44. Who on earth would travel long-haul with a 2 year old?!

This is definitely a question I have asked myself previously, both of other people and of myself. But I really wanted to go to Asia. More specifically Japan. So I started looking into exactly how awful it might be.

Reading other people’s blogs, it seemed that keeping a toddler in one place and occupied for 10 + hours was the main issue. We were flying Madrid to Tokyo, and we had planned to get to Madrid – about 5 hours on the train – the day before our flight. I had (what I thought at the time was) the brainwave of splitting the flight by changing in Beijing, so after a 10 hour flight Hugo could run about for a couple of hours before the final 3.5 hours to Tokyo. I thought this would be better than doing 13 hours in one go. This turned out to be an error. No matter how tired we all would have been after 13 hours, it was nothing to how tired we actually were after a) the trip to Madrid the previous day b) a bad night’s sleep in the hotel and then c) 18 hours of air travel (including the connection in Beijing)… added to this we arrived in Beijing at 4am when only about 3 things were open, so it was not only more tiring but also more tedious than expected… Although I did inadvertently liven things up a bit by mis-reading the gate number, which led to us having to run what felt like the length of the airport 15 minutes before our flight was due to leave…

The flights themselves were surprisingly good – we flew with Air China on one of their new fleet of Boeing 787-8’s (I know that that fact will interest at least 3 people who read this… the rest of you, please forgive me). We had gone prepared with a supply of pencils and paper, a book, a (small) toy car, some sweets, and an almost infinite supply of Peppa Pig, Pocoyo, Oddballs and various other kids’ programmes. Aside from the tiredness, it was all going pretty well…

When we arrived in Tokyo, the jet lag hit us all hard; flying eastwards and 9 hours of time difference is a bad combination at the best of times. Jamie and I were just plain tired, having not really slept on the flights. Hugo’s body clock was all over the place; he was bouncing off the walls at 1am, yet unable to wake up before 11am or keep his eyes open on any form of public transport. It was really, really difficult, and the first few days were exhausting and possibly more stressful than they should have been.

Thus, I learned my first lesson: push on through and fly direct.

Of course, we will also have to do the same on the way back, so that’s something to look forward to….

Anyway, we’re over half way through our trip now and we’re doing well post-jet lag…

The brief itinerary, for those interested, is as follows:

Tokyo (2 nights) – Shinjuku area

Osaka (7 nights) – Shimanouchi area. We did day trips to both Nara and Kyoto from here

Kobe (1 night) – Arima onsen area

Tokyo (2 nights) – Asakusa area

Kushiro (2 nights) – on the north island of Hokkaido

Sapporo (2 nights) – we will also do a day trip to Mt Yotei from here

Hakodate (2 nights)

Tokyo (2 nights)

We have hired a car in Hokkaido for 6 days so we can go into the National Park areas, and also to (hopefully) see the red-crested cranes (one of the famous symbols of Japan) – something different from what I’ve normally done while in Japan, and also the chance to see some snow for the first time in a few years (and for Hugo, the first time in his life!).

Aside from the staggering jet lag and my ill-conceived flight itinerary, it’s been remarkably easy travelling with a child here. Although we haven’t seen as many children out and about as we do in Europe (apart from those on school trips), Japan is very child-friendly, and Hugo has been very popular. He has been given lots of stickers with cartoon characters on (infinitely preferable to the sweets and lollipops he normally gets in Spain…), and many hotels have welcome packs with small-sized slippers (usually also with a cartoon character on), and other little goodies (stickers, mainly…). Lots of cities, as well as individual attractions, have ‘Passports’ you can buy and stamp up at different locations – we have only bought one so far, but the stamps in general have been a big hit (with me as much as Hugo…), and it’s a fun thing to hunt for – they all have different pictures on them and, this being Japan, they also usually include a cute little cartoon character!

Children under 6 travel free on public transport (and school-age children for a reduced price). Trains have priority seating areas for people with young kids and pregnant women (as well as elderly and incapacitated people), and people willingly give up their space if there isn’t one already available (people don’t seem quite as obsessed with sitting down here as we do on the tube in London!).

Entry for most attractions, even child/based ones like Legoland, are generally free for under-3’s and reduced for school-age children. We scored big here as Hugo doesn’t turn 3 till next month. Result.

Children are welcome in most restaurants and bars in the evening – we had no problems anywhere we went. That said, we weren’t out very late, we tried not to outstay our welcome, and did use some discretion as to which places we went into. We asked first in a couple of bars if it was ok to bring kids in (it always was), and we saw other young children in several places we went to; it is usually possible to judge places that you would or wouldn’t take a child into on the same criteria as you would anywhere else in the world. Hugo has loved the food, especially the sushi, but there is also plenty to tick those child-win boxes of fried chicken (tori karaage), steamed rice, ramen soup noodles with egg and pork. Edamame peas in their pods have also been a big vegetable hit. The food is diverse enough that everyone can find something to their liking. If all else fails, the convenience stores (Lawson, 7-Eleven, and Family Mart are the three biggest chains we’ve come across) are everywhere and sell all sorts of bento boxes, as well as snacks and hot food such as steamed buns, skewers, and yet more tori karaage.

We predominantly stayed in mid-range generic business hotels and small guest houses, but we splashed out on one night in a beautiful Ryokan (traditional guest house) with a private onsen (hot spring mineral bath). Hugo was equally well-accommodated here as the other accommodation, with his own kaiseki (traditional) meal, small-sized yukata (a cotton robe kind of like a dressing gown), and access to the onsen. It was really lovely, but the property was old with thin walls and floors, so while it was certainly child-friendly, we found that we became a bit preoccupied (to the point of near-obsession) with being quiet, especially since we discovered that Hugo can only walk at one volume and unfortunately it’s ‘elephant’…

All in all, Japan is a great place to travel with kids. I’ve heard it described (along with Singapore) – somewhat derogatorily – as ‘Asia Lite’ because of the ease of getting around, the cleanliness, and efficiency, which to a point sets it apart from other countries in Asia, but to say it as if you’re not visiting ‘Asia proper’ would be to do Japan (and Singapore) a vast disservice. It’s a fascinating country, with a wealth of experiences, culture, food (yes, I had to say it..), nature, and tradition to be enjoyed – and it’s also a great place to start exploring at any age; even when you’re only nearly three!

Trying a chocolate melon bun in Nara

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