Not every restaurant is family friendly, and finding a place to eat when your kids are starting to feel peckish might become the item you have to plan the most for. Unfortunately, it is also one of the hardest things to investigate in advance, and there is a risk that you end up eating spaghetti and/or hamburgers every meal, every day.
If you want to try local food with toddlers you had better hope there is a chain of restaurants that allow children and which caters to locals.
You do not want to take your kids anywhere, and you can not take them everywhere. Japan is full of restaurants serving delicious fare that are hard to access for a healthy person, on the second floor or down in the basement after a narrow, winding, badly lit stair. And once you get there they have three tables where you can barely seat two people without bumping into each other or your neighbors, and a counter where there is not even room to drink unless you pull in your elbows.
And then I have not even mentioned smoking. In a world where smoking in restaurants is about as fashionable as beaver felt hats, Japan still stands out as a place where people are allowed to poison their fellow diners. You do not want to bring your kids into many traditional restaurants. The Tokyo government has decided that all restaurants will be smoke-free in 2020, but most officials do not believe in it themselves.
Luckily, there are many restaurants which are already smoke-free.
You see ordinary restaurants doing it, in particular if they are new. They do not want that morning-after stink of old cigarette smoke that permeates not just soft objects like curtains and furniture, but sticks in a yellow incrustation on paint and woodwork, nicotinizing the entire place for future visitors. Saving two years before you have to renovate must look good on any business plan.
Then, there are a group of chain restaurants that have made it a business idea to provide a smoke-free, family-friendly environment. In Japanese, they are known as "famires" which is an abbreviation of family restaurant. Japanese often borrow English words (sometimes in combinations no native speaker has ever heard of) to express new concepts, and the family restaurant concept was created to cater to families going out for lunch or dinner, even though the customers often are elderly ladies taking a break from their busy shopping schedule.
The menues in these restaurants have gravitated towards Japanese cuisine and healthier fare from the original steak and fried foods. The salads in Cocos are better than many you would find in speciality restaurants. Some places, like the Big Boy chain, sport salad bars (still a rarity in Japan). But even if they give your kids crayons and a coloring sheet, they rarely offer them a healthy menu.
The kids menues in the family restaurants in Japan would be prohibited to an adult with even the slightest cholesterole problem. The breaded deep-fried shrimps with mayonnaise (tartar sauce in the better restaurants), french fries, high-fructose jelly, a sole broccoli flower and maybe a lone half tomato does not make any parent with even the slightest idea of nutrition happy. The healthiest item on the kids menu is the Japanese kids curry (which would never be at home in either Thailand or India). And that is only because this rather thin stew contains some vegetables that were boiled beyond disappearance.
The kids love family restaurants, though, and they are one of the few places where you can eat in Japan where nobody will complain that your kids are noisy (after all, their kids are even worse!). Adults are typically able to forgive any faults they may have found when they see the dessert menu.
However, all of the restaurants try to be "american international". Both Dennys and Jonathan are originally American brands (but you will not get miso soup at Dennys in the US), although now throroughly Japanized. Gusto, Big Boy, Cocos and other family restaurants all serve the same basic fare.
If you want real Japanese food, you will be looking for a different place. Most restaurants are small and crowded, but in new developments you may find roomy restaurants where you can bring the family. They are usually one of two types: noodle restaurants, or kaiten-zushi.
There are many different types of noodles in Japan, but the ramen restaurants are typically not as family-friendly as the other two types. Ramen is the thin kinds of noodle typically served in a soup that Japanese salarymen (white-collar workers) use as a late-night substitute for the family dinner. Ramen is hardly the high point of Japanese cuisine, but as comfort food it is unsurpassed (save possibly by kara-age, the fried pieces of chicken that Japanese children devour). The other two types of noodles have more of a culinary reputation, and they often come with a lot more vegetables, and a lot more savory soup, than ramen.
Udon restaurants, serving the chewy thick wheat noodles, are particularly family-friendly. Put your family at a table (there are usually high chairs, but never enough). You can order the noodles cold, in which case the cook will first boil the noodles and then chill them by washing them in ice water. Mix one large portion (oomori, 大盛) of cold noodles with a medium-size portion (futsuumori, 普通盛り) of noodles in hot soup, and they will become perfect eating temperature.
Normally, you can add various additional dishes, like fried chicken, fried vegetables, or fried squid. There are also rice balls (onigiri おにぎり) . Hold the ginger and onions, and remember to get chilrens plates and forks before you sit down.
The other type of noodles, soba noodles made from buckwheat, are thinner and slightly astringent - not bitter, but somehow feeling differently on the tounge. The nutty taste may not be to everyones liking, but if made with high quality ingredients the soba noodles can be amazing. It is not for nothing that there are soba restaurants which have been operating constantly for more than five hundred years.
Soba noodles are either served cold, or hot in broth. The broth is seasonal and can be delicious - and piping hot. So here, again, you order one portion of cold noodles (often served with tempura, the lightly fried vegetables and seafood), and mix it into the broth.
Since soba restaurants are more upscale than the udon and ramen places, you may be asked to keep your kids quiet and not touch the decor (break it and you have to pay for it, much more than you had planned for the entire trip). And you may be frowned upon because your kids eat with their hands. Try to make them be quiet and behave, at least if you want to come back. Soba noodles are so good that you are likely to want to.
But the third kind of the family friendly non-famires-restaurants is the one your kids will want to come back to. Surprisingly, the shrimp here are not fried, but fresh. It is the sushi restaurants, or to be more precise, the kaiten-zushi restaurants. No, it is spelled right. There are umlauts on consonants in Japanese.
You have probably seen them on TV: the places where food runs around, around on little plates on a conveyor belt. Not only is this a must-do for any first-time visitor to Japan, it is a must-visit for any families with children looking for a typical Japanese family meal. Go there on a weekend and you will discover how much Japanese families like them. But try to find a big one, which has stalls for family seating.
Kaiten-zushi restaurants have some points of etiquette you have to observe. Take the plate with the dish you want (not just the sushi), and never return a dish you took. You will get extra plates when you order speciality dishes or drinks. Green tea is included (either as tea bags or macha, which you take and stir up in a little water, adding more to taste). So that green powder on your table is tea, not wasabi.
There are three condiments in kaiten-zushi restaurants, but your kids may not like one and definitely will not like the other. The third is soy sauce, which enhances the meatiness (umami) taste and adds a hint of saltiness. Just remember you do not need more than a teaspoonful in your dipping plate at the time.
On your table, you will find a box or jar of sliced and pickled vegetables. That is gari, pickled ginger sliced thin. Gari (sometimes pink, thanks to red shiso leaves in the pickling bran) is what you eat after a particularly filling and fatty piece of sushi, to cleanse your palate from the oil of one kind of seafood and making yourself ready for the next taste sensation. Since it is sweet your kids will eat it, but they may not like the spiciness of the ginger.
The other condiment is wasabi. Some restaurants actually sprinkle a little herbs on some dishes, or put a little chopped leek or onion on top of the grilled salomon, but the condiment you can find in almost any dish in a sushi restaurant is wasabi.
There are two reasons for this: one is the taste. A little hint of spiciness enhances the other tastebuds (opening your breathing passages for the scents, for one). But even sushi chefs overdo it, putting on too much wasabi and killing the finer tastes. Wasabi is not ketchup, and you are going to kill all the taste if you slather it on like mustard. Some Japanese may take a little extra wasabi but they would recoil in horror if someone took more than the tip of a knife. If they saw someone taking a teaspoon or more, they may faint.
The argument that you do not think it tastes anything without wasabi is actually a sign you would be better off not eating sushi. Sushi is intended (even in the family-oriented kaiten-zushi restaurants) to be a symphony of taste, look, and texture. Japanese food is not just intended to be eaten, it should be consumed. The sushi chefs (even those working to feed families of ravenous kids) study the art of creating a dish that will imprint itself on the palate of the customer. And not with the hydraulic press power of a spoonful of wasabi.
But wait a minute. This fish is all fresh, right? So how do I dare to take my kids there? They are still small and their stomachs delicate. I do not want them to catch norovirus or worse from bad fish.
Yes, but it is free from parasites, bacteria and other bad things. This was the second reason for the wasabi: it kills parasites. Nowadays, fish is frozen to make sure it is safe, and the big chains have invested heavily into the logistics of bringing super-fresh fish to all the different parts of Japan where they operate. And anyway, your kids (and you) do not have to eat raw fish unless you want to. Most kaiten-zushi restaurants feature cooked dishes as well as the sushi, and even then there are some types of sushi which is cooked (and that kids love), like the omelette sushi, and the nori rolls with cucumber.
If you do not see anything you like, you can order it from the menu. Many restaurants have their menus on iPads or tablets, in multiple languages. Your dishes are delivered riding on a little Shinkansen train.
That makes it fun to order on your own. But you may not have to. In many kaiten-zushi restaurants, you suddenly see a bowl of karaage, the fried chicken that children love, coming down the belt. Or fried potatoes. Or fried shrimp. Hopefully with tartar sauce.
I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Bangkok to Tokyo, with a brief visit to Honolulu on the way. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning four and a half - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on email@example.com, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.