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Essential tips for visiting Japan with kids (on a budget!)

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Japan is not the easiest country to travel to, especially with kids. Despite being one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, English is not widely spoken, the technology can be so advanced that it becomes confusing, and it’s also expensive.

For first time visitors, Japan can be overwhelming. It’s a very safe country, but it’s also very etiquette orientated with a lot of cultural norms and customs embedded in their traditions.

We all have nightmares of our kids screaming in a temple or disturbing the ambiance of a Japanese garden, and how that might reflect on the locals and how they might react.

But that doesn’t mean you should avoid visiting Japan with kids. It can be an enriching, rewarding and highly fascinating country for them to visit. Seeing other cultures and showing them how other people live is one of the main reasons to travel with kids.

Don’t let fears and anxieties hold you back, just make sure to follow these tips…

Tips for Visiting Japan With Kids (On A Budget)

We were all very excited to visit Japan, but I did have some quiet reservations – would the kids eat the food? would we be able to get around without understanding the language? would everything in Japan be super expensive?

After visiting, I now feel like I can honestly answer those questions. Below I have shared some tips for visiting Japan with children and how to plan for your trip so you can go feeling less stressed and excited about the adventure.

1. Be prepared for the flight to Japan

kkds on flight

We flew with a low-cost airline from Asia to Japan. There are several airlines that fly to Japan, such as Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, British Airways, LATAM Airlines and ANA (All Nippon Airways) all fly direct to Japan.

It might seem daunting to fly on a budget airline with kids, but it is completely manageable if you prepare for it well.

Most budget airlines include the fare only, which means you need to plan food, entertainment and comfort packages.

For the flight to Japan, food was a must for us. Even if you purchase the food option with your ticket, I highly recommend taking along additional snacks.

With kids, you can never guarantee they will like the airline food, so they will most likely still need more to eat if they are like my kids. I made ziplock snack packs for the kids, which came in very handy towards the end of the flight.

For entertainment, the kids had their individual iPads. They can be shared and you can always bring your own as well.

2. Use public transport in Japan (avoid the Shinkansen / JR Pass)

CROWDS At train station in japan

Most people will get a Japan Rail Pass to travel around Japan, which allows you to ride the iconic shinkansen – the bullet train.

If you were staying in Japan for longer than a week and plan to travel to more than 3 cities, it might be worth it to save on time and convenience, but for around $450 per adult and $250 for a child – those on a budget can save a HUGE amount by taking buses and slower trains instead.

With the JR Pass, you must buy them before you get to Japan, and then pick them up from a station in Tokyo. 

We had an internal flight booked to get us from Osaka to Japan, and from Osaka to Nara or Osaka to Kyoto, it’s only a short train ride, so it doesn’t make economical sense to get the JR Pass.

We just bought tickets from the ticket machines at the train stations as we needed.

The Japanese public transport system is the best I have come across. The trains run frequently, they run on time, and the trains and stations are all so well presented.

Signs are in Japanese and English, and the Tokyo metro even has color-coded lines and numbered stops, so if you’re not sure what the name of your stop is, you can at least figure out where you are going by looking at the numbers.

It seems confusing at first, but after your first day, you get the hang of it and bless the Japanese for coming up with such an easy-to-use metro system.

Even though we couldn’t speak any Japanese, we managed to navigate our way around both Osaka and Tokyo with ease.

Don’t be afraid to ask station staff or other passengers politely for help. We did many times and everyone was fantastic at helping us get to our desired destination.

3. Plan what to eat in advance with kids

bag with snacks
Pack your snacks

Feeding five kids away from home can be very expensive, and challenging, when everyone has different tastes.

We wanted to experience Japanese food, but also make sure the kids were well fed to be able to fuel our long days of sightseeing and exploring.

For the most part, this is how we planned our meals in Japan for the day:

  • Hotel buffet breakfast – Choose a hotel that offers breakfast, as Japan doesn’t really do breakfasts. We would have a later breakfast around 9ish and the kids would eat whatever they liked. Having a big breakfast kept them happily well fed for hours, so we didn’t have to worry about snacks too much.
  • Snacks and water bottle – Each day we would stop by places like Family Mart or 7-Eleven and pick up snacks for the following day. We would buy things like popcorn, rice cakes, and cakes. We brought our own large water bottles from home and took four of them and filled them up at the hotel each day. As we were in Japan in September the weather was still very warm, especially in Osaka, and with all the walking we did we needed to make sure the kids kept hydrated. Once kids start to get thirsty, the whinging starts and the wanting to stop happens. Preventive measures are best!
  • Cultural dinner – We did try some regional specialities such as okonomiyaki in Osaka and Tempura in Tokyo. We also went to ramen restaurants and sushi restaurants. The kids were willing to try sushi, but were more fascinated in the conveyor belts and technology of the place. These were actually highlights for both adults and kids as we got to experience a new food culture. This was really a two for the price of one deal; we were well fed and entertained at the same time!

Places to eat in Osaka and Tokyo, Japan

chefs cooking japanese pancake on grill
Okonomiyaki- Japanese Pancake

In Osaka, we went to Okonomiyakiya “Kiji”, which is located in the “Takimi-koji” restaurant mall at the basement of Umeda Sky Building.

We went to the Floating Garden at Umeda first, then had our late lunch here. It is very popular among the locals, so I recommend visiting outside of traditional meal times. We would have waited for about 25 minutes before we were seated and had our orders taken.

Okonomiyaki is a Japanese savoury pancake and is so delicious. You can watch the chef’s whip up the Okonomiyaki and they serve them on a grill that is embedded in the middle of the table.

In Tokyo, we went to Shinjuku Tsunahachi and we also had to wait to be seated – probably closer to 40 minutes. No photos were allowed inside the restaurant, so unfortunately, I cannot show you the beautiful food we ate.

This was actually the first time the kids had eaten tempura and if hadn’t been for the price they would have easily eaten more.

This tempura bar was a little more expensive than others, but being able to sit at a bench and watch the chef’s prepare and cook the food was worth it.

The kids were completely fascinated by it and sat quietly for the entire time their meal was being prepared just watching it.

They also had a western menu with instructions on how to eat your meal which made life easier too.

5. Choose your Japanese theme park wisely

Tokyo DisneySea ride
Tokyo DisneySea

As we were visiting both Osaka and Tokyo, we had three options for theme parks – Universal Studios Japan, Tokyo Disney Land and Tokyo DisneySea.

Traveling Japan on a budget with kids meant we needed to make a choice about which theme park we would visit as we were only going to see one.

We learned that Tokyo Disneyland is 100% like Magic Kingdom in other countries, but TokyoSea is the unique Disney experience for Japan. Where else will you get soy sauce popcorn?

I did further research and found that for the ages of our kids (14 – 4), DisneySea was the best bet.

For younger kids and if you have not visited a Disney Land before, it would be Disney Land. For older kids, Universal Studios is probably better.

Tips for Visiting DisneySea Tokyo

You could easily spend an entire day (until 10pm) at DisneySea, but we didn’t. As such to get the most out of it, we opted to miss the shows and parades and let the kids choose the attractions to go on.

We split into two groups for most of the day – three kids with dad who liked the more adventurous rides and two kids with me who wanted to take it a bit tamer. None of the rides are particularly wild though.

While it seems a little expensive to buy the refillable popcorn tub, it is an experience my kids loved and are still talking about.

DisneySea is organised into themed areas, all of which are highly detailed and well thought out (like Mediterranean Harbor, American Waterfront. etc). Each area sells a different flavor popcorn and the kids thought this was so great. We tasted strawberry, curry and black pepper.

6. Be Aware of Japanese culture and customs

wooden archway entrance with wooden and green roofed meiji shrine in background
Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, Japan.

While this isn’t a tip to save you money, embracing the culture of Japan will certainly enhance your visit to Japan with kids.

It’s polite to bow when you greet someone and say thank you. The deeper the bow, the more respect you show.

Japanese people don’t walk around and eat or drink. When using public transport, avoid eating, drinking or talking on the cell phone.

When it comes to escalators, always stand on the right side. You should also take off your shoes when walking into homes, and some tea houses. Usually there is a sign telling you when to do it.

7. Do not tip

Tipping is seen as disrespectful in Japan. If you leave a tip, the waiter will run after you thinking you’ve accidentally left your money.

It makes service staff feel uncomfortable when you tip, so just say a big thank you instead!

8. Take out cash

Japan runs mostly on cash. The majority of places around the world take credit cards, and that is what we are used to using, so do make sure to withdraw from an ATM when you see one.

It’s also worth noting that ATMs are not commonly found either, so once you see one, try to withdraw as much as you need.

9. Learn some basic phrases

English is not widely spoken in Japan, so learning a few simple phrases will go a long way to help you with your trip. Make sure to download Google Translate, as you will likely use it a lot throughout your trip.

Here are some basic phrases to learn:

  • Hello – Kon’nichiwa
  • Thank you – Arigatō
  • Please – Onegaishimasu
  • Excuse me – Sumimasen
  • Sorry – Gomen
  • Yes – Hai
  • No – Īe
  • Goodbye – Sayōnara

10. Be respectful at shrines and temples

Normandale Japanese Garden

When visiting shrines, remember to tell your kids to be respectful and quiet. This is not the place to have a melt down!

Also remember to take off your shoes. Usually there are slippers for you to wear as you walk around inside.

11. Carry a bag for your rubbish

Trash cans are not common in Japan, so you’ll likely have to carry your trash around all day before you find a bin to throw it in.

12. Hide your tattoos

This may be more for mom and dad, but anyone visiting Japan should know that tattoos are taboo, and if you have any, you should hide them as much as possible.

There are onsens (hot springs) who will deny you entry if you have tattoos, or make you get a private bath.

Unmissable Things To Do in Japan With Kids

One of the best things about visiting Japan with kids is there was so much to do and see that was either free or very reasonably priced (with the exception of DisneySea).

Below are some of our favorite attractions for kids to enjoy in Japan

Nara Deer Park

boy feeding deer at Nara Deer Park
Nara Deer Park

Nara Park was an absolute highlight for all of us. It’s become one of the most famous things you can do, as you can approach and feed the friendly deer.

We took a couple of trains to arrive at Nara station from Osaka, and it took us only 50 minutes in total.

It is a 15 minute walk from the station to the park, where not only can you walk amongst roaming deer, but you can also see beautiful temples. All of which is free to visit.

Osaka Castle

family standing outisde Osaka Castle
Osaka Castle 

Osaka Castle was certainly worth seeing. It is a decent walk from the train station, so make sure you have good shoes for walking and snacks and water for the kids.

The castle is one of the most famous sites in Japan and showcases the luxurious and elegant design of Japanese architecture from the Azuchi-Momoyama period (16th century).

There’s a lovely garden and lawn space outside that you can relax on after exploring the castle.

Kids can enter for free and adults have to pay only a small fee.

Tsukiji fish market

people at Tsukiji fish market
Tsukiji fish market

Tsukiji Fish Market was not somewhere I thought to take my kids but after going, happily I was wrong.

The Tsukiji Market is the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. The peak of the market activity is before 9am and tourists are not allowed in the market before that, but entry is free.

You are not allowed prams, large bags, open footwear, pets and on a sign at the front of the market, it also said, small children. We took all five kids with us, the youngest being four and we had no problems.

We were all fascinated by the buzzing and humming of the activity and how amongst the chaos of people and vehicles it just all worked without incident!

There is also an outer market selling goods and restaurants where you can sample the fresh seafood.

Sumo Wrestling in Tokyo

Sumo Wrestling In Tokyo DSC03803
Sumo Wrestling In Tokyo

We were so lucky that there was a Grand Tournament on when we were visiting. We bought tickets before we left for Japan as these events are very popular and sell out quickly.

Ticketing has a number of options and we would have loved to have a box seat, but the cost was prohibitive for us.

Single tickets were a fraction of the price of a box, which only seats four people so we would have needed two. While we were much further from the action, we could still see very well.

It was great to see the traditions and customs that form part of the sumo wrestling.

Tickets allow you to stay all day, but we opted to attend only the last half. This was fine for the older kids, but thankfully we had packed activities (and snacks) for the younger ones who found it a little boring after the first couple of hours.

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove and Monkey Park

Bamboo Groves in Arashiyama, Kyoto

One of the biggest attractions in Kyoto is the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove and Iwatayama Monkey Park.

The bamboo grove is exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a huge bamboo forest where bamboo trees reach between 5-10 meters. Some as high as 20 meters.

The monkey park is a fun attraction where you can feed and interact with playful monkeys. It’s a good 20 minute walk through the bamboo grove to the forest, with a lot of steps, so wear sturdy footwear and bring lots of water.

Senso-ji Asakusa

Sensoji Temple Tokyo wiyh cherry blossoms outfront
Tokyo, Japan at Sensoji Temple’s Hozomon Gate in the Asakusa District

Senso-ji is the most famous temple in Tokyo and also the oldest. This Buddhist temple attracts 30 million visitors a year, and is one of the most architecturally stunning temples in the country.

A unique thing to do here is to get your fortune. It has a self service fortune box, where you can place your money in a collection box, and then a stick with a number slides out.

Pay close attention to the number, as you will then need to match the number to a set of drawers on the wall.

Open the drawer with your number and pull out a slip of paper to reveal your fortune.

If in doubt, watch everyone else do it.

Ueno Park and Zoo

lanterns in Ueno Park okyo, Japan

Ueno Park is home to Ueno Zoo, the oldest zoo in Japan. Here you can see the giant pandas, who have lived in the zoo since 1972.

The park itself is a green oasis away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Relax by Shinobazu Pond and admire the lily pads, or explore one of the museums in the park, such as the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum or National Museum of Nature and Science.

Akihabara

Akihabara tokyo

Akihabara is a district known for its electronic shopping and arcades. Take your kids to a manga or anime store or visit Tokyo Anime Center to play some video games.

Visit Radio Kaikan and explore 10 floors of Japanese toys, collectables and more.

There’s plenty to see and do in this district. It’s also famous for maid cafes, which contrary to common belief, are mostly family friendly – though you use your best judgement about whether you’d want to take your kids there.

If you’ve not heard of them before, it’s where the hostess dress up as maids and serve you using cute, adorable voices. They also serve cute cakes, sometimes in the shape of bears or other cute characters.

Final Thoughts

Visiting Japan with kids exceeded all our expectations. It was such a fantastic family trip to Japan and we would have loved to stay longer.

The Japanese people were so incredibly helpful to us – people went out of their way to help us if we asked them for directions or assistance.

We all look back on our family vacations and think Japan was one of our favorites.

Japan is so well organized, clean and efficient, making it so pleasant and easy to get around with kids, and overall I would say it’s a very kid-friendly country.

From the robots serving your food to the world class theme parks and manga culture, there isn’t much your kids won’t like about Japan!

Tours of Japan

More Japan Travel Tips

Need more inspiration for your trip to Japan? Here are some other helpful guides!

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5 tips for visiting Japan with kids
Bio: Nicole Avery is the master organiser behind the popular parenting blog Planning With Kids, where she shares tips and tricks to organising the chaos of family life and with five kids aged 14 – 4. You can read more about her family trip to Japan here.

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