It is a big call to have a top country to visit as a family.
What one family member loves, another might not agree with. Some might favour the beach, others the mountains and others the snow. One thing we all agree on in our family of 5 is that Japan is hands-down our very favourite country to explore. It has something to suit everyone across all ages, genders, ability and budget. It’s fast, fun, quirky, safe and full of a modern and age-old tradition. We love it so much that we’ve been to Japan 4 times in the last 4 years. As a family that includes a wheelchair user and school aged kids, it’s the perfect destination to really feel like you’re not at home and are stepping outside your comfort zone in an exciting way.
Japan has all the big ticket attractions that kids love, like Universal and Disney. But it also has traditional experiences likes bathing in an onsen and seeing geishas wander the streets in the Gion district. You can walk through local markets tasting new foods like fresh sushi or okonomiyaki ( Japanese pancake) or hit the streets of Harajuku and see things you’ve never seen before! You can dine out in a local ramen bar using hand gestures to communicate or dine among dancing robots in downtown Tokyo.
Japan really does have such a beautiful diversity that will suit every type of traveller. We also love that Japan is fairly easy to get around using a wheelchair and have noticed big changes with accessibility over the last 4 years. When we visit Japan, we love to balance out the old with the new. The perfect way to do that as a first-time visitor is to explore both Tokyo and Kyoto. These cities are just a bullet train ride away from each-other.
Where to stay
Accommodation in Japan is notoriously small, yet clean and tidy. Hotel rooms usually just have room for the bed and not much else. As a family we choose to stay in apartments because they give us more space, a kitchen to prepare some meals and a laundry. They are also much better on the budget. We have stayed in a 2 bedroom apartment in Osaka for around $150AUD a night. If you use Airbnb, then you can also search for wheelchair accessible options to suit your needs. It is a great idea to stay near a train station that has easy access to the central area of a city. In Tokyo, we love anywhere on the Green Yamote line, as that’s where most of the attractions lie across the city. Make sure you read all the reviews and get a feel for the host through emails before you book to ensure a smooth stay.
How to get around
The Japan rail system is super efficient and an adventure within itself. It’s a great way for kids to learn to read maps and see all the different trains that cross the country. If you’re staying for more than a week or exploring different cities, then a Japan Rail pass can be fantastic value. You can purchase them beforehand and then activate when you arrive. We used a 5 day pass for the Kansai region and got around $900 value for $150. They are great to explore using the fast bullet trains. The staff at the information centres are helpful and at every station there were staff who would ask us if we needed assistance with ramps to make the train trip smoother. Don’t forget at the train station to grab a bento to enjoy on your ride. From Osaka, there is a special train you can catch that kids will love. The Hello Kitty Shinkansen runs in the mornings with themed carriages and kawaii Hello Kitty motifs everywhere!
Over the last few years we have noticed a big changed in the facilities for families. At every train station we have seen parent change rooms and dedicated carriages to Women and children on the trains There are also seats on the train for pregnant women and this is held with huge respect. Baby supplies can be easily purchased here from local supermarkets and convenience stores. Local parents use prams and baby carriers to explore and many places to eat have super cute kids meals.
What to eat
Let’s face it. Travel is a lot about the food! Japan is no exception and they seem to do every cuisine perfectly. With kids we love just stopping by a convenience store like Family Mart or Lawsons and grabbing new foods to try like new ice creams, pancakes, drinks and snacks. It’s fresh and affordable and even suits my fussiest eater! For cheap eats, there are always great places at railway stations where you can get a bowl of ramen or a delicious set meal for under $10. Restaurants are usually pretty cosy. Some have standing room only. That said, there are plenty of family friendly options. For some really fun foods like rainbow cheese toasties or crepes filled with cheesecake, head to Harajuku in Tokyo.
Everyone’s needs with wheelchair access are going to differ slightly across things like accommodation, transport and experiences. This is based on our experience. We found the public transport system to be fantastic with dedicated carriages marked for wheelchair users and lots of staff available to offer assistance with boarding the train. Train stations have lifts that are clearly marked and we found it great when pushing Cooper in his wheelchair.
Footpaths are in great repair. Streets are clean and tidy to walk around on .
Japanese buildings are often fighting for space. This means that buildings can have 7 levels up and 5 levels down, often without lifts to get there. We tended to stick to ground level to access restaurants or cafes, as well as ones that were more open or had outside seating like in the area of Dotonobori in Osaka.
The general attitude of being a wheelchair user as a tourist is positive and we found local people helpful with anything we may have needed.
Bron shares many more awesome travel stories about her family on their blog, Smiths Holiday Road.