (unless you move there permanently). So you want to know what food to avoid, if you want your kids to eat their meals.
Korea Is Simple, Thailand Is Complicated
It is easier in Korea than other places: Anything that is not colored red is not spicy. It really is that simple. Korean cooking is all about creating a feeling (much of it has roots in traditional medicine), so the spiciness has one distinct quality, pushing the balance of your body. Other foods have different qualities. It is not as simple as spicy food heating you up, and cold foods like tofu cooling you down.
Thailand is much more complicated. The easiest way is to assume that everything is spicy. Unless it is white rice. Or fresh fruit.
Family Restaurant Breaded Shrimp
Finding foods your kids will eat can be very complicated, and they are likely to develop a sweet tooth as well as a taste for spicy foods.
In Thailand, you may want to stay with Western cooking if your kids are sensitive. Or go to one of the ubiquitous Japanese restaurants, where you can be assured that there is no chilipepper in the ramen or takoyaki. Although you had better make sure that it is an actual Japanese chain, and not a homegrown Thai offering like Penguin Bento.
In Japan, things are much easier. Even if it is a rare family restaurant where the kids menu does not feature breaded and deep-fried shrimp, Japanese menues are surprisingly family-friendly. Kid-friendly, even. If the restaurants allow kids, they will have childrens options on the menu.
Foods To Avoid In Japan
That is not to say that your children can eat anything on the menu, or anything you pick off the shelves in the supermarket. There are plenty of foods you should avoid feeding your children that you can buy in Japanese supermarkets.
That is not to say there are no spicy foods in Japan. There are, but they are spicy in an entirely different way from chilli pepper spiciness. Unless they are Korean-inspired. You can buy (a passable imitation of) kimchee in the grocery stores, and the most recent addition to the 7-11 onigiri lineup of rice balls with filling is the bibimbap onigiri. Unless you are Korean, do not buy it for your children. It is not very spicy as these things go but way too spicy for small children.
The Safety Of Onigiri
In Japan, onigiri are usually a safe option, unless they contain uncooked things. You have to read the labels (which are usually in Japanese, except recently in 7-11 and Lawson). The taste may not be spicy, but it can be unfamiliar enough to turn off your kids. Try to figure out what they may like, for instance by feeding them small pieces in advance.
And if nothing else works, there are usually plain rice onigiri. They will never be spicy.
As most people planning their own travel to exciting destinations know, Japan is one of the safest destinations in the world. Despite being in the flight path of North Korean missiles, home to several active volcanoes, subject to (sometimes severe) earthquakes, and in the path of several typhoons every year. Japan also gets torrential rains that cause devastating flash floods, and it even has tornadoes. In summer, Tokyo can be hotter than Bangkok, with the subsequent incidents of heatstroke and dehydration, and even deaths among children and elderly. And fires, that used to burn entire cities to the ground when they raged unhindered two hundred years ago, are still a threat in a country where family residences are often built from wood.
Yet Japan is incredibly safe. In Japan, crime is so uncommon that people regularly leave the doors to their homes unlocked, even in the big cities. They reserve their seats by putting their wallets or Gucci bags on the table. The police are mostly occupied by giving directions to people who are lost.
This does not mean they are wimps, by the way. Japanese police are armed and bullet-proof vests are part of their regular equipment, even though Japan does not as a rule permit weapons except for sport. The officers are trained in unarmed combat (a special branch of aikido), and the officers you often see leaning on a stick outside the police stations can take down a shoplifter, drunk reveller or bankrobber in a few seconds with that same stick. Even if the bankrobber is armed with a knife.
And they regularly patrol neighborhoods on their characteristic white bicycles (with a special holder for the fighting stick). In residential areas, the police stations are not more than five hundred meters apart.
So maybe crime can go to the bottom of the list of you worries. But how about the natural disasters? What about earthquakes, for instance?
Worry About Earthquakes
Earthquakes happen all the time in Japan. This is a country that sits on top of three different continental plates. The plates move, and if they get stuck against each other and then suddenly get unstuck, a tremendous amount of energy is released. Not as heat or light or sound, but as seismic waves. Imagine the Earth jumping up and down under your feet, and you get some feeling for what it feels like. If you have problems understanding how something moving a few centimeters can release so much energy, just consider the difference moving a toy car and a truck a few centimeters. The truck is so heavy it needs a huge engine consuming lots of fuel to move at all. Then multiply that several billion (we are talking about plates of rock the size of continents, remember), and you get a feel for fow much energy is moving under Japan.
Earthquakes Taking Roof Tiles
Even a huge earthquake like the one which hit northeastern Japan does not faze the Japanese, however. The earthquake did actually not hit Fukushima, by the way. The events which crashed the nuclear reactor in Fukushima Daiichi came a few days after the earthquake and the devastating tsunami.
Most buildings in Japan are built to withstand an earthquake. This is not as complicated as it may sound. Even Tokyo Sky Tree, one of the tallest buildings in the world, did not fall over during March 11 2011, when the Great Northeast Japan Earthquake happened. Most big buildings did not even get a scratch. By far the most buildings damaged were private homes, which actually turned and twisted when the seismic wave passed through them, so that the roof tiles fell off.
Not that Japan experiences earthquakes every day. Even though the country is so geologically active, there are long stretches of time when nothing happens.
Volcanic activity is tied to geological activity as well. A volcano is a hole in the earth where the molten rock from the interior can push out, and that can either happen with a permanent hotspot, like in Hawaii. The recent lava flows are coming straight from the center of the Earth. But unless the hole is because there happens to be a weak spot in the continental plate, like under Hawaii, volcanoes erupt where the continental plates are torn apart. Like under Japan (and Iceland).
There are no active volcanoes close to Tokyo, though. The closest, Mt. Hakone in eponymous Hakone, leaks poisonous gases (eggs boiled in water from the hot springs on top of the volcano turn black and become a popular souvenir as well as snack). But it is not in any danger of erupting anytime soon. Neither is Mt. Fuji, even though that is one of the worst nightmares of many people in Tokyo.
Typhoons And Tornadoes
The weather is a bigger problem for the Japanese than their volcanoes and earthquakes. Japan is struck by several typhoons every year, which are exactly the same as hurricanes although on the other side of the world. And sometimes, they are as intense as their counterparts that strike Florida, Cuba, and islands in the Carribbean. You can not plan for earthquakes, but Japanese travelers plan ahead for the bad weather during the Japanese travel year.
On the day before the typhoon is forecast to hit, Japanese homeowners take a day off, clean up their yards, close the storm windows, and pack away anything breakable. But most of the time, unless the typhoon is forecast to be extra strong, they go to work as usual. And the kids go to school, because it takes a lot to close a Japanese school.
Most typhoons do not hit Tokyo anyway, they cross Japan to the west of the city, or they pass out to sea. They only result in high winds and heavy rain. Only in quotation marks, because high winds might not be able to blow you away, but they will break your umbrella; and the rain can be so heavy that it literally washes cars off the streets. People still get to work.
There are, very occasionally, tornadoes as well. You might have thought that tornadoes only happened in the US. But they happen whenever the temperature difference is right and there is a plain for them to move over. And even though Japan is a mountainous country, the Kanto area (where Tokyo is located) is a huge plain, almost completely flat.
Typhoons And Monsoon
Typhoons can bring heavy rain, but so can thunderstorms and the summer monsoon, which actually is what hits Japan in the beginning of June. These heavy rains are so heavy that they cause flash floods and landslides. And then I have not talked about the snowfall which happens in western Japan, that can bring up to four meters of snow in a few days. Fantastic for skiing, not so good if you are trying to drive to the office.
But that is in winter. Most of the year Japan is very easy for the traveler (I have a blog post about the Japanese travel year here).
The thing to remember, as the Japanese do, is that these disasters are temporary and do not happen often, although earthquakes are not related to typhoons. But most natural disasters - earthquakes as well as storms - are too weak to be dangerous. They will be a nuisance at worst. Remember that since Tokyo was basically rebuilt in the past 70 years, the city is a very safe place with buildings and infrastructure built to be earthquake resistant. Other places around Japan are much less safe, as the buildings are either too old to be built to earthquake-proofing standards, or too new to be built in the traditional way, which is earthquake-resistant in a different way. The temples of Kyoto are all built using traditional methods which makes them much more resilient in the face of natural disasters than buildings from the mid-war period. The Big Bad Wolf could huff and puff all he liked at the brick house of the third little pig, but an earthquake would have shook it up properly. Most of the damage from the 2011 Northeast Japan earthquake - after the tsunami damage - was caused by houses actually twisting and shaking off their roof tiles.
No Great Kanto Earthquakes
You are unlikely to experience anything like that, even though a repetition of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake which basically laid Tokyo flat is high on the risk assessment agenda of the local government. But since there is no way you can control it, you are better off worrying about things you can control, like fires and other man-made disasters.
Fires are not as infrequent as you may have thought in Japan. There are two reasons for this, and you do not have to worry about the first: Smoking.
Japanese people are great smokers and even though their diet and habit to drink green tea may protect them somewhat from cancer, somewhere between one third and half of all Japanese smoke. They respect no-smoking signs, so to save your children from second-hand smoke, look for places where smoking is prohibited.
Cigarettes Are Smoking Guns
Smoking is also one of the two culprits behind the frequency of house fires. People smoke in bed, drop the cigarette on the sheets, and you can figure out the rest.
Fires would have a much harder time to catch if houses were made of anything else than wood. But wooden houses are the norm in Japan, except for tall or modern buildings which tend to be built from concrete. The low one-family houses that dominate large swathes of the Tokyo cityscape are mostly built from wood. And it is dry, often bone-dry from having sat in a house for fifty years. So dry you would be happy to use it for firewood. As happens when there is a house fire.
The house where you and your family are staying is unlikely to catch fire, unless you smoke. But you may be forced to evacuate if the house next to yours catches fire. When you look for a place to stay, do not just look at what your house, also look at your neighbors. The newer the house, the less likely it is to catch fire, even if it is built from wood. With concrete houses you do not have to worry at all.
House fires are probably the scariest man-made disasters you should fear in Japan, but of course there are others. Traffic accidents are not as uncommon as you might expect in such a safe country, and small children will always tend to run out on the streets chasing a ball, or a flower, or their dog. Japanese drivers can hardly be called reckless (this is a country where the safety part of the driving lessons take more time than the driving itself), but accidents still happen. They are something to watch out for as a parent, and since the Japanese drive on the left side of the road, you may not be as used to the traffic conditions as you may like to think. Behave ultra-carefully and always stay within the white lines or on the pavement with your stroller, and you and your child will never be in any danger.
I wrote some time before about childrens meals in family restaurants. They have not changed in the interim: It is hard to find one without fried shrimp. A kaiten-zushi is likely to be more healthy.
With a small child that has just started eating, you want to be careful not to give them fresh food. There are some types of sushi you could try, but it is better to stay away from it entirely until they are a bit bigger. Toddlers love the sushi rice, as it is sweetened by the vinegar used in the preparation, but there are only some types of sushi they should eat. Better stay away from it.
Another reason to stay away from sushi is the wasabi. This is a type of spice you may have come across if you are a frequent visitor to Japanese restaurants. The green paste with the mustard-like fierceness is made from a type of root which only grows in free-flowing water, and the fresh wasabi tastes very differently from the preserved versions (often mixed with horseradish), since the essential oils that bring the most sought-after taste quickly disappear, leaving only the fierceness. It can bring tears to they eyes of an adult, but that is nothing what it will do to your child if they eat it. Several hours of crying is the most likely outcome.
Why To Avoid Natto
Wasabi is usually served with sushi, although mixing a little in the soy sauce used to dip grilled meats enhances the taste – for adults. So it is easy to avoid. So is other foods which you do not want to feed to your infant. But unless you actually select them yourself, they are easy to avoid.
One such food is natto, the fermented beans which Japanese eat with rice. Most foreigners balk at the slimy consistency and the scent, although if they could get it without those, they would appreciate the nutty flavor. The same mold as is used in the natto fermentation is used with rice to make shiokoji, white stuff that is smeared on fish and meat to tenderize it. It gives the food a salt-sweet flavor that goes down with a little older kids.
What To Avoid In Your Bento
Most Japanese eat a bento at least once a week. This is the lunch box which is sold en masse in convenience stores. Most restaurants also have them, and there are specialized companies who sell them. But while there are companies who specialize in selling bento for small children, you have to live in Japan to find out about them.
A normal bento consists of a piece of fried fish, some small vegetables and tofu, and rice. Often with a piece of nori on top. If you get a nori bento, check two things: That the nori is not so tough your child can not chew it, and that there is nothing on top. One popular type of bento has tarako, cod roe, on top. Often spicy. You want to avoid that.
Also be careful with the fried fish. While the fish itself is excellent food for your children, the fish may have bones which can stick in their throat and hurt them - even puncture the throat of a small child. You do not want that.
Also check the pickled vegetables. If there are pickled stems, they may be wasabi and that is spicy by nature. And of course avoid anything which may be raw, like raw tuna and raw fish roe. The rules for that are really the same as when you give your child an onigiri.
Do Not Eat Korean
Japanese people love Korean food, as is witnessed by the many Korean restaurants in most Japanese cities. The restaurants are often run by ethnic Koreans, or their descendants, since Japan annexed Korea and imported labor en masse during the 30's. They have both Japanese and Korean passports, and would serve as a bridge between the countries. Mostly, however, they run restaurants which are very successful, since they serve spicy food - something not common in the Japanese kitchen. And on the palate of a child just beginning to eat, or even experienced traveling toddlers.
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When we are traveling, we are almost a travel group. Six people - three kids, two parents, one grandma. As I think I told you, we have triplets, so can not ask the kids to babysit each other. Intergenerational travel has its challenges too. Grandma does not use a wheelchair (yet), but she does not have the stamina that a three-year-old does. And she is too big to carry, which I sometimes have to do with our youngest daughter (by a few minutes).
It is not automatically easy to travel wirh such a large family. There are hurdles everywhere. Not only that we need space for everyone, we need space everywhere. We have to hire a big rental car, we need family tables in restaurants, and we need a big place to stay. A hotel room is not nearly enough. Two hotel rooms are a challenge. You need a suite, and not a junior one. An apartment is better.
But with an apartment you have to do everything yourself. Except maybe cleaning, if you got a serviced apartment. And even so, the cleaner does not come in every day.
Luckily, Japan is different. While hotels are designed for business people traveling alone (or in pairs), that is not how most people in Japan do vacation trips. While there are plenty of business hotels aimed at the traveler on a business trip (and plenty of hotels aimed at single travelers who found a different kind of business partner), the places which focus on family travel are focused on big families. And multigenerational big families, at that. This is what happens in a society with an abundance of seniors and scarcity of children.
So if you travel for pleasure, finding places which can accomodate your family is easy. And the hotels, inns and guesthouses are really happy to get some use for the family rooms they already have. Since they also have set everything up for families, things like breakfast get really easy to handle. If it is a resort or ryokan (a traditional guesthouse) they will be used to accomodating children, both at breakfast and dinner (which is served in your room in traditional inns, and which is the culinary highlight of the day).
Japan may be expensive, there is a language barrier, things can be hard to access, but if you have children who are reasonably well-behaved, they will be very appreciated. And so will you as a guest. "Omotenashi", the Japanese service spirit, is real.
Japan has a reputation as an expensive place. But that is old history. The Japanese Yen (JPY) dropped like a stone against other currencies a few years ago, and despite breathlessly enthusiastic articles in the business press about how the currency has appreciated, it is not more than a few tenths of a percent.
Even though the currency remains cheap for foreigners, the prices for people who receive their salaries in Japanese yen have remained constant - and even gone down, since Japan occasionally suffers from deflation, which is the opposite of inflation.
No Budget Effects
Like many countries, there are free things to do in Japan. And some of them are things you want to do as a visitor.
Some of the most attractive things to do in Japan is visiting the traditional places of worship. While Japan used to be a Buddhist country with a strong animist component, there are also some beautiful churches. Temple visits and visits to shrines are free, although if you want to get your fortune it normally costs 100 yen. Less than a can of coffee from a vending machine, and much more interesting.
The public gardens that dot the cities are also free to visit, although not all gardens are public parks. The lovingly reconstructed traditional gardens that dot Tokyo typically charge a small fee, 100-200 yen,
Eating & Drinking Out
Tokyo has (or at least had at one point) more Michelin stars than Paris, and there are places which will make your mouth feel in ways you had never anticipated, calling out flavours you could have sworn nobody had heard about until they put them in your mouth. They create an experience to back it up, but they are unfortunately also priced accordingly. Half a monthly salary for an ordinary office worker is not an uncommon price for their meals. And they do not allow children.
But those are probably not places where you want to take your kids, unless their tastes go far beyond fried potatoes and spaghetti with tomato sauce. If that is more to their taste, there are lots of places which will be happy to serve your children.
Budget Places For Childrens Meals
While the starred restaurants may not be welcoming to children, places in the price range just above the set meal restaurants which abound in Japan are perfect for children - and will welcome them as customers.
Those include not only the "Family restaurants", chains llike Gusto, Cocos, and Royal Host; but also lesser known chains like Cafe Shakeys and Tomato Jr. A meal in those places will put you back approximately 3000 to 4000 yen for a family of four, depending on what you order and whether you have a beer or wine witth your meal. But they are hardly apices of culinary distinction. A childrens meal will cost about 500 yen, and your child will get a cheap toy, but the food consists of fried potato, fried shrimp, and fried chicken, maybe with a couple of salad leaves and mini tomatoes, plus a broccoli floret or two.
If you go to a nice middle-range restaurant you will have to pay at least 10000 yen for a good meal, including drinks. This includes wine, beer, or Japanese sake.
a separate mention here about kaiten-zushi restaurants. While the dishes in the sushi restaurants in central Tokyo - both with a conveyor belt and without- are oriented towards adults, the chain stores in the suburbs are more child-friendly. Not only do they have cooked fish, they have different types of child-friendly foods, and desserts as well. All conveyed on the same conveyor belt. Many kaiten-zushi places also offer ordering to your table using tablet computers, and when they do, the order menu is normally available in English. The price is somewhere between the family restaurants and the upscale places, but it all depends on what you have. Check the color and pattern on the plates carefully, they tell you the price of the dish. Usually there is a large board somewhere in the restaurant with the prices and the different kinds of plate, making it easy to track that you are not overspending.
Set Meals At Home
I mentioned the set meal restaurants; most people in Japan do not cook very often at home, and when they do, it is only part of the meal. Especially the rice. The reason Japanese homes very rarely come without a rice cooker is that Japanese people deeply appreciate the taste of freshly cooked rice. The rest of the meal is regarded as a kind of garnish. Japanese housewives, who usually are the people in the family who cook, buy most of the rest in the grocery store - or from the set meal restaurants.
Buying a bento box or a couple of onigiri and a cup of instant miso soup in the convenience store is the modern Japanese office workers version of lunch and dinner, in particular during the working week. A bento box with rice, fish or fried meat, and a couple of vegetables cost approximately 500 yen, an instant miso soup cup about 150 yen, and an onigiri between 105 and 130 yen (but there are premium versions which can cost up to 300 yen, so always check the price).
Buying a meal in a set meal restaurant will put you back approximately 550 to 700 yen, depending on what you have. The typical price for lunch in a restaurant has otherwise crept up towards 1000 yen, one of the rare instances of inflation in Japan (neither the meals or restaurants have changed since the ptice was 850 yen). But in the set meal restaurants, where you order and pay in a ticket vending machine and then sit down at a desk or perhaps a small table, there is no space for a family to sit down, and you can forget bringing the stroller even if it has a sleeping child inside. On the plus side, the vending machines in the big chain stores have been modernized, with a video screen where you can see what you are ordering, and the option to select text in English (or Korean or Chinese). Sometimes the translation is a bit clunky, leaning on the dictionary style. But most of the time they get it right.
Buy a take-out meal in a set-meal restaurant like Sukiy, Matsuya, or Yoshinoya and take it home. It is by far the easiest way to get a hot meal at home with a minimum amount of effort.
Tokyo has some hotels which will make the most sybaritic traveler feel they have landed in luxury heaven. And then, on the other side of the scale, there are capsule hotels and private rooms in Internet cafes.
None of those are suitable for families with children. But the next step on the ladder, family rooms in hostels, are not a bad idea if you are on a budget. A family room in a hostel can cost as little as 10000 yen per night, and is much more comfortable than a room in a business hotel, which is really intended for single travelers.
A large room in a Western-standard hotel costs about 40000 to 70000 yen, or even more. Prices at the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku, known from the wonderful film "lost in translation", start just below 70000 yen and go on to 140000 for a suite; for a family of four. AirBnB starts at 10000 for a small house, but prices in central Tokyo is more in the area of 30000 to 50000 yen per night.
One great way to stay in Japan is in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese guesthouse. If you are going to Kyoto, do it there, as the Kyoto ryokan are legendary for their hospitality. But if you have not planned to, stay in a ryokan in Tokyo, at least for a few nights. Yes, you have to sleep on the floor, but that is part of the experience.
Staying in a ryokan in Tokyo will cost between 30000
and 40000 yen per night for a family of four.
Travel Inside Japan
Taking a taxi in Tokyo costs 410 yen for the first 1050 meters, and then 200 yen per 1050 meters. But you also have a time component. Most people take taxis when they need to go between two train or subway stations, very few people take taxis longer distances. Considering that it costs approximately 30000 yen to go from central Tokyo to Narita airport, this is understandable. Trains are both more convenient and taster.
To go between two stations in Tokyo with the train or subway costs about 120 yen, which is the minimum fee. There are actually platform tickets on some stations, valid only for entry and exit to the same stations, but it is a rare trip that does not comprise more than three stations and change of trains. The typical price for a trip of about 40 minutes duration is 250 to 400 yen, depending on how many train lines are involved. Taking the bus costs about 120 to 300 yen, depending on how far you go. Children under six are free, and until 12 they pay half price - on trains as well as buses.
If you are only going to stay in Tokyo with a trip to Kyoto, the Japan Rail Pass is perhaps not economical - a normal shinkansen ticket for an adult is 13600 yen one-way, but a Japan Rail Pass for 14 days is about 45000 yen. But you do not have to make many side trips to make the Japan Rail Pass pay its way. If you plan to see Kyoto, Nikko, and Hakone as well as Kamakura, plus travel around a bit in Tokyo, the economics of the Japan Rail Pass changes and it becomes a good idea, at least if you plan to stay more than 10 days.
Japan is not a physically big country (the land area of Japan is about the same as that of California), but it is incedibly physically varied, and it stretches from the tropical islands of Okinawa to the arctic sea of Okhotsk north of Hokkaido. It is long and narrow, but most of the area is connected through bridges and tunnels, making train travel possible using the Shinkansen trains.
This does not mean there are no airlines, but it is simply not economical either from a time or money perspective to fly, unless you are going to (or from) Hokkaido or Okinawa - which anyway does not have any train connection to the Japanese mainland.
To fly from Narita to Naha in Okinawa with one of the new low-cost carrier (LCC) airlines costs on the order of 7000 Japanese yen per person for a one way trip - outside the holiday weeks (when the price more than triples).
Souvenirs And Gifts
When you travel in Japan, it is a strange place that does not have a local specialiality. Usually it is some kind of food, maybe prepared in a unique way. Or it may be the fruits of a plant which only grows at this particular location. Japan is actually one of the hotbeds of biodiversity in the world.
And if they can eat it, they will. And package it nicely so visitors can buy it and take home to their friends. Edible gifts is a billion-yen industry. Many of them will impress the people back home and make nice additions to your own kitchen. The prices are also reasonable, around 800 to 1200 yen, but be careful if you are allergic to rice, nuts, eggs, or beans. The filling in traditional Japanese sweets were almost exclusively made from beans.
But if you want to cook rather than eat, spend some time at the kitchen floor of a Japanese department store. Not only will you find gifts which will be perfect for friends and family serious about cooking, you will also find things you absolutely need in your own kitchen. The famous Japanese kitchen knives, made by actual traditional swordsmiths in the same way as the world-famous Japanese samurai swords. A Japanese kitchen knife - and be careful, there are machine-made copies - is a work of art and will put you back approximately 30000 yen and up.
If that is out of your spending range, there is an amazing alternative if you are looking for high-quality Japanese-made goods at reasonable prices. That is the 100-yen-store.
Japanese city centers are dotted with stores huge and small who have one thing in common: everything is the same price. And that price is 100 yen (actually 108 yen, because tax is not included). Ten years ago the stores were full of Chinese junk, but now they have upped their quality game, and Japanese manufacturers have learned to make cheap products, while maintaining their famously high quality. Many of those goods are traditional Japanese goids, but many other things are not so traditional things which people use in their everyday lives. Think schampoo hats, sushi making kits, and dog towels. A perfect place to find quirky souvenirs at reasonable prices. Especially if they are stamped with the Hello Kitty character.
The most expensive thing you are likely to do in Japan, when it comes to events, is going to an amusement park. Tokyo has several parks in the city center and many more in the fringes of the city. The largest amusement park in the Tokyo area is FujiQ Highlands, but that is in Yamanashi and it is a good two-hour bus ride outside Tokyo, making it a great day trip. If you like rollercoasters, it is a must. Entrance is 1500 yen at the door, but with the bus tickets it is 7800 yen.
A day pass for an adult at the Tokyo Dome is 8000 yen, for kids it is 4000 yen. Beware though that when it is crowded, they put in activities which are not included in the passes. You may wonder if you are in the right business when you see they charge 1000 yen for bouncing around in a balloon in a pool - per five minutes! And it is always full!
Unless you go to an amusement park, entry is much cheaper. Most parks, except those which are considered gardens, are free. The gardens charge between 150 and 300 yen, but they are free for children (and seniors over 65 pay half price).
Museums charge between 300 and 800 yen for grownups, children go free. The observatories and view floors normally charge 1200 to 1800 yen.
The parks are free, and so are many other sights. In particular temples (and shrines, and churches). Most Buddhist temples maintain a garden, sometimes specialized towards some kind of flower or plant. Just remember that they are places of worship, and do not let your kids run around and play (unless there is a playground attached). And do not go into the graveyard to take photos. The graveyards are not public places in Japan, with some exceptions like the Aoyama Cemetery.
Food, Drink, And Formula
As I have mentioned before, you are likely to have to visit two different places to find food and baby formula. The drugstores sell baby supplies, and they also sell diapers. Some supermarkets have drug store departments, but by no means all.
A package of diapers cost about 1200 yen, a can of formula between 2000 and 4000 yen (depending on if you buy it in a package or on sale; or separately).
A carton of milk costs about 120 to 150 yen, a carton of yoghurt about 300 yen. The prices of yoghurt can vary a lot. Corn flakes cost about 1000 yen, but the packages are a lot smaller than you are used to, as are the packages of muesli. As a matter of fact, all packages are smaller than you are likely used to. 10 eggs, not a dozen, cost 120 yen, a bag of sausages approximately 400 yen.
If you are allergic to chicken, be careful, most sausages contain chicken meat. The exception is the Schauessen sausages (before the German speakers in the audience laugh themselves to death, yes it is a real brand). Of course, those sausages are a bit more expensive.
Cheese and butter tend to be very expensive in Japan, a normal small Camembert costs 330 yen and up. Much more if it is made in Japan. Bread is either factory-made (in which case the price is 100 yen or less for a quarter-loaf, which comes in either four, five, or six slices); or handmade (well, bake-off) and made in the store. Then, the price can be up to five times higher. In Japan, bread can also come with baked-in sausages, baked-in hamburgers, sprinkled with cheese, with vegetables baked in, fried, boiled, and any number of variations you can think of, and many you have never thought about. The price is between 150 and 300 yen for a piece of bread.
If you find that surprising, you will be chocked when you come to the fruit and vegetables department. Japanese vegetables are grown by hand and cared better for than animals in many other countries. The taste is terriffic, the quality extremely high, and so are the prices. Look forward to paying 60 yen for a cucumber or 300 yen for a bag of five tomatoes, and wondering what the growers in your home country are doing with their vegetables.
Fruit is even more expensive, since it bruises more easily than vegetables. 150 to 200 yen for a single apple is nothing unusual. If you crave fruit, buy bananas, they are usually 100 yen for a bunch of four.
Getting The Sales Tax Back
Japan does not have VAT, but it does have sales tax. Currently, the Japanese sales tax is 8 percent, but if the Abe government gets its way, the sales tax in Japan will be raised to 11%. The raise was actually scheduled and has been postponed due to the bad economy.
You need to be a bit careful, because prices sometimes include the sales tax, sometimes not. You have to look at the price tag, if it says "+税金" then the tax is not included in the price. If the price tag says nothing it is included. Or maybe not. Formally, you do not have to include tax.
The best thing about the sales tax, at least for tourists, is that you can get it back. Not in every store. You need to go to a store which has a global tax back sign in the window, and you will only get the tax back for things you can show to the customs agent as you leave the country.
Be a bit careful about where you are going to shop, if you are going to ask for getting the tax back.
Budget For Emergencies
When you are traveling, remember that you need a margin, both in case you want to do something extra and in case something happens. Typically 10% of the budget for a day will be enough. But also put away a special fund for souvenirs, and another for emergencies.
Visiting a doctor costs about 50000 yen, and even if you get it back from your travel insurance, you will need to pay in full at the clinic. Medicine will be approximately 15 to 20000 more. Most clinics take credit cards, but many one-doctor clinics will not. Nor will smaller pharmacies.
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I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Tokyo to Sendai, previously of Bangkong and Honolulu. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning seven - 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.