My top tips for travel with kids to Tokyo, Japan

Ema wooden prayer cards at Meiji Shrine, Harajuku, Tokyo (photo by Sheila Scarborough)Through a couple of referrals by mutual friends on Twitter (here’s my Twitter stream) I got a question from Mzinga executive and social media business strategist Jim Storer about taking his family to Japan later this year.

After pulling together an email for Jim, with links to most of my Japan-related writings across this blog, the Perceptive Travel Blog and some other publications, I thought, why not put the same consolidated information in a helpful blog post?

I lived in Japan for awhile while serving with the Navy near Fukuoka, on Kyushu, and returned a couple of years back when my daughter was a preteen, staying for about a month and a half near Tokyo.

Japan is not an “easy” destination for families  —  that’s not to scare you off,  but so you’ll know that standing around feeling like a complete idiot (and usually a lost idiot who can’t determine north from south) is TOTALLY normal for a visitor to Japan. It’s worth it, though.

I always advocate pushing out of the coddled tourist bubble and striking out on your own, but it’s harder to do that with kids in tow. Mix it up – do the “weird stuff” (occasionally feeling like an idiot) and then allow occasional forays into McDonald’s or Starbucks for some feeling of familiarity. Your brain will need it more frequently than you’d think, especially with kids.

I don’t care what anyone tells you, English is not widely spoken, but it really doesn’t matter all that much. Do a lot of bowing and hand gestures; the Japanese will generally go out of their way to help.

Let me tell you, travel around Europe after that was (comparatively) a piece of cake.

My writings on Japan:

***  Here’s an article I wrote about taking a preteen to Tokyo, for the San Antonio Express-NewsNavigating Tokyo with a ‘tween.

***  One of my first posts – an itinerary for Asakusa to Odaiba in Tokyo. It can fill one whole day.

***  They’re everywhere and they’re awesome – one of the main things I miss about Japan – vending machines!

***  You need to know how to use a squat toilet.

***  If you plan to rent a car in Japan, stand by to blow up your brain by driving on the left.

***  Here’s my guest post on’s family travel blog about climbing Mt. FujiTrip of a lifetime – climbing Fuji with a preteen.

***  Great side trip from Tokyo: Yokohama (try to see the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum.)

***  Another good Tokyo side trip: the beaches at Zushi and Kamakura (see the giant Buddha, or Daibutsu, at Kamakura – here’s a Taylor family post about it, and an excellent description of the area by travelers Susan and Lars.)

***  Fun souvenir: Japanese children’s chopsticks and bento boxes.

***  More great souvenirs: Kappabashi Dori where you can buy plastic food.

***  Don’t miss the summer fireworks and local matsuri (festivals.) Check the Tokyo tourist Web site event calendar for matsuri dates and locations, but you may also stumble across one going on in the streets so be ready to get swept up in the fun! One of my favorite blogs about Japan, AMPONTAN, has a whole category about Japanese festivals; most posts are titled Matsuri-da!

Guidebooks – I wore out my copy of TimeOut Tokyo and I’m a long-time fan of Frommer’s guides for good overviews. Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Guides are pretty good but are rather heavy. I’d get one good guidebook for Japan overall and then a small one for the city where you’ll spend the most time.

Maps. You’ll want maps. The guidebooks have ’em and they always boot up and don’t need WiFi.

When you arrive, look for copies of Metropolis and TimeOut Tokyo magazines, for the latest info in English (Metropolis Visitor’s Guide online, and TimeOut Tokyo online.)

For good blogs and news sites about Japan, take a look at Alltop, an “online magazine rack,” and their topic page on Japan.

Another good book is CultureShock! Japan: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette.

Here’s the BootsnAll Travel Network portal page for Japan.

Did I miss anything about taking kids to Japan, especially Tokyo? Tell us about it in the comments….