RACT's Community Manager Will Oakley shares his experiences of travelling in Japan with a small child.
I'm standing on a dark street in Osaka at 9pm, after spending more than 24 hours in transit from Hobart to Melbourne and then Cairns, with no idea where our apartment is and my 64-year-old mother using words I've never heard her use before. Added to this scenario was 13 pieces of luggage and a screaming seven-month-old baby girl.
This was the start of our adventure to Japan; encompassing three generations, five destinations and hopefully not too many more of these moments. Was this a mistake? I didn't want the arrival of our daughter, Daisy, to curb our travel interest – but is that just what has to happen? Also, maybe her grandparents, my parents, aren't up to the inherent travel challenges they once were. Fast forward an hour or two and a supermarket dinner consisting of phenomenal sushi and a couple of Asahi (to calm the nerves) and the confidence has crept back – we now have two weeks ahead of us in Japan!
I've been to Japan before, but this was different. Travelling with a baby carries all sorts of challenges and changes. One aspect we weren't prepared for was Daisy's near-celebrity status. At first it was lovely, lining up for some takoyaki (look it up – they are delicious!) in Dotonbori, Osaka, when teenagers started apprehensively approaching us with cameras in hand. With her little winter bear suit on, Daisy knew who they wanted to take photos of and acted up accordingly!
However, there were times, like in the postcard-like area of Gion, Kyoto, when I almost wanted to throw a blanket over Daisy to hide her from the 'paparazzi' so I could eat my green tea ice-cream in peace. It was just too hard to say no to all their shy smiles and happy demeanours.
Meal time was a bit different as well. What do you do when you have plates and plates of gyoza, sashimi and tempura staring you in the face just as your baby starts getting restless? We employed a couple of approaches. Having the grandparents there allowed us to do shifts – one person grumpily standing outside the restaurant or izakaya while the rest of the group pigged out on these aforementioned treats.
The other approach, if the meal looked just a little bit too good, was simply to lay Daisy on the table or bar, wherever we were sitting, give her a toy, ignore the enquiring looks from other patrons, and enjoy the fine dining experience with a difference. A couple of photos of Daisy's mother simultaneously bottle feeding both mother and daughter were prohibited from accompanying this story!
Exploring our various destinations was also a little challenging. There was always a back carrier, front carrier, pram or little human on our hands that we never had to worry about previously. However, that little human loved every minute (well – most minutes). She loved the cherry blossoms in the parks we stopped in for a grandparent rest and nappy change; her smiles were whole-hearted with the attention she received throughout our stay; she saw snow, the bright lights of Tokyo, fish markets, planes and trains – both the bullet and sushi kind! Admittedly, getting from A to B was difficult. Moving four and a half people with 13 bags through Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, easily the busiest train station in the world (3.7 million commuters a day), was not what you'd call a relaxing travel moment. However, whenever we reached our destinations and Daisy was fed, rested and ready to explore, it became well worth the effort.
While mummy and grandparents are still catching their breath; Daisy and Daddy are thinking about where to go next! I can't imagine travelling to a country that is cleaner, friendlier and safer for children than Japan, but I'm more than happy to be proven wrong.
Traveling to a new country is always tricky, but even more so when travelling with small children. Japan is a country that requires you to be culture-smart before you arrive, so do a little study before you go. Learn three words in Japanese – hello, thank you, and bathroom. You can buy a pocket language guide from most good bookstores or ebook websites.
The trick with taking a small child to a country so totally different from ours is to create an itinerary that takes into account their needs. They may not enjoy seeing one museum after another. There are many beautiful parks in Japan. Pack an inflatable ball, perfect for your child to have a play.
It's Japan, not Hobart or Launceston, you will do a lot of walking and foraging for breakfast may be just too much for small children. A great breakfast buffet will be just the thing for the whole family. Usually the hotels will offer Japanese as well as western-style food.
And one of the most important things – make sure you allow enough time for kids to be kids. You may be surrounded by ancient culture and traditions, but let your child enjoy eating ice cream or playing ball in the park. A happy child means happy parents and happy travels!
Things to do with children in Tokyo:
• Theme Parks – Tokyo Disneyland/Legoland Discovery Centre/Kidzania.
• Ueno Zoo, famous for Giant Pandas.
• Sunshine International Aquarium and Planetarium.
• The Science Museum in Kitano Maru Park.
• Tokyo National Museum.
• Monkey Park – Mount Takao.
• Take the 'sky train' to the island of Odaiba in Tokyo Bay.
Things to do with children in Osaka:
• Kids Plaza (indoor playground complex).
• Osaka Castle and Park.
• Nara Park (about an hour from Osaka - you can feed the Silka deer).
• Universal Studios Japan.
• Taito Station (arcade gaming).
For information on great Japan packages contact your nearest RACT Travel branch or call 1300 368 111.
This story originally appeared in Journeys magazine. To read more, go to www.ract.com.au/journeys-magazine