There is a convenience store every 500 meters in Japanese cities. They are really hard not to find. For the Japanese this means you hardly ever have to cook or have anything in the fridge. Many families give their schoolchildren money for the convenience store instead of a family dinner. But for those with smaller children, the convenience stores can also be a lifeline, especially for those who have an infant in tow.
While convenience stores aim to be convenient, they are not all equally convenient for everybody, however. Some stores are in areas with few parents, and they do not carry diapers (those who do have only small day packs). Others are too small to carry more than the bare minimum of necessities, and hardly offer more than snacks and drinks. The owners of the stores are masters at squeezing in shops where you would never have expected anyone to try to fit a store.
Three-packs in three chains
There are three big convenience store chains in Japan: 7-11, FamilyMart, and Lawson. Then there is a slew of smaller chains: Circle K, Sunkus, Daily Yamazaki, and many more. Some are owned by the big chains, and you will recognize the brands and names of the goods, even though you had never encountered that chain of stores before.
And then there are the important things that help you care for and feed your child. The convenience stores in Japan are everywhere, and the three main chains all sell the same basic tings. The difference between a Familymart, Lawson, and 7-11 is smaller than the stores which are supermarket-sized and the pocket-sized stores you would classify as kiosks if you could not walk into them.
Copy, taxes, and dropping off
What you want is a reasonably big store, and not one of the stores that are squeezed into a corner of a shopping center corridor. The bigger stores are easy to find when you go out, as they are usually on the street level. They typically have more than two aisles and you can bring in a stroller.
The stores have all the normal services of a convenience store, which goes far beyond the goods you need to run your everyday life. Since you are probably not going to pay taxes and bills, you may not see the need for their administrative services, but you may find it helpful to use the copier.
The stores all work in the same basic way, and have the same basic functions. There is usually a ticket printing machine, a copier-printer where you can print out physical copies of documents (and send and receive faxes if you should ever feel that need), an ATM, a ticket printing machine for tickets to shows and events, and a bathroom. If you are staying long, it is probably useful to know that you can also make payments (of your taxes and bills), and pick up Amazon and other Internet shopping packages (or anything you can receive from one of the ubiquitous courier firms). And you can drop off things to be shipped, although they often balk at receiving suitcases you want to ship to the airport, or some other destination. The reason they are reluctant is that they do not have any space to keep them. They may direct you to the dropoff center for the courier company. Japanese typically either go there with their luggage, or more often they will have the courier company come and pick it up. Kuronekko Yamato, the biggest courier company, does have an English customer service. You can call and ask them to pick up, but if you stay in a hotel, guesthouse or ryokan they will help you.
Hot water at lunchtime
The convenience stores make most of their business around lunchtime. The number of customers buying bento lunch boxes far outnumber other customers.
The customers buying lunch do not always buy bento. Many people have cup of instant ramen for lunch, and the convenience stores provide a pot of hot water for those customers.
That is useful for you if you have a baby who is still on formula. If you bring your own bottles, and either measure out the powder in advance, or use the Meji formula cubes, you can quickly create your own formula at the right temperature by cutting it with a little cold water from a bottle you just bought.
That is a useful service to know about, but if you are looking for something to wipe off the result of the latest milxsplosion, or a pair of extra diapers since you ran out, then the convenience stores are even better for you. The bigger stores normally have diapers - in packages of three. Since the stores have a limited assortment of things there is not a lot of choice when it comes to brands and sizes, so if you want a better selection go to the drugstores. As I have written about before, the drugstores are the easiest places to buy diapers in Japan.
Open when closed
But convenience stores are open when the drugstores are closed, and there may not be any drug stores in the vincinty of where you are. But in Japan, you can be pretty sure there will be a convenience store.
Just be aware that it can be pretty random whether they have any baby goods. The convenience stores ruthlessly clean out goods that do not sell from their shelves, and if diapers do not sell, they will soon be gone. The only reason the store may want to keep them is if there is a baby oriented attraction nearby, like the Anpanman Museum near the Familymart store where I took the picture. But otherwise it can be pretty random.
They have other things that are useful for traveling parents as well. Tissues are the most obvious - and the lotion tissues are soft enough to use as baby wipes. Just remember that they are not flushable.
Toilets without changing rooms
Speaking of flushable, all convenience stores have a toilet for customers. But very few have changing tables. If you have toddlers who walk by themselves it is very, well, convenient. But not with a stroller.
The other baby product they have is baby soap. Babies have sensitive skin and especially if you are staying in a cheap hotel you may not want to wash your baby with the hotel soap. So running down to the convenience store is an easy way of being nice to your babies skin. They have towels in the convenience stores too, by the way.
When you buy something in a convenience store in Japan, they will stick it in a plastic bag. Even if you buy an icecream bar the cashier will hand it to you in a plastic bag. Those bags are really useful as used diaper bags. When you want to throw away the used diapers it will come in handy.
If you have toddlers you may appreciate some other things. Band-aids are something you will often need but do not have handy, and as you know, kids are masters at scratching themselves. Tissues are usually something toddlers need as well, and for those times when your kids fall or scratch themselves, disinfectant wet tissues can also come in handy.
Of course you can buy food and snacks in the convenience stores as well, but they typically do not carry baby formula or other specialized goods. The convenience stores have fruit and sandwiches, normally very heavy on either mayonnaise or fried food. But there are exceptions, like the strawberry and cream sandwiches. If you have toddlers or school-age kids, they will love those.
Best toddler food
The best toddler food is onigiri. I have written before about the ten foods your kids will love in Japan. For us, besides shaved ice, our kids love both onigiri and senbei, the rice crackers which are the healthiest alternative to potato chips in the world (and taste better too).
So if it is daytime, you may want to look around for a drugstore. They are more likely to have what your babies need, but they are not about convenience - which is what convenience stores do.
This was one of my posts about everyday life in Japan. I have written about how and where to buy baby supplies, how to take the train in Tokyo (and the rules you have to follow when you do), how to use a Japanese laundromat, 20 questions people ask about bringing their kids to Japan, why there are three wastepaper baskets when you find any, and many more posts to help visiting parents get around in Japan.
Nothing ruins a vacation like being forced to stay in your hotel room wit a high fever, cough, and a nose that does not stop running. Well, maybe throwing up at the same time. Well, maybe your kids doing it is even worse.
So we had our kids vaccinated against the flu, with two separate shots a few weeks apart. They love telling everyone that since they are five years old, they did not cry when they got the shots.
So when my son came down with high fever and vomited everything we tried to feed him, we naturally called the nearby clinic, since a child with 40 deg c fever does not walk anywhere. They told us to come in about 5 PM.
By then, his fever was almost normal. The doctor listened to my sons lungs, looked in his throat, and took a very unpleasant test for flu (by inserting a probe in his nose). And sure enough, he had the flu. His sisters were completely unaffected and in the evening his temperature was down to normal and he ate a double helping of Japanese curry, so it was over quickly (although it is the second day now and he is asleep, even though he stopped taking naps around lunch on normal days). So naturally I asked myself what we could have done. There are four simple precautions you can take:
* Wear a mask
* Stay out of crowded places
* Wash your hands
Why people wear masks in Japan
The need to protect themselves against the flu has meant some very publicly visible ways of protecting themselves. People in Japan wear masks - surgical quality face masks - during large parts of the year. There are four reasons people wear them:
* They want to protect themselves against germs, in particular viruses.
* They want to protect themselves against allergens, in particulsr pollen.
* They want to protect others against getting their colds.
* They want to hide their faces.
The last reason is not as common as you might expect, given that at times half the people you see on the train are wearing masks. But if you want to hide your face, you may be hiding something else. We have a neighbor whom I have never seen without a mask, but he is evidently somewhat famous, which explains it.
The other three reasons are much more common. And while you can see people with masks at any time of year (usually because they have a cold), you see many more from November to March - flu season, followed by the cedar bloom.
The Hello Kitty Masks
If your kids hate wearing masks (my daughter complained that it chafed her ears) there are lots of variety with cute motives to choose from. There are child-sized masks with Hello Kitty and Mickey Mouse in any drugstore. The masks filter out anything the size of a flu virus and above, and since the virus has to go from the person sneezing to your mucus membranes before they die to infect you, it means you will be safe. Be careful when getting rid of the mask, as viruses can be infectious up until 30 days after expulsion from the host, and if you get live virus on your hands and touch your babies (for instance, blowing their noses), you could infect them.
The masks are extremely effective at filtering out pathogens, but also allergens. This is a real problem in Tokyo, because many people (like anywhere) are allergic to common plants. But it gets extra bad in spring when the Japanese cedar is blossoming.
When temperatures go over 10 deg c, the cedars start to flower. Since the mountains surrounding Tokyo are almost exclusively planted in cedar trees, and when they bloom they can create so much pollen that it looks like a sandstorm. The masks filter it out, making the air considerably easier to breathe for allergics.
The masked innovations
The Japanese mask makers are nothing if not creative, and while cute prints on childrens masks could probably count as an innovation, just trying to find the right grownup masks are more likely to leave you stymied.
There are masks for people with glasses, with mint and herbal aromas, with extra filtering, and with moisturizing pads. Masks actually moisturize the air that you breathe by keeping the air that you just breathed out close to your face. Moisturizing pads are usually less necessary, but one innovation still missing from the market is masks that channel away the snot from your nose when it is runny. If you have a runny nose cold, the inside of the mask can get pretty icky pretty fast. Not that this stops a Japanese salaryman, especially when there may be important meetings about the format of documentation.
Killing viruses: Poison and violence
Killing viruses (or virii, for all Latin sticklers out there) is not very different from killing humans. You apply a little poison and a considerable amount of violence, and the virus goes to the happy hunting grounds. Well, it may be debatable if it was alive in the first place, of course.
The amount of violence that it takes to kill something microscopic is very small, however. Your three-year old child will be able to excert sufficient force - when they wash their hands. The combination of the rubbing action and the soap is really deadly to germs, especially if you carefully wash away any residue. So make sure your kids wash their hands, not just at the end of the day, but also before meals and after playing in the dirt. There is usually a separate wash stand outside the toilets in Japanese restaurants, even in McDonalds.
Crowded train epidemics
There is always an extra peak in the influenza epidemics after the new years holidays. When kids go back to daycare the viruses they may have been carrying mutate to adapt to the new hosts, and when the parents crowd onto the commuter trains, they are sure to be sprayed with viruses.
I have written before about the daily travel rythm of Tokyo, and why you want to avoid bringing your kids onto the trains in rush hour. The risk of getting the flu is just one additional reason. When people litteraly are packed together tighter than sardines in a can, unable to move either hands or feet, one sneeze will infect tens of people. Including your children, if you managed tosqueeze them on board.
The lobby hand sanitizers
One thing that will help you kill viruses, although on your own hands rather than those of your kids, are the bottles of hand sanitizer you will find in the lobbies of hotels, office buildings, and in many stores. Just push the dispenser once and a small shower of rubbing alcohol comes out. Do not use it on your kids; while this is not drinking alcohol, the sting can be unpleasant. Especially if they rub it in their eyes.
Those bottles are a fairly recent addition to the Japanese virus-killing arsenal. There used to be nothing in the lobbies and stores, but the bottles were introduced after the 2011 Great Northeastern Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Outside of Japan, it may be better remembered as the cause of the Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster. But following the disaster, companies and government offices started putting out bottles of hand sanitizer in their lobbies. Initially it was intended to ward off far worse epidemics, but the hand sanitizers proved so effective in reducing sick leave that they stayed.
An opening at the garglery
You may wonder what gargling has to do on the list of preventive measures, but it is very simple. The virus attaches to themembranes of the nose, throat, and mouth. There, they take over the cells of your body, making them produce more viruses in the process.
That is why a runny nose is a good thing when you have a cold, and why the influenza virus is more prevalent in winter. Winter in Japan means the air is dry, which is why you can see mt Fuji from Tokyo. There is no haze, because it freezes out in the cold air.
When the air is moist there is a constant lubrication of the membranes in your breathing apparatus. When the air is dry this does not happen. That is why a runny nose makes it harder for viruses to stick - and why gargling is effective. Always drink a lot (of water) when you are out, and gargle when you come home.
What do do to protect yourself from the flu
So let me sum up what you should do to protect yourself from the flu:
* Get vaccinated (it worked for two of our three kids!)
* Wear a mask when in public places
* Wash your hands often with soap and water
* Do not re-use the same towel to wipe your hands and your childrens faces, use paper towels
* Gargle when you get "home".
* Avoid rush-hour trains
This was part of my ongoing coverage about life in Japan. I have written about safety for tourists in Japan, what you should plan for your budget, how to figure out where to stay, how to buy diapers and other baby supplies, what and where to eat with your kids, ten foods your kids will love in Japan, how to cope with winter, how to use a laundromat, and how to avoid insect bites (and when you need to do it).
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You may not be old enough to remember, but there was a time when the air in Tokyo was so polluted that there were oxygen vending machines in the streetcorners. Japan was drowning in household garbage, since the small islands have limited space for landfill - in particular landfill that pollutes by runoff into the groundwater, smells and attracts noxious birds. The traffic was so bad that it could take several hours to get from one part of the city center to another. And all those cars would create even more pollution.
Today, Japan is well on its way to meet the Paris targets for carbon dioxide pollution, and the country could become a fossil-free economy if the governement worked a little harder on it. All households recycle plastics, glass, and metal, and household garbage incineration generates hot water and electricity. Most people take the train or subway when they want to go somewhere.
The air is clean and breathable, except when there is a dust storm from China or the Japanese cedars are flowering. There are so many of them in the mountains surrounding Tokyo that the pollen becomes like a dust cloud. But in winter, you can see mt Fuji from almost anywhere in Tokyo.
Quiet and poop-free
.But even though Tokyo is one of the biggest cities in the world, it is also one of the cleanest. Even though dogs outnumber children (by some counts two to one or more), it is rare to see dog poo anywhere outside the dog exercise compounds in the parks, and even there the owners pick it up. There is hardly any grafitti (it is considered a crime, although sometimes the grafitti remains for months in unmonitored places). There is only occasional littering, even though there are no public wastebaskets.
And it is quiet. Noise is a kind of pollution but you do not have to go far from the main streets of any neighborhood in Tokyo at night for it to be as quiet as a boreal forest, the occasional cyclist.
The main reason that Tokyo is such an ecologically successful city despite its size rests on two things: strict regulations and an eco-conscious population. And this is also how you notice the eco-consciousness as a visitor.
The most noticeable thing is the lack of public wastepaper baskets. You have to carry your garbage with you either until you get "home" or until you come to one of the few places with wastepaper baskets. There are public wastepaper baskets in some parks, in the train and subway stations, and in some convenience stores.
Triple wastepaper baskets
There used to be wastepaper baskets outside all convenience stores, where you could throw away the packaging of the things you just bought, or the bento trays after eating. But in many places they have moved them inside the stores, because people threw away their household trash. In Japan, garbage is collected on alternate days, so you have to keep your trash at home until the pickup day comes.
That does not apply to diapers (or nappies) which are not recyclable no matter what you do with them. There are usually plastic bags and wastepaper baskets in the changing rooms, but not always. That is why you need to carry a few plastic bags of your own, so you can put your trash there and tie it shut when you are done with the change. Even if it is tempting you should not throw it away in the convenience store or train station wastebaskets. Especially not in summer. You can imagine yourself what it will smell like.
There will usually be at least three wastepaper baskets in a row, which are used for sorting garbage. All garbage in Japan is sorted in at least burnable and plastics. In addition the PET bottles and cans are sorted separately, and often glass bottles as well. The train station wastebaskets usually have a separate wastepaper basket for newspapers and magazines, especially the incredibly popular manga comic books that people read on the train. Those are often fished out by people who resell them from streetcorner stalls for 100 yen or less.
Use it till it breaks
Japan has a long tradition of re-use and resource stewardship. To mend things and use them until they have broken so badly that they can not be used anymore is common, but so is throwing away things that are no longer wanted. But the perception of what is old and what is broken is not necessarily the same as yours. At times, things that may be considered completely new are thrown away. Often they end up in the recycling stores, if they can be reused.
Mottainai means no waste
It begins at home, where children are told that the "mottainaimonster" will come if they waste water, or heat, or cold, or other things. "Mottainai" translates as "wasteful" and is very negative when it comes to household economy, although it does not really apply on the macro plane (to things like bridges to nowhere and airports on uninhabited islands). But not wasting is a virtue in Japan, although it is always subsumed by the goals of the activity. If you have a goal to achieve a certain amount of waste is allowed, and if the goal is to entertain, expected.
Not wasting, including time
Not wasting means not wasting time as well, which is one reason trains always run on time. To consider your neighbor and their resources is the oil that makes the gears of the Japanese society revolve and makes sure that things do not come to a screeching stop. That includes time. To waste the time of other people is frowned upon, so as a tourist you will be appreciated if you make your questions easy to answer and if you do not ramble along but come to the point quickly. While people will take a long time to become visibly frustrated, they will be seething inside that you are taking advantage of their kindness and wasting their time.
This was one part of my ongoing series about daily life in Tokyo. I have written about how you buy diapers as a parent, how and where to buy other baby supplies, how to get around in Tokyo taking the train, how to use a laundromat in Japan, how you can get your tax back when you go shopping, and what foods in Japanese supermarkets your kids will love. And answers to 20 common questions about traveling with children in Japan.
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Did you know you can get the tax back on the diapers you buy in Japan - and then some? It is one of the perks you can enjoy as a foreign visitor.
The stores that will give you tax back have a special red sticker in the windows. Usually you have to spend over a certain amount, which can vary from 30 USD to 300 USD. You will have to fill in a special form that declares you will not resell the goods you have bought, and that you are not living in Japan and are not buying for someone living in Japan. And you will have to show your passport, so be sure to bring it.
Make sure to get all the tax back
When you shop you either get the tax free price right away, or the store will give you the tax back. If you shop in a mall you can package all the items together. In that case, you need to seal them in the same bag as other items. Normally, only consumable items need to be sealed in special bags.
Be careful to only shop in stores that actually give you the full 8% back. Some will not give you all the tax back.
Additional social discount
Some stores will give you an additional discount if you show your passport. Others, like Matsumoto Kiyoshi (at least some stores) give you an extra 5% on top of the 8 % tax back if you sign up for their social media channel. Other stores have a similar offer. This means you can buy a package of diapers for 1100 yen instead of 1500 yen. Even more if they have a discount offer. And it may be even more if they have a special offer. Check before you shop.
An extra tip is to buy gift cards in a ticket store and pay with them. Gift cards is a very common gift in Japan but sometimes people want to cash in on the full amount rather than buy piecemeal. So they sell the gift cards. Sometimes companies also ask employees to buy gift cards before the end of the fiscal year to increase turnover, and give the employees a discount, and they will sell them instead of using them.
You buy the gift cards in the ticket shops that also sell concert tickets, train tickets and other tickets of all types. The ticket stores buy the gift cards at maybe 10% off face value and sell them at 95% of face value. So if you buy gift cards and pay with them you get a 5% additional discount.
The 5% additional discount
Just check in advance that the store takes the kind of gift card you want to pay with. An additional 5% takes an additional 50 yen off your packet of diapers, which may not soung much but if you buy something else than diapers which takes less space in your suitcase than diapers, you can get 50 dollars off your 1100 dollar purchase.
If you have a credit card that gives you an additional discount or cash back, check if you can use it to pay for the gift cards. That will give you an additional discount an in addition of course the airline points you are no doubt collecting for your next Japan trip.
The department stores take most kinds of gift cards. And they have desks with English speakers to help you.
Did you enjoy this post? It is one in a series of posts about shopping in Japan. I already covered buying baby supplies in Japan, how to shop for diapers in Tokyo, and what to but to prepare for the Japanese winter.
Anyone who thinks Japan is expensive should know that there is a snack which costs only one US cent - 10 yen. In the picture below you get 30 for 278 yen plus 8% sales tax, but in the Lawson stores they sell single sticks for 9 yen. That is cheaper than senbei, ang less than a tenth of the price of onigiri.
The price is not the only amazing thing about the Umai Bou. The snack comes in a variety of flavors, some of whinch may be a little too spicy for small kids. But there are other flavors which are more child-friendly.
The Umai Bou (tha name translates simply as "tasty stick") comes in a variety of flavors, some seasonal. They also make promotion versions for events like the launch of different anime. Try giving yor kids the corn potage flavor, or cheese (which does not taste like Cheetos). As usual, the best thing is to check yourself first before giving it to your children.
The taste variation is the most fascinating thing about the umai bou, since it is not much to write home about nutritionally. It is filling but not for a long time since a lot of what you are eating actually is air.
The Umai Bou snack has a cosistency somewhat similar to cheese doodles, but the similarities end there. It looks a bit like the traditional Japanese fish paste chikuwa, because the production process is somewhat similar.
Seriously, nothing much happens in Japan on New Years Eve. It is very much like Thanksgiving in the US. Most people enjoy a traditional meal with family, watch the song competition on TV, and go to the shrine to give alms to the gods, get blessed and get their fortune told for the new year.
When the Christmas decorations come down, which they do on December 26 if not sooner, they are replaced with traditional new yer
ars decorations made from bamboo and pine branches. They will only stay until offices open again on January 3, although since many offices do not open until January 7, they may stay until then.
In resudential areas temporary shacks selling new years decorations start appearing just before Christmas. They are usually affiliated with a nearby shrines and the decorations have religious significance. You are supposed to destroy them by burning them at the shrine the year after.
Renewal and reflection
In the old Buddhist tradition you would extinguish the fire in the hearth in the evening, and make a new one in the morning. New year in Japan is a time for renewal and reflection, and preparation is a big part of the celebration. Traditional households turn over the tatami mats, throw away everything old, and celebrate by eating a traditional meal. The reflection extends to companies and stores, which normally are closed over New Year. Everything is closed, including ATMs and convenience stores. Restaurants may be open, but most will be closed.
From Chinese year to calendar year
The Chinese new year used to be the same time of year, but when Japan adjusted the calendar and the calendar year became the official year instead of lunar year during the Meji revolution, the end of the year became the end of the calendar year.
People go visit the shrine at New Years Day, eat soba noodles, and special new years dishes. It is more like Thanksgiving in the US than New Year anywhere else. However, this year is a bit different: It is the last new year of the Heisei era, since the old emperor (and he is really old) steps down in April and hands the throne to his son. There will be several public holidays in May celebrating this. So products with the Japanese year written on them will be excellent souvenirs.
Theme park and shrine celebrations
That there are few to no public celebrations does not mean that there are no celebrations, of course. If you want to join the more than a million who do so at the Meji shrine, that is a special experience, although trains are more crowded than at regular rush hour. There is also a special train from Shinjuku to mt Takao to see the sunrise.
The big celebrations are happening at the theme parks in Japan. There are fireworks at Disneyland, New Years celebrations at Universal City Japan in Osaka, and at many other theme parks and discotheques in Japan.
So what does this mean for travelers with children? With museums closed, public gardens closed, attractions not open, and the most fun thing to do is visiting shrines. There are lots of them, not just the Meji shrine. Many are even more interesting, like the shrine to admiral Togo in Shibuya, the undisputed victor of the biggest fleet battle of the Russo-Japanese War and the only Japanese admiral who has had a Finnish beer named after him. There is also the Yasakuni shrine, which is fascinating whatever you think about its precepts. The Yushukan war museum is open on New Years Day, but there are several days during end of December when it will be closed, so check the website before you go. There is also the Kanda Myojin, one of the grandest shrines in Tokyo.
Japanese shrines are dedicated not to personified gods like the Greek temples, but forces of nature, sometimes personified as emperors. Or admirals. The hatsumode, the visit to the shrine at the first day of the new year, is a great time to see Japanese traditions. And the shrines are not as crowded as you might think.
I have written about holidays in Japan on my blog before, about coping with the Japanese winter, celebrating Christmas in Japan and about the Golden Week holiday. And I covered the Japanese travel year as well as the Japanese travel day. Please check it out if you are planning a trip to Japan with your kids, especially Tokyo or Osaka.
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As people often ask how much luggage storage space there is on the Shinkansen trains, let me show you. Our suitscase who is doing the modelling is 85 x 55 x 30 cm including the wheels. If you try to put it in the overhead rack it sticks out by about 1/3 of the width, which is a little too much to be safe.
You can barely squeeze in a suitcase, and not all cars have this space. On some trains (a little newer) there is an actual luggage rack.
There are overhead racks, which are about as big as the onerhead storage in an airplane. And then there is a small storage space at the end of some cars.
The seats on the trains turn around so the riders always face forward, even when the train is going in the other direction. That means there is a space at the end of the cars behind the seats.
Then, there is a storage space behind the last row of seats. The tables do not move and it is very small. Those seats do not recline, since the tables are fixed. That is on the side with two seats. On newer trains the trays fold up, but the space is still limited.
On the other side of the aisle, where there are three seats, you can squeeze in a whelchair. Or two strollers.
And that is the sum of the luggage storage space in a Shinkansen car. No wonder most people prefer to send their luggage ahead.
This was one of several posts I have made about taking the train to get around Tokyo. I have written about the Japanese travel day, how to take a train in Tokyo, about the Shinkansen platform tickets, when you need a car in Japan, when flying makes sense over taking the train, what you need to think about when you take the Shinkansen, why Shinkansen is the best travel alternative, and what you should budget for your daily travel (kids under six travel free on Tokyo trains!). And I recently wrote about the rules for riding trains in Japan.
The Japanese winter is not really cold. At least not for someone used to the snow and cold of borthern Sweden. Which does not mean you and your kids can not get bad colds if you are not careful. You have to dress right.
In Japan, Uniqlo has a line of specially engineered clothes - Japanese high tech - that keep the heat close to the body and wicks away the sweat that would cool you off if it was allowed to stay on your skin. Ito Yokado, the department and supermarket part of the group that owns the 7-11 convenience stores, has a similar line of clothes. But while Uniqlo also has some clothes in childrens sizes using the HeatTech technology.
Uniqlo and H&M and all their competitors have clothes for a little bit bigger kids - toddlers and up. Not so much for babies in strollers. And stroller bags are unknown. The best you can do is most likely a blanket. If you have winter gear for your baby, you should bring it. If not, you need one of the specialized baby goods stores, or the department store baby departments. But the specialized baby goods stores are not located in the center, and the department stores are expensive. So if you have small kids the stores may not be much help. And watch the sizes. Our kids are five but "European size", which means they wear clothes intended for Japanese second graders.
Overheating the homes
In Japan, strangely enough for such a high-tech oriented country, thermostats often seem to have two settings only: Off and max. The Japanese traditional heaters worked that way, but that was more than two hundred years ago. Today the airconditioners in homes double as heaters, leveraging the heat pump in the air conditioner that takes the heat from the inside air and dumps it on the outside. They have very sophisticated sensors, and are able to direct the hot (or cold) air to the spots in the room where people are, achieving a comfortable temperature on the way.
But the normal way a home, or a hotel room, are heated is not that way.
In winter the train companies also switch on the heating beneath the seats. It is nice if you get wet in a rainstorm (or snowstorm), but it gets a bit too toasty on everyday trips. The seats can be uncomfortably hot, and you start worrying that your kids will burn their fingers.
The muffler winter wear
The Tokyo and Kyoto areas are about 5 degrees centigrade in winter, although the temperature can get up to 15 degrees. But if it snows then the temperature can go down to zero, even if it rarely drops below. It does not snow every year either.
Most people do not really put on winterwear, at least not compared to other countries. Heattech keeps you warm with a thin sweater or jacket on, and when you enter the overheated rooms you can take it off. Many people only wear a muffler for winter clothing.
The air-driven heater pads
Not everyone feels warm with only underwear and a sweater, or even a winter coat. If you are sensitive, or if you are going to be outside for more than a few hours, you will want a heating pad.
In Japan, you can buy heating pads in packs of ten or more. They are packed in an airtight bag, and when you open it the air starts reacting with the chemicals in the pad, and heat up. The pads are adhesive so they stick to your clothing, keeping you warm where you need it.
Just be careful if you put the pads on your children. They do get pretty hot, not enough to cause burns but enough to be uncomfortable if you do not have a few layers of clothing in between. If you put it in the stroller, put it under the seat pad so it becomes comfortably warm.
Winter fashion goods
Japanese people are as style-conscious as Italians, and design should not just be functional, it should be fun as well. But while old standbys are kept on market as long as they sell, every year sees a flood of novelties combining high tech and high design. It can be anything from hot water shoes (to keep your feet warm in the same way as a diver does, bu without getting wet), and USB-enabled socks and mittens with built in heaters. To find the novelty goods, go to Tokyu Hands, a big department store that specializes in home goods and DIY supplies.
Did you like this post? I have written about the five seasons of Japan before, what to do on a rainy day in Tokyo, about seasonal activities you can do in Tokyo, and the Japanese travel year (very much weather related).
If you want to find out more about my upcoming books about traveling to Japan with children, go to the book
Onboard the trains, both private and those run by JR, there is a number of rules you should follow. These are not unwritten rules – on the contrary, there are posters in the stations and the trains telling you how to behave on the trains, and stickers to remind you to give up the “silver seats”, as the seats reserved for elderly, people with disabilities, and parents with babies are known.
Make sure your children sit still (and do not put their shoes on the seats). Running about is not only disturbing other passengers; since they do not understand Japanese, they will not understand announcements declaring that the train is stopping suddenly, or that the train is about to change tracks. Small children can fall and hurt themselves
The first rule of inconvenience
The first rule in Japan, as always, is not to inconvenience others. Babies screaming loudly and children playing around and making noises are inconveniences. At least make an effort to hush them. Make sure to take off their shoes before they put their feet on the seats, and make sure they do not bump into others. Talking loudly on the phone is another inconvenience for others – the Japanese invented the “manner mode”, the ringtone mute function, on phones so that it should be quiet on trains. Playing music that spills out from the headphones so others can hear it is another inconvenience you had better avoid.
So is pushing other people with your huge rucksack or bag. When the train is crowded, it is better to keep the backpack in front. Unless you are wearing your baby there. But bringing lots of luggage onto the train is going to make it hard for others to move around and finds seats, and so it is better to avoid.
Do not even try to pick it up
If you frop something on the track, do not risk your life trying to retrieve it. Even if it is your childs favorite toy and she is screaming blood murder. Get the staff and ask them to pick it up for you. They know the timing of the trains and they have a really long thing with a grip at the end that quickly gets whatever it is off the tracks. Japanese subways do not have a third rail (at least not in Tokyo) but the trains can not stop if someone is on the tracks, so do mot risk it. Especially not for a stuffed toy.
If you mslay something on the train, you can be certain that it will be in the lost-and-found office the next day. If you forgot something on the train that just left, the staff may be able to ask the staff at the next station to pick it up and hold it for you. Japanese service is like that.
Line up properly
Lining up in a proper line in front of the train doors, and letting people get off the train before you try to enter, is another positive behavior you will find advertised on posters around the stations. So is making sure to line up behind the yellow line. This line is often paved with studs for blind people to feel with their white canes, so try to stand behind it. If you have a toddler you may want to make sure they hold your hand, as they may run around or cross the line to see the oncoming trains. This can be quite dangerous if the station does not have platform doors, since stations are often passed by express trains on the track closest to the platform (there may only be one), and this can mean they are pulled along by the wind from the passing train. It can happen to strollers too, so make sure to have a good grip and stand it at an angle to the platform edge.
Yielding to children
Once you get on you may find people yield their seats to your children (but not to you). But in the morning and evening, the manners of tired commuters go out the window, and they may even grab the seat before you instead of giving it up. To say something would be to shame them publicly though and that is even more impolite. Instead, do like the Japanese do: Stand in front of the seat you want them to give up, and make your children make a show of how tired they are, without directly asking the person. This may seem strange to you, but in Japan it is perfectly normal, since once you are in the seat, it is yours until you give it up. Regardless of the rules. But if the need of the person in front of you is bigger, then Japanese will feel they have to comply.
Careful with smartphones
There are huge signs in the station warning you against walking and texting. Apart from people who are drunk on their way home from parties, this must be one of the biggest dangers on the crowded and narrow train and subway platforms. And in the trains it is a nuisance too, as in the picture above. Not bothering others is the golden rule when it comes to smartphone usage on Japanese trains, like everything else.
Careful with strollers
When you bring a stroller you can usually put it close to the seats, but be careful not to block the door for people getting on or off. And do not block the door between the cars for people who are going through. If your child is asleep, you can keep her in the stroller. If you take her up, try to keep her quiet, as being quiet onboard the train is one of the rules written on the signboards in the stations, and featured in (often humorous) posters declaring that you should not chat loudly, talk loudly on your mobile phone, or generally disturb other passengers.
Get the silver seats
When bringing a stroller, you should look for the sign at the step which says where the silver seats are. They are usually in the ends of each car, and the seats themselves are a different color. Chances are that if you bring children in a stroller, you will get a seat there. But you may also want to check if there is a wing sign (羽) since that means the air conditioning is weaker in that car. In summer, Japanese tend to turn the air conditioning up high, and while the air is no warmer than in other cars, you do not have to put your babies in a cold wind if you choose those (the character in this context does not mean wings, but weak).
There is one thing to remember about taking trains in Japan, and especially in the big cities, that is not written anywhere on the trains or stations. It is that you should not even try trying to take trains and subway during morning rush hour. This is when people try to squeeze on the trains and the staff attempt to make sure their limbs and luggage are not sticking out and blocking the doors so they can not close. Give the trains a miss between 7 AM and 9:30 AM on working days.
No eating but drinking is allowed
A rule that actually is unwritten is that you should not eat on the trains. Generally, eating in Japan is a much more disciplined activity than eating in many other countries, both because of the crowded circumstances and because of the Japanese attitude to eating, which involves eating only when you have your own private space. This does not apply to small children who are excempted from most rules anyway.
Drinking is allowed, including alcoholic drinks, but in moderation. And there are no toilets on the local trains if you drink too much. There may be some on the long-distance lines that cross Tokyo on their way to somewhere els, but unless you specifically boatded such a train, you have no guarantees.
Things to remember about taking the train
☐ Do not take the train between 7 AM and 9:30 AM during working days. It is too crowded to travel with children.
☐ Put your phone in “manner mode” (the ring signal on mute) and do not talk on the phone. And do not walk and text. It is even more dangerous than walking and talking.
☐ Always let passengers get off before you get on.
☐ Offer your seat to the elderly or infirm.
☐ Take off your backpack or wear it in front, so you do not bump into other passengers.
☐ Find the car with the weak airconditioning.
☐ Avoid bringing heavy luggage onto the train, do like the Japanese and send it ahead.
☐ Do not speak loudly to others in your party or on the mobile phone.
☐ Do not eat on the local trains. Drinking is OK. Small children are excempt from the rule.
☐ If your kids play on the seats, take off their shoes.
☐ If you drop something on the tracks, call the station staff.
☐ Try to keep your kids quiet. That babies scream is unavoidable, but try to make your toddlers be quiet.
This was one of several posts I have made about taking the train to get around Tokyo. I have written about the Japanese travel day, how to take a train in Tokyo, about the Shinkansen platform tickets, when you need a car in Japan, when flying makes sense over taking the train, what you need to think about when you take the Shinkansen, why Shinkansen is the best travel alternative, and what you should budget for your daily travel (kids under six travel free on Tokyo trains!).
Did you find this interesting? You have actually been reading a chapter from my upcoming book, Bring Your Babies To Tokyo, about how to navigate the Japanese capital with kids in a stroller - all based on our personal experiences from getting out and about in Tokyo with one twin jogging stroller and one umbrella stroller.
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Yesterday, the Cabinet put a law before the Parliment making the day of ascension to the Imperial throne of the Crown Prince a public holiday. And the following day will also be a holiday. So now it is official: the Japanese will suddenly have Golden Week holiday from April 27 to Monday 6 in 2019. And this is on top of the governement mandate to take five days of paid holiday every year. But it will revert to more normal holidays in 2020. Unless the government declares holidays for the Tokyo Olympics 2020.
Golden Week was already the preferred holiday week of the Japanese people, mostly since it meant taking three days off to get five days leave . Some years only
two days. But this year, the government is giving everyone a present: An entire vacation week. For families, three days extra pay is nothing to sneeze at, even if they will have to take it out as salary in April the year after.
Why is Japan changing emperor?
The current emperor is really old. He has ruled since 1989, and is 84 years old now. People get tired and frail at that age. Our grandma spends most of the time watching TV. I am pretty sure the Emperor would do the same, but he is going around the country visiting his people, meeting foreign ambassadors, dining with visiting heads of state, and so on. He did a fantastic job supporting people after the Great Northeast Japan earthquake, that led to the Fukushima disaster. You can see that he wants to retire.
The throne accession day
Akihito, the current emperor, will step down on April 30, the day after the holiday that celebrates his father, usually known as Hirohito in the West but the Showa emperor in Japan. His son Naruhito will take over on May 1. Making May 1 a holiday means both April 30 and May 2 become holidays, since they are sandwiched between other holidays. So suddenly the entire week is a holiday, and ending with a long weekend.
The ascension ceremony is not until October, so there will be an extra holiday then.
So what does it mean for tourists?
Much as it pains me to say so, you should not come to Japan between April 27 and May 6. It will be crowded everywhere. Worse than usual, and that was already crowded, as I have written about before. If you can, go after May 6. Then everybody will be at work, and the hotels and especially the ryokan will be empty, more or less. However, museums will be open (it is part of their job as educational institutions), and temples and shrines will not close. Stores will likely keep open, as people on vacation shop more than people at work. Trains will most likely run normal schedules, but there will not be any rush hours, different from the ordinary working days I have written about before.
50 % Off Afterwards
If the potential crowds and full hotels are not enough to make you less interested in coming during Golden Week 2019, here is something plenty of people have pointed out: The prices in hotels after May 6 are half, or even less than half. That is pretty stunning and tells you that May will be a very good time to visit Japan, especially as it is sandwiched between Golden Week and the rainy season. With great weather and small crowds. What is there no to like?
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 six - 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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.