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Get Set for Japan with kids

We're about to take off to Japan with our daughter. Before we went we wanted to get her excited about the trip so here's a few things that worked for us.

Culture vulturing

Guidebook cover, Tokyo subway map and an Astroboy lunchbox
Getting ready with some research (into Astroboy)
To get set for our trip we tried to see as much Japanese culture before we left. With kids sometimes being fussy eaters we kicked off a program of Adventurous Eating. This meant trying something new (ideally from Japan) once a week. To make this easier we went to a Japanese restaurant that had a good range. In Japan a lot of places specialise in one type of food (like sushi trains or okonomiyaki) so we looked for a place that offered a good range. Sure our kiddo went with her favoured sushi (avocado with not much else) but with a bit of nudging we got into tempura, plus you can move mountains with the promise of fried ice cream after the mountain has shifted.

Our kid has always enjoyed the films of Hayao Miyazaki, but if you've never seen them they provide a great introduction to a Japan that never was - they're set in a parallel country that has weird magical creatures showing up. My Neightbour Totoro is a great place to start but Kiki's Delivery Service gave us a good chance to host a witchy movie day where the kids made their own sushi and raced around the backyard on broomsticks. Also good for under 10s are Ponyo and Arrietty but some are weirder than others so pop into the parent's guide in IMDB to see if it's right for your littlies. Usually their reviews are reasonably straightforward descriptions of the action leaving it for parents to make up their own minds.

Finally we did sumo on our loungeroom rug. We may not have observed all the rules or kept the ancient art alive but my daughter and I faced each other off, balanced from leg to leg then charged at each other. Strangely she always managed to win.

You pick

Wherever possible we tried to get some autonomy in the itinerary and talk about what everyone wanted to do. As we'd already had a go at sushi, we looked up a sushi class (with Buddha Bellies which also has a sake sommelier for grown-ups) and found shops that sell all the kawaii (cute) characters. Showing pictures or videos of cool sights really helped us. The power of seeing a temple gave our little monkey something to connect with and will hopefully serve as a goal on those long walks.

And not everything is for every member of the family so we're going to do some different combinations. My partner is not keen on the robot restaurant so she'll go to the onsen for a relaxing soak while we get blasted by flashing lights and glam. I've always been curious about capsule hotels so that might be a solo experience rather than cramping a whole family into a tiny box. Similarly the International Manga Museum might just be for fans (let's just say nerdy dads) so that might be a good time for kiddo to escape to the nearby park for a breather.


Several books one with "Notes for Japan trip" written on the front
Our journals so far.
Part of the appeal for Japan for littlies (okay and for me) is the stationery on offer so to kick this off I
bought a little journal for each of us including parents. In this we have a blank page for each day of the itinerary so everyone knows what's going on (including flight details and passport numbers just in case). The idea is that my daughter can write, draw or sticker-up a summary for each day we're in Tokyo and Kyoto.

Then we throw in a few questions to build the excitement:
  • What are you most looking forward to?
  • Which friends will you buy a souvenir for?
  • Who do you want to send postcards to?
  • What will be the weirdest thing you'll eat?
You can make up your own journals based on your child's interests - we have a few about sumo and eating. Hopefully this list will be something to reflect on after the trip.


So neither my partner nor I speak much Japanese. This means as a family we're all starting from scratch. We've been less successful in introducing language around the house - there was a plan to use a new word every day that got lost in the last weeks of school. But we have used a little language before we leave. 

We did the basics (hello, goodbye, thank you and please, numbers, toilets... always the toilets) to make it a little less confusing when we touchdown. We try to swap in a few words around the house - using arigato makes a change from nagging your kid to say thanks all the time.

We also copied a couple of phrases into the journals (along with currency conversions and a few other handy reference bits and pieces). Ideally the journals will be little guidebooks as well as a way to reflect on the trip.

Will any of this work? Like any travel plans some of it will help, some will get left out and some we'll ignore but we'll keep you posted...