Post-nap is an excellent time to stop for sushi, Will was still a little too drowsy to grab at our fish and just kind of hung out making eyes at the older Japanese couple next to us.
So. You think you want to do Tokyo…with a baby.
Congrats! You’ve probably picked the world’s easiest vacation destination for the toothless, fearless, diaper-wearing set.
Does your kid tend to drink the bathwater whether it is potable or not? No problem! Tokyo’s water is some of the cleanest we’ve seen.
In need of a diaper change? Does your baby hate nursing under their cover? The city is covered in clean, spacious “nursery rooms” complete with a cushy changing pad, toilet, hand sanitizer, hot water tap for formula, a fold-down high-chair attached to the wall and a nice big sink should your diaper emergency require total submersion.
Is your child having a meltdown right around suppertime? Two words for you: Bento Boxes. Tokyo is probably the one destination in the world where bringing a baby won’t seriously hamper your ability to eat well, mainly because you don’t need to eat in a restaurant to do it.
This is the land that practically invented take-out food. Wander into the basement of any department store and you will find huge, gleaming, bustling “food gardens” serving up everything from tempura to sushi to french croissants, all packaged to-go, all delicious whether eaten on a park bench or on your hotel bed while your spouse gives the baby a bath in that clean, drinkable water.
You’ll find vending machines stocked with water and coffee drinks on every block (a well-hydrated/caffeinated parent is a happy parent after all). You’ll see Dads sporting Ergos the way Chinese men sport man-purses. You’ll find immaculate public restrooms everywhere. There are baby clothes for sale so hip and cute that you might even be tempted to ponder what you want more for your child: his future college education or a Japanese baby wardrobe.
Tokyo is expensive, it is busy, English is not everywhere. You are certainly not going to be welcome in the nicest, fanciest of restaurants with your wriggly wee one.
On the other hand, travelling with baby, you can save a fortune and you’ll likely make friends more easily. If you are willing to keeping your sight-seeing expectations realistic, I’d say Tokyo is about as close to a stress-free vacation with baby as you will find anywhere in the world.
Here’s how you do it:
1. Choose your hotel wisely.
Don’t stay in Disney Land because the hotels are cheaper there unless you really want to spend your whole trip with Mickey. Instead, find a mid-range hotel near a big subway station in a bustling neighborhood. Tokyo is an infinitely fascinating place to walk around whether you are at a big “tourist sight” or not; and some days sticking close to home base and making pit-stops for play-time and nap-time makes more sense than running all over town.
We got a great rate at the Courtyard Marriott in Ginza (much lower than the published rack rate). It was still $30 more per night than the hotel we originally booked but we are so glad we switched. The Ginza metro stop is at the intersection of 3 subway lines and its just around the corner from the hotel. In the opposite direction its a ten minute walk to the Tsukiji Fish Market. There are two massive department store “food gardens” just passed the metro station and there’s a grocery store on the edge of the neighborhood.
It’s definitely a high-end ritzy sort of area, but there is still lots to look at and plenty of fun places to window-shop and stop for quick bites to eat. We really liked that we could spend an hour or so walking around the neighborhood and then easily head back to the hotel when Will needed a break. When we took the subway to other parts of town, it was really nice to have only a quick 3 minute walk back to the hotel from the metro station.
2. Skip the stroller, bring the baby carrier.
We don’t use our stroller much here in Chengdu and we were really glad we didn’t bring it to Tokyo. The streets are great for strollers if you are staying above ground, but there are lots of stairs in the subway stations. There are elevators at most stops, but I think you really have to know where to look. We saw some Japanese families with light little umbrella strollers but most people were wearing Ergos or similar baby-carrying apparel.
Many Japanese work at least half a day on Saturday, but Saturday afternoon and Sunday we saw tons of families out walking around. Interestingly enough, it was always the dad wearing the baby. We got lots of quizzical looks since I wear Will most of the time.
One downside to wearing Will all weekend? I took hardly any pictures of him in Tokyo! Oh well, next trip.
4. Sight-see on the weekends, especially Sundays when families with young children are out and about everywhere.
Japan’s labor market is one of the strangest in the world I think. A variety of factors as well as a sharp decline in the birthrate means that you see lots of older people doing the work that young people or recent immigrants might do in other countries. The housekeepers in the hotel, the parking attendants, even the people serving up bowls of soba at the fish market all looked to be at least 65 years old.
I bring this up because kids are just not as common in Japan as in lots of other Asian countries. People love them of course, but I think perhaps they aren’t used to having to deal with them in their public spaces anymore, at least in some neighborhoods, some shops, and during the work week.
Let me say that never once did we feel unwelcome bringing Will into a store or market, but we definitely felt a little more comfortable on Sunday when it seemed like every young family was out on the town.
5. Eat in food courts, buy food at “food gardens.”
Hands-down, the best thing about doing Tokyo with a baby is the ability to eat really well even if you never once set food in a restaurant.
Nearly every single nice department store or shopping mall will have a basement with a “food garden” and often a small grocery store as well. The food garden we visited most often near our hotel was in the Mitsukoshi shopping center. There were counters for tempura, grilled fish, grilled meats, bento boxes, rice, sushi, gyoza, Korean food and even Chinese food. There were counters selling Italian food and several counters selling nothing but Western-style salads. There were fresh juice bars and fro-yo lines. There was a gigantic bakery and at least 15 counters selling nothing but chocolates, pastries, and beautiful Japanese desserts and mochi.
It can be totally overwhelming at first, especially around dinnertime when the place filled with hundreds of people all shopping for dinner. Luckily though, you can get by mostly with pointing and nodding, even if you don’t speak Japanese and the salesperson doesn’t speak English. Food is generally sold by the box, by pieces, or by weight and it’s easy to tell which just buy looking at the signs and prices. It seemed like most counters took international credit cards but we saw cash used more commonly.
At the top of the department stores you will generally find sit-down restaurants, at least in the buildings we went to. Some of these places looked a little too fancy to take Will but there were also several cafes with hundreds of families hanging out, eating ice cream and enjoying the late afternoon sun.
Having now dragged Will on two international trips, in addition to living in China, I’ve started to formulate some ideas about sight-seeing and international travel with a baby. I’m not even going to attempt to give “airplane tips” because I honestly think its kind of a crapshoot when you are dealing with an infant. So far, Will has been pretty easy-going about flying but my hunch is that could change at any time. (For older kids on planes though, check out these great ideas.)
Take my tips for sight-seeing, etc below with a grain of salt, but this is what has worked for us:
My first two tips actually have to do with you as the parent. Travel in a foreign city is never as relaxing and easy as a trip down to your local park. You don’t know the area, you might not know the language, you might not know exactly how to get back to your hotel. As such, addressing your own comfort issues first will make a huge difference between a fun afternoon of sightseeing and a stressful, tense outing that has you longing to just curl up in a ball on your hotel bed and stay there.
1. Know thyself and what makes you most crabby when out and about. Address it.
Me? I can go without sleep for days if we are doing something interesting. I don’t mind walking for hours, I’m happy taking all sorts of complicated public transportation routes and I’ll carry heavy bags without complaint.
On the other hand, I turn into a bear when I’m hungry, I get angry when I’m too thirsty, and it’s hard for me to have fun when I’m too cold. So I do what I have to do to be the best travel Mama I can be. I dress in lots of easily removable layers and I’ve always got snacks for myself and a bottle of water packed in my diaper bag. I also always eat something before we leave our hotel, no matter how soon we plan on eating again. You never know when you are going to get lost and lunch is actually 4 hours rather than 4 minutes away.
2. Know what stresses you out most about taking care of your baby on the go and figure out how to avoid those situations.
Maybe its finding a clean place to change a diaper, maybe its the nap schedule. For me its feeding Will. He hates nursing in public under his nursing cover and feeding him solids is still more of an exercise in post-modern baby finger-painting. These days, if we are going further than ten minutes from our hotel, I always pump a bottle and pack it in our diaper bag. It reduces my stress level by about 110 percent.
3. Try to stick to your kid’s schedule as much as you can…but don’t stress when you can’t.
When we travel with Will now we try to arrange our days so that he gets an hour or so of play time in the morning before we head out. We try to go out walking while he naps since he usually sleeps well that way, at least in the morning. When he wakes up we take a break and give him some more play-time. We also usually do a pit stop at the hotel for a few hours in the afternoon to give him a little more time to decompress, nap, wriggle around and get his bearings again. His bedtime is a little later when we travel but we stick to our bedtime routine of bath, nursing, bouncing and lullabies no matter where we are. We also make sure to bring a few of his favorite toys or books, though generally he seems much more keen to play with whatever dirty or completely inappropriate plastic bag or water bottle is closest to him.
See that Evian bottle in the bottom of the shot? It was a muuuch bigger hit with Will than the pureed mango he ended up wearing.
Routine helps kids feel secure, but travel isn’t broadening just for adults. I think for babies it can also be a really exciting, really wonderful experience. New sounds, new sights, new people, new things to try and put in their mouths. What they lose in schedule seems to be more than made up for by the stimulus of the experience. Travel in Asia is especially great with babies since everyone loves smiling and talking to them. When Will got back from Thailand in January, I seriously think he went through attention withdrawal, he missed all of the waitresses and shop keepers fawning over him!
4. Unless you are staying within a few blocks of the hotel, pack the diaper bag like you aren’t coming back for 2 days.
In fact, maybe even skip the cute diaper bag in favor of a big backpack with lots of pockets. It’s easier to carry and easier to cram full of stuff. You’ll be really glad you packed that extra outfit after the second diaper blow-out of the day. When Chris and I travel we pack two “diaper bags.” One is my cute day-to-day bag (I love it) and one is Chris’ big 511 military-style 24-hour pack (he loves it and the additional attachable ammo pouch is, ironically, perfect for diapers). Both are stocked with the basics: a spare outfit, diapers, hand wipes, a few toys; but Chris’ also holds medicine, first-aid, extra clothes, blankets, and more toys. Depending on how long we are going out, we might bring one or the other.
On the other hand, when we know we are only a 10 minute fast-walk back to the hotel, we rarely bring our whole diaper bag. Instead we just pocket a pacifier and some antibacterial wipes and head back if we need anything else. No sense in trying to change a diaper on top of a plastic stool if you don’t have to!
5. Speaking of anti-bacterial wipes, bring lots of them.
We aren’t huge germaphobes, a little dirt and grime is probably good for Will’s immune system. On the other hand, we’ve had wayyy too many experiences with random Chinese tourists grabbing Will’s hands, squeezing his cheeks, or actually trying to grab him out of arms when we are in airports, on planes, or at tourist sights.
I don’t care who you are or how clean you are, when you are traveling you never know what illnesses or coughs and colds you are coming into contact with and then covering my little boy in. I hate to be rude, so I usually just smile, tell Will to wave “bye-bye” and then scrub his hands and face down with a wipe as soon as we are out of sight.
Soap and water would probably be more effective, but knowing we have a bunch of these wipes on us at all times keeps us from stressing out and let’s us feel more comfortable about all of the attention (and germs) Will is regularly showered in.
So that’s it! What have been your experiences? What are your tips for international trips with a baby?
I call this photo ramen karma. There was a Japanese family standing next to us at the ramen counter. Dad was wearing baby and Mom was taking photos of their adorable toddler as she slurped on her noodles. I offered to take a family photo for them and they returned the favor before they left. Not our finest looking hour but definitely a happy one!